Studying Nehemiah 2 11-20

We are studying Nehemiah 2:11-20 for Sunday, April 18. This is the part of the “Nehemiah memoir” that deals with Nehemiah’s initial first-hand survey of the damaged walls of Jerusalem, and his initiation of the project of rebuilding the walls. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The text is part of the larger text of Ezra-Nehemiah. The whole large book narrates events following the Judean remnant’s return from exile in Babylonia. This part of the text, “the Nehemiah memoir,” is generally taken to be Nehemiah’s own account of the events it describes. We think it must have been composed near the time of the events themselves. When it comes to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, that would have been 444 BCE.

The walls were broken down or burned by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. That means they have been in a state of disrepair for almost a hundred and fifty years. The returnees have been living with the walls in this state for almost a hundred years. What was once a crisis is now taken for granted, it seems.

Nehemiah 1 lays the immediate background for Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, as governor of what is now a province of the Persian empire. Nehemiah is a high-ranking official in the Persian court – cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes. He learns of the state of the walls of Jerusalem, and is moved to anguished prayer. This leads to a conversation with the king, and a commission to go to Jerusalem to lead a rebuilding project, complete with the relevant authorizing documents.

We can, I think, infer that because Nehemiah holds a high position in the Persian bureaucracy, he must know this bureaucratic system well, and must be good at working it. If bureaucracies in our own day are anything to go by, and I think they probably are, attaining high position attests to that kind of skill. I read Nehemiah as someone who is wise, in the sense of knowing how to mobilize support for a position or program, and how to organize and accomplish things.

Our text picks up right after Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, and advances the narrative to the beginning of the rebuilding effort. It also introduces the first manifestations of opposition to Nehemiah’s program.

Part of the text describes Nehemiah’s inspection tour of the wall by night. The maps of the tour that identify the “Valley Gate” with a location to the south-west of the Temple complex seem to be most compatible with Nehemiah’s description. has a detailed map with commentary; Visual Unit has a map tagged with the citations of the rebuilding effort.

The rest of the book describes the intensified effort to rebuild the wall, in the face of intensifying opposition. Then, the accomplishment of the project, Ezra’s instruction of the people in the law, and the dedication of the walls. It concludes with a postscript describing Nehemiah’s return to Judah after an absence, to find that people have not upheld the restored way of life – in particular sabbath observance and marriage within the community – despite his earlier strenuous efforts.
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CLOSER READING: Nehemiah is unquestionably the focus of the action in the passage – most of the verbs describe Nehemiah’s actions.

In verse 11, Nehemiah is in the city three days before undertaking his survey of the walls. Ezra also takes three days to acclimatize before beginning his mission (Ezra 8:32).

There is some emphasis-by-repetition on the solitary animal who assists Nehemiah with the project – and who doesn’t have room to make it all the way around the ruined wall (v14). There’s a similar emphasis on the fact that the tour of inspection was at night. We can infer that Nehemiah takes special pains to keep the project unpublicized at first. This is further emphasized in verse 16 with a detailed list of the categories of people Nehemiah has not told about his activities.

Remembering that Nehemiah is wise about things like this, we could infer that he has some reason for wanting to control when and how people learn of his proposed project.

Something changes between verse 16 and verse 17. The change seems abrupt in the text. Who is “them”? All the categories of people listed in verse 16? When does Nehemiah say this to “them”? And how does he say it?

At first, it sounds like he is making a speech to an assembled audience. This might not be the only option, however. Nothing in the text would rule out a number of less open conversations with a lot of different people, who are being gradually and quietly mobilized to this good work.

There’s a lovely parallelism between Nehemiah’s speech in v17 and “their” response in v18. Nehemiah has done a lot of arising by this time; he specifically mentions the hand of God being on him, along with the words the king spoke that guarantee support for the project. So they say “let’s arise and build” and they strengthen their hands “to the good.”

The opposition identified in v19 adds a third foreign individual to the two identified earlier (v10). We presume all three have some power or influence. Actually, there is apparently a reference to Sanballat the Horonite in an extra-Biblical document, where he is identified as the governor of Samaria.

The motive for their opposition is obscure. The most frequent theory, among commentators who advance one, is economic interest. That theory holds that a revitalized and more secure Jerusalem would be an unwelcome competitor for trade and influence. Or maybe the opposition was less rational and more spiteful than that. The text doesn’t pin it down.

Nehemiah’s eloquent assertion in v20 is both stirring and perplexing. It asserts confidence in God – the God of heaven will give us success. It asserts a communal identity based on relationship to God – we are his servants. It also emphatically asserts the opponents’ non-rights vis-à-vis Jerusalem. Which is a little odd, considering they haven’t claimed any, as far as we can tell from the text. [On the other hand, if this were an altercation today, Nehemiah’s defense might translate roughly to “Butt out. What we’re doing is none of your beeswax.” And a remark like that wouldn’t sound odd to us at all.]
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Image: “Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem,” publishers of Sunrays Quarterly, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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