Nehemiah 9- 2020-07-22
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Commentary: Nehemiah 9
9:1–5 […] As in Ezra 10, the assembled people here manifest visible signs of mourning, and the Israelites separate themselves from those described as “foreign.” While it is suggested that the Israelites’ separation here is of a quite different sort from that recounted in Ezra—not from foreign women, but from all foreigners—the reading of Neh 9 with Neh 10 where marital separation is very much in view tends to encourage the interpretation of the intervention here in similar terms, whether or not it always had this meaning. […]
9:6–8 […] The repetition of “you are YHWH” from Neh 9:6 invites the hearer to see the election of Abram too as an act of creation, and indeed throughout these verses, the subject, the active agent, is overwhelmingly God, who first chooses, brings out, and gives a new name to Abraham (9:7) and then finds him faithful and makes a covenant with him (9:8). While these verses disclose an awareness of traditions very like (but not identical) to Gen 15 and Gen 17, it is not the promise of progeny, but land—promised to one who had also come from Mesopotamia—that prompts the proleptic acknowledgment of its fulfillment and the expression of adoration (“you are righteous”).
9:9–11 No less resonant for returning exiles was the exodus tradition, reduced here to God’s climactic intervention against the Egyptian oppressors at the Sea (Exod 14–15). The repeated invocation of “our ancestors” (Neh 9:9–10) strengthens the identification of the returned exiles’ own distress (9:9) and insolent treatment (9:10) with that of their ancient forebears, even as the name that God made for himself in those days remains an encouragement “to this day.”
9:12–15 The recital of God’s gracious agency on behalf of Israel continues into the wilderness wanderings, with the tradition of the pillar (9:12) and the giving of Torah at Sinai (9:13) invoked in terms of divine movement/presence (“you led” in 9:12; “you came down” in 9:13) and the gift of divine guidance (“the way they should go” in 9:12). […]
9:16–22 The arrival of the disjunction “but they, our ancestors” sounds the note of rebellion characteristic of historical recitals within the penitential prayer tradition (Ps 106:13). […] The persistent grace of Israel’s God is reiterated in phrases drawn from and otherwise reminiscent of passages like Exod 34:6, before the prayer belatedly invokes that archetypal sin of the wilderness period, the idolatry of the calf (Neh 9:18). Yet such sin is juxtaposed with the mention again of God’s provision of the pillar (9:19), the manna and water (9:20), as well as “the good spirit to instruct them” (cf. Ps 143:10, where “good spirit” is also related to instruction). […]
9:26–31 […] A second invocation of the law and the people’s disobedience of “your ordinances, by which a person shall live” (9:29) is again followed by a reminder of the rejection of “your prophets” inspired by “your spirit” (cf. 9:20). The prayer notes finally the Israelites’ inevitable deliverance into the hands of not merely “enemies” but the “peoples of the lands”—a phrase whose application to those outside the golah community (Ezra 9:1, 2, 11; Neh 10:28) will have confirmed the contemporary relevance of the lessons of the past. While the historical recital ends on a note of divine blessing despite previous rebellion, the transition to petition proper (9:32) is signaled by the prayer’s note that the most recent mercy falls short of full redemption (“did not make an end of them”; 9:31 NRSV) and especially by the movement from historical reflection to present praise: “you are a gracious and merciful God” (9:31).
9:32–38 […] The juxtaposing of this divine fidelity with the faithlessness of these same people in neglecting the law and ignoring (prophetic) “warnings” is acknowledged as full justification for “all that has come upon us” (9:34). If the prayer’s owning of the past lapses briefly into further lament of ancestral ungratefulness (“they did not serve you” in 9:35), the continuing abundance of the divine generosity of the past (“great goodness” in 9:35; “good gifts” in 9:36) down to the present day (“rich yield”; 9:37) makes the community’s current status as “slaves” in a land that used to be their own (9:35) all the more painful (“in great distress” in 9:37). […] 
 Sherpherd, David J. and Christopher J.H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018) 50-51.
Bible Text: Nehemiah 9:1-25
1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. 2 And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. 4 On the stairs of the Levites stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani; and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God. 5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.
6 “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. 7 You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. 8 You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous.
9 “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, 10 and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day. 11 And you divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on dry land, and you cast their pursuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters. 12 By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. 13 You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant. 15 You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.
16 “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. 17 They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. 18 Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, 19 you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go. 20 You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. 21 Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.
22 “And you gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner. So they took possession of the land of Sihon king of Heshbon and the land of Og king of Bashan. 23 You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, and you brought them into the land that you had told their fathers to enter and possess. 24 So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and you subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would. 25 And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in your great goodness.
Questions to help us go deeper
- What is the significance of the completion of the wall as a background for the Israelite’s repentance?
- What is so appropriate about the Israelites’ prayer of repentance beginning with praising who God is and recalling God’s history with the Israelites?