We are studying Nehemiah 2:11-20 for Sunday, April 18. This is a key part of the story of Nehemiah’s leadership in rebuilding the ruined walls of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. [My notes on this text are here.] Here are some questions we might want to consider in our study of the text:
How would we summarize this story, just as a narrative? What seem to us to be the most important elements of this story? Or, the ones that stand out to us? Why is that, do we think?
[It might be helpful to make a short list of the important parts of the story, in order; and then, next to each of those parts of the story, what information they give us, or add to our understanding of the story. We could ask ourselves, why is that part of the story there? Why was it mentioned? What is it telling us?]
How would we describe what Nehemiah is doing at each point in the story? Do we have an idea of why he is doing precisely that, instead of something else? What’s our understanding? Are there any other possible explanations of Nehemiah’s behavior? What are they?
What does our interpretation of Nehemiah here tell us about ourselves and our theory of why people behave as they do? Any thoughts about that?
If we were to treat the story more as literature – do we notice any potential symbols or metaphors in the story? What are they? [e.g., the animal? Night? The wall? Others?] What do they seem to symbolize, or might they symbolize?
What comes to mind as we consider these possible symbols? Does thinking about the story this way show us any new meaning in the story? What meaning?
Why does Nehemiah want to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, do we think? What gives us that idea? [Here it could be a good idea to review the text and see if there is anything specific that tells us what reasons Nehemiah himself articulates. We could also ask ourselves, what other knowledge or ideas are we drawing on to understand Nehemiah’s character, and where all that comes from.]
What are our thoughts about those motives? Why?
[More personal, perhaps.] How do we ourselves feel about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem? That is – does this seem like a good thing, or not? Important, or not? A hopeful sign, or not? What? Where does our reaction come from, do we think?
Why do Nehemiah’s opponents oppose this rebuilding project, do we think? [Again, what does the text tell us? What ideas do we have from other sources? What other sources?]
[More personal, probably] What does our understanding of the opposition in this story tell us about our own thoughts and feelings about opposition, in general, or in our own experience? What do we learn from that?
Where and how do we see God at work in this story? What gives us this idea? What does this tell us about God? Or, about our own ideas about God? Or, both?
Overall, this seems like one of those stories that is particularly able to help us see things about ourselves “in” the Bible. Most of our reactions to Nehemiah as a character, for instance, have to come from us, from our assumptions about people; those show us something about ourselves. We could say the same thing for our responses to the chronic opposition Nehemiah faces, which comes up in our text, and which will intensify as the book continues. How we understand what is going on there, what we think it means – most of that has to come from us; the text itself is really non-directive. So our thoughts and feelings about all that tell us more about ourselves and our expectations about the world, and maybe particularly about work and our own relationship to work, than they tell us about how things were in 445 BCE.
This could also be a good story for thinking about how we ourselves read the text of the Bible, how we understand the Bible as a document, and how we are related to the people who handed this text down to us. We might want to think about who thought this was an important story to record, and why [e.g., Nehemiah]; who thought this was an important story to save, and why they would have thought that; who recognized this as scripture and why they might have done that [e.g., traditionally, “the men of the Great Assembly”; contemporary scholars might tell a slightly different story]; what that history of the text means for us as readers of Scripture.
Here are a couple of additional sources that seem particularly valuable in reading Ezra-Nehemiah [who are considered prophets by some, it seems in particular the Orthodox churches, but who are not prophets according to the Talmud].
- Dr. Tim Mackie, “Not the Leadership Lessons You Expect” [one of the principals of The Bible Project discusses Ezra-Nehemiah, from a distinctly Christian point of view with respect to the Christian canon of scripture]
- Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, “Why the sage is greater than the prophet” [the late, great Orthodox Rabbi on the role of the sages – which would include Ezra and Nehemiah – in rabbinic Judaism]
Image: “The Conversation,” Edgar Degas, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons