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Book of Nehemiah

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Also called the second Book of Esdras (Ezra), is reckoned both in the Talmud and in the early Christian Church, at least until the time of Origen, as forming one single book with Esdras, and St. Jerome in his preface (ad Dominionem et Rogatianum), following the example of the Jews, still continues to treat it as making one with the Book of Esdras. The union of the two in a single book doubtless has its origin in the fact that the documents of which the Books of Esdras and Nehemiah are composed, underwent compilation and redaction together at the hands probably, as most critics think, of the author of Paralipomenon about B.C. 300. The separation of the Book of Nehemiah from that of Esdras, preserved in our editions, may in its turn be justified by the consideration that the former relates in a distinct manner the work accomplished by Nehemiah, and is made up, at least in the great part, from the authentic memoirs of the principal figure. The book comprises three sections:

Sections I and III will be treated first, and section II, which raises special literary problems, will be discussed at the end.

Section 1: chapters 1-6

(1) comprises the account, written by Nehemiah himself, of the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem. Already in the reign of Xerxes (B. C. 485-65), and especially during the first half of the reign of Artaxerxes I (B. C. 465-24), the Jews had attempted, but with only partial success, to rebuild the walls of their capital, a work, up to then, never sanctioned by the Persian kings (see Ezra 4:6-23). In consequence of the edict of Artaxerxes, given in I Esd., iv, 18-22, the enemies of the Jews at Jerusalem forcibly stopped the work (ibid., 23) and pulled down a part of what had already been accomplished.

(2) With these events the beginning of the Book of Nehemiah is connected. Nehemiah, the son of Helchias, relates how, at the court of Artaxerxes at Susa where he fulfilled the office of the king's cup-bearer, he received the news of this calamity in the twentieth year of the king (Nehemiah 1), and how, thanks to his prudence, he succeeded in getting himself sent on a first mission to Jerusalem with full powers to rebuild the walls of the Jewish capital (Nehemiah 2:1-8). This first mission lasted twelve years (v, 14; xiii, 6); he had the title of Perah (v, 14; xii, 26) or Athersatha (viii, 9; x, 1). It had long been the opinion of most historians of Israel that the Artaxerxes of Nehemiah was certainly the first of that name, and that consequently the first mission of Nehemiah fell in the year B.C. 445. The Aramaic papyri of Elephantine, recently published by Sachau, put this date beyond the shadow of a doubt. For in the letter which they wrote to Bahohim, Governor of Judea, in the seventeenth year of Darius II (B. C. 408), the Jewish priests of Elephantine say that they have also made an application to the sons of Sanaballat at Samaria. Now Sanaballat was a contemporary of Nehemiah, and the Artaxerxes of Nehemiah, therefore, was the predecessor, and not the successor, of Darius II.

(3) On his arrival at Jerusalem, Nehemiah lost no time; he inspected the state of the walls, and then took measures and gave orders for taking the work in hand (ii, 9-18). Chapter iii, a document of the highest importance for determining the area of Jerusalem in the middle of the fifth century B.C., contains a description of the work, carried out at all points at once under the direction of the zealous Jewish governor. The high priest Eliasib is named first among the fellow workers of Nehemiah (iii, 1). To bring the undertaking to a successful termination the latter had to fight against all sorts of difficulties.

(4) First of all, the foreign element had great influence in Judea. The Jews who had returned from captivity almost a century before, had found the country partly occupied by people belonging to the neighbouring races, and being unable to organize themselves politically, had seen themselves reduced, little by little, to a humiliating position in their own land. And so, at the time of Nehemiah, we see certain foreigners taking an exceedingly arrogant attitude towards the Jewish governor and his work. Sanaballat the Horonite, chief of the Samaritans (iv, 1, 2), Tobias the Ammonite, Gossem the Arabian, claim to exercise constant control over Jewish affairs, and try by all means in their power, by calumny (ii, 19), scoffs (iv, 1 ff), threats of violence (iv, 7 ff), and craft (vi, 1 ff), to hinder Nehemiah's work or ruin him. The reason of this was that the raising up again of the walls of Jerusalem was destined to bring about the overthrow of the moral domination, which for many years circumstances had secured for those foreigners.

(5) The cause of the foreigners was upheld by a party of Jews, traitors to their own nation. The prophet Noadias and other false prophets sought to terrify Nehemiah (vi, 14); there were some who, like Samaia, allowed themselves to be hired by Tobias and Sanaballat to set snares for him (vi, 10-14). Many Jews sided with Tobias on account of the matrimonial alliances existing between his family and certain Jewish families. Nehemiah, however, does not speak of the mixed marriages as if they had been actually forbidden. The father-in-law of Tobias' son, Mosollam, the son of Barachias, on the contrary, was a fellow worker of Nehemiah (vi, 18; iii, 4). The law of Deuteronomy only forbade marriages between Jews and Chanaanites (Deut. vii, 1, 3).

(6) Difficulties of a social nature, the result of the selfish treatment of the poor by the rich, who misused the common distress for their own ends, likewise called for the energetic intervention of Nehemiah (v). On this occasion Nehemiah recalls the fact that previous governors had practised extortion, while he was the first to show himself disinterested in the discharge of his duties (v, 15 ff).

(7) In spite of all these difficulties the rebuilding of the wall made rapid progress. We learn from vii, 15 that the work was completely finished within fifty-one days. Josephus (Ant., V, 7, 8) says that it lasted two years and four months, but his testimony, often far from reliable, presents no plausible reason for setting aside the text. The relatively short duration of the work is explained, when we consider that Nehemiah had only to repair the damage wrought after the prohibition of Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:23), and finish off the construction, which might at that moment have been already far advanced [see above (1)].

Section 3: chapter 13:4 to chapter 31)

After the expiration of his first mission, Nehemiah had returned to Susa in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes (B. C. 433; 13:6). Some time after, he was charged with a fresh mission to Judea, and it is with his doings during this second mission that xiii, 4-31 is concerned. The account at the beginning seems mutilated. Nehemiah relates how, at the time of his second arrival at Jerusalem, he began by putting an end to the abuses which Tobias, the Ammonite, supported by the high priest Eliasib, was practising in the temple in the matter of the depository for the sacred offerings (xiii, 4-9). He severely blames the violation of the right of the Levites in the distribution of the tithes, and takes measures to prevent its occurrence in future (xiii, 10-14); he insists on the Sabbath being strictly respected even by the foreign merchants (xiii, 15-22). Finally he dealt severely with the Jews who were guilty of marriages with strange wives, and banished a grandson of Eliasib who had married a daughter of Sanaballat (xiii, 23-28). To this son-in-law of Sanaballat is generally attributed the inauguration of the worship in the temple of Garizim. It is plain that Nehemiah's attitude during his second mission with regard to mixed marriages differs greatly from his attitude at the beginning of his first stay in Jerusalem [see section I, (5)].

Section 2: chapters 7 to 13:3

(1) contains accounts or documents relating to the work of politico-social and religious organization effected by Nehemiah, after the walls were finished. Here we no longer have Nehemiah speaking in the first person, except in vii, 1-5, and in the account of the dedication of the walls (xii, 31, 37, 39). He relates how, after having rebuilt the walls, he had to proceed to erect houses, and take measures for bringing into the town a population more in proportion to its importance as the capital (vii, 1-5; cf. Sirach 49:15).

(2) He gives (vii, 5 ff.) the list of the families who had returned from captivity with Zorobabel. This list is in I Esd., ii. It is remarkable that in the Book of Nehemiah, following on the list we find reproduced (vii, 70 ff.) with variants, the remark of I Esd., ii, 68-70 about the gifts given towards the work of the temple by Zorobabel's companions, and the settlement of these latter in the country; and again that Neh., viii, 1 resumes the narrative in the very words of I Esd., iii. This dependence is probably due to the redactor, who in this place gave a new form to the notes supplied him by the Jewish governor's memoirs which also explains the latter's being spoken of in the third person, Neh., viii, 9.

(3) There is a description of a great gathering held in the seventh month under the direction of Nehemiah (viii, 9-12) at which Esdras reads the Law (viii, 13). They then kept the Feast of Tabernacles (viii, 13-18). When this feast is over, the people gather together again on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month (ix, 1 ff.) to praise God, confess their sins, and to bind themselves by a written covenant faithfully to observe their obligations. Chapter X after giving the list of the subscribers to the covenant, sets forth the obligations, which the people bind themselves to fulfil; in particular the prohibition of mixed marriages (verse 30); the keeping of the Sabbath, especially in their treatment of foreign merchants (verse 31), the yearly tribute of a third part of a sicle for the Temple (verse 32), and other measures to ensure the regular celebration of sacrifices (verses 33-34), the offering of the firstfruits and of the first born (verses 35-37), and the payment and the distribution of the tithes (verses 35-39). After chapter x it is advisable to read xii, 43-xiii, 1-3; the appointment of a commission for the administration of things brought to the Temple, and the expulsion of foreigners from among the community. Chapter xi, 1, 2, recalls the measures taken to people Jerusalem; verses 3-36 give the census of Jerusalem and of other towns as Nehemiah's measures left it. In chapter xii, 27-43, we have the account of the solemn dedication of the walls of Jerusalem; Esdras the scribe is mentioned as being at the head of a group of singers (verse 35). The list in xii, 1-26, has no connexion whatever with the events of this epoch.

(4) The proceedings set forth in viii-x are closely connected with the other parts of the history of Nehemiah. The obligations imposed by the covenant, described in x, have to do with just the very matters with which Nehemiah concerned himself most during his second stay (see above, section III). The regulation concerning the providing of the wood for the altar (x, 34) is recalled by Nehemiah in xiii, 31, and the very words used in x, 39 (end of verse), we find again in xiii, 11. The covenant entered into by the people during Nehemiah's first mission was broken in his absence. At the time of his second mission he put down the abuses with severity. For instance, the attitude he takes towards mixed marriages is quite different from his attitude at the beginning of his first stay [see above section I (5); section III]. This change is explained precisely by the absolute prohibition pronounced against these marriages in the assembly described in ix-x. The view has been put forward that viii-x gives an account of events belonging to the period of the organization of worship under Zorobabel, the names of Nehemiah (viii, 9; x, 1) and Esdras (viii, 1 ff.) having been added later. But there was certainly sufficient reason for the reorganization of worship in the time of Nehemiah (cf. the Book of Malachi and Nehemiah 13). Others on the contrary would regard Neh., viii-x, as the sequel to the narrative of I Esdras, ix-x, and they likewise hold that Nehemiah's name has been interpolated in Neh., viii, 9, and x, 1. This theory is equally untenable. It is true that in the Third Book of Esdras (the Greek I Esdras) the narrative of Neh., viii, is reproduced immediately after that of Esdras, ix-x; but the author of the Third Book of Esdras was led to do this by the fact that Neh., viii, presents his hero as reader of the Law. He has moreover preserved (III Ezra 9:50) the information of Neh., viii, 9, about the intervention of the Athersatha (Nehemiah), Esdras' superior, which clearly proves that this account does not refer to the epoch when Esdras had returned to Jerusalem entrusted by the king with full powers for the administration of the Jewish community. See, moreover, the following paragraph.

(5) according to our view the return of Esdras with his emigrants and the reform effected by him (Ezra 7-10) ought, chronologically, to be placed after the history of Nehemiah, and the Artaxerxes, in the seventh year of whose reign Esdras returned to Jerusalem, is Artaxerxes II (B. C. 405-358). As a matter of fact, Esdras finds the wall of Jerusalem rebuilt (Ezra 9:9), Jerusalem well populated (x, 1 ff.), the Temple treasure under proper management (viii, 29 ff.), Jonathan, son of Eliasib, high priest (10:6; cf. Nehemiah 12:23, Hebrew text), and the unlawfulness of mixed marriages recognized by every one (ix, 1 ff.). The radical reform, which Esdras introduced in this matter without being troubled by foreigners who still held the upper hand at the time of Nehemiah's first coming, definitively put an end to the abuse in question which had proved rebellious to all preventive measures (x). The politics and social situation described in the first six chapters of Nehemiah [see above, section I (4), (5), (6)], the religious situation to which the proceedings of the gathering in Neh., x, bear witness [see above, section II (3)], do not admit of being explained as immediately following after the mission of Esdras, who particularly, in virtue of the king's edict, disposed of very valuable resources for the celebration of worship (Ezra 7-8:25 ff.). Esdras is again entirely unnoticed in Neh., i-vi, and in the list of the subscribers to the covenant (x,1 ff.). He is mentioned in Neh., viii, 1 ff., and in xii, 35, as fulfilling subordinate functions. Considering the singular number of the verbs in Neh., viii, 9, 10, it is probable that in the former of these two verses "Esdras and the Levites" being named as part of the subject of the phrase is due to a later hand. At the epoch of Nehemiah, therefore, Esdras was at the beginning of his career, and must have gone a little later to Babylonia, whence he returned at the head of a band of emigrants in the seventh year of Artexerxes II (B. C. 398).

(6) Many critics have maintained that in Neh., viii, we have the history of the first promulgation of the "Priestly Code" by Esdras, but the narrative in question does not authorize such an interpretation. Esdras was probably still a very young man at this time, and all he does is to read the Law before the assembled people. It is quite true that in I Esd., vii, there is made mention in the royal edict of the Law of his God which Esdras has in mind (verse 14), but besides the fact that we hold the events related in I Esd., vii, to be posterior to Neh., viii [see above (5)], these words must not be understood literally of a new document of which Esdras was the bearer. In the same terms mention is made of the wisdom of his God which Esdras has in mind (verse 25), and in this same passage it is supposed that Esdras' compatriots already know the Law of their God.

About this page

APA citation. Van Hoonacker, A. (1911). Book of Nehemiah. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Van Hoonacker, Albin. "Book of Nehemiah." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Sean Hyland.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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