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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 13. I divided the chapter into two parts to avoid rushing through the last nine verses of Nehemiah, which are thought-provoking to say the least.

I have had part two of Nehemiah 13 written for weeks, but the events of October 7th took center stage in my mind and life and I assume they did for many of you as well. The first few days after Hamas’s killing spree, I was encouraged by the response of world leaders who unequivocally condemned the murder of innocent civilians.

We have come to know more about Hamas’s disgusting tactics through the confessions of captured Hamas operatives, the footage from their body cameras, the recordings of their phone calls, and the evidence from the charred and mutilated bodies of their Jewish victims. And yet, support for Israel’s right to retaliate has weakened. Even worse, the details of Hamas’s incursion have emboldened the pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas crowds. Their chants of death to the Zionists and Jews make me fear it is the 1940s all over again.

But we will press on as an organization as we find ways to support modern Israel, confront the anti-Israel forces in America. We study the Bible as our foundation for why we do what we do and believe what we believe. Also, I got an email from one of Bible Fiber’s Jewish listeners in Virginia who asked that we keep pressing on in our study. So, Am Israel Chai and back to Nehemiah.


When Nehemiah journeyed from Susa back to Jerusalem, he apparently travelled through the Judean countryside and witnessed some disturbing behaviors. The first offense we talked about in last week’s episode, where he witnessed Judeans on Sabbath treading grapes and loading carts with their produce, works forbidden on the day of rest.

As Nehemiah traveled through the peripheral communities, the number of Israelites who reverted to intermarrying with the locals alarmed him. According to his report, he found that half of the Israelite children did not even know the Hebrew language (Neh. 13:24). They had learned the language and customs of their pagan mothers. The border towns were more at risk than Jerusalem because they interfaced frequently with the neighboring Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites. For them, Nehemiah feared total assimilation.

If the children couldn’t speak Hebrew, they wouldn’t understand the laws of Moses. Disconnection from their heritage, traditions, and language could result in them never knowing Yahweh. Losing the Hebrew language was emblematic of their total loss of spiritual identity, a weakness that chipped away at their national unity as well.

Nehemiah’s violent defense of the Hebrew language reminds me of the passion project of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Ben Yehuda led the campaign to revive the Hebrew language fifty years before modern Israel established statehood. People in Jerusalem thought Ben Yehuda was crazy. Even Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, doubted Ben Yehuda’s dream would materialize. Reviving an ancient language as the national language of a modern people had never occurred before in history. By teaching his first son only Hebrew, Ben Yehuda proved that the mission could be accomplished within one generation. But only if the people were as committed to the language project as they were to achieving statehood.

That is why Nehemiah went berserk in response to the threat of losing the next generation. He understood all that was at stake. He also had clearly reached his tipping point as a leader. Nehemiah’s memoir is testimony to the realities of a life called to leading people who do not always want to be led. Nehemiah admitted, “I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of the men and pulled out their hair” (13:24). To any listener out there who has committed their life to the ministry, I see you. Ministry burnout is real.

Often you will hear in sermons or commentaries about how this episode in Nehemiah’s career shows the ways his leadership style differed from Ezra. When Ezra found out about the intermarriage issue in the postexilic community, he pulled his hair out (Ez. 9:3). When Nehemiah witnessed the problem of intermarriage, he cursed, beat, and plucked out the hair of the guilty. Ezra imploded. Nehemiah exploded. Ezra internalized his grief, while Nehemiah externalized his grief. However, take note that despite Nehemiah’s violent reaction, it was Ezra that went to a further extreme with his punishment.

Ezra called for the expulsion of foreign wives and their children from Judah (Ez. 9-10). Nehemiah did not call for divorce, but only asked that the people make a pledge that they would no longer allow their children to intermarry with their pagan neighbors (13:25). So, while Nehemiah was radical in his response, Ezra was radical in his consequence. Nehemiah and Ezra’s problem with intermarriage was spiritual and not racial. They feared that mixed marriage invited mixed worship (Ezek. 36:23).

In case the community saw his reaction as too extreme, Nehemiah reminded the returnees that King Solomon’s foreign wives were his downfall (1 Kings 11:1-8). Even Solomon’s wisdom and faith were not strong enough to withstand the corroding effects of union with unbelievers. Solomon compromised his own faith to support his wives’ idolatry. Nehemiah’s point was that if God held Solomon accountable for the sin of pagan marriage, he would certainly hold the remnant to account as well (13:26).

At first, Nehemiah generalized the problem of intermarriage by talking to the remnant about its impact on the next generation. Then he got specific with a targeted example that disturbed him. Jehoiada, the grandson of the high priest Eliashib, married Sanballat’s daughter. Sanballat was a pagan outsider and the number one enemy of the restoration project, alongside Tobiah. Yet somehow his daughter married into the highest echelon of Judean society, the high priesthood. How frustrating that after all Nehemiah did for the community, Sanballat and Tobiah remained stubbornly in place. They had been out of the story since the completion of the wall project, and the reader sensed that they were no longer a threat to the community. But they wormed their way back and became even more integrated into the community than ever.

By God’s design, the high priesthood was supposed to be held to the highest standard of purity (Lev. 21:14). Jehoiada’s marriage to a non-Israelite should have disqualified him from being a high priest, but the people allowed it, causing pollution in the temple and priesthood. Nehemiah, out of patience, chased Jehoiada away from him (13:28) and then he prayed and asked God to take notice of the priests’ sin and punish them directly (13:29).

Remembering Nehemiah

The Nehemiah in Chapter 13 is unlike the Nehemiah we saw in the first twelve chapters. In Nehemiah’s first stint as governor, he was a prudent diplomat and creative administrator. After he returned for a second term, he was suddenly throwing furniture out of the temple storeroom, hitting Israelite men married to foreign wives, and chasing the high priest away from him. Nehemiah’s character is almost unrecognizable.

In the Bible, when it comes to the covenant, the temple and community purity, God rewards zealotry and condemns apathy. As the Psalmist exhorts, “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (Ps. 97:10). Phinehas is best known in the Torah for stabbing an Israelite man and Midianite woman caught in an improper relationship. The zeal Phinehas possessed for God’s law single-handedly turned back the wrath of God from the wilderness encampment (Num. 25:13).

Even Jesus, the Prince of Peace, got physical when he witnessed violations of the Second Temple’s sanctity (Matt. 21:12-13; John 2:14-16). Jesus threw over the tables, scattered their coins, and made a whip of chords to drive out the merchants and money changers. Feeling outrage by sin and rebellion against God stems from a compulsion to defend what is holy. Revelation’s warning to the church was like Nehemiah’s warning to the remnant. God hates complacency. Revelation warns, “Because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15).
However, Nehemiah did not only resort to violence. He also went to God in prayer. Throughout the ordeal of confronting the resurgence of sin in the community, Nehemiah prayed and asked God to remember his acts of devotion (13:14, 22, 31). He pleads, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service” (13:14).

The chapter’s last line is “Remember me, O my God, for good” (13:31). All Nehemiah had left was a prayer that God would recognize his efforts. As we close out Nehemiah, it is worth asking ourselves, how do we remember Nehemiah, the postexilic reformer and selfless governor, set on the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the purification of her citizens?

The last chapter detracts from the success of Nehemiah. Until Nehemiah returned from Susa, Nehemiah met every challenge head-on and overcame them with creativity and panache. After finishing the walls of Jerusalem, the community got together and celebrated the accomplishment by studying Torah, repenting, celebrating festivals, renewing the covenant, and organizing joyful processions. It seems like it would make the book of Nehemiah so much more satisfying if it ended with Chapter 12’s wall procession and left out the confrontations on Nehemiah’s return.

Nehemiah’s twelve years of work seemed nullified as soon as he walked away. Or at least the book ends with that low point. Were his reforms for nothing? Did Nehemiah’s mission fail? Is Nehemiah the story of a defunct revival? Apparently, all it took was time to erode the people’s convictions and strip away their spiritual zeal. The joy, unity, and obedience that followed Ezra’s public reading came up shallow.

Looking through the long lens of history, Ezra and Nehemiah were the bridge connecting First Temple Judaism to Second Temple Judaism. Faithful Jews in the Second Temple period became more committed to purity, Sabbath, temple worship, and bringing tithes and offerings.

Everything Ezra and Nehemiah harped about, even intermarriage, got stricter over the next four centuries. Torah study became central to Jerusalem’s spiritual life. The community also established firmer boundaries to protect Judah from the outside world. The boundaries faced their biggest challenge a hundred years after Ezra and Nehemiah, when Israel was incorporated into Alexander the Great’s empire. Had it not been for Ezra and Nehemiah’s reforms, Judaism would not have possessed the tools to resist total assimilation with Hellenistic culture.

As a Christian, I also believe that Nehemiah ended with an episode of relapse instead of the joyful wall procession to remind us that the story of redemption did not climax with the edict of Cyrus, the wave of returnees from exile, the rebuilding of the temple, or the completion of the city walls. Even though the promised remnant survived captivity and Jerusalem was restored from the ashes, the people of Judah still fumbled in the dark. And the nations were left in absolute blindness. The light of Jesus was coming. God’s long story of redemption could not conclude until Jesus launched God’s rescue plan for the entire world.

The rebuilt Second Temple disappointed the returnees, who had witnessed the glory of the First Temple. Nehemiah’s walls served their purpose of protection, but they also did not compare to Solomon’s fortifications. None of that will matter in the end, however, when God brings heavenly Jerusalem to earth. According to Revelation, the exalted Jerusalem will have “no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb,” Jesus Christ. Just as the prophets predicted, “the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:10-11).

That is a wrap on Ezra-Nehemiah. After we finished the Minor Prophets, I took a theological pause to discuss whether the prophetic office truly ended with Malachi. This time, we are pausing between book studies, and I am going to give a mini-series on the peoples of the Bible, Judah’s neighbors who get plenty of references in the Hebrew scriptures. After the mini course, our next challenge is the book of Ezekiel.

As always, thank you for listening. My only measure of success for Bible Fiber is if people, even a few, are reading parts of the Bible that they had previously neglected and seeing them with fresh eyes and hearing the scripture with new ears. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Shabbat Shalom.v