Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
Nehemiah, the Book of; Heb., Yahweh comforts), the eleventh book in the ot and the last of the historical books called the Former Prophets. In the Hebrew Bible, Nehemiah forms the second part of Ezra-Nehemiah. Chaps. 8 and 9 continue the story of Ezra from Ezra 7-10; this section is now enclosed within the Nehemiah narrative, though it is not entirely clear where the division is to be made. Thus, the book consists of several sections: chaps. 1-7, Nehemiahs commission and first governorship; chaps. 8-9, Ezras reading of the law and a psalm of distress; chap. 10, a new covenant; and chaps. 11-13, the repopulation of the city of Jerusalem, dedication of the walls, and Nehemiahs second governorship. Various lists also appear whose relationship to their contexts is not entirely clear.
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
The Book of Nehemiah
I. Nehemiahs commission and first governorship (1:1-7:73)
A. Nehemiah receives commission from Persian king to rebuild walls of Jerusalem (1:1-2:8)
B. Initial steps: opposition from non-Jews, secret survey of walls, organization of Jews for rebuilding (2:9-3:32)
C. Opposition from non-Jews and defensive tactics of Nehemiah (4:1-23)
D. Nehemiahs economic reforms among Jews (5:1-19)
E. Walls completed despite plots against Nehemiah by non-Jews (6:1-7:3)
F. Concern for repopulating Jerusalem: census of returned exiles (7:4-73)
II. Religious observances in response to the law (8:1-10:39)
A. Ezra reads the book of the law to the people (8:1-12)
B. Resulting celebration of Feast of Booths (8:13-17)
C. A psalm of distress: public confession of sin (9:1-37)
D. A new covenant to keep the law and support the Temple (9:38-10:39)
III. Further organization of the Jewish community (11:1-13:31)
A. Repopulation: lists of people and officials living in Jerusalem (11:1-12:26)
B. Dedication of city walls and arrangements for Temple revenues (12:27-13:3)
C. Nehemiahs second governorship: reforms in keeping with the law (13:4-31)
Activity: Nehemiahs activity is set in the reign of a Persian ruler
Artaxerxes. It appears probable that this is Artaxerxes I (465-424 b.c.). If
so, Nehemiahs first governorship began about 445 and lasted until 433
(Neh. 2:1; 13:6); his second began at an unspecified date after this. The decision
for Artaxerxes I depends largely on the correlation with Sanballat of Samaria,
whose sons were active in the later years of the fifth century b.c., as is shown
by the Elephantine papyri. Since there were probably three governors of Samaria
named Sanballat, however, the possibility that Nehemiah belongs to the reign
of Artaxerxes II (405/4-359/58) cannot be ruled out. Josephus, the first-century
a.d. Jewish historian, relates the story of Nehemiah separately from and after
that of Ezra.
The Narrative: The
book of Nehemiah is narrated in the first person. This is evidently a stylized
form, like some royal inscriptions, designed to glorify this national hero.
The passages that invite a blessed memory for Nehemiah (5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22,
29, 31) are akin to votive texts, requesting divine blessing on particular individuals.
The narrative that Nehemiah
tells can be summarized in the following way. Nehemiah, cupbearer to the king,
is distressed at the ruined condition of Jerusalem. As a result he prays to
God and then appeals to the Persian king who grants him a commission and support
to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (1:1-2:8). Nehemiahs encounter with
opposition and his survey of the walls and organizing of the rebuilding (2:9-3:2)
are followed by opposition narratives involving Sanballat of Samaria, Tobiah
of Ammon, Geshem of Arabia, and others (chaps. 4; 6). The reason for the opposition
is not clear, nor is it entirely evident that the three main opponents really
worked in concert. Indeed, Tobiah even appears to have had substantial support
for his opposition to Nehemiah from within Jerusalem (6:17-19). Nevertheless,
Nehemiah is shown as a governor engaged in reform and protection of the distressed
(chap. 5). The account of the completion of the walls (7:1-3) has its real sequel
in the narrative of their dedication (12:27-13:3). This narrative sequence is
interrupted by an account of the repopulation of the city, introducing a list
of the restored community (7:6-73), which is found also in Ezra 2. The story
of Ezra in chaps. 8-9 further interrupts the narrative sequence of the book
of Nehemiah. Chap. 10 lists the subscribers to a new covenant and lays out its
requirements. The repopulation theme is then resumed in 11:1-12:26, a passage
that incorporates various lists of officials. 13:4-31 describes Nehemiahs
second period as governor, noting the further opposition of Tobiah and his associates
in Samaria, Nehemiahs reorganization of tithing, his insistence on Sabbath
observance, and his action against foreign marriages.
There are many problems of interpretation in the Nehemiah narrative; among them are the sequence of events, the reasons for opposition, and the relationship of his activity to that of Ezra. The material concerning Ezra clearly constitutes a separate source, now partly integrated into the larger work.
Later traditions (Ecclus. 49:13; 2 Macc. 1-2) show further glorification of Nehemiah; in the latter he becomes the restorer of Temple and city after the Exile, and the collector of the Hebrew Scriptures. This shows considerable overlap with the development of the Ezra tradition. In some circles Nehemiah was seen as a great patriotic hero. The presentation in the book of Nehemiah attributes to him royal and prophetic characteristics: prophetic action (5:13) and royal-style activity in legal and religious reform (chaps. 10; 13). A historical assessment is difficult to make.
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer