Nehemiah 13 – “Nehemiah Enforces the Law”

fishgroupHebrew-English Text
I. Summary
The people read the Law of Moses and decide to desist from their foreign wives. After a visit to the King in Persia, Nehemiah chastises the priests for misusing the Temple’s rooms. He also enforces the laws of the Levitical tithes, the sabbath, and intermarriage.

II. Photo
Jerusalem is rife with sabbath desecration: “Tyrians who lived there brought fish and all sorts of wares and sold them on the sabbath to the Judahites in Jerusalem.” (v. 16)

III. Important Verses
vv. 1-3: At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of God, since they did not meet Israel with bread and water, and hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing. When they heard the Teaching, they separated all the alien admixture from Israel.
vv. 15-18: At that time I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the sabbath, and others bringing heaps of grain and loading them onto asses, also wine, grapes, figs, and all sorts of goods, and bringing them into Jerusalem on the sabbath. I admonished them there and then for selling provisions. Tyrians who lived there brought fish and all sorts of wares and sold them on the sabbath to the Judahites in Jerusalem. I censured the nobles of Judah, saying to them, “What evil thing is this that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day! This is just what your ancestors did, and for it God brought all this misfortune on this city; and now you give cause for further wrath against Israel by profaning the sabbath!”
vv. 23-27: Also at that time, I saw that Jews had married Ashdodite, Ammonite, and Moabite women; a good number of their children spoke the language of Ashdod and the language of those various peoples, and did not know how to speak Judean. I censured them, cursed them, flogged them, tore out their hair, and adjured them by God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters in marriage to their sons, or take any of their daughters for your sons or yourselves. It was just in such things that King Solomon of Israel sinned! Among the many nations there was not a king like him, and so well loved was he by his God that God made him king of all Israel, yet foreign wives caused even him to sin. How, then, can we acquiesce in your doing this great wrong, breaking faith with our God by marrying foreign women?”
v. 31: [I made sure that] the wood offering [was brought] at fixed times and for the first fruits. O my God, remember it to my credit!

IV. Outline
1-3. Commitment to desist from foreign wives
4-9. Nehemiah chastises Eliashib for misappropriating the Temple’s rooms
10-13. Nehemiah reinstates the Levitical tithes
14. Petition
15-18. Nehemiah censures the people for their violation of the sabbath
19-22. Nehemiah enforces sabbath observance
23-30. Nehemiah punishes those who intermarry
31. Nehemiah ensures that the wood offering was brought

V. Comment
Chapter 13 begins with the problem of intermarriage: “At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of God, since they did not meet Israel with bread and water, and hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing.” (vv. 1-2) While one might not expect these verses to be identical to the laws of Deuteronomy 23:4-5 (they are similar, but by no means identical), the discrepancies between the two text call into question the meaning of the word katuv “it is written” in v. 1. This was also seen in chapter 8, and Duggan writes in regard to that chapter: “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 Ezra’s pentateuchal text was different from the MT or that Ezra and the leaders were engaged in a halakic interpretation of Lev 23:39-43. However, from a narrative perspective, the central issue is observance of the law, not the degree of literal correspondence between Neh 8:14-15 and Lev 23:39-43.” (131)

The problem of intermarriage is one of the prominent themes found in Ezra-Nehemiah. Chapter 13 has two narratives regarding intermarriage, and Collins writes: “The problem of intermarriage appears again in the second term of Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 13 we are told that ‘on the day they read from the book of Moses… it was found written that no Ammonite of Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God… When the people heard the law they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.’ It seems incredible that anyone would have been unaware of this law less than a generation after Ezra’s reform. This passage, however, only serves as an introduction to a confrontation between Nehemiah and ‘the priest Eliashib,’ who had given a room in the temple to Tobiah the Ammonite, to whom he was related. The episode illustrates the violent character of Nehemiah: ‘I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the room’ (Neh 13:8). It also shows the difficulty of instituting any lasting reform. Tobiah had been ensconced in the temple when Nehemiah was recalled to the Persian court. We learn in 13:28 that one of the grandsons of Eliashib was the son-in-law of Sanballat of Samaria. The purist policies of Ezra and Nehemiah could not erase the ties that bound the high priesthood in Jerusalem to the upper classes of the neighboring peoples.” (441)

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)

Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

Duggan, Michael W. “The Covenant Renewal in Ezra-Nehemiah (Neh 7:72B-10:40)” (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1996).

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