It’s worth noting that the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are not really two separate books in the original Hebrew Bible. They form one text which became split later on for no clearly discernible reason. Scholars today like to refer to them as Ezra-Nehemiah in the absence of a better alternative. Whether we think of them as two books or one, the same continuous story is being told: the return of the Israelites to their homeland after the Exile. And the same theme runs throughout: the restoration of the community and its identity in God. There are four ways this is brought out in the narrative.
The first is through physical reconstruction. Cyrus allows the Jews to return initially for the specific purpose of rebuilding and rededicating the temple of Solomon, which had been destroyed during the Babylonian invasion. Decades later, Nehemiah is sent in by another Persian king to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. This may not seem like a very symbolic task, but it actually carries with it a large amount of meaning. Walls do more than protect a city; they define boundaries for the people to say, “This is the place we live in. This is our home.” In defining those boundaries, the people are also free to nurture an identity within the niche they have carved out for themselves.
The second way identity is restored is by opposition. In both books the Jews face people (usually Persian officials) who scheme and plot to get the rebuilding projects stopped. But in Nehemiah especially, the community of Judah unites against the opposition. The possibility of violence hangs over their work: “Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each laboured on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built…So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand.” (4:17-18, 23) Being united against a common enemy is an effective path towards growing closer as a community.
The third way the text tells us of restored Jewish identity, strange though it seems, is the lists of names. There are of course many places in the Bible where such records dominate, most commonly in giving genealogies. But here the list of names (given in both Ezra and Nehemiah) has an even greater purpose. It is a census of those who have returned from the Exile. It is, in effect, their entire country. These are the people who will rebuild the community and make a fresh start. Maybe such things are boring or even meaningless to us; these people lived millennia ago, so why should we care what their names and numbers were? But names, especially in the ancient world, are important. Behind each name is a living and breathing person with thoughts and hopes and dreams and a relationship with God. All right, so I do skim over them when I read. But as I skim I think about the variety of experiences the list represents. And I think of the movie Schindler’s List, where another list of names comes to represent something beyond itself. “The list is life,” as one character puts it.
The last and most important piece of restored identity comes in Nehemiah chapters 8 to 10. Here is how it begins:
“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that [YHWH] had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law…And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed [YHWH], the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped [YHWH] with their faces to the ground. Also…the Levites helped the people to understand the Law,while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (8:1-8)
It is, of course, the restoration of the Covenant relationship with God. This is the one element of Jewish identity which ultimately defines the identity itself. Before the Exile (and in fact its very cause, according to the Bible) Israel had largely ignored God and His Law, meant to bind them fast to Himself. They were supposed to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, but developed into a country of idolaters who forgot the reasons behind all those silly rules. Now, having been through the experience of the Exile, of being removed from the promised land, they return — both physically to the land and spiritually to God. Note too how, as the Torah is read, the priests are there to interpret it for the congregation. The text is vague on the logistics of Bible study for literally tens of thousands of people, but we can assume they ask many of the same questions of interpretation and application that we do today. The cultural and historical gap between the written word and the people reading it had, by this time, certainly grown very wide indeed. But they muddle through, much as we do; they confess their sin and ask forgiveness; and they celebrate the feasts and the festivals to help them remember what God did for their ancestors. They repent. They seal the Covenant again, and another list follows of the leaders who seal it on behalf of the people. It’s a profound picture of Israel seeking to restore the purity of what is ultimately the most important part of their identity. They seek for their identity in God.
The restored community is not without its problems. The issue of intermarriage crops up again in Nehemiah, along with others, mostly to do with the administration of the temple and the sacrifices. A more serious problem involving foreigners gets a brief description, but enough to give us pause. Apparently on reading the Law and learning that because the Ammonites and Moabites denied help to Israel after the Exodus, the people decide to expel foreigners living in the land. This time there is no mention of whether they worship God or not; the text only speaks of their descent and ethnicity. A too-literal reading of the Law? A righteous attempt at eliminating idols? We’re not told. But it is clear from these last sections of Nehemiah that this new community of Israel is not perfect. This is reflected in the prayers offered by both Ezra and the people:
“But now for a brief moment favour has been shown by [YHWH] our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within His holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us some reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves…” (Ez. 9:8-9)
“Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins.” (Neh. 9:36-37)
It is important for the narrative to emphasize the continued rule of Persia through all of this. Although Israel may be allowed to return to their land, they are still under foreign authority. Though they have been preserved and saved from utter destruction, they are still not free.
And this is where the Old Testament ends. That may sound ridiculous if you look at a Bible’s table of contents, but chronologically speaking the story of the Old Testament ends with the return of Israel and the renewal of the Covenant. All the books that follow, the Wisdom literature and the Prophets, fit somewhere into the history that has already been outlined. So it’s appropriate that chapter 9 of Nehemiah includes a wonderful poetic summary of the whole story to this point, from God’s creation of the world and the deliverance from Egypt to the Exile and the Return. It is more than a summary; it tells the story of the endless dance God and Israel do, a cycle of steps from intimacy to faithlessness to renewal — life, death, and rebirth. And most of all it remembers the steadfast love of God through it all.
“Many years You bore with them and warned them by Your Spirit through Your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in Your great mercies You did not make an end of them or forsake them, for You are a gracious and merciful God.” (9:31)