Tuesday, January 15, 2008

the walls are down

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Nehemiah that we overlook -- interesting because it is so overlooked -- is the nature of what it is he did.

Christians almost always spiritualize the book of Nehemiah and, as we're doing on Sundays and in our weekly Bible studies, we talk about metaphorical walls that have been knocked down and need to be repaired, such as as justice, racial equality, and the environment. This is valid, and instructive, but Nehemiah wasn't messing about with a metaphor: The wall that concerned him was real, it was solid, and it was needed for defending the city against invaders and brigands.

And Nehemiah's interest in rebuilding it wasn't driven by a spiritual pursuit of the Absolute. It was, I would argue, driven by nationalism (or perhaps, more generously, by its sister, patriotism). To Nehemiah, it was a sign of shame to the Jewish people that the city walls were in ruins and the people of Jerusalem were less protected from marauders than they might have been. Rebuilding the wall was an act of civil service, both to his fellows in people, and to King Artaxerxes, under whose authority Nehemiah became governor of Judea during the ensuing twelve years.

(Incidentally, I think that's the cause of Nehemiah's fear at the start of Chapter 2: He's asking to leave his post as a trusted servant in the king's household, a servant with a lot of authority over the household, and to be transferred to one of the king's distant vassal territories, and there to become its governor. He's not asking to rebuild the city of the king's enemies, although a previous Artaxerxes did find that Judea had been a difficult province in earlier times, as much as he's asking the king to allow a potentially major disruption in the smooth operation of his household, to rebuild the capital city of a remote province in the empire.)

That's the setup of the story that's about to unfold. The book of Nehemiah is in unusual in the canon in that it's one of two (I think) books written in Aramaic, along with Ezra; the rest of the Tanakh is written in Hebrew. It's also written in the first person, and has a much greater sense of God's distance and noninvolvement in the story than we find elsewhere in the Tanakh. The writers of the prophetic books regularly put words into the mouth of the Almighty, and draw moraland spiritual lessons from the events they depict. Not so in Nehemiah. Here you find the sort of statements about God you might hear on "testimony night" at a church, like "God was with us, and no one attacked us the entire trip," and you encounter statements about non-Jewish neighbors of the city and how they are to have no part of the rebuilt city because it is only for God's people.

That, I think, was an error on Nehemiah's part, since it creates enemies of people who wanted to help, and it (again) reflects a nationalist understanding that runs counter to the message we find in books like Ruth and that ultimately finds expression in the life and ministry of Christ.

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