The book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1)

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Ezra the priest, who is presumed to have written this book around 430 B.C., after having returned to Jerusalem with a group of Babylonian exiles in 458 B.C., also authored the book of Ezra in about 440 B.C. Originally two seperate compositions, they were combined into one book, titled Ezra, prior to A.D. 100. The oldest manuscripts of the Septuagint treated Nehemiah and Ezra as one book. Origen (ca. A.D. 185-253) was the first writer to make a distinction between the two, which he called 1 Ezra and 2 Ezra. Wycliffe’s (1382) and Coverdale’s (1535) English translations also separated the two.

Generations of Israelites after the exiles had returned from Babylon read the book of Nehemiah. Ezra clearly wanted his readers to understand what had happened in Jerusalem as the exiles returned, as well as the issues they faced and overcame in order to reestablish their covenant relationship with God. The national identity of God’s people was at stake: the community of God had to be rebuilt upon the foundation of God’s covenants with His people established many years earlier.

Continuing the historical record found in the book of Ezra, Nehemiah describes the Jews’ return from exile in Babylon and God’s continued faithfulness to His covenant people. The book’s narrative is communicated through the life of Nehemiah, who left his position as cupbearer of Artaxerxes to become governor og Jerusalem when Ezra was leading the people.

As you read, notice the key role of prayer in Nehemiah’s life, and evaluate its importance in your own life today. Imagine how the Jewish exiles must have felt as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under threats from powerful neighbours and even opposition from some fellow Jews. Reflect on why – despite what they were learning about God and Moses’ Law, as well as their participation in the covenant-renewal ceremony (Nehemiah 8-10) – the members of the Jewish remnant seemed unable or unwilling to honour their covenant with Yahweh or to maintain purity of faith.

Carefully note the challenges Nehemiah faced. Imagine his disappointment after having returned from his visit with Artaxerxes only to discover that more problems had surfaced while he had been away: neglect of the temple, Levites not being supplied with food and supplies, God’s people working on the Sabbath, men of Judah once again marrying pagan women. Follow along as he and Ezra worked to overcome these crises of national identity.

Did you know that one of the cupbearer’s duties was to choose and taste the king’s wine to make certain it was not poisoned? The need for trustworthy court attendants is underscored by the intrigues that characterized the Persian court. Xerxes, the father of ArtaxerxesI, was killed in his own bedchamber by a courtier (1:11). Did you know that the Sheep Gate was known in New Testament times as having been located near the Bethesda Pool (in the northeastern corner of Jerusalem)? Even today this area is periodically used as a sheep market (3:1). Did you know that women did not participate in ordinary meetings but were included, together with children, on sacred occasions? In one memorable instance the people stood for five or six hours, attentively listening to the reading and explanation of the Scriptures (8:2-3). Did you know that the practice of forcibly redistributing populations was also used to establish Greek and Hellenistic cities (11:1-2)?



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