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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

- Nehemiah

by Dr. Robert Utley

INTRODUCTION TO NEHEMIAH

I. NAME OF THE BOOK

A. Ezra/Nehemiah was one book in the early Hebrew text (MT) and in the early copies of the Septuagint (from the Uncial manuscripts א, A, & B). Baba Bathra 15a. called both books Ezra.

1. This is unusual because it is obvious they both contain the same genealogical list: Ezra 2:2-16 and Nehemiah 7:6-63.

2. Because the lists, though slightly different, are basically the same, the implication is that these were originally two books.

3. This is confirmed by the use of “I” sections in both Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah.

B. They were possibly combined because the ministry of Ezra (Ezra 7-10) is continued in Neh. 8-10.

C. The titles of Ezra and Nehemiah vary between the ancient translations:

Septuagint(Greek)Vulgate(Latin)Wycliffe & Coverdale(Old English)Modern English
Esdras B (Beta)Esdras C (Gamma)Esdras A (Alpha)Esdras (Delta) Esdras IEsdras IIEsdras IIIEsdras IV I EsdrasII Esdras---------------------- EzraNehemiahI Esdras (Apocrypha))II Esdras (Pseudepigrapha - EzraApocalypse, sometimes called IV Ezra)

D. The first Hebrew text to split these books was the A.D. 1448 edition of the MT.

II. CANONIZATION

A. The book Ezra-Nehemiah is part of the third section of the Hebrew canon called “the Writings.”

B. It comes before “Chronicles,” which is surprising since historically/chronologically it is subsequent to the historical account of Chronicles. Some have tried to explain this by the following:

1. Chronicles is a summary from Adam to Cyrus.

2. Ezra-Nehemiah was accepted as canonical first.

3. Chronicles is put last because the Jews wanted the canon to end on a positive note (decree of Cyrus).

4. No one really knows the criteria or rationality of the formation of “the Writings” section of the Hebrew canon.

C. The first Hebrew edition of the MT to divide them was in A.D. 1448.

D. However, it is obvious from internal evidence that they were originally two books:

1. the extensive genealogical list of Ezra 2:0 is repeated in Nehemiah 7:6-70. The names are spelled a bit differently;

2. there are “I” sections in Ezra 7:27-28; Ezra 8:1-34; Ezra 9:1ff and “I” sections in Nehemiah.

E. Why were they combined?

1. They form one history.

2. It has been asserted that the reason that Ezra-Nehemiah was combined in the Hebrew canon was so as to have the number of books in the OT conform to the number of consonants in the Hebrew alphabet (Jewish mysticism). This meant that the following books were combined:

a. Judges and Ruth

b. I & 2 Samuel

c. I & 2 Kings

d. I & 2 Chr.

e. Ezra - Nehemiah

f. Jeremiah - Lamentations

g. the Twelve Minor Prophets

3. The ministry of Ezra, which begins in Ezra 7-10, is continued in Neh. 8-10.

F. It is interesting that the early Syrian canon and Theodore of Mopsuestia (a leader of the Antiochean school of interpretation) omitted Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah from their list of inspired books.

III. GENRE

A. See Ezra IV, D (similarity between Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles)

B. See Ezra IV, G (use of documents)

IV. AUTHORSHIP

A. Baba Bathra 15a-16a says that Ezra wrote his book, but this does not imply that he wrote Nehemiah also. As a matter of fact, other Jewish sources (Gemara) say Nehemiah finished the unified composite of Ezra - Nehemiah. The MT's endnotes (finalized in the A.D. 900's) are found only at the end of Nehemiah.

B. Josephus (A.D. 37-100), in his Contra Apion 1.8, and Melito of Sardis (A.D. 160-170,177), quoted by Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 4.26, both assert Ezra's authorship.

C. The part of Ezra that deals with Ezra the scribe's life (Ezra 7-10) is written in the first person, Ezra 7:27-28; Ezra 8:1-34; Ezra 9:1-15. Ezra was a priest of the line of Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-5) and a scribe (cf. Ezra 7:6-7) at the Persian court of Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.).

D. There is much literary similarity between Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

1. the close of 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 is almost exactly like Ezra 1:1-4 in Hebrew

2. they both have the same theological perspective

a. focus on the temple and its priesthood (especially lists of Levites)

b. extensive use of statistical records and genealogies

3. their vocabulary (e.g., “singer,” “gatekeeper” and “temple servant”) and literary style are similar

4. both use late Hebrew

5. however, it must also be stated there are notable differences (cf. Sara Japhet, Vetus Testamentus 18 (1968):330-371)

a. in the spelling of royal names

b. Ezra and Nehemiah focus on the covenant with Moses, while I & 2 Chr. focus on the covenant with David

6. The book of the Talmud, which gives traditional Jewish views of the authorship of OT books (Baba Bathra 15a-16a), states that Ezra also wrote Chronicles. This view has been followed by W. F. Albright, John Bright, E. J. Young, and G. L. Archer. However, it is just possible that the similar close to Chronicles and the opening to Ezra was an intentional literary design to show that Ezra-Nehemiah continue the history begun in I & 2 Chr..

E. Origen (A.D. 185-253), the Christian scholar of Alexandria, was the first to divide the book into the two books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Jerome did the same in his Latin Vulgate.

F. The first Hebrew manuscript to divide the book was in A.D. 1448. Apparently by this time the Jewish mystical desire to have only 22 books in the OT to match the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which had been so popular, had passed.

G. The author/compiler used many sources.

1. list of vessels from YHWH's temple that were in Babylon, Nehemiah 1:9-11; Nehemiah 7:19-20 (Persian)

2. list of returning exiles, Neh. 2:1-70 (Persian or Jewish)

3. the genealogy of Ezra, Nehemiah 7:1-5 (Jewish)

4. heads of clans, Ezra 8:1-20 (Jewish)

5. list of those involved in mixed marriages, Ezra 10:18-43 (Jewish)

V. DATE

A. The scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries A.D. believed the books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles to have been written in the fourth century B.C. period because

1. a descendant of Joshua the High Priest who accompanied Zerubbabel on the second return (under Cyrus) was Jaddua; he is listed in Nehemiah 12:10-11, Nehemiah 12:22

2. they assert that this Jaddua was mentioned by Josephus (Antiquities, XI:302-7) as High Priest (351-331 B.C.) at the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of Palestine in 333-332 B.C.

3. this links up with six generations of Zerubbabel listed in 1 Chronicles 3:19-24

4. most of these scholars also advocated the opinion that Ezra returned in the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358 B.C.), while Nehemiah returned in the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.)

5. Nehemiah 12:26, Nehemiah 12:47 show a later editor/compiler

B. Later 20th century conservative scholars have asserted a date for these three books in the fifth century B.C. period because

1. the Jaddua of Nehemiah 12:10-11, Nehemiah 12:22 possibly was

a. very young when mentioned and lived an extremely long life. He is not listed as High Priest in Nehemiah

b. not the same Jaddua but the grandson by the same name (cf. the Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 4 p. 596-586)

c. Josephus has wrongly shortened the Persian Period because the names of Persian rulers are repeated in the fifth and fourth century B.C.

(1) Artaxerxes

(2) Darius

2. The genealogy of Zerubbabel in 1 Chronicles 3:19-24 only goes to

a. two generations (Young & Harrison)

b. four generations

3. There are no historical allusions to the major events that affected Palestine in the fourth century B.C.:

a. Alexander the Great's invasion (333-332 B.C.)

b. the rebellion that was crushed by Artaxerxes III (358-338 B.C.)

4. It is possible that even if Jaddua is contemporary with Alexander the Great that this list of Levites was added by a later editor of the book trying to bring it up to date (Young). There may be evidence of an editor in the phrase “the days of Nehemiah,”Nehemiah 12:26; Nehemiah 12:26, Nehemiah 12:47.

5. Ezra and Nehemiah are presented as being together in Jerusalem; not separated by different monarchs:

a. reading of the law, Nehemiah 8:9

b. dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, Nehemiah 12:26, Nehemiah 12:36

VI. SOURCES CORROBORATING HISTORICAL SETTING

A. The Elephantine Papyri (408 B.C.) lists the names of several of the people mentioned in Ezra/Nehemiah:

1. Sanballat, governor of Samaria, Nehemiah 2:10, Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 4:1

2. Johanan, the grandson of Eliashib the High Priest, Nehemiah 12:10-11, Nehemiah 12:22, Nehemiah 12:23

3. The specific mentioning of these people confirms that Ezra and Nehemiah lived and functioned during the reign of Artaxerxes I (464-424 B.C.).

B. Several silver bowls were found at Succoth that were inscribed “to Geshem's son Qainu,” which shows the historicity of Geshem the Arab in Ezra/Nehemiah, who ruled the kingdom of Kedar (cf. Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 6:1, Nehemiah 6:6).

C. The Samarian papyri gives us a list of the governors of Samaria from Sanballat the Horonite to the destruction of the city by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. They also show that the events of Nehemiah 13:28 and the similar events recorded by Josephus during the time of Sanballat III are not the same.

D. The form of documents in Ezra follows the pattern and style of the official documents of the Persian period.

1. Decree of Cyrus (Hebrew translation), Ezra 1:2-4; Ezra 1:2-4 (about returning to Jerusalem and the temple)

2. Legal charges by Rehum to Artaxerxes I, Ezra 4:7-16 (about the walls of Jerusalem)

3. Response of Artaxerxes I, Ezra 4:17-22

4. Legal charges by Tattenai to Darius I, Ezra 5:6-17

5. Dairus I's response (about the temple)

a. Quote Cyrus' decree, Ezra 6:2-5

b. Darius' personal response to Tattenai, Ezra 6:6-12, Ezra 6:13

6. Artaxerxes I's decree to Ezra, Nehemiah 7:12-16

VII. LITERARY UNITS (context)

A. Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem (made the city smaller), Nehemiah 1:1-73

1. Introduction in first person, Nehemiah 1:1-20

2. Wall rebuilt in 52 days, Nehemiah 3:1-19

3. Nehemiah's brother, Hanani, put in charge of the city, Nehemiah 7:1-73

B. The spiritual reforms of Ezra (a continuation of Ezra 7-10), Nehemiah 8:1-39

1. Ezra reads the Law and the people respond, Nehemiah 8:1-4

2. A review of YHWH's acts on behalf of the Jews, Nehemiah 9:5-31

3. The people bind themselves by oath to worship YHWH and support His Temple, (covenant renewal) Nehemiah 9:32-39

C. The administrative reforms of Nehemiah, Neh. 11-13

1. Nehemiah's first return to Jerusalem, Neh. 11-12

a. establishing the population of Jerusalem, Nehemiah 11:1-36

b. lists of priests and Levites, Nehemiah 12:1-26, Nehemiah 12:44-47

c. dedication of the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah 12:27-43

2. Nehemiah's second return to Jerusalem, Nehemiah 13:1-31

a. covenant violations, Nehemiah 13:1-5

b. reforms, Nehemiah 13:6-31

(1) Tobiah removed from Temple chambers, Nehemiah 13:4-5, Nehemiah 13:8-9

(2) Temple offerings, Nehemiah 13:10-14

(3) mixed marriages, Nehemiah 13:1-3, Nehemiah 13:23-29

(4) provisions for the Temple, Nehemiah 13:30-31

VIII. MAIN TRUTHS

A. This book continues the history which began in Chronicles and Ezra. They document the reestablishment of the Covenant community in the Promised Land.

B. As Ezra was concerned with the spiritual, covenantal life of the new community, Nehemiah was concerned with

1. the protective wall around the city

2. the administrative aspect of the city

However, Nehemiah is as “spiritual” and faithful as Ezra. Both trust in YHWH and His presence, power, and plan.

C. Both Ezra and Nehemiah are concerned with covenant (Mosaic) fidelity. The sins of the people of God, except for idolatry, are continued in the post-exilic community.

D. In the post-exilic books God is present, but not visually/physically confirmed (i.e., the unseen hand). God's will is seen through decisions of pagan kings and thwarting of local opposition. God's presence is a matter of faith and obedience. His word (Torah) becomes key!

 
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