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 studying Nehemiah 11. The last three chapters of the book make up Ezra-Nehemiah’s final literary unit.

Ever since the edict of Cyrus, the returnees had their sights set on Jerusalem. The first wave of arrivals rebuilt the temple under the leadership of Jeshua and Zerubbabel. Seventy years later, Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem moved the restoration process into phase two: rebuilding the city walls. The wall project was complete in 52 days. Although the wall completion was viewed as a thrilling miracle, Nehemiah was disappointed that Jerusalem still seemed empty. Nehemiah vented “the city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been built” (7:4).

What was the point of rebuilding the walls if Jerusalem remained underpopulated? That is the predicament that Nehemiah’s final initiative attempted to solve.

Holy People

If you recall, back in Chapter 7, we already talked about Nehemiah starting a repopulation program for Jerusalem. Then the narrative about relocating citizens to Jerusalem paused and for three chapters, the memoir focused on the community’s spiritual revival. Chapter 11 picks up right where the repopulation project left off.

So, why did the editor of Nehemiah insert the section detailing the people’s spiritual revival before closing the loop on Jerusalem’s population problems? As is often the case in Ezra-Nehemiah, the editor focused more on theme than chronology. He enforced the point that a holy people should inhabit the holy city. Before carrying on with the repopulation of Jerusalem, Nehemiah called in the expertise of Ezra to reunite the people with the Torah, humble them before God, and renew their commitment to holy living. When Nehemiah first heard about Jerusalem’s terrible state, he prayed to God that the people would return to the Torah (1:7). Spiritual revival in Jerusalem was always Nehemiah’s priority before material revival.

Only once the people had reattached themselves to God and their covenant could they properly reclaim the holy city.

The transference of sanctity was a long-held concept in Judaism. For example, according to the laws of Leviticus, when a priest prepared the sin offering in the tabernacle, anything that the offering touched became sanctified (Lev. 6:27). After priests conducted sacrifices in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the laws instructed them to change clothes so they would not transfer secondary holiness to the people in the courtyards (Ezek. 44:19). When Moses came down from the mountain, he put a veil over his face because the leftover radiance of God’s glory was too much for the people to bear (Ex. 34:33-35). In much the same way, defilement also could spread from one object to another. If a person touched a corpse, they were unclean for seven days (Num. 19:11). During that time, they had to leave the camp because they could easily spread the defilement to other objects.

The priestly laws taught that impurity and purity were communicable. A holy city needed holy residents. The sanctity of one transferred sanctity to the other. The defilement of one defiled the other. Nehemiah understood the people needed an internal and external reordering of their lives to match God’s will before they repopulated Jerusalem. So, according to the layout of the memoir, they studied the Torah, repented of their sins, and recommitted to the covenant and then they were set to repopulate Jerusalem.

Cast Lots

Tribal leaders moved to Jerusalem first, and likely their presence in the city sped up the rest of the relocation process. Nehemiah must have met with them and discussed the need for additional residents. They devised an allocation process to determine which Judean families had to leave the countryside and move into the city. In Chapter 7, Nehemiah assembled everyone to take a census of the population and he found the record of the original returnees. They used the old census, possibly in combination with a new census, to conduct their selection. The text explains, they “cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in the holy city Jerusalem, while nine-tenths remained in the other towns” (11:1).

Before the exile, Jerusalem priests used the Urim and Thummim stones to cast lots. The Urim and Thummim were part of the vestments of the High Priest, but throughout Israel’s ancient history the priests used them in deciphering God’s will (Lev. 16:8, Num. 26:55, Josh. 18:10, 1 Sam. 14:41). After the exile, the Urim and Thummim never reappeared or were replaced, similar to the Ark of the Covenant. Their whereabouts are not explained in the Hebrew scriptures.

To determine God’s will, the tribal leaders and Nehemiah must have cast other two-colored stones. Lot casting was a legitimate means of divine bidding in the Hebrew religion, like tossing a coin. One Proverb notes, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone” (Prov. 16:33).

Nehemiah wanted people to trust that he wasn’t imposing his will. Moving to Jerusalem was not a reward or a punishment that he, as governor, doled out. He was not a prophet, so he never claimed to speak on behalf of Yahweh. He was a reformer. Throughout his memoir, when he needed divine direction, he regularly turned to God in prayer. Before he approached the king, he prayed fervently (1:4). When he needed to overcome their enemies, he prayed spontaneously (4:4). When he grew weary from the work of the wall, he prayed for strength (6:9). And sometimes, while praying, God put ideas into his mind (7:5). Prayer surely accompanied the lot casting process. But with thousands of names to go through, lot casting was a type of lottery system that seemed as good a process as any.

Volunteer of Voluntold

Nehemiah desperately wanted Jerusalem to return to its former glory. The future of Judah rested on Jerusalem’s fortification and repopulation. Otherwise, the dream of becoming a true nation stalled. He refrained from pressuring anyone to move. Forceful relocation was an option deployed by other ancient Near Eastern neighbors, not Judah. Nehemiah and the tribal leaders appealed to the people’s sense of responsibility.

The narrator emphasized that nine-tenths of the people who did not move “blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem” (11:2). It is not clear if they blessed them verbally, like a “thank you for your service” type of tribute, or if they blessed them materially with offerings to help finance the cost of moving. What the wording does show is that the entire community viewed the process positively. Those who moved did so “willingly”—that’s the key.

However, it is also a stretch to describe the settlers as volunteering to move to Jerusalem. One in ten families were voluntold to relocate. If enough people had volunteered to move to Jerusalem earlier, there would not have been a need to cast lots. When they finished the city walls, no one rushed to rebuild Jerusalem’s crumbling homes. Relocating for rural Judeans meant leaving their ancestral property and tribal lands. In the countryside, they could at least feed their families, but urban life required new ways to eke out an existence. Lay people who did not work for the temple saw the city as a place of pilgrimage rather than everyday life. Plus, Judah was a province in the Persian empire, and lacked political independence, so Jerusalem was not even their political capital. But Jerusalem was their holy city, home to the only temple dedicated to Yahweh.


Nehemiah 11 includes nothing else about how the community conducted the relocation process other than the casting of lots. We learn from Josephus that Nehemiah paid for the new homes in Jerusalem out of his own expense (Antiquities 11:18). As for the narrative, the “who” trumped the “how.”

Apart from the first three verses, Nehemiah 11 comprises a verbless and plotless list that can be divided into two sections. The first section named the settlers who moved to Jerusalem (11:3-24). The second section documented the towns in Judah and Benjamin that the settlers left behind (11:25-36). The archival lists indicate an orderly and well-designed relocation process. The repopulation project included all sectors of the citizenry—priests, Levites, temple servants, and lay people (11:3).

The list’s first category of people were clan leaders (11:3-9). More than the census in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7, this list highlights the ancestry of the settler families with plenty of “son of” identifiers. For example, 468 Judahites traced their lineage all the way back to Perez, the son of Judah, the original head of the tribe. The compiler of the list concentrated on proving the settlers’ legitimate ancestry, an ever-present concern in Ezra and Nehemiah.

The second category of people were Levites and priests (11:10-20). One would think that temple workers required less arm twisting than farmers to relocate. Moving into Jerusalem certainly would have cut down on their work commute. Some names include their respective duty titles. The various jobs included officer, overseer, gatekeeper, ruler of the temple, commander, singer, and valiant warriors.

As for the list of towns, they are the towns of the lay people that gave up ten percent of their inhabitants to the repopulation project. The list may not include all the towns that contributed, but it shows the project received widespread support. Some towns listed were technically outside the borders of the Judean province during the Persian period. Theoretically, the Babylonians may not have sent their Judean occupants into exile, and they held on to their ancestral lands.

The named and unnamed settlers all hailed from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Also, the named towns were part of Judah or Benjamin, but no other tribal lands. Nehemiah did not include towns in the lands of Ephraim or Manasseh, which seems odd since an almost identical list in 1 Chronicles 9 did include Ephraim and Manasseh. Incidentally, 1 Chronicles 9 also gave fuller descriptions of temple duties.

Both lists focus only on Judah and Benjamin, whether it was referring to people or towns. Judah and Benjamin got preference because of the history of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. When the two kingdoms broke up, after the death of Solomon, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin kept Jerusalem as their capital while the other ten tribes adopted Samaria as their capital. Even though the prophets dreamed of the day that all twelve tribes would return to the covenanted land and restore the nation to its full glory, Nehemiah pays the most attention to the tribes who never abandoned Jerusalem.

The list never gives a grand total for the number of residents who moved into Jerusalem. Scholars estimate it could have been as few as 10,000, but nothing is certain, since the compiler of the list focused more on genealogy than numbers.

A tithe of people

The resettlement program required one-tenth of the population to move to Jerusalem. Perhaps the ten percent principle in Nehemiah was random, but Nehemiah might have wanted the community to think of the repopulation program as a tithe. Covenant laws around tithes and offerings required people to bring ten percent of their annual harvest or income to the temple (Lev. 27:32). With repopulation, they were tithing ten percent of their citizens to Jerusalem. Nehemiah saw Jerusalem as the holy city, worthy of its own offering of people.

Twice in his promotion of the project, Nehemiah referred to Jerusalem as the Holy City, or ‘Ir ha-Qodesh in Hebrew (11:1, 18). It is easy to breeze past that reference if you do not realize the rarity of the term. Apart from Nehemiah, only three times in the Hebrew scriptures was Jerusalem referred to as the Holy City—twice in Isaiah and once in Daniel (Isa. 48:2, 52:1; Dan. 9:24). Before the exile, biblical authors referred to the Temple Mount as holy and sacred. They did not extend the temple’s status to the city enclosing it. Only after the exile did Judeans claim sanctity for everything within Jerusalem’s walls. They attributed Jerusalem’s holy status to the presence of the temple. In the postexilic mindset, however, the temple’s sanctity radiated out from the confines of the sanctuary and extended to the houses, walls, gates, and streets of Jerusalem.

Seventy years before Nehemiah’s arrival, the prophet Zechariah prepared the way for his mission to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and population. In one of Zechariah’s visions, he saw a man with a measuring line surveying Jerusalem’s boundary in anticipation of the city’s full restoration (Zech 2:2). The optimistic man with the measuring line represented the community once they began construction on Jerusalem’s walls. An angel in the vision made a pronouncement: “Jerusalem shall be inhabited like unwalled villages because of the multitude of people and animals in it” (Zech. 2:4).

In another of Zechariah’s visions, he saw an exalted Jerusalem whose spiritual influence radiated out to the nations (Zech. 14:10-11). God tells Zechariah, “I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (Zech. 8:3). In Zechariah’s visions, God’s abiding presence in the temple radiated out to the city and from there to the world. To Zechariah, Jerusalem was the “faithful city.” Nehemiah promoted Jerusalem to “holy city.”

Nehemiah fully devoted himself to rebuilding Jerusalem, the place where God’s glory dwelled (Ps. 26:8). In the mindset of Nehemiah and the returnees, the Jerusalem temple and the city were one and their sanctity merged. Only with the temple rebuilt, Jerusalem’s fortifications restored, and the population revived, could the Jewish people remove their disgrace and make a proper place for God’s name to dwell. Nehemiah’s life mission embodied Psalm 48: “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God” (Ps. 48:1).

Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week we are reading Nehemiah 12 where Ezra and Nehemiah come together for the dedication of the city walls. 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