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{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
Nehemiah the Builder

A Persian Jew named Nehemiah had risen to the post of cupbearer1 to Artaxerxes Longimanus (465-424 B.C.). This was a position of honor2 for it involved an intimate relationship with the king. One of the responsibilities of the cupbearer was to taste the wine to see that it was not poisoned. He thus became the king's confidant.

When his brother Hanani and others from Judah came to visit Nehemiah at the Persian court, they told him of the difficulties of the Jews in Palestine (Nehemiah 1:1-3). Jerusalem had no walls to protect it from its many enemies. Although reckoned as the Holy City because the Temple of the Lord had been built there, few people dared lived among its ruins.

Nehemiah was filled with grief at the report of the suffering of his brethren in Palestine. He prayed for guidance and sought an opportunity to present his burden to the king. Four months went by before Nehemiah could present his request. Then Artaxerxes, noticing the sadness of his cupbearer, asked Nehemiah to explain his problem (Nehemiah 2:1-3).

When Nehemiah told the king of his burden for Jerusalem, Artaxerxes readily granted his a leave of absence to visit the city and do the work that was on his heart. The length of the leave was agreed upon (Nehemiah 2:6) and Artaxerxes issued a royal rescript authorizing the building of the walls of Jerusalem. Letters were sent to the governors of the provinces west of the Euphrates River and to Asaph, the keeper of the royal forest directing that Nehemiah be provided with the materials he would need for the gates of the citadel, for the wall of the city, and for the Temple itself (Nehemiah 2:7-8). Nehemiah was appointed governor of Judah (Nehemiah 5:14), thus making it a province separate from Samaria. This was to be one factor in the rivalry that developed between Sanballat, governor of Samaria, and Nehemiah.

The generosity of Artaxerxes was not without political implications and possible benefit to Persia. Egypt had been perennially restive, and Persia wanted her Palestinian provinces which bordered Egypt to be in friendly, loyal hands. The Jews, moreover, had smarted under Samaritan officialdom and were generally demoralized. If successful in his mission, Nehemiah could help both his own people and the king whom he served.

After making necessary preparations, Nehemiah and a group of companions made the long journey from Susa to Jerusalem. His first concern was for the building of the walls of the city. In the company of a few associates he inspected the ruined walls by night (Nehemiah 2:12-15). Again his heart was heavy. A city without walls was not really a city at all. The ruined walls were a reproach both to Judah and to Judah's God (Nehemiah 2:17).

After inspecting the ruins, Nehemiah sought out the leaders of the Jerusalem community - the priests and the nobles (Nehemiah 2:16-17) - and explained his mission. He told them of the way in which God had prospered his efforts and the co-operation which had been promised by Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 2:18). The response of the leaders of Jerusalem was gratifying. They caught something of Nehemiah's enthusiasm and said, "Let us rise up and build" (Nehemiah 2:18).

Initial plans had no sooner been made when serious opposition developed. It found its focal point in three non-Jews, although important elements in Jerusalem were sympathetic with their plans. Sanballat, governor of Samaria, is identified as "the Horonite" (Nehemiah 2:19). He was probably a native of Beth-horon in Samaria. His companions are identified as Tobiah, an Ammonite slave, and Geshem, probably the chief of a tribe in northwestern Arabia. These men mocked the Jews for their efforts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and insinuated that this was an act of rebellion against Persia (Nehemiah 2:19-20).

Nehemiah pressed on with his plans. The people responded to his appeal for help and soon labor battalions were assigned to the various sections into which the wall had been divided. Workers came from outside villages - Jericho, Gibeon, Mizpah, Beth-haccherem, Zanoah, Beth-zur, Keilah, and Tekoa. Priests, Levites, goldsmiths, and merchants all labored together (Nehemiah 3).

Sanballat and his allies, seeing that mockery did not deter Nehemiah from his building program, determined to take more positive action. The wall had reached half its desired height (Nehemiah 4:6) and Sanballat determined to send guerilla bands against Jerusalem. Arabians, Ammonites, and Ashdodites (Nehemiah 4:7) began to harass the Jews who were working on the wall. They planned a sneak attack, but Nehemiah was ready for them (Nehemiah 4:11). He stationed armed men to guard the unprotected places in the wall (Nehemiah 4:13). When the enemy learned that the Jews were armed, they abandoned their plan to make a frontal attack (Nehemiah 4:15), but sought other means to hinder Nehemiah from accomplishing his goals.

From this time on the workmen were armed: "Each of the builders had his sword girded at his side while he built" (Nehemiah 4:18). A trumpeter stood beside Nehemiah ready to give warning in the event of attack. The people whose homes were outside the city were not permitted to leave Jerusalem. The enemy was in the outlying territory and the city could not be left without defenders. Neither Nehemiah nor his people removed their clothes at night. They slept with weapons at their side, ready to respond at the sound of the trumpet (Nehemiah 4:22-23). There is no record of an actual battle. The Samaritans and their allies did not make an open attack, but they posed a constant threat and worked serious hardshups on the Jews.

Although able to stand up under pressures from without, Nehemiah faced the collapse of his cause as a result of internal problems. The people working on the walls had no source of income. Many had left homes and farms, only to have them looted and plundered by the enemy. People had to mortgage fields, vineyards, and houses to provide food and to pay their taxes (Nehemiah 5:3-4). Some had pledged their children for debt, and they were sold into slavery (Nehemiah 5:5). Isaac Mendelsohn notes, "Nehemiah 5:1-5 proves that in Palestine loans were obtained, as in Assyria, on security. Houses, fields, vineyards, olive groves, and children were pledged, and if the debts were not repaid, the creditors would retain the land as their property and the children as slaves."3

Nehemiah was angered at this report of the way in which the wealthy class had taken advantage of the poor during a time of national crisis (Nehemiah 5:6). He summoned the offenders to a public meeting, during which he reviewed his own financial record (Nehemiah 5:14-19). Nehemiah had refused to accept the allowances to which he was entitled as governor and had actually supported one hundred and fifty Jews at his own expense. The nobles and officials who had exploited the poor responded to Nehemiah's plea and vowed to restore that which they had taken (Nehemiah 5:12).

Having failed in other ways, Nehemiah's enemies attempted to defeat him by intrigue. Four times they invited him to confer with them in the valley of Ono in Benjamin, but he insisted that he could not leave the great work in which he was engaged (Nehemiah 6:1-4). A fifth messenger came with an open letter from Sanballat accusing Nehemiah of a conspiracy to rebel against Persia and establish himself as king in Judah (Nehemiah 6:5-7). Nehemiah refused so much as to discuss the charge, bluntly stating that they were the fabrication of Sanballat's evil mind (Nehemiah 6:8). Sanballat and Tobiah went so far as to hire prophets to induce Nehemiah to lock himself in the Temple to avoid assassination. Nehemiah saw through this plot and refused to go (Nehemiah 6:10-13). It is a sad commentary on the religious life of the times that men who considered themselves prophets could sell their services to Judah's enemies.

Undisturbed by the many devices fashioned to deflect him from his goal, Nehemiah pressed on toward the completion of his work. In less than two months (Nehemiah 6:15) the wall was completed. Josephus tells us that it was further strengthened with battlements and gates over an additional two years and four months.4 Nehemiah appointed his brother Hanani and a man named Hananiah, the governor of the castle, to assume responsibility for the welfare of Jerusalem. He charged them to keep the city gates closed until the sun was well up in the heavens, and to keep a guard posted (Nehemiah 7:2-3).

The inhabitants of Jerusalem were few, for houses were still in ruins. It was necessary to encourage people to settle within the city, because life was more pleasant in other parts of Judah. Those who volunteered to live in Jerusalem were highly regarded. They had to be augmented by a forced draft which brought one-tenth of the country people into the Holy City (Nehemiah 11:1).

The completion of the walls was an occasion of celebration and spiritual dedication. After ceremonies of purification (Nehemiah 12:30), two processions were formed to move around the walls in opposite directions. Ezra was at the head of one company, and Nehemiah of the other. They met near the Temple area where the people gave expression to their joy and offered appropriate sacrifices (Nehemiah 12:31-43).

With the rebuilding of the walls and adequate provision made for the observance of the sacrifices and holy days prescribed in the Mosaic Law (Nehemiah 12:27-30), Nehemiah was free to end his leave of absence and return to the Persian court (Nehemiah 13:6). We can imagine the enthusiasm and the gratitude with which he greeted Artaxerxes at Susa. The problems in Judah were not over, however. Within a short time - perhaps from one to three years - Nehemiah was granted a second leave of absence to return to Jerusalem.

During Nehemiah's absence at the Persian court, the situation in Jerusalem had deteriorated. Although freed from the threat of enemies from without, the Jews themselves grew careless and internal dissention and infidelity brought on a new crisis. The wine presses were in operation on the Sabbath day, the Tyrian merchants brought their fish and other merchandise into Jerusalem contrary to the Sabbath law (Nehemiah 13:15-16). The perennial problem of intermarriage came to the fore again during the absence of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:23). Israelite men had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. The effect was evident even in the speech of the people, for the language of these wives was spoken by their children in the very streets of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:24). A grandson of Eliashib, the high priest, married a daughter of Nehemiah's inveterate enemy, Sanballat (Nehemiah 13:28).

The religious life of the people had also fallen into decay. Eliashib befriended Nehemiah's enemy Tobiah, the Ammonite, and housed him in one of the Temple chambers (Nehemiah 13:4-5). The Levites were not given their allowances, with the result that they had to find work to do (Nehemiah 13:10). Many returned to their fields and earned their living as farmers.

When Nehemiah heard of these things he was understandably disturbed. He returned to Jerusalem and, with characteristic vigor, determined to set things right. Tobiah's belongings were cast out of the Temple and it was restored to its sacred use (Nehemiah 13:8-9). The fiscal policy of the Temple was reorganized and tithes of corn, wine, and oil were collected so that provision could be made for the Levites to give their time to their Temple ministrations (Nehemiah 13:11-13). Nehemiah appealed to the leaders of Jerusalem to close the city gates on the Sabbath day (Nehemiah 13:17-18). The command for strict Sabbath observance was given and, when some merchants attempted to circumvent the law by selling their wares outside the city wall, Nehemiah threatened to forcibly remove them (Nehemiah 13:20-21).

The problem of intermarriage was a vexing one. Nehemiah asked the Jews to swear that they would not permit their children to marry into the families of neighboring peoples. He reminded them that even godly Solomon was led astray by his foreign wives (Nehemiah 13:25-27). Eliashib's grandson, who had married the daughter of Sanballat, was a notorious offender and Nehemiah banished him from Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:28).

An important sequel to this episode is recorded by Josephus,5 who states that Manasseh (the grandson of Eliashib) married Sanballat's daughter, Nicaso. When Nehemiah gave him the choice between abdicating his priestly office or divorcing his wife, Manasseh took the problem to his father-in-law. Sanballat, we are told, offered to make Manasseh the High Priest in Samaria and promised to build for him a temple on Mount Gerizim as soon as the permission of the Persian king (Darius, in Josephus' account) could be secured. He further promised to make Manasseh his successor as governor of Samaria.

Josephus was evidently following Samaritan sources in his account of the building of the temple on Mount Gerezim. He states that Sanballat offered his troops to Alexander (!) upon his entrance into Palestine following the battle at Issus, and gained as a boon the permission to build the temple on Mount Gerezim. Josephus tells us that many priests and Levites went to Samaria with Manasseh and that they were given lands in Samaria by Sanballat.

The chief objection to this record as given by Josephus is the chronological discrepancy of placing Sanballat in the era of Alexander the Great - a century later that the time of Nehemiah. This misplacement of the episode need not argue against its essential historicity, however. James A. Montgomery notes:

The age of the Conqueror is the one bright point in the reminiscences of the ancient world, and was a shining mark for the art of legend-manufacture. Just as the Jews had their legend concerning Alexander's favor to Jerusalem, so the Samaritans told their fables concerning his connection with their sect and temple; probably in this point Josephus was depending upon some Samaritan tradition, which he, or rather the legend-cycle which he followed, brought into connection with the history of Sanballat.6

It is clear from the Biblical picture of Nehemiah that his leadership was not unchallenged. An important party in Jerusalem was sympathetic with Sanballat. During the absence of Nehemiah they came to positions of prominence, but with his return they were put on the defensive. With the expulsion of Manasseh, their power was broken, the schism became permanent, and Jew and Samaritan were their separate ways.

Nehemiah is best remembered for his work on the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Sirach says of him, "... he raised or us the walls that had fallen, and set up the gates and bars and rebuilt our ruined houses" (Sirach 49:13). Josephus echoes, "He was a man of good and righteous character, and very ambitious to make his own nation happy; and he hath left the walls of Jerusalem as an eternal monument of himself."4

Ezra the Scribe < | Nehemiah the Builder | > Esther and the Persian Court

{Old Testament History}

1For the office of cupbearer, cf. Xenophon, Cyropaedia, i. 3, 4. Nehemiah was probably a eunuch. This would account for the fact that he had access to the king when the queen also was present (cf. Nehemiah 2:6).

2Cf. Herodotus, Histories, iii, 34.

3Legal Aspects of Slavery in Babylonia, Assyria and Palestine, p. 19.

4Antiquities, XI, v. 8.

5Antiquities, XI, vii. 2; viii. 2.

6The Samaritans, p. 69.

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