The Word Made Fresh
1On that day they read to the people from the book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2because they did not meet Israel with bread and water but hired Balaam to curse them, though God had turned the curse into a blessing. 3When the people heard the reading they separated themselves from all those of foreign descent.
4Some time before this the priest Eliashib, who was related to Tobiah, was in charge of the storage rooms in God’s temple. 5He prepared a large room for Tobiah, a room where previously the grain offering, frankincense, containers with the tithes of grain, wine, and oil were set apart for the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and also the offerings for the priests.
6This was going on when I was not in Jerusalem because in the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes of Babylon I had gone to meet with the king. After I had been there for some time, I asked for permission to 7return to Jerusalem, and that is when I discovered that Eliashib had prepared a room for Tobiah in the courts of the temple of God. 8I was angry and had all of Tobiah’s furnishings thrown out. 9I gave orders to clean the whole area, and I had all the containers of grain and frankincense brought back.
10I also discovered that the Levites had not been given their allowances, and they and the singers who had performed their services had returned to their fields. 11I gathered the officials together and protested. “Why is the house of God abandoned?” I asked them. And I returned them to their stations. 12Then all the people of Judah brought their tithes of grain, wine, and oil to the storehouses. 13I appointed the priest Shelemiah, the scribes Zadok and Pedaiah of the Levites, and as their assistant Hanun son of Zaccur son of Mattaniah; they were to serve as treasurers whose responsibility was to distribute the proper wages to their associates. 14Remember me, O my God, and do not allow the good things I have done for the house of my God to be erased.
15Back then I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the sabbath and bringing into Jerusalem piles of grain on donkeys along with wine, grapes, figs, et cetera, on the sabbath. I warned them against selling these things. 16There were also Tyrians who lived in the city, who brought in fish and all sorts of things and sold them on the sabbath to the people of Judah and in Jerusalem. 17I confronted the leaders of Judah and said, “What is this wickedness you are allowing to desecrate the sabbath? 18Didn’t God bring all this disaster on us and on the city, because your ancestors acted in this way? You will invite more of God’s wrath in Israel by desecrating the Sabbath!”
19So, I ordered the gates of Jerusalem to be closed as soon as it was dark when the sabbath began and gave orders that the gates should not be reopened until the sabbath had ended. I appointed some of my own associates to guard the gates and stop anything being brought into the city on the sabbath day. 20Then the merchants and traders spent the night outside Jerusalem once or twice, 21but I warned them not to spend the night in front of the wall. I threatened to arrest them if they continued doing so. After that they stopped coming on the sabbath. 22I ordered the Levites to cleanse themselves and guard the gates to keep the sabbath day sacred. Remember this in my favor, O God, and protect me with the might of your steadfast love.
23In those days I also saw Jews married to women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24Half their children spoke Ashdodite and other various languages and weren’t able to speak Hebrew. 25I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. I made them swear in God’s name that they would not give their daughters in marriage to foreigners, nor allow their sons to marry foreign girls. 26“Didn’t King Solomon of Israel sin because of such women? There was no king like him among all the nations, and God loved him and made him king over all Israel, but still his foreign wives steered even him to sin. 27Why then should we allow you to do this great evil against our God by marrying foreign women?”
28One of Jehoida’s sons, grandson of the high priest Eliashib, was also the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. I chased him away. 29Remember them, O my God, for they defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priests and Levites.
30And so I removed everything foreign and established the duties of the priests and Levites, 31and I provided the wood for the offerings of first fruits at the appointed times.
Remember me, O my God, for the good I have done.
1-3: Again, they read from the Torah, and discover that Ammonites and Moabites are to be excluded from the religious assemblies of God’s people Israel, so they take steps – probably another census – to see to it that foreigners are left out. They are more concerned with holiness than with inclusiveness (they seem to have forgotten that King David’s great-grandmother was a Moabite woman named Ruth)!
4-9: Perhaps we learn in these verses what precipitated the purge recorded above. Nehemiah, having been in Jerusalem the allotted 12 years, had gone back to King Artaxerxes’ court. While there the priest Eliashib allowed Tobiah (remember him from 4:7-9?) to make an apartment among the storerooms in the temple compound. Upon his return, Nehemiah summarily evicts him and has the temple accoutrements brought back.
10-14: Nehemiah also discovers that his instructions concerning compensation for the Levites have not been kept and the Levites have had to return to their fields to provide for themselves. He orders that the tithes be brought in, and appoints four men – a priest, a scribe, a Levite, and an assistant – to be in charge of it all. Eliashib, needless to say, isn’t one of them.
15-18: Nehemiah is incensed by the trade going on in the city on the Sabbath and declares that that’s why God exiled them in the first place.
19-22: He takes steps to return to the observance of the sabbath observances: the gates are closed at sundown on Friday and not reopened until after the Sabbath is passed. In verse 22 we are reminded again that Nehemiah is writing this record as an account of his faithfulness, and so he sprinkles it with prayers asking God to remember him for it.
23-27: Nehemiah discovers that a number of Jews have married women from Ammon and Moab as well as Ashdod (part of the Philistine nation). He avers that that is the reason Solomon strayed from the Lord and started Israel on the way to destruction (although, somewhat surprisingly, he upholds Solomon as a great king!), and he commands the people not to allow their sons and daughters to intermarry with those people. Nothing is said about the existing marriages, although we strongly suspect they had to be dissolved as at the end of Ezra’s book.
28-29: We meet Eliashib again, the priest who had allowed Tobiah to take up residence in the temple compound. It turns out that his son has married a daughter of Sanballat, Tobiah’s partner in opposing Ezra and Nehemiah in their efforts to revive Jerusalem. Nehemiah chases him (and his foreign wife, I’m sure) away from the city.
30-31: His work complete, Nehemiah signs off with another prayer that God will remember his faithfulness.
This effectively ends the history of the Jewish people in the Promised Land from the time of Abraham until the return of the exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. A little more history is woven into the narratives and oracles of the prophets, and we will be able to fill in a few gaps when we get to those writings.