Title (Zech 1:1-1:1)

“In the eighth month,

In the second year

Of King Darius,

The word of Yahweh

Came to the prophet Zechariah,

The son of Berechiah,

The son of Iddo.”

The word of Yahweh came to the prophet Zechariah in the same year as it had come to Haggai, the second year of Persian King Darius I in 520 BCE.  However, this was the 8th month and not the 6th month as with Haggai, so that it was 2 month later.  Zechariah was the son of Berechiah and the grandson of Iddo.  In the Book of Ezra, chapter 5, there is an explicit mention of Haggai and Zechariah, the son of Iddo.  Nehemiah, chapter 12, mentioned Iddo as one of the high priests who came with Zerubbabel when he left Babylon in 538 BCE.  Thus, Iddo would have been an important person.  Berechiah seemed to be less important, but could be the father of the young Zechariah.  Nehemiah mentioned Berechiah as the son of Meshezabel, in chapter 3.

Jeremiah and the jug (Jer 19:1-19:2)

“Thus said Yahweh.


Buy a potter’s earthenware jug!

Take with you

Some of the elders of the people,

As well as some of the senior priests.

Go out to

The valley of the son of Hinnom,

At the entry of the Potsherd Gate!

Proclaim there the words

That I tell you.’”

Yahweh tells Jeremiah to buy an earthen jug. He was supposed to take some of the elders and the senior priests with him. He was to go to the valley of Hinnom at the Potsherd Gate that might be the garbage area around the Dung Gate mentioned in Nehemiah, chapter 4, just outside Jerusalem. There Jeremiah was to proclaim the words that Yahweh would tell him.

Nehemiah (Sir 49:13-49:13)

“The memory of Nehemiah

Also is lasting.

He raised our fallen walls.

He set up the gates.

He set up the bars.

He rebuilt our ruined houses.”

Sirach continues his list of holy men with Nehemiah who rebuilt the fallen walls, gates, and doors around Jerusalem. Nehemiah also restored many of the old ruined houses in the city of Jerusalem as recounted in Nehemiah, chapters 2-3.

Rebuild Zion (Ps 51:18-51:19)

“Do good to Zion!

In your good pleasure!

Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem!

Then you will delight in right sacrifices.

You will delight in burnt offerings.

You will delight in whole burnt offerings.

Then bulls will be offered on your altar.”

This psalm ends with this addition about rebuilding Zion that had nothing to do with David and his sin with Bathsheba.  David had not even built the Temple so that to rebuild it would have been a post-exilic effort such as in Ezra and Nehemiah. This addition is almost in contradiction to the preceding verses that were pointing out the non-importance of sacrifices.  Here it is the opposite.  God would delight in right sacrifices, various burnt offers, and all those bulls on his altar.  This seems to go against the whole theme of this psalm, but brings the repentance back to ritual sacrifices.

The library of Nehemiah (2 Macc 2:13-2:15)

“The same things are reported in the records

And in the memoirs of Nehemiah.

He also founded a library.

He collected the books about the kings and prophets,

And the writings of David.

He collected the letters of kings about votive offerings.

In the same way Judas also collected all the books

That had been lost on account of the war

That had come upon us.

Now they are in our possession.

So if you have need of them,

Send people to get them for you.”

We do have the book of Nehemiah. Whether there were other records or memoires that is mentioned in a library, we are not sure. Nowhere else is there a mention of a library, but Nehemiah and Ezra were 5th century BCE scholars who worked with the law. They may have been the first to have what might be called an unofficial canon of the Bible. He may have been the one who collected the works of the prophets and the books about the kings together with the Pentateuch to create the Hebrew Bible. Judas Maccabeus may have done the same thing. He may have gathered all the biblical books into a library since that is what the Bible means, a library of books. The other biblical moment would have been under King Josiah in the 7th century BCE, when they discovered the book of the law. These Jewish people were willing to lend them out. Alexandria was a major world library at this time. It was there in the 2nd and 3rd century BCE that the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek Septuagint Bible took place. This is one of the few biblical occasions where someone is vaguely talking about the makeup of the Bible itself.

The sacredness of naphtha (2 Macc 1:30-1:36)

“Then the priests sang the hymns.

After the materials of the sacrifice had been consumed,

Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left

Should be poured upon large stones.

When this was done,

A flame blazed up.

But when the light from the altar shone back,

It went out.

When this matter became known,

It was reported to the king of the Persians.

The place where the exiled priests had hidden the fire,

The liquid had appeared

With which Nehemiah and his associates

Had burned the materials of the sacrifice.

The king investigated the matter.

He enclosed the place.

He made it sacred.

With those persons whom the king favored

He exchanged many excellent gifts.

Nehemiah and his associates called this nephthar.

This means purification.

However, by most people it is called naphtha.”

After the priests had sung their hymns and the sacrifice had been consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the left over liquid be poured on large stones. A blaze started when the sun was shining brightly. However, when the sun was not out, there was no flame. This was reported to the king of Persia. Nehemiah was a trusted cupbearer for King Artaxerxes who investigated this material. He then called the place where it was found to be sacred. In fact, he gave this as gifts. Thus naphtha, nephthar, or oil gained its importance.

The importance of fire (2 Macc 1:19-1:23)

“When our ancestors were being led captive to Persia,

The pious priests of that time took

Some of the fire of the altar.

They secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern.

They took such precautions

That the place was unknown to anyone.

But after many years had passed,

When it pleased God,

Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia,

Sent the descendants of the priests

Who had hidden the fire to get it.

When they reported to us

That they had not found fire

But only a thick liquid,

He ordered them to dip it out and bring it.

When the materials for the sacrifices were presented,

Nehemiah ordered the priests

To sprinkle the liquid on the wood

And on the things laid upon it.

When this was done,

Some time had passed.

The sun, which had been clouded over,

Shone out,

A great fire blazed up,

So that all marveled.

While the sacrifice was being consumed,

The priests offered prayer.

The priests and everyone,

Jonathan led.

The rest responded,

As did Nehemiah.”

There is nothing in the book of Nehemiah about this fire incident. If anything it is a reference to the cult of fire among the Persians. Somehow the captured Israelite priests hid a fire that had been on an altar in a dry cistern that no one knew about. How could a fire keep going it no feeds it? When Nehemiah asked the descendents of these priests to get the fire, they told him that they only had a thick liquid that could have been naphtha or petro-chemical oil, which of course, was found in the Persian area. They put wood on it. When the sun shone it, it burst into flames so that it consumed the sacrifice. Obviously, the priests and everyone offered sacrifices. A certain Jonathan seemed to be the priest leader of this ceremony.

The festival of fire (2 Macc 1:18-1:18)

“On the twenty-fifth day of Chislev

We shall celebrate the purification of the temple.

We thought it necessary to notify you.

Thus you also may celebrate the feast of booths.

You may celebrate the feast of the fire

That was given when Nehemiah offered sacrifices

When he built the temple and the altar.”

Judas Maccabeus had celebrated the festival of booths in 1 Maccabees, chapter 4, in 164 BCE. They wanted to celebrate the purification of the temple. At the same time, they wanted them to know that the festival of fire was like at the time of Nehemiah, chapter 8. That writing explained what was to take place at the festival of Booths. There they gathered branches to make tents and live around the fire. It could also refer to the reestablishment of the Temple at that time.

My Understanding of Nehemiah

The Book of Nehemiah is very closely aligned with the Book of Ezra. In fact, they were originally together in one scroll. The time period is practically the same, under the reign of King Artaxerxes I of Persia (464-423 BCE). Some maintain that both Nehemiah and Ezra have the same author. However, it must be noted that both books use the first person singular at various times, which would seem to indicate an attempt to show two different personal individual authors. This work probably dates from around the fourth century BCE. With the books of Chronicles, it is considered one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible.

Nehemiah was the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes, which was an important position with a royal title. Nehemiah first heard about the bad state of Jerusalem when some of his brothers from Jerusalem visited the Persian capital of Susa, where he was with the king of Persia. He prayed to God to know what to do. When he was attending King Artaxerxes, he asked if he could go to Jerusalem to repair the graves of his ancestors. Actually, he wanted to return to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, since there had been a dispute about rebuilding this wall in the Book of Ezra. King Artaxerxes said that Nehemiah could stay for twelve years in Jerusalem. Once again, like Ezra, he got a Persian decree to let him return to Jerusalem in the Province Beyond the Euphrates River.

Once in Jerusalem, Nehemiah secretly inspected the old Jerusalem wall at night. Then he revealed his plans, as the first of many disputes with the royal officials in Samaria took place about building this wall. He with the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas began to the rebuild the wall starting at the northeast side. They went west and south, then back up on the east side again to meet at the Sheep Gate. They went past the Fish Gate, the Old Gate, the Valley Gate, the Dung Gate, and the Fountain Gate. They repaired the old wall, the wall around the house of Eliashib, and the wall to the Ophel, as well as around the Horse Gate.

However, they received some harassment from Sanballat and Tobiah, the royal officials from Samaria, the capital of this province. They mocked the Jews of Jerusalem in their work. Nehemiah turned to prayer in the face of this mocking. They began to once again rebuild the wall, even though Sanballat and Tobiah were plotting against them. The Jews were afraid of being attacked so they decided to arm themselves as they worked on the wall. They would carry swords to work. Then half of them worked and the other half served as guards. They were going to the build the new wall half as high as the original wall.

Since everyone was working on the wall, the fields were neglected. A famine arose, so that some had nothing to eat. Others had to borrow money to get their crops from the field. Finally, some complained about the tax that they had to pay to the king. Nehemiah reprimanded them for charging interest to their fellow Israelites. They were causing them to be put back into bondage. Governor Nehemiah never took any of the food allowances for his office, nor did he collect the taxes he could have taken for himself. However, he provided food for one hundred fifty people a day.

Sanballat and his friends plotted to kill Nehemiah. They wanted to meet with him. A prophet in an oracle warned Nehemiah. He was told to go to the Temple to save his life, but he knew that this would be wrong since only priests and Levites were allowed in the Temple. Tobiah had intermarried with the Jews of Jerusalem so that some people backed him against Nehemiah. Nevertheless Nehemiah continued to work on the wall until they finally finished it in less than two months. Dispute many people being opposed, Nehemiah completed the Jerusalem wall. Once finished, they set a guard for the city of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah then found a book of genealogy about the original settlers of Jerusalem after the exile. This section is much like that of the early part of the Book of Ezra as it too listed the leaders who left Babylon with Zerubbabel and the number of returning people by ancestral families. There also was a list of men returning to the various towns in Judah and Benjamin. Of course there was the list of the returning priests, Levites, Temple servants, and descendents of Solomon’s servants. There also was the question about the disputed Jewish lineage of some of these people returning to Israel. This complete assembly returned and made money contributions as they lived in their towns.

Suddenly Ezra shows up in this book at a big gathering for the reading from the book of Moses. This turns out to be a holy day to study of the law of Yahweh with Ezra. There was a penitential worship of Yahweh. The Levites prayed, followed by a long prayer of Ezra to the creator. Ezra explained the role of Abraham, the Israelite Exodus history, their disobedience in the wilderness, their landing in the Promised Land, and their rebellion against God in Judah and Israel. Finally, he got to the current situation and the problems that they faced.

Nehemiah thought that they should have a new written covenant. Then he had the priests, the Levites, and the leaders of the people sign it. The rest of the people agreed with it. This agreement called for the Israelites not intermarry with the local peoples of the land. They were to keep the Sabbath and their tithing Temple obligations.

About ten percent of the people would live in Jerusalem. This included people from Judah and Benjamin, priests, Levites, gatekeepers, and the overseers. The other ninety percent of the people were to live in the many villages of Judah and Benjamin.

Then Nehemiah listed the priests and Levites who came with Zerubbabel, as well as the genealogy of the high priests. He also listed the priests in the days of the high priest Joiakim as well as the Levites in the days of Eliashib.

Finally they had a big celebration for the dedication of the wall. They held the celebration at the various gates. Ezra led one group processing around the south and east side of the wall, while Nehemiah led the other group around the west and northern side until they met together for the great musical worship celebration. People were put in charge of various things as Nehemiah returned to the Persian capital, but not before he warned them about excluding foreigners from their assembly.

When Nehemiah returned a few years later, he was really upset, because all his good work had gone for naught. The high priest Eliashib had set up a room for Tobiah in the Temple because of his marriage to family members of Eliashib. Nehemiah threw out all his furniture. He found out that that the Levites and singers went back to working in the fields because no one was collecting tithes. They were profaning the Sabbath by buying and selling merchandise on the Sabbath in Jerusalem. Thus, Nehemiah decided to lock the gates on the Sabbath so that the merchants could not get in. He also noticed the mixed marriages where the children did not speak Hebrew. He cursed them, beat them, and pulled out their hair. This was not a mere prohibition since he took physical action against them. He took a priest out of service because he had married a foreigner. He tried to make Israel clean. Each time he prayed to God to be remembered as trying to do this best. The second return of Nehemiah was not as happy as his first attempt to build the wall. Thus we have some insight about those returning to Jerusalem after the exile in the fifth century BCE.

Everything was clean (Neh 13:30-13:31)

“Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign. I established the duties of the priests and the Levites, each in his work. I provided for the wood offering, at appointed times, and for the first fruits.

‘Remember me,

O my God, for good.’

Nehemiah on this second trip had accomplished his task. He had cleansed Jerusalem from everything foreign. He had reestablished the priests and Levites in their work. There would be sacrifices in the Temple at the appointed times. He wanted God to remember him for all the good that he had done.