This past Sunday we got to hear from the Book of Nehemiah, one of the historical books of the Old Testament. One line of the Scripture that really stood out to me came from chapter 8, verse 8: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.”
I don’t know about you guys, but for me, there were times when it would have been helpful to have somebody explain to me, slowly, what in the world I was reading when I was reading the Bible. Have you ever opened the Bible to some random part and started reading? Maybe you thought to yourself, “Wait, where is this happening again?” Or maybe, “Why are there so many rules about how to treat oxen? And just who are the Amorites, anyway?” Or maybe you saw some name in the Old Testament and thought, “Oh, yeah, there’s no way I can pronounce that.” Reading the Bible can be confusing, particularly the Old Testament. I think this difficulty comes from the fact that we’re so removed from the world in which these texts were created, in culture and geography and time. There’s a big difference between being a 21st century American and a 6th century BCE Israelite. Given that distance between us and Scripture, I thought it might be nice to provide some background information relevant to the Nehemiah passage we heard on Sunday. So, if you love history lessons, buckle up because it’s your lucky day. (If not, just skip this part of the newsletter.)
Anyway, here’s the scoop. Israel was a tiny nation that got battered back and forth by empires throughout the time that our Old Testament was written. According to the biblical narrative, Israel existed as a united monarchy under King David around 9th century BC. But after the reign of David’s son Solomon, there was a split that divided the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah. Then the Assyrian empire (a major world power known for its brutality in war) conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and forced many of the wealthy elite from Israel into exile. Furthermore, in 701 BC, the Assyrian King Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem, but he did not breach the city and the Jerusalem Temple was left intact. Consequently, many people believed in the inviolability of Jerusalem: because God lived and dwelled in the Temple, it could not be destroyed. This theology would literally be blown to bits, however, in 586 BC, when the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and forced many Judeans into exile in Babylon. This event was cataclysmic for God’s people. This became known as the Babylonian Exile. It is the backdrop of our books like Daniel and Ezekiel, and we still sing about it in the hymn “By the Rivers of Babylon”. However, in 538 BC, King Cyrus of the Persian Empire would conquer Babylonia, and issued a decree that allowed many of the exiles to return to their homeland. That’s where the Book of Nehemiah finds us. A homeless, displaced people have returned to Judah after fifty years of the devastation of the Babylonian exile. They have rebuilt God’s Temple where God’s own Spirit dwells in the Holy of Holies. And now they are rededicating themselves to the covenant God made with the Hebrew people through Moses, when God gave them the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). When the people fell on their faces to worship God, they were renewing their cultural, moral, and religious identity. In short, Nehemiah is a book about picking up the pieces when the world has fallen apart and finding a way to glue them back together.