By Shelley Neese—

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Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

This week we are reading Nehemiah 10. After the community got reacquainted with the teachings of the Torah and repented of their sins and the sins of their ancestors, they held a covenant renewal ceremony to affirm their commitment. Nehemiah’s three-step plan was reading, repentance, and renewal, in that order. For the Jewish people, returning to Yahweh meant returning to his commands. And for repentance to be sincere, life transformations had to accompany it.

The chapter begins with the list of signatories to the pledge (10:1-27). Nehemiah, as governor of Judah, is the first name on the list. Most names in the list are family names, not the names of individuals. Family names represented whole clans. For example, Ezra is not on the list as an individual, but he was part of the Seraiah family which was listed third (Ez. 7:1). Three groups signed the pledge: 21 priests, 17 Levites, and 44 family heads. Logistically, not everyone could sign the document, but the text says “the rest of the people” stood by as witnesses and gave their verbal commitment (10:28).

At the ceremony, the religious leaders exhorts, “all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their kin, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law” (10:28-29). The driving principle behind Nehemiah’s community organization was inclusivity. At Ezra’s public reading, the national prayer assembly, and the covenant renewal ceremony, every member took part. Throughout Ezra and Nehemiah, the reformers fixated on total family involvement: husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. Before the covenant renewal, they had encouraged every family to build their own sukkah (8:16) and solicited families to rebuild the walls (3:12). The family had the power to perpetuate Nehemiah’s national project or cancel it. Therefore, he constantly emphasized a “family first” approach.

Disappointingly, the narrative did not include any details about the ceremony, like where it took place or who directed the oath. However, the symbolic act of affixing family seals to the pledge reinforced the historic moment in their national memory. In fact, covenant renewal ceremonies pop up at almost every critical juncture in the Hebrew scriptures. They are like bookends, marking the boundaries of each chapter to the biblical Jewish experience.

Abraham’s covenant involved the first ceremonial act. Yahweh, represented as a smoking firepot and blazing torch, passed through a row of divided animal sacrifices, promising Abraham “to your descendants I give this land” (Gen. 15:12). Centuries later, when Yahweh delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, he formally presented Moses with the stipulations for the covenant relationship (Ex. 19-24). After seeing earth-shaking miracles on their behalf, the newly freed slaves ceremonially agrees to the demands and spoke as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8).

Before entering the Promised Land, Moses once again gathered the Israelites to warn them of the temptation to stray from their covenant commitments when they were no longer so reliant on God for their daily needs. He commanded them that once they crossed the Jordan, they were to renew the covenant by building an altar, making sacrifices, and writing God’s laws on plastered stones (Deut. 27:8).

Moses’s successor, Joshua, also believed in the importance of recommitment. After Joshua’s army defeated the town of Ai, he built an altar and wrote the law of Moses on stones and read the law to all the people (Josh. 8:32).

Out of all the biblical examples of covenant renewal, King Josiah’s revival has the most striking similarity to Nehemiah and Ezra’s program of reading, repentance, and renewal. Two centuries before the governorship of Nehemiah, the righteous King Josiah called for a nationwide reading of the Torah. The Torah reading revealed Judah’s unfaithfulness, just like what happened at Ezra’s public reading (2 Kings 22; Ezra 9).

When Josiah realized that the people had fallen away from God’s standard, he tore his clothes and humbled himself before God (2 Kings 22:18-19). Ezra had the same full-body reaction when he heard about the remnant’s intermarriage problem (Ez. 9:2) Josiah held a covenant renewal ceremony to bring the people into alignment with God (2 Kings 23:2-3). Josiah immediately called for a Passover observance after the ceremony, which had been neglected. After Ezra’s public reading, the remnant held their own covenant renewal ceremony and then brought their celebration of the Feast of Booths into alignment with the laws of Moses.

Perhaps Ezra-Nehemiah purposefully imitated the repentance and revival movement of King Josiah. However, they would have known that Josiah’s revival was not the ideal act to follow. In the end, the revival did not stick or prove sincere. It delayed Judah’s punishment but did not cancel it. Ezra and Nehemiah hope that their recommitment to the Torah and its teachings will be long-lasting, warranting God’s favor and long-term protection.

In every biblical case of covenant renewal, the ceremony climaxed with the agreement of the people that if they broke the law, they would invite curses, and if they kept the law, they would incur blessings. The ceremonies were about generational recommitments.

The people’s oral commitment was initially a general promise to follow the law of Moses, but Nehemiah further defined what covenant renewal needed to look like. Ever the delegator, Nehemiah applied the Torah’s ancient guidelines to the most noticeable issues in the community.

Rather than overwhelming the officials with all the Torah’s 613 commandments and statutes, Nehemiah highlighted six laws singling out behaviors in immediate need of correction. If he was a preacher, this was the application portion of his sermon. Nehemiah’s stipulations, sometimes called Nehemiah’s Code, banned intermarriage and commerce on the Sabbath. They also protected the Sabbath day and the Sabbath year from desecration. To emphasize the temple’s centrality, Nehemiah enforced temple taxes, wood collection, tithes, and offerings.

In the first stipulation, the people promised to stop giving their daughters in marriage to outsiders and taking outsiders as wives for their sons (10:30). Ezra and Nehemiah’s ban on intermarriage was stricter than the original law of Moses. The Torah’s ban against intermarriage only applied to certain pagan groups living in Canaan at the time of the conquest, but the law never prohibited marrying all foreigners (Deut. 7:3; Ex. 34:11). Nehemiah, Ezra, and Malachi saw assimilation with the peoples of the land as one of the greatest threats to the community (Ezra 9; Neh. 13:23-29; Mal. 2:10-16). They all beat that drum continuously throughout their books.

Nehemiah’s second stipulation protected the Sabbath. He said, “when the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day” (10:31). From the wording, their local neighbors must have been selling wares on the Sabbath but the Judeans are guilty of purchasing the merchandise. The law of Moses commanded the people to set the Sabbath day apart, keep it holy, and allow no work (Ex. 20:10; 31:13-17). Slaves, foreigners, and animals living in their midst were also free to rest on the Sabbath. Judeans knew they were violating the Sabbath spirit by allowing foreign commerce in Jerusalem, even if they weren’t blatantly breaking it by setting up their own market.

The third stipulation highlighted the restoration of the Sabbath year: “Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts” (10:31). In Hebrew, the Sabbath year is called the Shmita. The land of Israel is a personified player in the covenant, and it too deserves a rest period. Every seventh year, the Torah forbids all plowing, planting, and harvesting (Lev. 26:35; Ex. 23:10-11). Furthermore, the Torah commands that all debts must be forgiven every seventh year (Deut. 15:1-15). The law prohibits creditors from making further collections on what their debtors owe. Earlier in his governorship, Nehemiah asked the rich creditors to cancel the loans to their debtors (5:7). Nehemiah, one of the wealthiest men in Judah, led by example and annulled any payments due to him.

In the fourth stipulation, Nehemiah introduced an annual temple tax of one-third of a shekel to rectify the ongoing problem of temple neglect (10:32). With the temple tax, Nehemiah was expanding what was in ancient times a onetime tabernacle collection (Ex. 30:11-16). Only certain aged men paid the tax for atonement. Ideally, the tax would bring in enough income to cushion the general temple fund used for offerings and building repairs. Nehemiah included a few line items that the temple tax would finance.

For example, one temple expense was the weekly provision of 12 loaves of bread. Arranged in two rows of six on a golden table, the loaves represented the tribes of Israel in the temple (Lev. 24:5-9). The bread offering also fed the priests on duty at the end of each week. If everyone paid the annual tribute, the treasury could pay for the morning and evening burnt offerings, performed daily. Originally, the Persian empire promised to finance the burnt offerings (Ez. 6:9-10; 7:21-24), but that must have faded out or Nehemiah wanted to protect the temple from Persian meddling.

Nehemiah’s fifth stipulation seems mundane, but it was not a trivial problem in Nehemiah’s day (10:34; 13:31). The temple required a perpetually burning fire (Lev. 6:5-13). The holy fire represented Yahweh’s presence. Keeping a fire constantly going required large amounts of wood.

During the First Temple period, the Gibeonites brought a constant supply of wood (Josh. 9:27). The Gibeonites were no longer a distinct group of people and their agreement with Joshua became invalid after their exile. As a result, wood gathering was no one’s responsibility. Nehemiah wanted to delegate firewood collection. By casting lots, the governor organized an ancient version of a shared Google calendar, so everyone knew who was accountable for firewood delivery. Later in the Second Temple period, according to Josephus (War 2:424), Jerusalem hosted an annual festival for all the people to bring wood to Jerusalem for the altar. The Torah’s explanations of the religious calendar never mentioned a Festival of Wood, but the community developed a collection day to fulfill the need for wood.

The fifth stipulation related to the offering of the first fruits as stipulated in the Torah (Ex. 23:19; Num. 18:11-13). When the first fruit of a tree or a vine ripened, the Torah required them to bring it to the temple as a symbolic demonstration of their gratitude. The firstborn of their livestock was also a mandatory offering. Since the Exodus, God sanctified all firstborn human males in Israel for service in the holy sanctuary (Ex. 13:1-2). After the golden calf episode, however, eleven of the tribes gave up the privilege of their firstborns serving in the tabernacle. Because they rallied against the golden calf, the Levites received the reward of the priesthood. People developed a practice of bringing a silver offering to the temple to symbolically redeem their firstborn son (Num. 18:16).

The final stipulation was a request for a general tithe to better support the temple priests and Levites (10:37-38). The prophet Malachi had accused the community of robbing God by withholding their tithes and offerings (Mal. 3:8-10). A tithe is one-tenth a person’s annual income, which for an agrarian society meant one-tenth of their produce that had to be set aside as “holy to the Lord” (Lev. 27:30). Tithing was part of their covenant responsibility. Inadequate tithes forced Levites and priests to pick between starvation or working outside the temple.

Before Nehemiah’s reforms, tithing was an honor system and therefore easy to cheat without outside judgement. By creating a new system, Nehemiah allowed the Levites to collect the tithes directly from the towns and bring them to the temple storehouses. They would identify the tithers and non-tithers. The covenant renewal ceremony ended with the declaration: “We will not neglect the house of our God!” (10:39).

Nehemiah’s Code centered on the protection of families, the priesthood, and the temple. His stipulations addressed minor issues that were easy for the community to neglect, more out of ignorance than stubborn obstinance. Remember, the returnees did not have access to personal Torah scrolls. They needed teachers. Most likely, the movement continued to involve community leaders in the enforcement of other elements of the law. They were supposed to enjoy rediscovering the terms of their covenant with God, even if it required financial sacrifice, doing extra work like collecting wood, or taking better care of each other.

Psalms 19:7-9 describes the way the covenant people were supposed to view God’s laws:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.

Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge.

Next week are reading Nehemiah 11 where the governor returns to his repopulation project for Jerusalem. For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at

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Shabbat Shalom