Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are reading Nehemiah 3. In chapter 3, Nehemiah paused his first-person narrative and inserted an archival record of the Jerusalem wall project. The perimeter of the wall was divided into forty-one sections with a work crew assigned to each. The crews were randomly composed of families, towns, or guilds.
Though Nehemiah is buried behind the scenes in the passage, his excellent leadership and administrative skills shine through. Also, everything that took place in Chapter 3 is a direct result from the events of the proceeding narrative chapter.
Nehemiah likely hatched the plan for his approach during his secretive investigation of the walls (2:11-16). The community’s mobilization was a direct result of Nehemiah’s persuasive speech. Nehemiah encouraging the people to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall so they would “no longer suffer disgrace” (2:17). With full hearts, the people responded, “Let us start building!” (2:18). Nehemiah noted, “they committed themselves to the common good” (2:18). That spirit of camaraderie bleeds over into chapter 3’s description of the organized work effort.
According to the list, Eliashib the high priest, along with his fellow priests, initiated the work on the wall. The priests were responsible for repairing a portion of the northern wall and the Sheep Gate. The priests had the honor of first mention among the workforces, but their assignment was no more important than anyone else’s portion.
For the rest of the list, all hierarchy is thrown to the side. The priests could have argued that repairing Jerusalem’s fortifications fell outside of their job description. Instead, they set a noble example. Everyone would work on the same level, with no group given more important work than the others. Even women apparently joined the effort! Shallum, an official in Jerusalem, worked right alongside his daughters in repairing a section of the wall (3:12).
The passage starts with the priests’ work on the Sheep Gate and continues to make note of each group working along the wall’s perimeter until the list finally goes full circle back to the Sheep Gate.
The list goes around the wall counterclockwise, starting with the north wall (3:1-5), moving to the west wall (3:6-13), the southern wall (3:14-15), and spending the most time on the long east wall (3:16-32). The east wall must have been in the worst condition. The priests’ homes lined up along the city’s east wall (3:29). I suppose they had grown accustomed through the years to living among the rubble.
In total, the Jerusalem wall was only 1.5 miles long. Some portions only required reinforcement while others needed to be rebuilt from scratch. The Hebrew construction verbs used in the list switch from rebuild, reinforce, and set up. The verb choice might indicate the level of effort required for each section.
While the archival record of chapter 3 provides an overview of the whole wall project, specifics about the workers, external and internal opposition, architecture, and wall consecration are given in later chapters. The book will return to Nehemiah’s autobiographical writing style. Perhaps Nehemiah got hold of the record from the temple archives and wanted to include it in his memoir as a way of commemorating the accomplishment of all the workers. The point of including the record is not to highlight Nehemiah’s leadership but rather the contributions of the people.
A Nehemiah is listed in the record as one of the workers which could be a third-person reference to the author, but the name was common enough for that period that there is no way to be certain (3:16).
In the record, the workers were named according to the order of their section of the wall. The editor repeatedly used the phrases “next to them” or “between them” or “after them” as the list moved down the assembly line, from one adjacent group to the next. There was no overarching principle behind how the groups were divided. In some cases, the families were put in charge of the wall sections closest to their home, ensuring they felt a special sense of pride in their work. Not all the participants were even from Jerusalem; at least one party traveled in from Jericho (3:2).
While some laborers were divided by their trade, like goldsmiths and perfumers, none were specialized in construction (3:8). In past building projects in Jerusalem, skilled foreigners were hired to complete the work. Nehemiah was working with a small, weakened remnant that could not afford to outsource the job, nor did Nehemiah trust the local outsiders. He had to rely on a mix of priests, Levites, laity, and guilds (3:1,17, 28). Essentially, if you were living in the remnant of his day, you were called to the work of rebuilding! Their high motivation was rooted in their common purpose: remove Jerusalem’s shame and thereby restore Yahweh’s name among the nations.
A few of the workgroups are worth singling out for their linkage to other biblical passages. Working near the Fish Gate was a member of the House of Hakkoz (3:4). The Hakkoz family was one of two dozen priestly families who served in the First Temple (1 Chron. 24:10). After the exile, a portion of them returned with Zerubbabel in the first wave of volunteers. Somehow, they were unable to prove their priestly lineage (Ez. 2:61). While they were not allowed to serve in the Second Temple, Nehemiah provides evidence that they at least stayed in the land and contributed to the remnant.
Although Nehemiah presents a beautiful story of a unified people willing to cooperate for the greater good, there was one exception. The nobles of Tekoa apparently refused to participate because they did not want “to put their shoulders to the work of their Lord” (3:9). They were the only kink in the synergy chain, the only elite to resist involvement as if wall construction was beneath their status. The prophet Amos was from Tekoa. How ashamed the justice-fighter would have been to see the pride of the elite clouding their spirituality once again. With that said, the regular people of Tekoa made up for their stubborn nobles. They finished their first section so quickly that they also covered down on a second section (3:5, 27).
The people completed the wall construction in only 53 days (6:15). Later in Nehemiah, local enemies will criticize the quality of the wall’s construction. Nehemiah had to prioritize speed over technique, so likely the artisanship was not great. Nehemiah’s sense of urgency came from the fact that he could not be sure if the mood of the Persian king would shift again and shut down the work.
Persian favor had been withdrawn once and it could happen again (Ez. 4:7-23). In addition, Judah faced enemies on all sides who were irritated with the resurrection of the long-forgotten nation. (Sound familiar to modern times?)
The gates given proper names in the record are the Old Gate, Valley Gate, Dung Gate, Fountain Gate, Water Gate, Horse Gate, East Gate, and the Inspection Gate. Few of these gates are still identifiable today. The Sheep Gate was so named because it was near the market that sold sheep for temple sacrifices.
Pilgrims purchased a sheep and brought it through the gate to present it at the temple. The Fish Gate was connected to the fish market outside the temple. In New Testament times, the markets were the backdrop of the dramatic story in the gospels when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers to defend God’s house from “a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:12-13). The New Testament puts the Sheep Gate near the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2), the northeastern corner of the city.
Three towers are named in Nehemiah’s record: the Tower of the Hundred, the Tower of Hananel, and the Tower of the Ovens.
The workers may have been rebuilding the fortified towers constructed three hundred years prior by the ambitious good King Uzziah who took every precaution to defend the people of Judah (2 Chron. 26:9). Although the location of the towers is today unknown, the remnant’s rebuilding of the towers was a direct fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah who said, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate” (Jer. 31:38). In Jeremiah’s vision, Jerusalem would be enlarged past its original boundaries, “never again uprooted or overthrown” (Jer. 31:40). The remnant never quite met that expectation but prophecy’s near and long-range expectations are often tangled.
If you have ever heard critics of the bible’s historicity argue that there is no evidence for the First Temple or even Nehemiah’s reforms, know that they are giving you a red herring fallacy. Yes, the location of the towers has been totally lost to history and many old gates are not in evidence today. But archaeological evidence for anything in Jerusalem before the Roman period is lacking because excavating in the Old City is nearly impossible. Critical landmarks, like the towers and gates described in Nehemiah, were either destroyed in one of Jerusalem’s many sackings or they remain buried in obscurity. The problem is partially rooted in the politics of the region. Archaeology in Jerusalem is too hotly linked to every other conflicting claim to be successfully coordinated and pursued. In addition, Jerusalem remains a living modern city, not an abandoned ruin or tel. And it is difficult to excavate where people are living and driving!
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Archaeologists have general ideas of the locations of the gates listed in Nehemiah, but without excavations they cannot confirm their suspicions.
For example, Nehemiah named the royal tombs of the House of David as a landmark that would have been a common point of reference to his audience (3:16). In the time of Jesus, the location of David’s tomb was still remembered (Acts 2:29). Sometime after the Roman destruction, however, the location of the tombs was lost. If you visit the Tomb of David in Jerusalem today, you are visiting a building that dates to the 14th century CE. Perhaps the real tomb is somewhere buried right below, but it is most certainly not the one accessed by pilgrims in modern day.
When the priests finished their portion of the wall, they consecrated it (3:1). In Chapter 12, the whole wall will be consecrated. Nehemiah did not describe the means of consecration but presumably they used anointing oil while they prayed and dedicated the wall and gate as sacred to the Lord. Anointing objects and people with oil was a regular practice in the Bible, and in the ancient Near East in general.
For the Israelites, oil was not empowered with magical qualities. The act of anointing an object or a person was to set them apart as sacred. The ritual represented the transformative power of God and his special blessing over someone’s life or something’s function. Priests, kings, and prophets were anointed with oil. With the tabernacle, the tent and all its vessels and furniture were anointed with oil (Ex. 40:9-16). The process of consecrating the wall of Jerusalem and its gates reinforced Nehemiah’s message that all of Jerusalem was sacred. God chose for his name to dwell in the whole city, not just the temple.
Thank you for listening. Next week are reading Nehemiah 4. External opposition to Nehemiah’s project ramps up. The unity of the people is going to be challenged.
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