The second half of Ezra-Nehemiah is Nehemiah 7-13. These verses follow the same pattern as the first half: introduction (Neh. 7:1-7:73a), first step (Neh. 7:73b-8:18), second step (Neh. 9-10), climax (Neh. 11:1-13:3), subversion (Neh. 13:4-31). The setting for this second half of the book is ”when the wall had been built” (Neh. 7:1). The introduction begins then with a discussion of the importance of guarding the gates during the heat of the day and keeping them shut otherwise. Also, the text says that the people in the city were few, and no houses had been rebuilt (Neh. 7:4).
The expectation then that we should have is that of rebuilding of houses – not necessarily just physical houses but of families. And then we read Nehemiah say, ”Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy. And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first” (Neh. 7:5). What follows then is an extensive recapitulation of the introduction to the first half of Ezra-Nehemiah, where Nehemiah recounts much the same census that we found in Ezra 2 with some slight differences.
The differences between the census information in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 suggests that the author did not try to make the two documents consistent but rather quoted them as he found them.
In any case, the recapitulation of this census is given in light of the theme that it was necessary to find a people worthy to live inside the city walls.
Nehemiah 8, which really begins with the final sentence of chapter 7, is then the first step in this half of the book. It was the seventh month (Neh. 7:73b) so the people gathered as one man into the square (Neh. 8:1). This recalls the opening line of the first step in the first half of the book (compare Ezra 3:1). The verse continues, ”And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Torah of Moses that YHWH had commanded Israel.” Thus this first step (like the second one of the previous half of the book) involves Ezra.
Neh. 8:2 continues, ”So Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard….” The verses that follow show that this was a time of worship and that not only did Ezra read from the Torah (in Hebrew) but that the Levites helped the people understand what it meant. ”They read from the book, from the Torah of God, clearly [footnote: with interpretation, or paragraph by paragraph], and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8).
And once again we see a mixture of weeping and great rejoicing. Remember in Ezra 3 the old men were weeping when they saw the foundation of the temple being laid while others were shouting aloud for joy? Now ”all the people wept as they heard the words of the Torah” (Neh. 8:9) but they were instructed not to be grieved but to rejoice greatly ”because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (Neh. 8:12). Again like in Ezra 3, the people celebrated the feast of booths (Neh. 8:13ff). Interestingly, Neh. 8 mentions not Jeshua from Ezra 3 but Jeshua the son of Nun (reaching all the way back to Joshua).
Neh. 9-10 are the second step of the second half of the book. It begins with the people of Israel assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads (Neh. 9:1). This reminds us now of the repentance we have seen from both Ezra and Nehemiah (the people). Neh. 9:2 hits the major theme we have been seeing in the book: ”And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” A worship service follows with the quoted content of a prayer of confession rehearsing the story of Israel.
Answering to the list of those guilty of intermarriage in Ezra 10, now in Nehemiah 10 there is a list of people who sealed the covenant. Again the people who sealed the covenant were ”all those who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Torah of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters” (Neh. 10:28). Those who had knowledge and understanding took an oath entering into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Torah, ”and to observe and do all the commandments of YHWH our Lord and His rules and His statutes” (Neh. 10:29).
Of utmost importance then is the very next verse: ”We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons” (Neh. 10:30). The obligations continued from their including not buying or selling on the Sabbath or on any holy day with the peoples of the land, Sabbath years for the crops, giving for the ”house of our God” (i.e. the Temple) and also for the priests and Levites. The chapter concluding on this note: ”We will not neglect the house of our God” (Neh. 10:39).
Neh. 11:1-13:3 is the climax of the second half of the book. Neh. 11:1-2 answers the earlier issue of finding people worthy to live within the city walls: ”Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem. And the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem the holy city, while nine out of ten remained in the other towns. And the people blessed all the men who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” The text that follows then is a census of those who lived in Jerusalem.
Moreover, we find out in Neh. 12, ”And the priests and the Levites purified themselves and they purified the people and the gates and the wall” (Neh. 12:30). This took place during a dedication service for the wall.
The story would seem then to come to a conclusion with Neh. 13:1-3. ”On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. And it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.”
Doug Green sums this up: ”After these people have been chosen (Neh. 11:1-3) and the priests and Levites have purified them together with the city walls (Neh. 12:30), the narrative apparently reaches its goal with the people’s decision to exclude from Israel, not just the foreign wives as had been the case earlier, but all who were of mixed descent (Neh. 13:3).” However, the book is not finished. Just when we think that the story has ended well we read the subversion of that success.
Neh. 13:4-31 is the subversion of the second half of the book. It is not in chronological order for the text opens, ”Now before this…” (Neh. 13:4). Nevertheless, it serves to undermine what sounded like a successful conclusion to the book. Again, Tobiah comes back as a bad influence and intermarriage is a problem. You will remember that happened during the subversion of the first half of the book as well. As Doug Green explains, ”These connections suggest that once again the author wants to subvert the reader’s perception that the community has finally reached its goal.”
Specifically we read that Eliashib the priest was related to Tobiah and prepared for Tobiah a large chamber in the courts of the house of God. When Nehemiah found out about it, since he had been away to see King Artaxerxes, he got very angry and threw all of the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chamber and then they cleansed the chambers and brought back the vessels of the house of God with the grain offering and the frankincense that were supposed to be in that chamber. He also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been distributed to them.
So Nehemiah challenged the officials, ”Why is the house of God forsaken?” (Neh. 13:11). This is in stark contrast to the oath, ”We will not neglect the house of our God” (Neh. 10:39). Nehemiah instituted some reforms to fix this problem and then says, ”Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for His service” (Neh. 13:14).
Neh. 13:15 begins, ”In those days I saw in Judah…” (thus again set before the dramatic conclusion of Neh. 13:1-3) but it too shows that the people may yet fail. Here what he saw was people treading winepresses on the Sabbath. They even profaned the Sabbath by bringing in food and wine to be sold on the Sabbath in the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah again put reforms into place to keep this from happening in Jerusalem. And he concludes the section, ”Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your loyal-love” (Neh. 13:22).
Neh. 13:23 likewise begins, ”In those days also I saw…” and here what he saw was intermarriage with women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. He lamented that half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod but could not speak the language of Judah. Here Nehemiah reports: ”And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women?” (Neh. 13:25-26).
Concerning Solomon, Nehemiah continued, ”Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” (Neh. 13:26-27).
Nehemiah’s efforts continued: ”And one of the sons of Jehoiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. Therefore I chased him from me” (Neh. 13:28). Nehemiah took on these reforms quite personally but they are reminders that when Nehemiah is no longer there then there will continue to be a number of snares that may unravel the separation of the Jews and Gentiles they had worked so long to accomplish.
The book ends this way, a fitting end to this part of the subversion, ”Remember them, O my God, because they have desecrated the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work, and I provided for the wood offering at appointed times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh. 13:29-31).
Doug Green asks, ”Has this been a story of success or failure? Most, perhaps all, of the examples of failure occurred before the events described in Nehemiah 13 (see v.4), so is not chapter 12 really the last word on Israel’s story? As a flashback to scenes of previous failures, it raises doubts about the depth of the people’s commitment to keeping the Law. Or is it perhaps really a record of Nehemiah’s reforms, emphasizing his greatness? But the list of the actions of this one man are set in the context of a sorry inventory of the nation’s failures, from high priest to ordinary people.
Wherever we set the emphasis, the narrative ends in ambiguity and uncertainty.” Remembering especially that Nehemiah is a flat character in the book – always good – and how the character that matters in the book are the community since they can do good or evil, this litany of sins is not inspiring much confidence that Ezra-Nehemiah as a book ends well. Sure Nehemiah did his best and even did much that would get most pastors fired but the people were reluctant to follow in those steps.
As Doug Green says, ”The reader rejoices that the restoration community has reached its goal but is left wondering how permanent that success will be.” As Nehemiah put it, will they be like Solomon and end up in exile again? Will the walls hold up – separating Jews and Gentiles? So the book leaves the reader with the challenge to complete the story by making these reforms permanent.
Indeed, Doug Green explains it this way: ”It is as if ‘To be continued’ has been written at the end of the work, challenging the original readers to make their own story a sequel in which they rise to the occasion and remove all doubts about the security and permanence of the house of God.” Our own use of the book, however, will have to be significantly different since the New Testament tears down the wall between Jews and Gentiles in Christ Jesus.