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 studying Nehemiah 7. The chapter has only six verses of narrative development before launching into a lengthy genealogical record. Admittedly, the list is rather boring, but thankfully the narrative section gives us plenty to unpack.
In 445 BCE, after 52 days of nonstop construction, the Jerusalem fortifications were complete, and the workers set the doors in their gates. Chapter 7 begins with a reiteration of the workers’ accomplishment that was already stated in the previous chapter but certainly worth noting again (6:15; 7:1).
For many years, biblical historians wondered if anything was left of Nehemiah’s fortifications in Jerusalem. For example, Hezekiah’s building projects still have a heavy archaeological footprint. Tourists pass by Hezekiah’s broad wall and through his tunnel every day. As for Nehemiah, historians assumed nothing remained of his fortifications since according to the Bible, they had poorly constructed it in the first place.
During the height of Nehemiah’s construction boom, Tobiah mocked the workers, saying “that stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (4:3). Throughout the last 1500 years, Jerusalem was the repeated target of enemies much more destructive than foxes. Logic had it that by modern times, Nehemiah’s wall was nothing more than dispersed rubble.
In 2007, the late Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar worked on a salvage excavation to stop Jerusalem’s Northern Tower from collapsing. Mazar had been excavating around Jerusalem for years. She was a recognized expert on Jerusalem pottery and the city’s material remains. To secure the Northern Tower, Mazar excavated its foundations and a nearby straight section of the city wall which appeared to be part of the same edifice. During the process, Mazar made an important discovery that the tower and wall were classified incorrectly as Hasmonean, but they belonged to the fifth century BCE. All the pottery findings from the excavation definitively pointed to the Persian period.
In her published findings Mazar made a convincing argument for re-dating the wall and tower to 450 BCE, the time of Nehemiah. While the wall and tower are solid structures, Mazar observed they were hastily constructed, especially compared to earlier and later wall sections. The poor craftsmanship of the wall and tower were exactly what one would expect based on the narrative of Nehemiah. These were not foreign workers or expert engineers that built the wall. It was a collaboration of Judean laypeople taking time away from their farms to fortify Jerusalem as quickly as possible and protect the city from hostile neighboring nations.
Although Mazar was not religious by orthodox Jewish standards, she insisted the Bible was a historically informative document that illuminated her archaeological work. She once explained her methods, “I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other, and I try to consider everything.” Her discovery of Nehemiah’s fortifications perfectly showed the logic to her scientific approach.
While the quick completion of Nehemiah’s wall project was a miracle, he understood that walls and gates were not the only keys to safety in the capital. With both external and internal enemies plotting against him, Nehemiah could not let his guard down. Also, Nehemiah did not want to lose the momentum of progress. While he still had the attention and loyalty of most of the population, he took additional security measures to protect the capital.
Nehemiah appointed the temple gatekeepers, singers, and Levites as watchmen on Jerusalem’s gates (7:1). It was not normal for the temple personnel to extend their sanctuary duties to the city wall. However, the gatekeepers of the temple had experience with managing the gates of the temple courts and keeping a rotating guard to watch over the temple. Nehemiah intended to organize a security force for the entire city on a similar rotating calendar. The diversion of temple workers was only temporary until Nehemiah could lineup lay leaders.
Next, Nehemiah placed two men in command of coordinating Jerusalem’s security: Hanani and Hananiah. The names are so similar that it could be the same person, but accidentally recorded with two different name spellings. Names and numbers were vulnerable to scribal error in the practice of bringing oral traditions to text. Still, most commentaries assume Nehemiah indeed appointed two men with similar sounding names.
Hananiah took charge of the citadel which housed the Persian garrison, most likely to the north of the temple. Nehemiah selected his brother, Hanani, as commander over Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s enemies may have accused him of nepotism in hiring his brother, but Nehemiah cited the faith of his commanders as the most important credential in their selection. He described his brother as “a faithful man and feared God more than many” (7:2). In the postexilic community, Israel’s leaders rose to their positions organically—based on their faith, reputation, and abilities—rather than through bloodlines. The brother duo of Hanani and Nehemiah recalls another successful duo in Israel’s history, Aaron and Moses.
In Chapter 6, we learned Tobiah embedded double agents within Judah who worked covertly against Nehemiah. Priests and false prophets were apparently on Tobiah’s payroll, willing and ready to undermine Nehemiah and break his hold on leadership. With so much disunity in the citizenry, Nehemiah prioritized loyalty in his leadership selection. He needed a security commander who he trusted bone deep. Since blood is thicker than water, his brother was a logical candidate.
Hanani loved and cared for Jerusalem. He deserves the credit for convincing Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem. It was only after Hanani traveled to Susa and told Nehemiah the terrible news of Jerusalem’s fate that he left his role as cupbearer to restore Jerusalem’s dignity (1:1-4).
Per Nehemiah’s instruction, the commanders were to “appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their watch posts, and others before their own houses” (7:3). The Hebrew in Verse 3 is difficult to interpret, but it had something to do with guidelines for managing gate traffic. Nehemiah wanted to take more precautions regarding the gates’ open and close times. He wanted the guards to be vigilante 24 hours a day, but he understood that at the hottest part of the day, the guards got sleepy and were less alert. Rather than skimp on afternoon security, Nehemiah ordered the gate shut and barred during the siesta hours (7:3). With a shortage of gatekeepers, he needed them ready and alert for their nighttime role.
Since Nehemiah’s arrival, the wall had taken all his time and attention. Inside the city walls, homes were nonexistent or in disrepair ever since the Babylonian invasion. Nehemiah vented “the city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been built” (7:4). During the construction of the wall, builders journeyed in from nearby Judean towns and camped inside the city for the duration of the project. When they returned home to their fields and families, the city seemed deserted.
To Nehemiah, there was no point in rebuilding the wall if Jerusalem remained sparsely populated. Likewise, the city had no hope of ever being repopulated without the protection of a city wall. It was as if Jerusalem was a neighborhood undergoing the inherent contradictions of gentrification before gentrification was even a concept. Nehemiah wanted the restored city to once again be a thriving bustling capital, like it had been in the preexilic past. He could not accomplish that ideal until the people living in the countryside thought of Jerusalem as a safe attractive option. Building the wall was the first step toward incentivizing relocation. If Nehemiah was building Jerusalem’s Zillow overview, he wanted to add “neighborhood watch” and “gated neighborhood” to the list of amenities.
Nehemiah called a national assembly so he could sort out the business of registering and organizing Judah’s population. He clarified that the prompting to investigate the nation’s ancestry came from God and was not the product of his personal agenda. He wrote, “my God put it into my mind to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy” (7:5). Nehemiah explained the origin of the idea because the last time a Judean leader held a census, God did not see it favorably!
Centuries before, King David held a census to puff up his own pride and the act severely angered God. In that instance, the Bible noted Satan put the idea in David’s head, unlike Nehemiah who got his idea from God (1 Chron. 21:1).
While Nehemiah desperately wanted the city repopulated, it was not an open invitation to all. Nehemiah needed to sus out the disloyal and restore unity. Fortuitously, he found the original record of the first wave of returnees in the time of Cyrus. Eighty years earlier, a Judean official must have tucked it away in the temple archives. Determining the land assignments of families and their affiliations was part of Nehemiah’s repopulation campaign for Jerusalem. The record gave him a starting point for finding out which family units had homes in the capital. At the very least, he hoped to bring back into the city those original Judahite and Benjamite families.
One of the most obvious differences in the two accounts is that Nehemiah gave a much fuller inventory of the people’s donations to the temple. Ezra summarized the total offering whereas Nehemiah inventoried the individual offerings. The record of donations boggles the mind: gold, silver, and priestly robes. The silver donations alone would have been the equivalent of 5,000 pounds of silver. That would have taken a lot of donkeys from Babylon!
The list in Nehemiah 7 is a repeat of the genealogical record in Ezra 2 with minor differences in numbers, name spelling, and grouping. Overall, Nehemiah’s record is clearer and more thorough than the version in Ezra 2. Most likely, Nehemiah 7 is not a copy of Ezra 2 but they each compiled their list using the same original source document.
For my commentary on specific details of notable names in the list, go back to the episode on Ezra 2. I won’t repeat it here.
The story of the repopulation project pauses narratively and picks up again in Chapter 11. By that point, Nehemiah took more forceful measures in recruiting families to Jerusalem. He will eventually need to return to the Persian king in Susa and he is not willing to leave the capital deserted. Next week we are reading Nehemiah 8 with Ezra the scribe reappearing as our special guest. Nehemiah recruited Ezra to bring the Torah back to the front and center and restore the people spiritually.
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