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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 12 which means this is the second to last episode in our journey through Ezra-Nehemiah. Who knew that two reformers would take five months of intense study!

Nehemiah 12 includes two different literary genres. The first 26 verses are lists of priests, Levites, gatekeepers, and singers. After the lists, the memoir switches to an exciting first-person narrative with Nehemiah and Ezra leading a musical procession to dedicate Jerusalem’s walls.

The Lists

The downside of lists in Ezra-Nehemiah is their tediousness and disruption of the storyline. The upside is that they reveal the priorities of the editor and give us insight into the concerns of his original audience. To me, the subtext of the lists is more interesting than the names or genealogies.

The editor brought together four separate lists, and each list reflected the continuity of the Jewish people before, during, and after exile. The first list registered the priests and Levites of a previous generation, those who arrived with Zerubbabel (12:1-9). Although the list feels chronologically out of place, the editor illustrated how the priests and Levites had been playing a crucial role in officiating worship since the start of the restoration project (Ez. 3:1-6).

The second list gave the succession of high priests from Jeshua to Johanan in order (12:10-11). Six generations of high priests covered 175 years. Scholars debate whether the list was complete or skipped a couple of generations. Six priests could span that length of time if each priest held their position for an average of thirty years, like a Supreme Court justice. We know a little bit about each of the high priests in the list. Jeshua was the high priest when King Cyrus first issued his edict. His ministry overlapped with Zerubbabel, Haggai, and Zechariah. Joiakim was Jeshua’s son, and that is all we really have on him. Eliashib and Joiada were ineffective high priests contemporary to Nehemiah; they will come up again in the next chapter and it isn’t a good look (6:18, 13:4-5). All we know about Johanan is that he is addressed as high priests in one of the fifth century BCE letters found in Elephantine, Egypt.

Chapter 12’s third list named the priestly units functional at the time of Nehemiah (12:12-21). Many of the names are familiar from previous episodes in the book, like the wall building project or signing the pledge (10:2-8). Before the exile, 24 priestly units served at the temple in shifts based on a rotating calendar with two divisions working each month. However, the duties of a priest extended beyond their two weeks at the temple (10:2-8). They spent the rest of the year teaching and interpreting the law in the community.

The fourth list gives the names of gatekeepers, priests, and leaders of the Levites who rotated out at the temple (12:22-26). King David was the one who first organized the rotating priestly system (1 Chron. 24-25). In King David’s day, 500 years earlier, he had access to 24 priestly divisions. Nehemiah listed only 22 divisions. We assume that due to a decrease in temple workers, the system had to be modified during the Persian period.

Most likely, the purpose of the four lists was to reinforce Nehemiah’s appeal for all citizens to bring their tithes and offerings to the temple. By naming the temple workers, the editor personalized the recipients of the public support. He established a connection between the people and their spiritual leaders. By giving their genealogies and historical background, he also justified their positions as legitimate heirs to their office. Despite decades in exile, the thread between the legacy of the First Temple priesthood and the new priesthood remained intact.

Wall Dedication

After the archival lists, the narrative portion resumed with the dedication ceremony for Jerusalem’s walls. We have no precise knowledge of the duration between the wall’s completion (6:15) and its dedication. The book of Nehemiah fits other episodes between the completion and dedication, like the public reading and covenant renewal ceremony. We know the editor prioritized spiritual lessons over adherence to chronology, but the events may have happened in the same order as the book suggests. In the plethora of dedication ceremonies that pepper the Hebrew scriptures, most occurred soon after the accomplishment.

For example, King David accompanied the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem with a musical ceremony and a royal dance (2 Sam. 6). King Solomon, no stranger to pageantry, dedicated the First Temple right after it was finished with a two-week worship gathering (1 Kings 8). In the postexilic period, the people continued to celebrate with musical worship at every major construction event. They sang when they completed the altar (Ez. 3:4). When they laid the foundations to the Second Temple, they made so much noise that they angered their neighbors (Ez. 3:13-4:1). When the returnees finally finished the temple, they gathered to worship and offer sacrifices again (Ez. 6:16).

Nehemiah’s wall dedication solicited the full array of temple workers, singers, and instrumentalists from their respective towns, not only the priestly divisions scheduled to serve in the temple that week (12:27-29). The joyful celebration included cymbals, harps, lyres, and a choir. Thousands of laypeople also joined the procession. They had taken part in the work of rebuilding the wall, and they wanted to celebrate.

The procession required the resanctification of the priests, people, gates, and wall (12:30). After decades of exile, the people needed to be purified from the contaminating effects of living in an idolatrous land and the subsequent problems with intermarriage and close contact with pagan neighbors. A half century of desertion and gentile occupation also introduced impurities to the city of Jerusalem. Purification renewed both the people and the city, setting them apart as sacred to the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, people are ritually cleansed with a sprinkling of water, a change of clothes, and a shave (Num. 8:7). For inanimate objects—like the gates, walls, and storerooms—the priests may have used water or oil. The text does not specify their methods for purification. Either way, the sanctification of Jerusalem’s walls underscores the postexilic view that all of Jerusalem was a “holy city” (11:1, 18). Ezra and Nehemiah surely hoped that the completion of Jerusalem’s physical fortification would advance her spiritual fortification.

Nehemiah’s first-person voice returns as the memoir reaches its high point, the commemoration of his project to restore the city spiritually and physically. In the book, Nehemiah has not spoken in first-person since he conducted a census (7:5). In describing the procession, his first-person voice returns, saying, “I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great companies that gave thanks and went in procession” (12:31).

The crowd split into two, with one group going atop the wall to the right and one group going to the left. Nehemiah led the group that went clockwise, and Ezra led the group that went counterclockwise (12:36). The wall workers were surely proud that the wall was wide enough and strong enough for the procession. Tobiah had mocked the amateur builders, telling them that the wall would crumble if even a fox tried to scale it, but he was clearly wrong (Neh. 4:3).

The narrative pointed to certain landmarks on the procession’s path that seem purposefully reminiscent of Nehemiah’s secret night journey after he first returned to Jerusalem. The two events are perfect bookends to the story of Nehemiah’s tenure. Three days after Nehemiah first arrived in Jerusalem, he rode his horse along the crumbled ruins of Jerusalem’s perimeter (2:11-16). The next day, Nehemiah commissioned the people, “let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace” (2:17).

By Chapter 12, he accomplished the mission. The large procession walking and worshipping atop the walls, along the same route as his first night inspection, was the perfect narrative counterpoint to disclose just how far Jerusalem and the returnees had come.

Each party included singers, instrumentalists, priests, and officials. The text says the trumpet players had the “musical instruments of David” (11:36). The reference probably does not mean they had the actual instruments from the First Temple. Most likely, the phrase is an acknowledgement that King David was the original founder of the temple’s robust musical ministry (1 Chron. 23:5).

The passage about the wall ceremony emphasizes the act of musical worship and the importance of temple musicians at the risk of minimizing everything else. Most accounts of temple ceremonies usually highlight the sacrifices. However, music is the main catalyst for unification during the wall procession. To reinforce the importance of music to the occasion, the editor listed the musicians by name while he kept the officials and elders anonymous (12:40-41). The editor even notes that Zechariah, one trumpeter, traced his ancestry back to Asaph, David’s original worship leader (12:35).

After the twin processions consecrated the wall by encircling the city, they joined each other in the temple courtyards for a full sacrificial service. Nehemiah, ever a prudent administrator, took advantage of the joyful occasion to remind the worshipers of their duty to bring temple tithes and offerings. For the governor, it was perfectly appropriate to encourage action after a day of elated worship.

After the covenant renewal ceremony in Chapter 10, Nehemiah had urged compliance with the Torah’s guidelines for tithing and bringing first fruits (10:35-39). However, the procession gave the people a new appreciation of the size, scope, and level of the temple’s operations and services. The temple system could not be sustained without consistent tithes and offerings. Before the worshipers returns home, Nehemiah “passed the plate.” This is how we articulate it for current church services that request offerings for a specific need. In Nehemiah’s time, “passing the plate” meant collecting tithes to restock the temple storerooms (12:44). The narrative described the people giving willingly and joyfully (12:44).

Co-leaders

The book of Ezra never mentioned Nehemiah, and Ezra only makes an appearance twice in the book of Nehemiah. What makes the wall procession so unique is that it is the only time Nehemiah and Ezra were presented as co-leaders in the community. The narrative notes that the events occurred “in the days of Nehemiah the governor and of Ezra the priest and scribe” (12:26). Their respective titles show that Ezra worked in the religious arena while Nehemiah served as a political leader.

Although they only appear together twice in the narrative, there was not any bad blood between them. Nehemiah had called on Ezra to present the Torah publicly and the two worked together to dedicate the walls. Ezra and Nehemiah presented the postexilic community with new types of leaders. Usually in the Bible, it was always military leaders or kings who were the heroes of the story. In the postexilic period, a scribe and a governor were the heroes.

Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah were prophets, so they did not speak directly from the Lord like Amos or perform miracles like Elijah. Judah’s lack of independence meant they also did not have royal aspirations. Neither of them were gunning to be king of Judah. Ezra and Nehemiah were practical, godly leaders who sought to do right by God for the nation’s benefit. Their strengths complemented each other as they filled the vacuum of power left by the cessation of prophecy and the ban on local royalty. Ezra was like a second Moses as he led a wave of returnees out of exile and revived the Torah’s primacy in community life. Nehemiah was like a second Joshua, using his administrative skills and leadership gifts to rebuild and defend the nation against her enemies. The two processions circling around the wall in two different directions, but united in purpose, was the perfect final metaphor for the lives and legacies of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week are reading Nehemiah 13. Spoiler alert: the last chapter is a letdown. For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/

I do not say all the references in the podcast, but they are all in the transcript.

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Shabbat Shalom