The Bible was not written for us. We are too literal to embrace a literary collection full of impossible stories: The Flood. Three days in a fish. Life after death.
None of these events are possible in our scientific world. Therefore, many dismiss the Bible entirely. Or at least we hold it as a generally true history spiked with impossible yarns.
Even the less-impossible stories in the Bible often involve visions or voices of the sort that will get a person medicated nowadays. How many Ezekiels might be rotting away in a psych ward somewhere, doped up to the point they can’t remember what God is telling them? The smart seers have learned by now that they should keep their visions to themselves.
But back in biblical days, people were open to the supernatural to the point that impossible events could be written into the national history.
It would be as though we taught our children that a revived General Washington rode a fiery steed back into the city that now bears his name, routing the Brits after they burned our capitol in 1814.
We moderns just don’t buy that sort of tall tale. So the supernatural is safely slipped into the category of “miracles,” disbelieved and generally ignored by the mainstream. Because the Bible is loaded with the supernatural, the whole thing is suspect.
But tucked away amidst all the impossibilities is a story that is improbable. It is one of the Bible’s more obscure books and I believe it is mainly ignored because it is so deeply subversive. It could have happened, and if it did we must change our ideas about power dramatically.
The memoirs of Nehemiah tell how Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt in 52 days, after generations of ruin during the Exile to Babylon. After many years of disappointing work within the System, grassroots organizing finally delivered the goods.
It’s hard to know where to put this story.
The story of Nehemiah is a religious story, but one that should be of interest to all people regardless of what they think of the entity or phenomenon commonly known as “God.” We might all learn a thing or two from this story, and open the way for fortuitous events of the sort that biblical authors attributed to God’s grace.
Nehemiah’s story provides a manual for the revival of a city. It is an ancient story with urgent application in the modern world. It shows how God moves when God isn’t parting the waters.
This story has not a whiff of the supernatural. Rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem in less than two months is pretty unlikely. Even worse, the project was conceived and led by a regular Joe with no relevant experience.
But this yarn is well within the realm of exaggeration. Maybe it took a few months, and maybe it took a year or two. But in any case the effort was made by the hands of self-organizing people; no angels were reported to join the work crews. So where was God in this story?
Hearing From “God”
Nehemiah got the news that changed his life through a very mundane channel: His brother showed up with some guys from Judah, who reported that, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh 1:3)
When he hears of Jerusalem’s sorry state, Nehemiah responds in a prayerful and clearly religious way. He resolved to God that he would ask the king for help.
But it isn’t clear that Nehemiah ever heard back from God. The heavens did not part. There were no angels and trumpets. The Lord apparently never spoke to Nehemiah, at least not according to the man’s own telling of his story.
And you’d think he’d mention if God did respond. This is the Bible, right?
Perhaps because of the lack of response to his prayer, Nehemiah didn’t spring into action like Jonah from that puddle of whale vomit. Jonah could have had no doubt of who was telling him to get up and go, nor that there would be severe consequences for further delay. Not so for Nehemiah, who had no obvious Sign to retrace Jonah’s steps back to the homeland – or else.
So Nehemiah certainly didn’t drop everything in his rush to obey his calling. He knew he had an opportunity due to his access to power as the king’s food taster, a trusted but expendable aide whose duty was essentially to detect poison. Nehemiah had resolved to make use of his opportunity, but then he just kept clocking in and clocking out. Nehemiah did nothing. For months.
Truly, he was an ordinary guy. How many of us, religious or otherwise, have had this experience of knowing what we have to do, and just not getting around to doing it? I know I have.
And so it went from late fall until springtime. Then, all of a sudden, Nehemiah got shook up. Something rattled his cage to the point that his boss noticed.
Perhaps he had a really bad dream. Perhaps he crossed paths with some street prophet (i.e. madman) bellowing, “The gates have burned! Why are you still here?” Maybe it wasn’t a prophet. Maybe it was just a beggar muttering on the street. Maybe there’s no difference.
Or maybe that prophet only needed to shoot him a disapproving glance. Maybe that was all he needed to collapse under the burden of calling he’d been carrying around for months.
In any case, once again, there is a conspicuous absence of the supernatural.
“God” is Moving
From start to finish, this story’s bona fides are not in explicit encounters with a personalized deity – “God” shows up through the unlikely but still completely possible success rebuilding the wall. God is in the results.
Amidst this story about God’s quiet movement are tantalizing glimpses of what it looks like for people to serve as the hands and feet of the divine impulse, in the face of great adversity. For example:
They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”
Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”
Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”
Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”
When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work. (4:9-15, emphasis mine)
Change the word “God” if you need to. I know. It’s a loaded word.
In the modern context we might talk about some sort of collective motivation of the sort that gave spark and strength to the Civil Rights Movement. We need not believe in (impossible) miracles to appreciate the grit and grace that went into that struggle. Rosa Parks worked a miracle.
Is it really any different if people are moved by God, than if they just believe they are being moved by God?
Where is “God” Now?
The supernatural doesn’t really happen in our time and place, so we breathe a sigh of relief that we are off the hook. God must not want anything from us. We are OK.
But we are not OK. The forces of darkness are in control. They are going to get us all killed if we don’t change directions. Wealth concentration and ecological devastation will eventually tear us apart, just like in the Bible’s great catastrophes. (see Ezekiel 16:49-50)
In scripture, God showed up at key moments to give a gentle nudge or a hard shove. So what if we believe in a God that gives specific instructions to us in this key moment of looming economic and environmental calamity? What might those instructions be? How could we identify them?
The problem is overwhelming, but we can do almost nothing about almost all of it. So why not start where the Problem is most clear and immediate?
Let’s each find a location – a specific physical location – where we feel God (or whatever we want to call whomever/whatever we hold highest) speaking to us. Where is a spot in your community where reality and your ideal are in greatest conflict? Look for God there.
I’ve recently returned to my hometown of Sacramento, and one spot in particular –the south side of J Street, midway between 10th and 11th – fills me with the strong sense of instruction: “Start here,” it seems to say.
In my next post I’ll sketch a picture of a city whose walls have fallen and gates have been burned, in hopes it might help spark a vision for our own rebuilding project.