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Commentary: Nehemiah 13
13:1–3 […] Here as earlier, the separation is justified in relation to Torah observance, now explicitly in connection with a public reading of Deut 23:3–5—with its references to Ammonite and Moabite exclusion on the basis of an association with Balaam.[…] If, as we tentatively suggest below, this invocation of Deut 23 and commitment on the part of the community reflect their own diagnosis of the problem during Nehemiah’s return visit to Jerusalem but prior to the dedication of the wall, the events narrated in these verses report the final acts of the community in Nehemiah’s narrative, even if those narrated in Neh 13 are the final ones to be reported.
13:4–9 Nehemiah’s account of the problems that he found on his return and the actions he took begins with his eviction of Tobiah. […] Assuming this Tobiah to be Nehemiah’s inveterate opponent last encountered in Neh 6, Nehemiah’s cause for concern is entirely understandable. Quite apart from the misuse of the temple’s estate, Tobiah’s presence at the heart of the community’s sacred space seems likely to have been an attempt to integrate Jewish concerns within the wider network of Ammonite, Moabite, and Samarian interests. That this could happen at all is then excused by Nehemiah with reference to his absence from Jerusalem (13:6–7), which lasted long enough for the return trip and the passing of “some time” (lit., “the end of the days”) in the Persian court. Whether the brevity of Nehemiah’s absence is meant to heighten the sense of Tobiah’s impropriety, Nehemiah’s outraged response (“very angry”; 13:8) leads to the apparently immediate and unceremonious ejection of Tobiah’s offending furnishings from the room. The room’s purification and the restoration of its rightful contents (“vessels,” “grain offering,” and “frankincense”) complete Nehemiah’s decisive intervention on this front.
13:10–13 Next Nehemiah discovers that the collection of the Levitical tithe, the system for which was agreed by the community in 10:35–39, has ceased to function, resulting in the exodus of the Levites from the capital toward the country (cf. 11:20). […] As the latter chapters of Nehemiah are currently arranged, Nehemiah’s indignant response here, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” (13:11), throws the community’s words, “We will not neglect the house of God” (10:39), back at them in no uncertain terms, but the action Nehemiah takes suggests a change of approach. Instead of attempting to restore the earlier system, evidently unimplemented—in which storage in regional depots was linked to subsequent temple delivery—Nehemiah recalls the temple functionaries to their posts (13:11) and resumes the collection of contributions (13:12) centrally in Jerusalem under the supervision of a trusted team composed of a priest, a Levite, a scribe, and an assistant (13:13). […]
13:14 That we have returned to the Nehemiah memoir in Neh 13 is confirmed by the interjection of a prayer not on this occasion for the divine remembering of Nehemiah’s enemies’ evil or sins (cf. 6:14; 4:4–5) but rather for a preservation of Nehemiah’s “faithfulness/loyal love”…this prayer surely reflects Nehemiah’s anxieties about a legacy less easily preserved than the wall (cf. 5:19), but …it also manifests a genuine concern for the worship of his God, which he has worked so hard to reform and whose preservation his prayer now entrusts to God himself.
13:15–22a […] In spite of what are presented as these earlier commitments not to purchase from foreigners, Nehemiah finds the people of Judah in Jerusalem doing precisely that, aided and abetted by Tyrian traders with no interest in Sabbath observance (13:16). […] Exercising his authority as governor, Nehemiah has his own servants close and patrol the very gates he had had rebuilt, to safeguard the city from a threat to its holiness as real as any Samarian or Moabite. Having sought to stem the ingress of goods and the creeping commercialization of the Sabbath (13:19), Nehemiah also recounts his apparently successful efforts to frighten off those traders whom he felt or knew to be loitering with intent on Friday night, with the promise of apprehension or worse (13:21). That the Levites, normally trusted with guarding the temple’s gates, should be charged with guarding the city gates, specifically “to keep the Sabbath day holy” (13:22a) suggests a final echo and identification with the prophetic purposes of Jeremiah (17:22, 24, 27).
13:22b A further prayer for divine remembrance implores God to spare (i.e., prolong) Nehemiah’s life, now not because of Nehemiah’s own “loving-kindness” (see 13:14) toward God, but rather because of God’s love toward Nehemiah. That the former should be expected to elicit the latter is presupposed in 1:5, where mention is also made of the divine loving-kindness. Nehemiah offers his plea to God by celebrating the “abundance of your loving-kindness/mercy”, an expression found also in the prayer of Ps 5:7.
13:23–27 The centrality of the issue of intermarriage with those outside the community is further established when—despite the community’s blanket commitment to avoid such attachments (10:30)—Nehemiah returns to discover Jewish men with wives of “Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab” (13:23) and children whose “mother tongue” appears not to have been Hebrew (or Aramaic) (13:24), but rather that of Ashdod and others. That the violence of Nehemiah’s reaction, first merely verbal and then even physical (13:25), relates not to the linguistic situation itself, but the foreign marriages of which they are but a natural symptom, is made clear by his reference to Deut 7:3–4: “Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of YHWH would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly” (NRSV). […]
13:28–31 Not only were high priests (and presumably prospective ones) required to marry within the community (Lev 21:13–15), but the marriage of Eliashib’s grandson to a daughter of Nehemiah’s old enemy Sanballat (Neh 6) will have opened up the real prospect of Horonite influence on the uppermost echelons of the community’s religious establishment. Nehemiah’s predictable response is to remove the offending man from the corridors of power (13:28). This action and the notion that “foreign” influence on the clerical ranks was seen by Nehemiah to be specifically “defiling” sits comfortably with the note in 7:64 that some priests were seen as defiled precisely because of questions regarding genealogy. […] Finally, a resumption of prayers has increasingly punctuated these final chapters. Here Nehemiah prays for divine remembrance against his clerical opponents (x13:29)—presumably specifically those in the upper reaches of it—and in his final words, for divine remembrance of himself. 
 Sherpherd, David J. and Christopher J.H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018) 57-60.
Bible Text: Nehemiah 13:1-14
1 On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. And in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2 for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.
4 Now before this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, and who was related to Tobiah, 5 prepared for Tobiah a large chamber where they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests. 6 While this was taking place, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I went to the king. And after some time I asked leave of the king 7 and came to Jerusalem, and I then discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, preparing for him a chamber in the courts of the house of God. 8 And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chamber. 9 Then I gave orders, and they cleansed the chambers, and I brought back there the vessels of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense.
10 I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them, so that the Levites and the singers, who did the work, had fled each to his field. 11 So I confronted the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their stations. 12 Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain, wine, and oil into the storehouses. 13 And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouses Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and as their assistant Hanan the son of Zaccur, son of Mattaniah, for they were considered reliable, and their duty was to distribute to their brothers. 14 Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.
Questions to help us go deeper
- What can I learn from the people’s response to the Book of Moses?
- Reflect on the fact that while Nehemiah was gone, the people had abandoned his reforms and the commitments they themselves had made. How might this have happened, and what warnings and lessons are there for me?