Nehemiah 8- 2020-07-16
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Commentary: Nehemiah 8
8:1–8 Having described in great detail the diversity and distribution of the returnees in Neh 7, the narrative moves quickly to affirm in 8:1 the unity of (“all”) the people and the singularity of their purpose…it is the people who prompt Ezra to produce the Torah and the people who also feature most prominently in Neh 8:1–12…the Torah is not merely the “law of Moses” commanded by the God of Israel (as at Ezra 7:6), but also the law that “YHWH had commanded Israel.” The inclusiveness of the gathering is further emphasized by the mention of both “men and women” (Neh 8:3) and indeed “all who could understand,” a notion whose inclusiveness of children in 10:28 would seem to imply the presence of the latter here too. That this audience in its entirety (again, “all”) was especially attentive is explicitly emphasized by the narrator—and perhaps implicitly too by the note of how long Ezra read (six hours). […]
That the Torah will be not merely venerated but taught becomes clear as the narrative shifts its attention from liturgy to pedagogy in 8:7–8. In light of the involvement of Levites later in the passage (8:9, 11, 13) and the specific identification of some here as Levites elsewhere (e.g., Jeshua, Bani, and others in 9:4–5), it seems likely that Levites were employed to assist the crowds in understanding what they heard, presumably by circulating among them in some fashion. The technique of the “tutors” includes reading the text themselves, but extends also to some type of interpretation. […] The insistence that the teaching of Torah too is being done now, as it was then, is yet another confirmation of the importance of continuity with the past.
8:9–12 As in Ezra 10, the emotional response of the gathering expresses itself in “weeping,” a visible sign of mourning and emotional distress comparable (if not identical) to that found in 2 Kgs 22:11, where Josiah is convicted by the hearing of the law, as seems to be the case here. While such a report reaffirms both the power of the law and the tenderheartedness of the people, the admonitions first in Neh 8:9 and then twice in 8:10–11 (“do not be grieved”) suggest a popular response quite out of keeping with the spirit that the leaders wished to cultivate on a day that was “holy” (three times in 8:9–11). The choice of the first day of the seventh month, announced already in 8:2, was evidently far from accidental, with Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the New Year, being a traditional day of “holy gathering” (Lev 23:24). […]
8:13–18 That the community has been captivated by their engagement with Torah is suggested by the narrator’s insistence that the very next day, a now more restricted group of laymen—the unnamed heads of the ancestral houses—together with the priests and Levites, take the further initiative of gathering around Ezra the scribe to “study” (8:13) the words of Torah. […]
While Neh 8:18 (“they kept the festival seven days”; NRSV) implies that the community proceeded to observe Sukkot more or less immediately, 8:16’s focus is on where it was observed, namely, in both private homes and public spaces in Jerusalem, including within—and perhaps in proximity to—the temple. […] the final verse captures neatly the dynamics of the chapter as a whole. On one hand, the “he” (singular) who is noted as reading (Neh 8:18) can only be Ezra, whose six-hour recitation of Torah was the starting point from which all else flowed. On the other hand, the mention of the now solemn assembly (“they”) with which the observance concludes reflects the fundamental part played by the people themselves in responding to the Torah read by Ezra, but given by God. 
 Sherpherd, David J. and Christopher J.H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018) 47-49.
1 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 the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 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. 3 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. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 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. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
Questions to help us go deeper
- Reflect on the significance and rightness of the scene of “all the people gathered as one man,” standing for 6 hours with their ears “attentive to the Book of the Law” as the first order of business after completing the wall.
- What can I learn from the people’s response to the message of God’s word?
- Reflect on the words of Nehemiah to the people: “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.” To what extent am I experiencing strength that comes from the joy of the Lord?