Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
The Law Of Moses Is Read And Explained At The Celebration Of The Feasts Of The Seventh Month (Nehemiah 8:1-18).
The final words that closed off the list of returnees formed a suitable preface to what Nehemiah now wanted to introduce, the proclamation of the Law by Ezra the priest at the Feast of Trumpets and Tabernacles, something which he had witnessed for the first time. It was thus used as such an introduction, although the transition is slightly abrupt even though perfectly understandable . The fact that the following narrative is in the third person confirms that it did not form part of Nehemiah’s original report to Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, although it does give the impression of being by an eyewitness. Note the vivid description of the platform, and how it caused the occupants to be viewed by the people (Nehemiah 8:5).
The first person narrative, written in Nehemiah’s vivid style, was found in Nehemiah 1:2 to Nehemiah 7:5 and it commences again in Nehemiah 12:27 ff. with a description of the dedication of the wall. It then goes on in chapter 13 to describe how Nehemiah dealt with some inconsistencies, although it is quite clear that the content of Nehemiah 13:4 onwards was not a part of the original report (see Nehemiah 13:6). Nehemiah 12:27 ff. may or may not have been. The king of Persia would be concerned to know that the dedication of the walls to YHWH had been properly accomplished (they were very much concerned that local gods be placated and ‘kept happy’ so that they would bless the kings of Persia. See Ezra 4:22; Ezra 6:10). But the main part of the original report is probably to be found in Nehemiah 1:1 to Nehemiah 7:73. On the other hand it may have included the dedication of the wall.
The enclosing of Nehemiah 8:1 to Nehemiah 12:26 within those two ‘first person’ sections would seem to demonstrate that the book as a whole is intended to be seen as the work of Nehemiah. The movement to the third person in Nehemiah 8:1 ff. may have been intended, firstly to differentiate what follows from the previous report, and secondly it may have been intended to lay emphasis on the participation of the people in what is described. Nehemiah would not have wanted to intrude himself on what was a work of God. But the account itself does appear to be the record of an eyewitness (notice his vivid descriptions of where Ezra stood), which, if not written by Nehemiah, was then incorporated into his narrative by Nehemiah. It should be noted that it was the people, not Nehemiah, who called on Ezra to perform the reading of the Law, something which was expected every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). There was a new enthusiasm for God.
This was the first reading of the Law since Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem which is why it was so important to him, and given in such detail. It does not, however, mean that Ezra had not previously read out the Law. He would surely have done so in 458 BC when he first arrived, Indeed, we can almost certainly assume that he did so, for it seems probable that it was the reading out of the Law that caused the princes in Ezra 9:1 to call on Ezra to deal with the question of idolatrous foreign wives in terms reminiscent of the Pentateuch. If Ezra was still then in Judah it may also have been read out by him in 451 BC. If he was absent it is very likely that it was read out by the priests. The material obtained from sources (e.g. the genealogies) which follows would necessarily be in the third person.
The Reading And Explaining To The People Of The Law Of Moses And A Review Of Their Past History, Leads To Them Establishing A Renewal Of Their Covenant With God (Nehemiah 8:1 to Nehemiah 10:39).
Regardless of sources of which we cannot be sure, there can be no doubt that this whole section emphasises covenant renewal. The wall being built, this led on to a special renewing of the covenant.
· It commences with the reading aloud and explaining of the Law, which has a deep effect on the people and results in a new obedience to the Law (chapter 8).
· This is followed by a review of Israel’s past history before God, as they pray to Him acknowledging His covenant faithfulness (chapter 9).
· We then have the signing of a covenant by the leaders of the people, which is explained in detailed terms chapter 10, and is based on the teaching of the Law, as the people through their leaders solemnly confirm the covenant.
All these were an essential part of covenant renewal, emphasising that the people knew exactly the grounds on which they were responding to the covenant. It was on the basis of God’s renewed Law; it was based on prayerful consideration of what God had done for them throughout history in faithfulness to His covenant; and it made demands on them in accordance with that Law.
The Reading And Explaining Of The Law (Nehemiah 8:1-8).
The first stage of covenant renewal was the reading and explaining of the Law. Such reading and explaining of a section of the Law may well have taken place in their synagogues in Babylon each Sabbath, but here it was to be far more detailed. The people having gathered for the Feast of trumpets on the new moon day, the Law was read to them by Ezra and his companions from day break to midday, probably with breaks as the Levites provided explanations. And its impact was so great that the people wept. It was a Day of Atonement in miniature. This was then followed by feasting as they ate before YHWH.
‘And when the seventh month was come, the children of Israel were in their cities.’
As we have seen these were the closing words of the list which Nehemiah had utilised on chapter 7, but it is here being used (as in Ezra 3:1 a) as a suitable introduction to what follows. Once again ‘the seventh month’, the Festal month, had come. It would begin, as always on the new moon day, the first day of the month, which was the Feast of Trumpets (Rams’ Horns), and it would continue on the tenth day with the Day of Atonement, and this would then lead on to the Feast of Tabernacles from the fifteenth day of the month to the twenty first day of the month, being concluded by the great day of the Feast on the twenty second day (‘the eighth day of the Feast’). During this period large numbers of offerings and sacrifices would be offered (Numbers 29).
‘And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate, and they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book (scrolls) of the Law of Moses, which YHWH had commanded to Israel.’
In Nehemiah 7:73 they were ‘in their cities’. That had been a triumphant indication of restoration by YHWH. But in this context it does not mean that they were in their cities literally (although they were technically, for that is where their homes were), for they would have travelled to Jerusalem prior to the first day of the seventh month in order to be present for the Feast of Trumpets.
And having now arrived they gathered themselves together ‘as one man’ (compare Ezra 3:1). This would appear to have been a traditional way of describing the gathering together of the people. And where they gathered was clearly in Jerusalem, although that is not spelt out here. Here we are given more exact detail. They gathered in the broad place that was before the Water Gate (compare Nehemiah 3:26; Nehemiah 12:37). This may well have been outside the walls built by Nehemiah, as the Water Gate may have been in the old wall which had been destroyed but the area was clearly large enough to enable all the people, male and female, young and old, to gather. Alternately some see the Water Gate as having been a gate associated with the Temple. That the meeting had been planned meticulously comes out in that the platform from which Ezra would read was already built. The gathering of all the people on the Feast of Trumpets, the first day of the seventh month, indicates the speed at which preparations had gone forward, for the building of the wall had only ceased on the twenty fifth day of the previous month (Nehemiah 6:15), although having said that, as that was once the doors had been hung, most of the builders may have returned home somewhat earlier. However, as we have already gathered Nehemiah was used to working at speed, and the people would already have been preparing for the Feasts of the seventh month. They would know that those would have to be observed, regardless of the building of the wall.
Having gathered the people called on Ezra the Scribe (an official title indicating his authoritative position as Teacher of the Law appointed by Artaxerxes, see Ezra 7:11-12) to bring ‘the scrolls containing the Law of Moses which YHWH had commanded to Israel’. The description is clearly of scrolls containing an ancient message passed down throughout their history, not of a contemporary concoction by Ezra. And they were clearly seen as ‘the Word of God’. This was a pre-empting of what would usually happen every seven years on the fifteenth day of the month, and indicates the eagerness of the people to hear the word of God. A new Spirit was at work among the people.
‘And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women, and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.’
This was on the first day of the seventh month, when the trumpets would be blown (Leviticus 23:24-25; Numbers 29:1-6) heralding the month of penitence and celebration. Now the loudest trumpet of all was to be blown, the proclamation of the Law of God. It was unusual for this to take place on this day so early in the month, but the people had come together and were eager for it.
It is significant that it was Ezra, and not the High Priest, who was responsible for the carrying out of God’s commandment. This demonstrates his unique position as being the appointee of the Persian government. All in Judah acknowledged that from the highest to the lowest. It also confirms the historicity of the Book of Nehemiah.
‘And he read in it before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were (attentive to, focused on) to the book of the Law.’
Ezra read from the Law of God in the chosen place, from early morning to midday, for about six or seven hours. He may not have read all the time, for it may well have been read in relays by him and the thirteen men with him on the platform that had been erected. It may also have been interspersed with translations into Aramaic for those not familiar with Hebrew after their sojourn in Babylon (as would happen later in the synagogues). These may possibly have been made by the Levites. But note Nehemiah 13:24 which may suggest that Nehemiah expected all Jews to be able to speak Hebrew.
‘He readin it.’ This may be seen as suggesting that he read selections in it which he felt under God to be suitable to the occasion. Note the emphasis on the fact that the ears of the people were attentive to the Law. The Spirit of God was moving among them and their hearts were hungry after God.
It is perhaps significant for the future that the attention is not on the splendour of Ezra (as it had been on the splendour of Solomon), or on the appearance of ‘the glory’ (Exodus 34:29-34; Exodus 40:34), but on the words of the Torah seen as the word of God which had been ‘commanded’ to Israel (Nehemiah 8:1). The word had replaced the glory. It was to be seen as both authoritative and divine in origin.
In typical Old Testament fashion, having declared what happened, the narrative now explains it in more detail.
‘And Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood, which they had made for the purpose, and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Uriah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchijah, and Hashum, and Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam.’
Ezra, now as ‘Ezra the Scribe’ (in Nehemiah 8:9 he will be ‘Ezra the priest, the scribe’), stood on a wooden platform which had been erected for the occasion. It was as ‘the Scribe’ that he would proclaim it to the people, in one sense as the representative of Artaxeres, as ‘the Scribe of the words of the commandments of YHWH, and of His statutes for Israel’ (Ezra 7:11), but in a far deeper sense as a representative of God, as the fulfiller of the command in Deuteronomy. This platform had its forebear in the brazen platform erected by Solomon at the dedication of the first Temple (2 Chronicles 6:13). With him were thirteen named people. Together with Ezra they made up fourteen, seven and seven, an intensification of the number of divine perfection and completeness (to introduce a seventh on his right hand would spoil the perfect number, something which 1 Esdras overlooked). It is probable that these thirteen were there to assist with the reading, and possibly the Aramaic paraphrase. They may have been priests, but in post-exilic Judaism the reading of the Law was not limited to priests, and in the Book of Nehemiah priests are usually identified as such. The total absence of the priests from the descriptions of the scene (although they would necessarily be present, is quite remarkable. Ezra had taken over their responsibilities as the king’s representative. It is noteworthy that in Nehemiah 8:9 they are not even included among those who encouraged the people when they wept.
The number thirteen is confirmed by comparison with the Levites in Nehemiah 8:7. There also there were thirteen, again acting as Ezra’s representatives (see Nehemiah 8:9). Thus Ezra again makes up the fourteen (unless we see ‘the Levites’ as making up the fourteenth). On the other hand thirteen may have had a special significance at the Feast of Tabernacles for on the first day thirteen bullocks were offered, although that may simply be in order to reduce to seven, the divine number, on the seventh day (Numbers 29:13; Numbers 29:32).
It may be that this Uriah was the one described as the father of the Meremoth, a builder of the wall, in Nehemiah 3:4; Nehemiah 3:21 : that Maaseiah was the father of the Azariah in Nehemiah 3:23; that Pedaiah, was the individual named in Nehemiah 3:25; that Meshullam was the one described in Nehemiah 3:4; Nehemiah 3:6; and that Malchijah was the one described in Nehemiah 3:11; Nehemiah 3:14; Nehemiah 3:31. A Hashum is also mentioned in Nehemiah 7:22, of whom this may be a descendant, and an Anaiah in Nehemiah 10:22. Furthermore a Mattithiah is named in Ezra 10:43; a Maaseiah in Ezra 10:18; and a Malchijah in Ezra 10:25, in connection with the question of idolatrous foreign wives. A Zechariah was one of the "chief men" dispatched by Ezra to bring Levites from Casiphia (Ezra 8:16). But as no father’s names are given here we cannot be sure of identification.
‘And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, (for he was above all the people), and when he opened it, all the people stood up.’
The words give the impression of an eyewitness who clearly remember the scene. It would have been a most impressive scene. First Ezra came onto the platform before the hushed crowd with the scrolls of the Law in his hands, (with some scrolls possibly carried by his companions). And then, as they watched in awe, he, being well above the people on the platform, opened up one of the scrolls in front of them. At this point all the people stood on their feet and waited for him to read. This reminds us that at some stage it had become the practise to listen to the Law being read while standing. This was a mark of respect at receiving a word from God (compare Judges 3:20; Job 29:8; Ezekiel 2:1).
‘And Ezra blessed YHWH, the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with the lifting up of their hands, and they bowed their heads, and worshipped YHWH with their faces to the ground.’
A word of praise and worship prior to the reading had probably become standard practise. How far Ezra was following practise from the synagogues in Babylon, and how far later synagogue worship was based on Ezra’s activities here we can never know, but certainly prayer before the reading of the Torah must have been normal. And Ezra ‘blessed the great God’. The title ‘the great God’ (ha-elohim ha-gedol) is not found elsewhere, although a similar title (ha-el ha-gedol) is found in Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 9:32; Deuteronomy 10:17; Jeremiah 32:18, in all of which, however, it is accompanied by other titles. It has been suggested that it is based on the Neo-Babylonian ilu rabu. It is, of course, underlining the greatness of the God Whose covenant was being proclaimed, and who had delivered them from their captivity in Babylon.
All the people answered, ‘Amen, amen’, expressing their heartfelt agreement with Ezra’s worship. This usage of ‘amen’ (so let it be) is found elsewhere in Nehemiah 5:13 where it endorsed Nehemiah’s judgment on those who did not fulfil their responsibilities; in Jeremiah 28:6, where the prophet endorses with it the words of Hananiah; in Numbers 5:22 where the woman who drinks ‘the water of bitterness’ assents to a curse coming on her if she has lied; and in Deuteronomy 27:15-26 where it is used at the end of each curse on those who transgress the covenant. It also occurs at the close of each of the first four books of psalms ( Psalms 41:13; Psalms 72:19; Psalms 89:52; Psalms 106:48; in each case following a similar blessing of God), and of a blessing invoked on God (1 Chronicles 16:36).
‘With the lifting up of their hands, and they bowed their heads, and worshipped YHWH with their faces to the ground.’ The lifting up of the hand was a kind of appeal and supplication to God (compare Exodus 17:11-12; Ezra 9:5; Psalms 28:2; Psalms 134:2), while their bowing of their heads so that their faces were to the ground, was an expression of obedience and humility. Whether they in fact fell on their faces is open to question. In the huge crowds space would be limited.
‘ Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and (or ‘that is’) the Levites, caused the people to understand the Law, and the people (stood) in their place.’
Then as the Law was being read out, possibly with suitable pauses, thirteen specially appointed Levites, who had presumably been stationed among the people, gave the people guidance, and helped them to understand the Law. This was a traditional function of the Levites (see Deuteronomy 33:10; 2 Chronicles 17:7-9; 2 Chronicles 35:3). But it may have included translation into Aramaic. Note the continual emphasis on ‘understanding’ (Nehemiah 8:2-3; Nehemiah 8:7-8). Understanding what was read was conceived to be of vital importance. Meanwhile the people remained standing in their places. The fact that the Levites were standing among the people would enable questions to be asked, and answered.
Most of the names given are familiar to us from elsewhere, although not as necessarily indicating the same people. With regard to Jeshua, we have, apart from Jeshua (Joshua) the High Priest, Jeshua as the head of a Levitical house which had oversight of the workmen in the temple when the Temple was being rebuilt (Ezra 3:9; compare Nehemiah 7:43; Nehemiah 12:8; Ezra 2:40). This Jeshua may well have been a descendant of his. This Jeshua is probably mentioned again in Nehemiah 9:4 ff, as confessing sin and leading in the worship, and in Nehemiah 10:9, where he is called the son of Azaniah, as being among those who sealed the covenant. He is possibly referred to in Nehemiah 12:24 as a leader of the Levites who offered praise to God, if bn is read as a proper name for Bani (Binnui) instead of as ‘son of’. He may well be the father of the Jozabad who was a Levite who received the Temple gold from Ezra (Ezra 8:33), and the father of Ezer, a Levite who oversaw the building of part of the wall (Nehemiah 3:19).
Bani also, as a Levite, sealed the covenant (Nehemiah 10:13), and was named alongside Jeshua as confessing sin and leading in worship in Nehemiah 9:4 ff. He may well also have been the father of a Levite wallbuilder named Rehum (Nehemiah 3:17), and of another Levite named Uzzi, who was an overseer of the Levites in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:22). For a possible mention in Nehemiah 12:24 see on Jeshua above.
Sherebiah was among those who made public confession and worshipped God (Nehemiah 9:4 ff.) and those who sealed the covenant (Nehemiah 10:12). His name also appears in Nehemiah 12:24 as a leader of the Levites who offered praise to God. The name Akkub occurs of a Levite gate-keeper on duty at the east gate of the second Temple (1 Chronicles 9:17), but he is unlikely to be identified with him. Shabbethai is mentioned as one of the chiefs of the Levites who had the oversight of ‘the outward business of the house of God (Nehemiah 11:16). Hodiah was one of those who confessed his sin and led the prayers of the people in Nehemiah 9:5, and was one of the two Levites of that name who sealed the covenant (Nehemiah 10:10; Nehemiah 10:13). Maaseiah was otherwise unknown, although the name occurs elsewhere as a ‘chief of the people’ (Nehemiah 11:25) as one who shared the platform with Ezra (Nehemiah 8:4), and as the father of Azariah the wall builder (Nehemiah 3:23). A Kelita is mentioned as a signatory of the covenant (Nehemiah 10:10), and as having married an idolatrous foreign wife (Ezra 10:23). Azariah, a very popular Jewish name, was a son of Maaseiah, and helped repair the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:23), but he was probably not this one. It was also the name of a priest who sealed the covenant (Nehemiah 10:2), and of a prince of Judah who is mentioned in connection with the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:33). Jozabad is mentioned as having married an idolatrous foreign wife (Ezra 10:23). Hanan was a signatory of the covenant (Nehemiah 10:10), and was one of the four treasurers put in charge of the tithes by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:13). Pelaiah was a signatory of the covenant (Nehemiah 10:10).
‘And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly, and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading.’
This verse summarises what has gone before. They ( those on the platform) read in the written record, in the Law of God, distinctly (or ‘paragraph by paragraph’), whilst they, (the Levite instructors), gave the sense so that they (the people) understood the reading. It was a summing up of the whole procedure.
The People Wept On Hearing The Law And Were Exhorted Not To Do So By Their Leaders On The Grounds That This Was An Occasion For Celebration (Nehemiah 8:9-12).
It is apparent that there was a revival atmosphere at the gathering. God was present among them and His Holy Spirit was moving on men’s hearts through His chosen one in the same way as at the Exodus (Isaiah 63:11). In consequence God’s commands went deep into their hearts and they wept as they realised how far they had come short. But their leaders then called on them not to weep. Rather they were to rejoice, because it was YHWH’s holy day, a day when God was at work among them. And as a result they moved from weeping to rejoicing, figuratively feasting at God’s holy table, as the elders had at the Exodus (Exodus 24:9-11).
In the Law the Feast of Trumpets (the new moon day of the seventh moon period) was specifically designated as a ‘holy day’ (Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 29:1-6). It was a day of many offerings and sacrifices over and above the norm, a day especially set apart for YHWH in which no servile work was to be done.
It is significant that here within this day on this occasion the whole of the festivities of the seventh month are encapsulated. First the proclamation of God’s truth takes place, like the blowing of a trumpet (Nehemiah 8:1-8), then there is responsive weeping as on the Day of Atonement (Nehemiah 8:9), and finally there is feasting as on the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:10-12).
‘And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people, said (singular verb) to all the people, “This day is holy to YHWH your God, do not mourn, nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.’
The weeping of the people, as God’s Holy Spirit brought home to them His words, demonstrated the genuineness of their feelings. This was no formal hearing of the Law, or formal weeping in accordance with tradition. It was a genuine repentance for sin. The thought of how Jerusalem had been restored and was once more ‘whole’ had brought a new impetus to the Law (Torah - ‘instruction’), and it now came home to them with new meaning. It also brought home a new meaning to the seventh month. There was seen to be good reason for blowing the rams’ horns, and for heeding the words of God.
The weeping of the people was such that it moved those who were responsible for them to respond, in order to deal with their anguish. And this their leaders and teachers naturally did. Up to this point the governor Nehemiah had remained in the background as what was happening had come under the jurisdiction of Ezra’s appointment by Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:13-14; Ezra 7:25-26), but now, when the people wept and were distraught, it became the governor’s responsibility and he came to the fore. From our knowledge of his personal godliness we are not surprised at his intervention. He would naturally feel responsibility for them. And along with his efforts were those of Ezra, as both Priest and Scribe, and of the teaching Levites. This is one of the rare places where Nehemiah and Ezra are mentioned side by side.
Note On The Suggestion That The Name Of Nehemiah Be Excised From Nehemiah 8:9.
Many scholars have suggested that the name of Nehemiah was inserted in Nehemiah 8:9 by a later copyist or editor. They feel his presence to be inconsistent. On what then do they base that idea?
Firstly it is pointed out that Nehemiah and Ezra are only seen as acting together in only two places, here in Nehemiah 8:9, and in Nehemiah 12:36 (taken with Nehemiah 12:31). We must remember, however, that the tendency in the Book is only to mention those directly responsible for something. This lessens the impact of that fact. For while Ezra does indeed have only a small part to play in the Book of Nehemiah, it is understandable why that is so. It is because the Book deals with concerns outside the jurisdiction of Ezra. He was not High Priest but an appointee of the Persian king charged with the maintenance, explanation and enforcement of the Law of God on all Jewish people (Ezra 7:14; Ezra 7:25).
Furthermore, however closely allied to religious matters the first few chapters may be, they are not dealing with the interpretation and application of the Law, but with a political initiative which is very much dependent on Nehemiah’s personal relationship with the king. And there the High Priest and the priests are very much involved as we have seen. Even in chapter 5 there was no dispute about the what the Law said. What Nehemiah was requesting went beyond the Law, even though observing its spirit. He was acting as a statesman with a background knowledge of the Law. No one disagreed about what the Law actually said
It was only when the Law was to be read and expounded that Ezra’s jurisdiction applied. And we note that here in chapter 8 it was Ezra, and not the High Priest, who was called on for the purpose. Had he not been the appointee of the king of Persia with specific authority on such matters this would have been an insult to the High Priest. But it is that very fact that explains why, apart from in this chapter, he is elsewhere in the Book only certainly mentioned once. He is not, for example, mentioned in respect of the building of the wall. That was a practical, not a ‘legal’ matter. But that may also well have been because he was engaged in fulfilling what was his prime responsibility as established by the king, of promulgating the Law among all Jews in Beyond the River (assuming that he was still active in that process which is what this chapter suggests), and besides, he had no group of workmen on whom he could call. Nor was he probably a signatory to the covenant (see chapter 10), even though he may have had a hand in drawing it up. Again that would be because it was signed by heads of families, whilst he was not necessarily head of his family. It will, however, be noted that as the king’s appointed representative he was called on to participate in the dedication of the walls.
In the same way we note that Nehemiah does not have a prominent part to play in chapter 8. And the reason for that was that this did fall within Ezra’s jurisdiction. He was the government authorised expounder of the Law. That is why Nehemiah only comes in when the people are visibly upset. He feels then that he is justified in intervening. Otherwise Nehemiah is seen by the original writer as simply not involved. In his view this was directly subject to Ezra as a religious matter to do with the meaning of the Law.
Why then, in view of all this, should it be suggested that Nehemiah’s name was not originally in the text?
The first ground put forward is that in the Septuagint, whilst Nehemiah is named, his description as ‘the governor’ is excluded. But whatever the reason for that, that can really only be used to suggest that the description is secondary, not that his name should be excluded. In contrast in 1 Esdras he is referred to by his description, and not by his name. But before we make too much of the omission of his name we should notice that what is written in 1 Esdras is not simply a parallel to this chapter, but with Nehemiah’s name omitted. It is rather a whole rewriting of the narrative. And when we take into account its context, an account of Ezra’s life, we can immediately understand why he excluded the name of Nehemiah. It was because his concentration was on Ezra. This therefore gives even more significance to the fact that he felt that he had at least to include the governor in terms of his description. The textual evidence for excluding Nehemiah’s name from the text here in Nehemiah 8:9 is therefore inconclusive and weak.
The second ground put forward for excluding Nehemiah’s name is the use of singular verbs in Nehemiah 8:9-10. On this basis some have sought to exclude both Nehemiah and the Levites, suggesting that that is what the singular verb requires. But in fact many scholars accept that it would be consistent with Old Testament usage for a singular verb to be used when placed (in the Hebrew) before a composite group where it is expressing the action of that composite group as in Nehemiah 8:9. We need then only to see that usage of a singular verb as also affecting the person of the verb in Nehemiah 8:10 for the difficulty to be removed. The verbs can then be seen as referring to Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites, seen as acting as one.
Thus in our view there are no solid grounds for excluding the name of Nehemiah from Nehemiah 8:9.
End of note.
‘Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord: nor be you grieved, for the joy of YHWH is your strength.’
Whilst this could be seen as only spoken by Nehemiah (note the interest expressed in the needs of the poor), or Ezra, the verb should more probably be translated ‘they’ as indicating the composite group of Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites, the singular being the result of the usage in the previous verse.
It does, of course, summarise a number of instructions that were given. Firstly that they should be positive and celebrate the feast with joy, eating of the best (not the fat potions which belonged to YHWH, but the fatter portions which were the best of what remained) and drinking of the best (the meaning of the word for ‘sweet’ is uncertain), out of the offerings that they had brought, while meanwhile ensuring provision for those who had been in no position to bring offerings (compare Deuteronomy 12:12; Deuteronomy 12:18; Deuteronomy 14:29; Deuteronomy 26:12). And this was because the day was ‘holy to YHWH’, separated off as His, and thus to be a time of rejoicing as signifying the solidity of God’s covenant with them. Nor were they to be grieved. Their repentance had been right, but now the sin offering had been offered in accordance with the Law’s requirements, and therefore their sins as a nation had been forgiven (Numbers 29:5). Thus their strength now lay in ‘the joy of YHWH’, the rejoicing that He aroused in them through their coming to him on the basis of His covenant which would make them strong and protect them from His judgment.
‘So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Hold your peace, for the day is holy, nor be you grieved.”
Nehemiah and Ezra would have spoken to the people as a whole, or possibly through their leaders. It was the Levites who went among the people (as they had when Ezra read the Law) and gave more personal teaching. They too called on the people to cease their weeping because the day was holy to YHWH and therefore to be rejoiced in. It was not a day in which to be grieving, but a day for joy.
‘And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.’
In consequence of the ministrations of Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites the people responded, putting aside their weeping in order to eat and drink, and rejoice before YHWH. And they ensured that portions of food and drink were supplied to those who had none, as had been required. But it was not done heedlessly or carelessly. It was done because they understood the word that had been declared to them. They recognised that weeping was no longer in order because they had received forgiveness, and were now securely enjoying His covenant protection. In the words of the Psalmist, ‘For his anger is but a moment. In his favour is life. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalms 30:5).
There is a lesson for us all here in that we too should know times of weeping when we sin and displease God. But we must then be ready to accept His forgiveness and not continue in mourning over sin. Rather we should rejoice in the forgiveness that is ours through Him, and go forward in the joy of the Lord. While weeping has its place, the Christian life should on the whole be one of continual joy, even when circumstances are hard.
Occurrences On The Second Day Of The Seventh Month (Nehemiah 8:13-16).
The Feast of Trumpets being over, the majority of the people returned home in order to fulfil their daily work responsibilities, mainly in the fields and among the flocks and herds. This was especially necessary due to the time spent by the adult males on building the wall. But the aristocrats, priests and Levites, who did not have the same responsibilities, again gathered, on the day after the Feast, in order to hear more of the Torah and what Ezra had to say concerning it. This was in fulfilment of the role assigned to him by the king of Persia. In consequence of this they found in Leviticus 23:40; Leviticus 23:42 the requirement for all Israel to live in booths over the Feast of Tabernacles.
‘And on the second day were gathered together the heads of fathers’ (houses) of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, to Ezra the scribe, even to give attention to the words of the Law.’
The second day was the day following the Feast of Trumpets (Rams’ Horns). On that day the leaders of tribes, sub-tribes, clans and wider families gathered together with the priests and Levites to hear a further reading of the Torah and to give attention to Ezra’s expounding of it. They may well have been aroused by the previous day’s experience to recognise their need to have a greater understanding so as to guide their people. Their unanimous response indicates Ezra’s special and unique position. Even the High Priest would presumably be present.
‘And they found written in the Law, how YHWH had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go forth to the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.”
These words are not specifically citing the Law, but drawing out from it its meaning. The important point learned by them was that they were to dwell in booths made of tree branches in commemoration of the time in the wilderness after Israel had been redeemed from Egypt. “You shall dwell in booths seven days -- that your generation may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42-43). The idea of proclamation is found in Leviticus 23:4, whilst the feast was to observed ‘in the place which YHWH your God shall choose (Deuteronomy 16:15-16). Thus the writer adds here that they were to ‘publish and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem’.
The command is made in terms of the actual type of branches that they would use, given what was available in the land (which had not been available in the wilderness, thus ‘olive branches, wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of thick trees’. Leviticus 23:40 cites ‘fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of thick trees’ which would be available in the wilderness. In Nehemiah 8:15 the ‘goodly trees’ are spelled out in detail. But note that in Leviticus they are not specifically said to be used in making the booths.
‘Go forth to the mount’, in other words, to the place which YHWH has chosen (Deuteronomy 16-15-16). Thus they were to gather to Jerusalem to build their booths. So Ezra has expanded on the ideas in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16 in order to give specific and detailed instructions concerning the building of the booths at Jerusalem.
Their Observance Of The Feast Of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:16-18).
The passage now jumps from the second day to the fifteenth day of the month, when the people having gathered their branches, assembled once more in Jerusalem for the seven day Feast of Tabernacles. There they erected booths to dwell in over the period of the Feast. The emphasis in the whole passage is not on outlining the Feasts of the month, (thus the observance of the Day of Atonement, which the people did not directly participate in publicly, is ignored), but on the reading out of and response to the Law followed by the building of booths in Jerusalem, commemorative of the Exodus, for the proper observance of the seven day Feast in fulfilment of that Law.
‘So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one on the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim.’
As a consequence of what their leaders had learned from the Law (the Torah), as the fifteenth day approached the people gathered branches and assembled in Jerusalem, where they made themselves booths. Those who had houses built the booths on the roofs of their houses, and in the courts of the bigger houses, while others built theirs in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place by the Water Gate where they had previously assembled on the first day (Nehemiah 8:1), and in the broad place by the Gate of Ephraim. Thus Jerusalem was filled with booths, as they re-enacted the Exodus experience. They felt that they had taken part in a new Exodus.
‘And all the assembly of those who were come again out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness.’
So ‘those who had come out of the captivity’ dwelt in booths, just as those who had come out of captivity in Egypt had previously done. They made booths and dwelt in booths in commemoration of the Exodus, just as in Joshua’s day the people had done the same. The phrase about those who had come out of captivity is used deliberately. They were thereby celebrating a new deliverance.
‘For since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the children of Israel had not done so.’ This is not denying that the Feast of Tabernacles had been observed at various times throughout their history. We know that it had been (Judges 21:19; 1 Samuel 1:3; 1 Kings 8:2; 1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chronicles 7:9; Zechariah 14:16; Ezra 3:4). Nor is it denying that many of them had made booths during that Feast. Indeed it was a harvest feast and booths were regularly built at harvest times where workers could rest and sleep. Compare how Boaz himself slept overnight at the site of the harvest (Ruth 3:7), although not in a booth. And booths were built during pagan festivities in which Israelites engaged. Indeed booths had no doubt been erected at harvest times by the returnees. But these were in order to aid ingathering (the feast was also called the Feast of Ingathering), and as a means of celebrating harvests, not as a symbol of deliverance from captivity. What is probably in mind is that booths had not been built for the purpose of commemorating the Exodus, and at the place which YHWH chose (the Tabernacle site and then the Temple site). After the time of Joshua Israel’s religious observance had gradually deteriorated, and dwelling in booths had been reinterpreted, with probably not all participating, especially in the great cities. But now Israel were being restored to their former faith, and this was to be a recognition that they were the people of God whom He had delivered from captivity.
‘Also day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read in the book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the ordinance.’
As well as sleeping in booths the people also listened to the Law (Torah) of Moses being read out to them day by day. On each day of the seven day feast Ezra read out to them sections of the book of the Law of God. And they observed the Feast in accordance with the requirements laid out in that Law (Leviticus 23:33-36; Deuteronomy 31:10-13). Then on the eighth day there was a ‘solemn gathering and observance’, just as the Law required. This requirement for the eighth day is found in Leviticus 23:33; Leviticus 23:39; Numbers 29:35-38 so that we know that Ezra was reading at least from Leviticus (compare earlier on Nehemiah 8:14-15 re Leviticus 23). The word translated ‘solemn assembly’ is a comparatively rare one. It refers to the whole day as a day of ‘holding back’, and includes the thought of rest from servile work. Thus the people gathered, restraining both themselves and their servants from work, so as to celebrate the Day.
This day of complete rest, following immediately on a daily reading of the Law, and enforcing a period of meditation, had its inevitable consequence. The people had restrained their sorrow over sin (Nehemiah 8:9), which had initially been brought about by the reading of the Law, in order to observe the Feast with gladness. But meanwhile that sense of guilt had been increasing due to the hearing of the Law. After the thrill and buoyancy of the Feast came the inevitable emotional collapse. Now they gave full rein to their sense of guilt. And this caused them to remain in Jerusalem beyond the finalising of the Feast. Day by day throughout the Feast they had received more and more revelations out of the Law as it was read and interpreted daily. In consequence their feelings of guilt with regard to their failure to observe it fully would have been impressed on them more and more day by day. And this would no doubt having been exacerbated by the reading of the curses pronounced in Deuteronomy 27-28, which would presumably have been read on the last of the seven days of the Feast. It thus led to a renewed mourning over their sins and their failure to observe the covenant. And this was something which would now lead on to the proposal and acceptance of a renewed covenant (chapter 10).
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John 11-21: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture [ACCS]