NEHEMIAH, BOOK OF
A book of the Hebrew Scriptures that primarily relates events occurring shortly before and during Nehemiah’s governorship in Judah. (Ne 5:14; 13:6, 7) The opening words of this inspired account identify the writer as “Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah” (1:1), and much of it is written in the first person.
Time Covered and Time of Writing. The month of Chislev (November-December) of a certain 20th year is the reference point with which the historical narrative begins. (Ne 1:1) As is evident from Nehemiah 2:1, this 20th year must be that of Artaxerxes’ reign. Obviously, the 20th year in this case is not reckoned as starting in Nisan (March-April), for Chislev of the 20th year could not then precede Nisan (mentioned at Ne 2:1) of the same 20th year. So it may be that Nehemiah used his own count of time, reckoning the lunar year as beginning with Tishri (September-October), which month Jews today recognize as the beginning of their civil year. Another possibility is that the reign of the king was reckoned from the actual date that the monarch ascended the throne. This could be so even though the Babylonian scribes continued to reckon the years of the Persian king’s reign on their customary basis of a Nisan-to-Nisan count, as their cuneiform tablets show they did.
Reliable historical evidence and the fulfillment of Bible prophecy point to 455 B.C.E. as the year in which Nisan of the 20th year of Artaxerxes’ reign fell. (See PERSIA, PERSIANS [The Reigns of Xerxes and of Artaxerxes].) Accordingly, the Chislev preceding Nisan of that 20th year would fall in 456 B.C.E., and the 32nd year of Artaxerxes’ reign (the last date mentioned in Nehemiah [13:6]) would include part of 443 B.C.E. Therefore, the book of Nehemiah covers a period from Chislev of 456 B.C.E. until sometime after 443 B.C.E.
It was in the 32nd year of Artaxerxes’ reign that Nehemiah left Jerusalem. Upon his return, he found that the Jews were not supporting the priests and Levites, the Sabbath law was being violated, many had married foreign women, and the offspring of the mixed marriages did not even know how to speak the language of the Jews. (Ne 13:10-27) For conditions to have deteriorated to this point indicates that Nehemiah’s absence entailed a considerable period. But there is no way to determine just how long after 443 B.C.E. Nehemiah completed the book bearing his name.
Agreement With Other Bible Books. The book of Nehemiah exalts Jehovah God. It reveals him to be the Creator (Ne 9:6; compare Ge 1:1; Ps 146:6; Re 4:11), a God who answers the sincere prayers of his servants (Ne 1:11–2:8; 4:4, 5, 15, 16; 6:16; compare Ps 86:6, 7), and the Defender of his people (Ne 4:14, 20; compare Ex 14:14, 25). He is “a God of acts of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness” (Ne 9:17; compare Nu 14:18), “the God of the heavens, the God great and fear-inspiring, keeping the covenant and loving-kindness toward those loving him and keeping his commandments.”—Ne 1:5; compare De 7:9, 10, 21.
Numerous allusions to the Law are found in the book of Nehemiah. These involve the calamities to result from disobedience and the blessings to come from repentance (Le 26:33; De 30:4; Ne 1:7-9), loans (Le 25:35-38; De 15:7-11; Ne 5:2-11), marriage alliances with foreigners (De 7:3; Ne 10:30), Sabbaths, the release from debts (Ex 20:8; Le 25:4; De 15:1, 2; Ne 10:31), the altar fire (Le 6:13; Ne 10:34), the Festival of Booths (De 31:10-13; Ne 8:14-18), and the entry of Moabites and Ammonites into the congregation of Israel (De 23:3-6; Ne 13:1-3), as well as tithes, firstfruits, and contributions.—Ex 30:16; Nu 18:12-30; Ne 10:32-39.
There is also historical information in this book that is found elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. (Ne 9:7-35; 13:26; compare Ne 13:17, 18 with Jer 17:21-27.) And contemporary history in the account illustrates other Biblical passages. Psalms 123 and 129 find a historical parallel in what was experienced by Nehemiah and the other Jews in connection with their rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. (Ne 4:1-5, 9; 6:1-14) Jehovah’s causing Artaxerxes to do His will by granting Nehemiah’s request to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem historically illustrates Proverbs 21:1: “A king’s heart is as streams of water in the hand of Jehovah. Everywhere that he delights to, he turns it.”—Ne 2:4-8.
Both the book of Ezra (2:1-67) and the book of Nehemiah (7:6-69) list the number of exiles from various families or houses who returned from Babylonian exile with Zerubbabel. The accounts harmonize in giving 42,360 as the total number of Israelites who returned, apart from slaves and singers. (Ezr 2:64; Ne 7:66) However, there are differences in the numbers given for each family or house, and the individual figures in both listings yield a total of far less than 42,360. Many scholars would attribute these variations to scribal errors. While this aspect cannot be completely ignored, there are other possible explanations for the differences.
It may be that Ezra and Nehemiah based their listings on different sources. For example, Ezra could have used a document listing those who enrolled to return to their homeland, whereas Nehemiah might have copied from a record listing those who actually did return. Since there were priests who were unable to establish their genealogy (Ezr 2:61-63; Ne 7:63-65), it is not unreasonable to conclude that many of the other Israelites faced the same problem. Consequently, the 42,360 could be the combined total of the number from each family plus many others who were unable to establish their ancestry. Later, however, some may have been able to establish their correct genealogy. This could explain how a fluctuation in numbers might still give the same total.
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HIGHLIGHTS OF NEHEMIAH
Events surrounding the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the subsequent clearing out of wrong practices from among the Jews
Covers a period that begins more than 80 years after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon
Jerusalem’s walls are rebuilt in the face of opposition
In Shushan, Nehemiah learns about the ruined state of Jerusalem’s wall; he prays for Jehovah’s support, then asks the Persian monarch Artaxerxes for permission to go and rebuild the city and its wall; Artaxerxes consents (1:1–2:9)
Arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah inspects the ruined walls by night; afterward he reveals to the Jews his purpose to rebuild (2:11-18)
Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem—foreigners all—oppose the rebuilding; first they try ridicule, then they conspire to fight against Jerusalem; Nehemiah arms the workers, and they continue building (2:19–4:23)
Plots against Nehemiah himself fail, and the wall is completed in 52 days (6:1-19)
The wall is inaugurated; at the ceremony two thanksgiving choirs and processions march in opposite directions on top of the wall and meet at the temple; there is great rejoicing (12:27-43)
The affairs of Jerusalem are put in order
After the wall is completed, Nehemiah secures Jerusalem with gates and assigns duties to gatekeepers, singers, and Levites; he appoints Hanani and Hananiah to be in charge of the city (7:1-3)
Nehemiah sets out to make a genealogical record of the people; he finds the book of genealogical enrollment of those returning from Babylon with Zerubbabel; priests that cannot establish their genealogy are barred ‘until the priest with Urim and Thummim stands up’ (7:5-73)
Efforts are made to improve the spiritual condition of the Jews
Wealthy Jews agree to make restoration to their poor brothers, whom they have wrongly charged interest on loans (5:1-13)
At a public assembly, Ezra reads the Law and certain Levites share in explaining it; the people weep but are encouraged to rejoice because the day is holy; they rejoice, too, because they understand what has been read to them (8:1-12)
The next day, from their reading of the Law, the people learn about celebrating the Festival of Booths; they follow through by observing the feast with great rejoicing (8:13-18)
Next, there is a gathering during which the people confess their national sins and review Jehovah’s dealings with Israel; they also make an oath to keep the Law, to refrain from intermarriage with foreigners, and to accept obligations for maintaining the temple and its services (9:1–10:39)
Following the inauguration of the wall, there is another public reading from the Law; when they discern that Ammonites and Moabites should not be allowed into the congregation, they begin to separate “all the mixed company” from Israel (13:1-3)
After a prolonged absence, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem and finds that things have deteriorated; he cleanses the dining halls, directs that tithes be contributed for the support of the Levites and singers, enforces Sabbath keeping, and reproves those who have married foreign women (13:4-30)