Chapter 6 completes an unlikely tale.
Against all odds, and despite the fact that generations had failed to restore Jerusalem’s physical integrity, Nehemiah’s revolutionary and organic approach completed the rebuilding project in 52 days. (6:15) Even if they worked on the Sabbaths, that is an extremely quick turnaround for a major civic works project. This is doubly so for a wartime effort that relied on community-based self-defense.
NEHEMIAH’S CAREER OPPORTUNITY (ROAD NOT TAKEN)
As the wall approached completion, the enemies attempted one last disruption. They sent an open letter accusing Nehemiah of plotting to become king (6:6-7)
This was a particularly incendiary allegation, and not just because it would deepen the conflict with Judah’s officials, who were in cahoots with the city’s occupiers (6:18).
More importantly, it was the kings who had gotten the Jews into this mess in the first place. The conquest and destruction of Jerusalem was the culmination of a central narrative thread stretching back to the people’s earliest days in the Promised Land:
The foolish introduction of kings (described so clearly in 1 Samuel 8 ) followed centuries of leadership by Judges, and it was met by God’s warning that a king was neither necessary nor God’s desire. And the introduction of kings triggered exactly the negative outcomes described in Samuel’s warning, leading eventually to the destruction of Jerusalem. If Nehemiah became king, rebuilding the wall would all be in vain.
NEHEMIAH RIDES OFF INTO THE SUNSET
Ascending to the throne also wasn’t Nehemiah’s style. Remember, the guy was a waiter.
Instead of ruling the city – or even leading it – he just sort of disappeared. He delegated governance to his brother who had first alerted him to Jerusalem’s woes, as well as a commander “who feared God more than most.”
Then he dug up an old census, inserted it nearly verbatim (compare 7:6-73 with Ezra 2) and went silent.
Other than a few words attributed to him –ambiguously and in third person (8:9-10) – Nehemiah’s memoir abruptly and unceremoniously ended.
EZRA GRABS THE PEN
It is worth remembering here that the story of Nehemiah was originally part of a larger piece of writing that also included the preceding book, Ezra. That other book was the story of how the people tried to rebuild the city within the imperial government framework.
The Ezra/Nehemiah writing is a tale of contrast: one thing succeeded where another had failed.
And Ezra was deeply tied up in that failed approach. He was chosen by the king to lead a delegation back to Jerusalem, and given power of life or death over that group. (Ezra 7:1-26). So when Ezra takes control of the narrative, we must be a little bit wary of what he has to say.
Nehemiah’s voice does return in chapter 13. But by this time he had been away for years. And it seems that both he and Jerusalem had changed. Finding things in some sort of disarray (Neh 13:4, 10, 15, 23) he responds by issuing commands (v19), threatening people with arrest (13:21) and even beating them (13: 25). He also picks up one of Ezra’s pet issues – racial purity (compare Ezra 9-10 with Neh. 13:23-27) – and proceeds to banishment (13:28).
Considering the muddled chronology of the later chapters – as well as the other signs of heavy editing – it is hard to square this ending with a story that started out so hopefully. It seems like an entirely different person than the young idealist who helped the city shine in the first half of the book.
Untangling this web is another project for another time, but for now we should make two observations:
First, whatever was going on in the second half of Nehemiah’s story, it is different than the first half. This is not to discredit the second half, but simply to point out its difference. It a different animal and not part of the story that is the focus of this exploration of Nehemian organizing.
Second, we cannot simply ignore the second half of the story. As is so often the case in scripture and elsewhere, things start off well and then go downhill. So additional work is needed to discern what was present during the rebuilding that was lacking both before and after.