Nehemiah is an easy book to get your head around in a lot of ways. The story’s pretty straightforward: royal cupbearer hears sorry state of Jerusalem, takes life in hands by appearing sad before the king. King commissions aforesaid cupbearer to go and do something about it. People rally around said cupbearer and begin work; inevitable opposition arises and is roundly trounced. Cupbearer institutes religious reforms. The end.
But in other ways it’s an odd book to read, particularly as a Gentile.
Over two and a half millennia later, we don’t really get why the wall of Jerusalem being broken down and its gates burned with fire is such a big deal. I at least am disturbed by some of the apparent racism of Nehemiah’s religious reforms, and unsure of why it matters that the people had taken foreign wives.
In the modern world of controversial border-wall proposals, is “building the wall” really the sort of signal we want to send?
All in all, the book is quite Jewish. I have difficulty viewing most of Nehemiah’s religious reforms as anything other than proto-Pharisaism, and several earlier parts of the story, for example the opposition to the building, seem to have lost something in translation.
The earliest chapters of Nehemiah are the least troublesome. Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem’s wall is broken down and its gates burned.
The previous major Biblical event being the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish nation, part of me always comes to this and says “well, duh?”. What do you expect? The Babylonians just got done burning it. Aware of later history with the Maccabees, the Romans and Masada, we’re apt to read back onto this the troublesome and rebellious nature of the Jewish province, and think to ourselves that no ruler in their right mind is going to let anyone arm such a dangerously secessionist piece of turf.
This, of course, is telescoping about six hundred years or so of history together. It had been over 70 years since the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, and under normal circumstances the wall would be the first thing to be rebuilt, because until it was complete, everything you built was vulnerable to every raider or bandit in the region.
In the ancient world, walled cities were the norm. Your city wasn’t more than a large village unless it had a wall, and until it did, it was at the mercy of everyone.
More than mere security, a wall around the city was a mark of identity; a “this is us” statement that distinguished the “safe” area inside the city from the dangerous barbarian wilds beyond.
It’s difficult for us to adjust our thinking enough to cope with this ancient-world truth; in our day it is the inner city that is the dangerous wilderness, and “the countryside” holds an almost mystical reverence. We want wild spaces and pristine landscape; in an Iron Age era where there were lethally dangerous animals living within long bowshot of the city walls, plus raiders and other human predators, the city was the good part. Untouched wilderness didn’t mean “unspoilt”; it meant “unsafe”.
And Jerusalem’s wall had remained in ruins for over two generations, because, so we are told, the local provincial governors had a vested interest in keeping the Jews down.
It seems, on the face of it, difficult to fathom their thinking. Another walled city on an important trade route would mean another safe haven for merchants, and being able to say that your province held 87 walled cities rather than 86 would have been a symbol of status as an important governor. It would even pay for itself eventually in increased trade revenues into the royal coffers.
Sadly, though, not all rulers make decisions on the basis of logic and reason. The governors only had to answer to their Emperor, not to their subjects, so they had less pressure to be reasonable, and even today there are rulers and politicians who make decisions on little more than whatever whim fills their heads that moment. And aggressive war is one of the least amenable to reason of any national decision. In 1939, for example, Germany’s biggest trading partner was France. It didn’t, economically speaking, make sense for the Germans to attack. Similarly, it doesn’t quite make sense to me that there was so much official opposition, but I take the Bible’s word for it that there was.
The wall, then, was a statement of identity. Jerusalem’s wall-less state should be viewed as a physical representation of what was in danger of happening to the Jewish nation. Any other nation in history, once removed from its ancestral homeland, has eventually lost their identity and become subsumed into another. Under different circumstances, the American colonists developed an identity as something other than subjects of the British crown. Away from “home”, “home” begins to be somewhere else, and identity changes. Or is lost altogether.
God had a vested interest in that not happening. These were and are still His Covenant people. Besides, no Jewish nation meant no Son of David, because at the time He was yet to come.
Sanballat and Tobiah’s opposition may not entirely make sense with the limited data we’re given, but we can read onto them every tyrant or oppressor who has ever persecuted one group in order to increase their prestige in a different group. Tomas de Torquemada and the Jews. Tamerlane and the Central Asian churches. Modern far-right groups and Muslims. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. “They” are the real Bad Guys; you go off and hate them, and ignore the tyrant’s rule closer to home.
Maybe walls aren’t a good symbol in the post-Resurrection world, where the end goal is people “from every tribe and nation and people and language”. We don’t want to be putting barriers in people’s way, or decreeing “pagan-free zones” within our churches. This is self-evident. And yet, are we building walls of hatred towards Muslims, or anyone else for that matter?
Christ died for these individuals. He has not given us the right to push them away.
But a metaphorical wall as a token of identity… Yeah, it’s actually important. We should not let go of who we are in Christ, nor of Whose we are. Guarding our heart, as the Proverbs puts it, is a vital duty, because if we lose heart it’s all over.
This wall is built brick-by-brick from the knowledge of God and what He’s done for us.
I still have questions about the sort of signal this wall-building sends, but it’s not at odds with the character of God as revealed by the rest of the Bible.
And then those religious reforms.
This is probably the part of Nehemiah that I’m least comfortable with. It looks rather racist, at least in the Eurasian sense of nationalities rather than the American sense of black and white. And in part it certainly smacks of the birth of the Pharisee movement of Jesus’ day; the idea that doing is what earns you favour with the Lord.
What’s the deal with these other nationalities? Nehemiah seems fully prepared to decimate, or at least exclude, a sizeable chunk of the nation, just because they’ve married foreigners. As far as he’s concerned, the right thing to do is for these marriages to be dissolved.
And I have a problem with that.
What about all those women and children? Where’s the compassion of the Almighty? Why were these foreign marriages so wrong that the pain and trauma of destroying families was preferable?
It doesn’t make a lot of sense coming from the same God that we are told “sets the lonely in families” and Who opens faith in His Son to all who call on Him, no matter their ancestry.
And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’m going to take the Bible seriously, I don’t get to pick and choose which bits I trust. There’s nothing figurative about this, and the tone of the passage is that Nehemiah was acting righteously with the sanction of God. I can’t dismiss it just because I don’t like it. Something makes it fit with what I know from the rest of Scripture about the character of God.
Was this something particular for the Jewish nation and not specifically for Gentile Christians? Was there something specifically wrong with the nationalities involved? Was this just something like God making sure of the bloodline of the Messiah? Was this a particular instruction for that time and place, a part of God’s national Covenant with Israel?
Certainly I think that probably plays into it. In the Covenant with Israel, God works nationally, with the entire 12-tribe nation. Involved with that are several uncomfortable things, like apparent genocide and the waging of aggressive wars of conquest. Things that don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities trained in multiculturality and the fact that God loves everyone.
Tribalism in the Bible is something we have to reconcile with. I personally am more or less of the opinion that it was a fact of ancient life that God worked with and through even though it wasn’t His best will, rather than an end in itself, but passages like this do challenge that opinion. At least where the Jewish nation are concerned, perhaps there’s more to the seemingly-tribalistic “Jews good, foreigners bad” mindset than simple Iron Age-ness.
The Jewish nation were the nation through whom God had promised to send Messiah, and no Jewish nation at that point would have meant no Messiah. There’s a prominent strand of Scriptural interpretation that seems to view most of the difficult passages of Old Testament Scripture through this lens, and it does make a sort of sense. I believe there’s more to God’s Covenant faithfulness to Israel than the mere preservation of the Messianic bloodline, but I suppose it’s possible that if the Jews had been permitted to intermarry willy-nilly with surrounding nations that the line of the House of David might have become so diluted that the prophecies of Messiah would have been rendered meaningless.
This seems like a nice, neat explanation, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I feel like it implies unpleasant things about God’s character: effectively, that He’s a rather Macchiavellian Deity more concerned with His plans than with people.
I know this isn’t so, which is part of why this interpretation sits so poorly with me, but how else do you reconcile the apparent righteousness of Nehemiah’s actions with the character of a loving God who accepts everyone regardless of their background?
Thinking about it, I believe we have to remember that the Jewish nation wasn’t defined primarily by ethnicity. It has never been a closed set; to this day it’s possible to go through a certain process including the covenant act of circumcision (for males) to bind oneself to the national Covenant of God and become a Jew.
It’s true that God will accept anyone into His Kingdom regardless of their background, but there are steps you have to take to be added to the Kingdom. You have to believe in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of salvation, trusting Him with your life to the extent that He’s in charge. You have to renounce sin – all the destructive self-centred behaviours and attitudes that separate us from God and from one another. You have to become a citizen of His Kingdom.
The fact that these were characterised as “foreign” marriages tells us that these people hadn’t bound themselves to God and His Covenant. If the Jewish nation was (and is) defined first and foremost by its Covenant relationship with God, there literally cannot be any “foreign women” that are married into the nation but retain their own gods and practices.
Religiously speaking, you aren’t allowed be half a Jew and half something else. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. Similarly, you can’t be half a Christian. Either you have a New Covenant relationship with the Lord, or you aren’t actually in His Kingdom. He doesn’t grant citizenship privileges to those who are still foreigners.
If anyone ought to know this, it ought to be me. I live in the United States as a legal permanent resident, but I’m not a citizen. I don’t get to vote in US elections, I don’t get to stand with my hand over my heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I’m not a citizen.
It’d be convenient to become one, but I’m still in the place where I cannot in good conscience swear an oath that includes renunciation of allegiance to “any other nation, prince or potentate”. And in my heart I’m still loyal to my Queen and my Country, and I don’t see that changing.
Similarly, citizenship in God’s Kingdom is one thing or the other. As Jesus said, you can’t serve God and Mammon both, neither can you hold onto the old things you pursued and reverenced: beauty, strength, worldly power, fame or whatever your personal idols are.
And now I believe I get the point. It looks harsh. It’s unpleasant. But there’s no other way. God will not allow people who won’t be His into His Kingdom. Ethnicity or nationality as we think of them today are not the issue. Look at Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Naaman… No; the issue is “Who are you going to worship?”