Nehemiah (the character) is introduced (at the beginning of his book even!) as an Israelite serving as the cup bearer for the king of Persia. I’m not sure how one gets to be a cup bearer for a king, but it seems like a pretty sweet position, actually, since you’re essentially part of the king’s entourage without being an advisor with responsibilities other than making sure there’s always wine for the king. Thus, the king tends to really like the cup bearer.
So Nehemiah looks sad for a couple of days, the king (Artaxerxes, aka Ar’tax-erx’-es*) asks him what’s up, and he explains that he worries about how the Israelites are doing in Jerusalem. After some questions about how long a trip there and back would take, Artaxerxes gives Nehemiah funds and permission to go over to Jerusalem and check out the situation. He inspects Jerusalem (a la undercover boss) and then inspires the workers to do more. There was a wall around the city with many gates and many people working on those gates, and they’re all named in chapter 3.
In chapter 4, however, are the neighboring city-states who are a more than a bit suspicious of the Israelite refugees fortifying their town. After some escalation, the Israelites start guarding the half-finished wall, 24-7, until it is complete
Chapter 5 is anger over taxation and whatnot. It sounds all very modern, just with unfamiliar specifics. But why should we have to pay for someone else to eat? What about our children? Is this governor better or worse than the last governor? It’s possible that the reason why I have trouble tracking this chapter is that I’m so tired of the US election arguments.
Chapter 6: The neighbors really don’t like that fortified wall.
Chapter 7: Now that the wall is built, it must now be guarded. Also, time for a census: and you’d better be able to prove your decent, because at least some people were viewed with deep suspicion for claiming to be priests but unable to prove it.***
Chapter 8: Ezra**** lectures the people about the laws, but what’s particularly interesting here is that the chapter itself doesn’t recount the laws. (thank god: Leviticus and Deuteronomy and a whole bunch of other books already took care of that) and instead was like, he read the laws and the people understood them. And then everyone celebrated. Hurrah!
Chapter 9: all the children of Israel attend Sunday school and the highpoints of the entire previous portion of the Bible are recounted in 38 verses or less.*****
So, Nehemiah 9:38 gets us caught up to actual events happening now and is a summary of chapter 10, in which, sure enough “our princes, Levites, and priests seal unto [the covenant]”. I.e, a bunch of named people agree that there are certain rules of this town that everyone has to abide by, mostly involving observing the Sabbath and giving offerings to the church.
In chapters 11 and 12, the people cast lots to see who actually gets to live in the fortified and highly-regulated city. Because all the rules live there, but only one in ten of the regular people do. And we get a list of those one in ten. There’s just no escaping intermittent lists of begats.****** Also, there’s some more celebration in dedication of the city of Jerusalem.
And then in Chapter 13 hits like a load of bricks. It’s back into first person and the narrator (Nehemiah?) is dedicated to his religion and terrible for politics and economics. Keep in mind that most of God’s laws have been previously forgotten because all the Jews were scattered into other lands, and are only now returning to Jerusalem as refugees under the Persian king’s protection. So everyone is attending Sunday school to learn the rules, and the narrator learns that God doesn’t like the Moabites, but apparently the head priest had an alliance with the Moabites and had even prepared them some diplomatic chambers to stay in. So the narrator has those chambers stripped and all of the Moabite’s possessions cast out. And then he discovers that farmers and vintners were working on the Sabbath so he testified against them. And then there were merchants and sellers who sold their goods on the Sabbath so he testified against them too. And then he discovered that some people were still marrying outside of the Jewish religion and so he smote them and plucked off their hair (13:25). And he generally makes everything worse for everyone and expects praise from god for this cleansing.
Summary: These refugees have their new city with their fortified wall but they’re pretty plagued by outsiders being suspicious and insiders forcing them to obey strict religious law.
Moral: If you’re the friend of the King of Persia, you can get support in being an incredible busy-body.
* The King James translation uses a lot of hyphens and apostrophes in the names of various people. Artaxerxes is written as Ar’tax-erx’-es, Nehemiah, the titular character of this book, is written as Ne-he-mi’-ah. And there are plenty of other names with similar presentations: San-bal’-lat, Za’-dok, Me-ron’-o-thite, etc. I’m not sure what the apostrophe stands for, but I’m assuming at this point that the dashes are between syllables. So, it’s essentially a little pronunciation guide that also makes the names look just that much more foreign to my poor sheltered eyes. It feels very disconcerting, though, since I’d previously considered it a sci-fi/fantasy trope to make alien names using excess punctuation and random letter mash-ups. It feels very unexpected to see it happen in the Bible. From my perspective a name has a one-punctuation-mark maximum limit before it looks like it’s trying too hard.**
** If there’s any reader out there with a first name with more than one punctuation mark in it, let me know that I might learn something, but I’m going to want to know the story behind your name and its spelling.
*** They were considered “polluted” and didn’t get to eat the holy food of the priesthood unless and until they can prove they’re actually priests. (Nehemiah 7:64-5)
**** Introduced previously as the moral law scholar that the King of Persia was asshole enough to inflict upon the refugees trying to settle. Now the refugees have to try and learn and abide by all the laws of a very specific god.
***** Seriously? Yes, seriously. If you want a children’s book version of the pervious parts of the bible, just read Nehemiha 9:6-38
****** Although, kind of cool is the fact that some of the begats include professions as well as lineages (although I’m fairly sure their hereditary professions, so there’s that). The professions include, but are not limited to: those who had oversite of the outward business of the house of god (11:16), porters and keepers of the gate (11:19), singers (11:22), those given to praise and give thanks (12:24), those with the musical instruments (12:36)
Next up: Esther