Nehemiah 8 – “Ezra Teaches the Laws of Moses”

HerdershutHebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Ezra teaches the Law of Moses to the people, and they celebrate their newfound understanding. The people learn about the festival of Sukkot, and celebrate it for the first time since the days of Joshua.

II. Photo
The people celebrate the festival of Sukkot after a lengthy interruption: “The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths — the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day — and there was very great rejoicing.” (v. 17)

III. Important Verses
vv. 2-3: On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching.
vv. 7-8: Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places. They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading.
vv. 11-12: The Levites were quieting the people, saying, “Hush, for the day is holy; do not be sad.” Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.
vv. 13-17: On the second day, the heads of the clans of all the people and the priests and Levites gathered to Ezra the scribe to study the words of the Teaching. They found written in the Teaching that the LORD had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them, and made themselves booths on their roofs, in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the House of God, in the square of the Water Gate and in the square of the Ephraim Gate. The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths — the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day — and there was very great rejoicing.

IV. Outline
1-8. Ezra and his students teach the Law of Moses to the people
9-12. The day is celebrated festively
13-18. The Jews celebrate the holiday of Sukkot

V. Comment
Nehemiah 8 recounts how the Jews celebrated Sukkot for the first time since the days of Joshua. The practices of Sukkot were previously mentioned in Lev 23:39-43: “Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the LORD to last seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the LORD for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.

Due to the fact that the non-sacrificial aspects of Sukkot are only described in the books of Leviticus and Nehemiah, scholars focus on the discrepancies between the two accounts (e.g. there is no mention of the peri ‘etz hadar “beautiful tree-fruit” [traditionally understood as the etrog] in Nehemiah, and the Pentateuch lists 4 species of flora, not 5). For example, Duggan writes: “The proclamation about going into the hills and gathering five species of boughs for constructing booths (8:15) similarly does not correspond precisely with any of the legal texts governing the Festival of Booths. However, it does reflect the two distinctive requirements of the Priestly legislation (Lev 23:39-43): the people’s taking various species of branches for use in the Festival of Booths (Lev 23:40); and the use of booths (Lev 23:42-43). Nevertheless, Neh 8:15 has three variations from the directives for the festival in Lev 23:39-43: (1) Leviticus describes two ceremonies (one, a festive procession with the branches and fruit [23:40]; the other, the people’s inhabiting booths [23:42]), whereas Nehemiah prescribes a single undertaking (the construction of booths out of the branches); (2) Leviticus lists four species of branches, but Nehemiah lists five and, of these, they agree only on two ([temarim – palm] and [‘etz avot – leafy trees]); and (3) Neh 8:15 prescribes the ‘making’ [‘aseh] of booths, whereas Lev 23:42-43 speaks only of ‘dwelling’ in booths ([yashav] cf. Neh 8:17).” (131)

As one might expect, there are many ways to approach discrepancies in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars such as Duggan write: “The Discrepancies between Neh 8:14-15 and the pentateuchal legislation on Booths raise questions about the meaning of ‘as it is written’ [kakatuv] in 8:15. The two basic alternatives that scholars have proposed to account for the differences are either that Ezra’s pentateuchal text was different from the MT or that Ezra and the leaders were engaged in a halakhic interpretation of Lev 23:39-43.” (ibid.) Traditionalists, however, tend to mitigate the problem by adding unstated information. For example, Zar Kavod summarizes Hoffman as follows (translation from Hebrew my own): “Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman in his commentary to Leviticus explains why the command was to bring only two of the four species. It is because at the time of harvest there was an etrog available to all, and the river branches were located everywhere. Only the ‘branches of palm trees’ and ‘leafy willow trees’ as well as the fresh green vegetables were needed to be brought from the mountains.” In other words, the “contradiction” isn’t really a contradiction at all. Thus, while many scholars see no problem in questioning Ezra’s pentateuchal text, many traditionalists opt for a more speculative approach.

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Duggan, Michael W. “The Covenant Renewal in Ezra-Nehemiah (Neh 7:72B-10:40)” (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1996).
Zar-Kavod, Mordecai. “Ezrah we-Nehemiah” (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1980).
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