Book of Nehemiah

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The Book of Nehemiah has been, since the 16th century, a separate book of the Hebrew Bible. Before that date, it had been included in the Book of Ezra; but in Latin Christian bibles from the 13th century onwards, the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah become separated; a separation that became canonised with the first printed bibles in Hebrew and Latin. Told largely in the form of a first-person memoir, it concerns the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem by Nehemiah, a Jew who is a high official at the Persian court, and the dedication of the city and its people to God's laws (Torah).


The events take place in the second half of the 5th century BCE. Listed together with the Book of Ezra as Ezra-Nehemiah, it represents the final chapter in the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible.[1]

The original core of the book, the first-person memoir, may have been combined with the core of the Book of Ezra around 400 BC. Further editing probably continued into the Hellenistic era.[2]

The book tells how Nehemiah, at the court of the king in Susa, is informed that Jerusalem is without walls, and resolves to restore them. The king appoints him as governor of Judah and he travels to Jerusalem. There he rebuilds the walls, despite the opposition of Israel's enemies, and reforms the community in conformity with the law of Moses. After 12 years in Jerusalem, he returns to Susa but subsequently revisits Jerusalem. He finds that the Israelites have been backsliding and taking non-Jewish wives, and he stays in Jerusalem to enforce the Law.

  1. In the 20th year of Artaxerxes I of Persia, Nehemiah, cup-bearer to the King in Susa (the Persian capital), learns that the wall of Jerusalem is destroyed. He prays to God, recalling the sins of Israel and God's promise of restoration to the Land, and asks Artaxerxes for leave to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its walls; the king is receptive and extends his aid to this mission.
  2. Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem, carrying letters of authorisation from the king; he inspects the walls.
  3. Nehemiah and the Jews (including the 'High Priest' Eliashib), begin rebuilding Jerusalem.
  4. The enemies of the Jews – Sanballat of Samaria, Tobiah the Ammonite, Geshem the Arab, and the men of Ashdod – plot to attack Jerusalem which necessitates the Jews working with weapons in their hands.
  5. Nehemiah sees that the Jewish nobles are oppressing the poor, and forces the cancellation of all debt and mortgages; while previous governors have been corrupt and oppressive, he has been righteous and just.
  6. Sanballat accuses Nehemiah of planning rebellion against Artaxerxes, and he is opposed even by Jewish nobles and prophets, but the wall is completed.
  7. Nehemiah appoints officials and sets guards on the wall and gates; he plans to register the Jews, and finds the Census of those who had returned earlier.
  8. Nehemiah assembles the people and has Ezra read to them the law-book of Moses; Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites institute the Feast of Booths, in accordance with the Law.
  9. The Jews assemble in penance and prayer, recalling their past sins, God's help to them, and his promise of the land.
  10. The priests, Levites and the Israelite people enter into a covenant, agreeing to separate themselves from the surrounding peoples and to keep the Law.
  11. Jerusalem is repopulated by the Jews living in the towns and villages of Judah and Benjamin.
  12. A list of priests and Levites who returned in the days of Cyrus (the first returnees from Babylon) is presented; Nehemiah, aided by Ezra, oversees the dedication of the walls and the rebuilt city.
  13. After 12 years Nehemiah returns to Susa; he later comes back to Jerusalem, and finds that there has been backsliding in his absence. He takes measures to enforce his earlier reforms and asks for God's favour.

Historical background[edit]

The book is set in the 5th century BCE. Judah is one of several provinces within a larger satrapy (a large administrative unit) within the Achaemenid Empire. The capital of the empire is at Susa. Nehemiah is a cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes I of Persia – an important official position.

At his own request Nehemiah is sent to Jerusalem as governor of Yehud, the official Persian name for Judah. Jerusalem had been conquered and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and Nehemiah finds it still in ruins. His task is to rebuild the walls and to re-populate the city. He faces opposition from three powerful neighbours, the Samaritans, the Ammonites, and the Arabs, as well as the city of Ashdod, but manages to rebuild the walls. He then purifies the Jewish community by enforcing its segregation from its neighbours and enforces the laws of Moses.

Textual history[edit]

The single book Ezra–Nehemiah, with title "Ezra", was translated into Greek around the middle of the 2nd century BC.[3] It was first proposed to be considered as two books by the early Christian scholar Origen in the 3rd century AD; and Jerome, writing in the early 5th century, noted that this division had since been adopted by Greek and Latin commentators; although in all surviving Christian Greek and Old Latin manuscripts Ezra-Nehemiah is one book denoted as 'Esdras B'. Jerome himself rejected the division in his Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin from the Hebrew; and consequently no early Vulgate manuscripts separate the two books, [4] and they remained undivided as a single book in the 8th century commentary of Bede, and in the 9th century bibles of Alcuin and Theodulf of Orleans. However, from the 9th century onwards, Latin bibles are found that reintroduce Origen's division; and this becomes standard in the Paris Bibles of the 13th century. It was not until 1516/17, in the first printed Rabbinic Bible of Daniel Bomberg that the separation was generally introduced into Hebrew Bibles.

Composition and date[edit]

The combined book Ezra–Nehemiah of the earliest Christian and Jewish period was known as Ezra and was probably attributed to Ezra himself; according to a rabbinic tradition, however, Nehemiah was the real author but was forbidden to claim authorship because of his bad habit of disparaging others.[5]

The Nehemiah Memorial, chapters 1–7 and 11–13, may have circulated as an independent work before being combined with the Ezra material to form Ezra–Nehemiah.[6] Determining the composition of the Memorial depends on the dates of Nehemiah's mission: It is commonly accepted that "Artaxerxes" was Artaxerxes I (there were two later kings of the same name), and that Nehemiah's first period in Jerusalem was therefore 445–433 BC;[7] allowing for his return to Susa and second journey to Jerusalem, the end of the 5th century BC is therefore the earliest possible date for the Memorial.[8] The Nehemiah Memorial is interrupted by chapters 8–10, which concern Ezra. These have sometimes been identified as another, separate work, the Ezra Memorial (EM), but other scholars believe the EM to be fictional and heavily altered by later editors. Both the Nehemiah and Ezra material are combined with numerous lists, Censuses and other material.

The first edition of the combined Ezra–Nehemiah may date from the early 4th century BC;[6] further editing continued well into the following centuries.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Albright, William (1963). The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra: An Historical Survey. Harpercollins College Div. ISBN 0-06-130102-7.
  2. ^ Paul Cartledge, Peter Garnsey, Erich S. Gruen (editors), Hellenistic Constructs: Essays In Culture, History, and Historiography, p. 92 (University of California Press, 1997). ISBN 0-520-20676-2
  3. ^ Graham, M.P, and McKenzie, Steven L., "The Hebrew Bible today: an introduction to critical issues" (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) p. 202
  4. ^ Bogaert, Pierre-Maurice (2000). "Les livres d'Esdras et leur numérotation dans l'histoire du canon de la Bible latin". Revue Benedictine. 110: 5–26.
  5. ^ Blenkinsopp, Joseph, "Judaism, the first phase" (Eerdmans, 2009) p. 86
  6. ^ a b La Sor, W.S., William Sanford La Sor, Hubbard, D.A., Bush, F.W., "Old Testament survey: the message, form, and background of the Old Testament" (Eerdmans, 1996) p. 551
  7. ^ Graham, M.P, and McKenzie, Steven L., "The Hebrew Bible today: an introduction to critical issues" (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) p. 205
  8. ^ Graham, M.P, and McKenzie, Steven L., "The Hebrew Bible today: an introduction to critical issues" (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) p. 213

External links[edit]

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