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.