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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading the Book

This book describes the work of Nehemiah ( 1, 1–7, 72 ) and the place of Torah in the restored community of Jerusalem ( 8, 1–13, 31 ).

The Rebuilding of Jerusalem (Neh 1, 1–6, 19 )

Because of the bad reports that came to the Persian imperial court from Jerusalem, the emperor Artaxerxes agreed to send Nehemiah, his cupbearer, to rebuild the city ( 1, 1–2, 8 ). There was opposition from both within and without the Judahite community to this project. Though Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, was Nehemiah's principal antagonist, opposition came from governors of other neighboring provinces as well ( 4, 1 ). They mocked Nehemiah's plans ( 2, 19f; 3, 33–37 ) and even proposed military action against Jerusalem ( 4, 1–5 ). When their criticism and plots failed to dissuade Nehemiah from his mission, they began plotting against his life ( 6, 1–14 ). There were also some elements within Judahite society that associated themselves with these plots against Nehemiah ( 6, 17–19 ). This internal opposition came from the upper classes who had a stake in maintaining the status quo. Their unjust behavior led to disturbances that hindered the task of rebuilding the city ( 5, 1–5 ). Nehemiah realized that rebuilding the city's walls was not enough to insure stability. He ordered the people of means to stop their economic abuse of the poor ( 5, 6–13 ). Despite all the opposition, Nehemiah completed the project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in just fifty‐two days ( 3, 1–32; 4, 9–17; 6, 15–19 ).

Jerusalem had been the capital of the Judahite national state. It was the location of the temple dedicated to the patron deity of that state. But the Babylonians leveled the city and its temple in 587 BC (2 Kgs 25, 10 ). Although the temple was rebuilt and Nehemiah refortified the city, the second temple was far less ornate than the one built by Solomon (Ezr 3, 12 ), and Nehemiah's walls enclosed only a fraction of the preexilic city. Jerusalem was no longer the capital of a Judahite national state. Still, it was the leading city of the Persian subprovince of Yehud. It was the center for preserving the particular worship of the Jewish community, and Persian imperial policy supported the preservation of this worship. Nehemiah's project was opposed by neighboring rulers because they saw this leading to a new economic and possibly political status for Jerusalem, which they saw as threatening their interests.

The Population of Jerusalem

Chapter 7 provides a transition from the description of Nehemiah's successful rebuilding project to the promulgation of Torah. Following the comment about the meager population of Jerusalem ( 7, 4 ), there is a repetition of the list of those who returned from Babylon ( 7, 6–72 ). This list duplicates the one found in Ezra 2, 1–67 .

The Promulgation of Torah (Neh 8, 1–13, 31 )

At this point the Nehemiah memoirs break off. Chapters 8 through 10 describe a ritual that Ezra conducts. This ceremony brings to closure both the rebuilding of the city and the reconstitution of its religious life. The community of Jerusalem heard the words of Torah ( 8, 1–12 ). It responded by celebrating the Feasts of Booths according to the prescriptions of the Torah ( 8, 13–18 ). Two weeks later the community began a fast ( 9, 1–3 ), and then Ezra made a great confession of sin in the name of the people ( 9, 6–37 ).


An important theme in both Ezra and Nehemiah is the Torah as a written authoritative guide for the life of the Jewish community. In Nehemiah 8 , Ezra reads the law. In Nehemiah 9 , the people of Jerusalem confess their failure to observe the law. In Nehemiah 10 , the people agree to live according to its precepts. Unfortunately for our understanding of these passages, too many Christians have a very distorted notion of the Torah. These distortions have arisen because of the polemical atmosphere in the Gospels that recount Jesus' debates with the Pharisees regarding the interpretation of Torah (Mt 5, 21–48; 23, 13–36 ), and the bitter exchanges between Paul and some early Christians who considered the observance of the Torah essential for all (Gal 3, 10–14 ).

Despite their disputes with those who opposed their teaching on the law, both Jesus and Paul could be effusive in their praise of the Torah: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets&Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5, 17–19 ) and “So then the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7, 12 ). Still, the word “law” has a pejorative ring to it in the ears of most Christians.

The key to understanding and appreciating the Torah is to begin with the biblical context from which it emerged. But like most theologically important words in the Hebrew Bible, the text uses the term Torah in several different ways within the Bible. There is even some dispute over the etymology of the word. Some hold that the word Torah derives from the Hebrew word yarah, which means to throw or to cast lots. Thus, the original meaning of Torah may have referred to the determination of the divine will with some sort of a lot‐oracle. In another linguistic form, yarah means to point the way, to instruct. Thus Torah may have originally derived from the instructions priests gave to the people.

In the Bible, Torah usually refers to God's instructions to Moses at Sinai that he handed on to ancient Israel. Sometimes these instructions deal with specific sacrificial laws, ethical norms, regulations dealing with purity and impurity (Lv 4, 1–7, 38; 10, 10; 11, 1–13, 59; 14, 57; 23, 44 ). In the book of Deuteronomy, Torah takes on a more comprehensive sense and becomes that which determines Israel's cultural, religious, and national identity. Torah is the written authoritative law, which is Israel's “constitution” for life in the land that was its inheritance from God (Dt 28, 61; 29, 20; 30, 10; 31, 26 ).

The books of Joshua to 2 Kings follow the lead of Deuteronomy and speak of Torah in the comprehensive sense as “the book of the Torah” (Jos 1, 7f; 1 Kgs 2, 3; 2 Kgs 23, 5 ). The prophets use the term Torah in a variety of senses. Sometimes the term refers to cultic regulations (Hos 4, 6 ); sometimes it includes God's moral commands (Is 5, 24; 30, 9 ), and ethical norms (Hb 1, 4 ). It is also divine teaching given through the prophets (Is 1, 10; 8, 16 ). Sometimes the prophets use Torah in the comprehensive sense (Jer 6, 19; 9, 12; Is 42, 21.24; Mal 3, 22 ).

The Psalms praise both the Torah and those who live by it (Pss 1, 2; 19, 8; 37, 31; 40, 9; 94, 12; 112, 1; 119, 97 ). Psalms 19 and 119 reflect the joy of ancient Israel in the Torah. Proverbs speaks of Torah as the advice of parents or a sage ( 1, 8; 3, 1; 13, 14 ). Later Jewish sages identify wisdom and the Torah (Sir 24, 1–31; 39, 1–11 ). Ezra (3, 2; 7, 6.10) and Nehemiah (8, 1; 9, 3; 10, 30; 13, 1) assume a fixed written Torah.

The early rabbis believed that they were responsible for transmitting not only the written Torah but also an oral Torah, which contained the teachings of revered sages who advanced the obligations of the law beyond the words of the written Torah, and thus made violations of the written Torah more difficult. These rabbis traced the origins of this oral Torah back to Moses (Pirke Avot, 1,1). Around AD 200, Rabbi Judah the Prince committed this oral law to writing in a work called the Mishnah. This was the beginning of the Talmud (the code of rabbinical teaching on the manner of observing the law.) Thus, in contemporary Judaism Torah refers not only to the books of Moses but to the Talmud and the entire Jewish ethical tradition.

Proverbs 1, 8and 3, 1 may provide the key to appreciating Torah. These texts speak of Torah as parental guidance for a child. The Bible often speaks of Israel as God's children (Ex 4, 22; Dt 14, 1; 32, 10–12; Hos 11, 1; Jer 31, 9.20; Is 66, 13 ). Some people then understood Torah as the teaching imparted by the parent God to the child Israel. In this light, the giving of the Torah is an act of the highest love.

Another key to appreciating the Torah is the recognition that it refers not only to the vehicle of revelation but also its entire content. Torah contains both the story of Israel's election and salvation, and the stipulations of its covenantal relationship with God. Torah then includes the story of the free acts of God that presented ancient Israel with the model of righteousness. It also includes specifications of how Israel should live in obedient response to those free acts of God. The people of ancient Israel did not experience the Torah as a burden that they had to bear with patient endurance but as the way to life and a source of joy.

In the perspective of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, obedience to the written, authoritative Torah is a condition for survival. Without careful observance Judaism is in danger of being lost in the sea of assimilation. It is assimilation that will do to the Jewish community what the exile failed to do. Thus, the Torah is Israel's life. The devotion to ethical principles, the enduring attitude of self‐examination and self‐correction that observance implies, the maintenance of identity by adherence to a moral code—all these are values that Christians could learn from Judaism, ancient and modern.

The word Torah has many meanings and reflects many different values. Perhaps only those who observe the law as an act of obedient love for God can experience its fundamental meaning. For the observant Jew it is the truth revealing God's election and salvation of Israel. It is also the way to respond to God's graciousness. It is finally the way to life. For Ezra and Nehemiah the Torah was Judah's way to the future.

The Promulgation of the Torah

The elements of the ritual found in Nehemiah 8 may have served as the model for the synagogue service that developed somewhat later in Judaism. There is the bringing of the Torah scroll ( 8, 2 ), the mounting of the platform that contains the desk for reading ( 8, 4 ), the opening of the scroll ( 8, 5 ), the blessing (v. 6a ), the communal Amen ( 8, 6b ). The “interpretation” that 8, 8 refers to may be an Aramaic translation of the Torah, which Ezra read in Hebrew. Some people may have needed an Aramaic translation of the Torah since they no longer understood Hebrew very well. Aramaic was the language common to all the peoples of the Persian empire and, since the sixth century BC, Aramaic was replacing Hebrew as the language of everyday speech in Judah.

The Confession

Nehemiah 9, 6–37 is one of the important creedal statements in the Old Testament. It recounts Israel's communal experience of God from the time of Abraham ( 9, 7 ) to the period of restoration ( 9, 33 ). The purpose of this confession of faith is to acknowledge Israel's failure to keep the commandments despite God's goodness and fidelity. It is also a remarkable act of faith in divine forbearance. There is a similar prayer of confession in Ezra 9, 7–15 . The note to Ezra 9, 7 (OT, p. 519 ) suggests that these two confessions were originally parts of the same prayer.

The Agreement of the People

Chapter 10 contains a written pledge made by those listed in verses 1b–29 to observe the Torah of Moses. As the note to 10, 1–40 (OT, p. 532) suggests, this text should come after Nehemiah 13 , which lists reforms of Nehemiah. The pledge made by the people could hardly be made before Nehemiah initiated the reforms. Among the specific points made in the pledge is the prohibition of marriage with Gentiles ( 10, 31; see 13, 20–23a ) and observance of the Sabbath ( 10, 32; see 13, 15–22 ). Those who made the pledge also promise to provide firewood for the altar ( 10, 35; see 13, 31 ), first fruits for sacrifice ( 10, 36f; see 13, 31 ), and tithes for the support of the Levites ( 10, 38–40; see 13, 10–14 ).

The Resettlement of Jerusalem

Nehemiah 11 begins with a lottery used to resettle Jerusalem ( 11, 1–3 ). Then follow lists of the inhabitants of Jerusalem ( 11, 3–24 ) and of the rural areas of Judah ( 11, 20–30 ), and of the Benjaminites ( 11, 31–36 ). Nehemiah 12 begins with lists of priests and Levites ( 12, 1–26 ). Then follows a description of the dedication of the walls ( 12, 27–43 ). The book concludes with a listing of the various reform measures begun by Nehemiah (12, 44–13, 31) , to the observance of which the people pledged themselves in Nehemiah 10 .

Ritual Purity

Like the book of Ezra (9, 1f), Nehemiah condemns mixed marriages (Neh 13, 23–29 ). These books reflect the belief that if the Jews were to survive as a people, they had to keep themselves separate from other ethnic and religious groups. An important emphasis in both books, then, is the purity of the reconstituted community. On a surface level this concern appears to be a type of ethnic discrimination. There could have been some of that at work here; however, it is important to note that this emphasis on purity concerns cult and ritual. The call of Ezra and Nehemiah for purity is a call for ritual, not ethnic, purity. Ritual purity was in some sense dependent upon ancient Near Eastern ideas of order. Mixing two peoples through marriage or in worship offends this notion of order. Exclusion of Gentiles from the cult does not come from a belief in ethnic superiority. The call for separation from others is pervasive in Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezr 4, 1–3; 6, 21; 9–10; Neh 2, 20; 3, 3; 9, 2; 10, 29; 13, 23–29 ). It is a component of the directives associated with rebuilding the Temple and in the rest of the restoration program led by both Ezra and Nehemiah.

The New Testament affirms that the Christian worship transcends these patterns. According to John, Christians worship in “Spirit and truth” (Jn 4, 23 ). Classifications based on “flesh” are no longer relevant. Paul makes it clear that in Jesus there is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3, 28 ). Matthew writes that Jesus' final command was to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28, 19 ). This insight did not occur to the first Christians automatically. The Acts of the Apostles shows that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Christian community was a matter of spirited debate among the Jewish Christians (Acts 15, 1–35 ).

The synagogue also struggled with the question of the exclusion/inclusion of the Gentiles. Some rabbis favored the more exclusive strain found in books such as Deuteronomy (Dt 23 ), Ezra, and Nehemiah. Others endorsed the more inclusive tendencies in texts such as Isaiah 56 , which stated that the Temple was to be “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56, 7 ).

The Conclusion

The last sentence of the book (“Remember this in my favor, O my God!” Neh 13, 31 ) may give an insight into the purpose of the book. This formula is similar to those attached to texts inscribed on walls of ancient Near Eastern temples. From the location of these texts within the temple, clearly those who made them were addressing the deity since only priests entered the temples themselves. This same formula, petitioning for divine remembrance, is typical of memorial inscriptions found in Jewish monumental buildings such as synagogues from a much later period. Besides being an act of piety, inclusion of this formula was probably an attempt to commend this work to its readers.

Further Reading

See 1 Chronicles and Ezra.

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