Nehemiah, cupbearer for the Persian emperor Artaxerxes (r. 465-424) in the capital city of Susa, hears of the difficulties facing his fellow Jews in Jerusalem. By the grace of Yahweh and permission of the emperor, he goes there in 445 (Nehemiah 1-2).
Strong local Olympian leaders oppose the establishment of a vibrant Jewish community in Jerusalem. For the Jewish community to gain strength against this opposition, Nehemiah sees it first needs to rebuild the city’s walls. He immediately sets men to the task.
These hostile local leaders threaten the builders with death. Nehemiah responds by praying to Yahweh and commanding half the workers to stand guard while the other half continues to build the wall. He even has the builders carry weapons (chs. 3-4). In 52 days they finish construction of an adequate wall.
Not all opposition comes from hostile non-Jews. Stronger members of the Jewish community itself take advantage of their economically weaker neighbors. Nehemiah scolds them for driving their fellow Jews into debt by charging interest. Ashamed, the creditors return orchards, vineyards, fields, houses, oil, wine, and grain to those who had lost them (ch. 5).
Nehemiah organizes a great assembly of leaders and people. Ezra, priest and scribe, reads the law of Moses while others interpret it. When the people hear the Law, they weep. Nehemiah explains to them the day is holy, a cause for celebration and not lamentation, and sends them home to feast and remember “the joy of Yahweh is your strength” (8:10).
With the city of Jerusalem protected by a wall, houses need to be rebuilt and the city repopulated. Nehemiah assembles elders and people to count how many individuals he has to work with (ch. 7). Then leaders of the Jewish community, plus one in ten people living in surrounding towns chosen by lot, settle in Jerusalem (ch. 11).
After 12 years as governor in Judah, Nehemiah reports back to Artaxerxes in 433.
When Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem in 431, he finds loyalty to Yahweh has slipped in his absence. Olympians within the Jewish community have gained the upper hand. They have even given an enemy of Nehemiah an apartment in the Temple of Yahweh itself (13:4-9). The community has been neglecting to give the Levites their portions so they can attend to their tasks at the Temple (vs. 10-14), people have been working on the Sabbath (vs. 15-22), and Jewish men have been marrying Olympian women (vs. 23-27). Nehemiah puts an end to each of these practices (vs. 30-31).
He concludes his ministry in Jerusalem and returns permanently to Susa in 424 following the death of Artaxerxes.
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