NEHEMIAH CHAPTER 13
Nehemiah’s Further Reforms
– ESV Archaeology Study Bible gives some context for what we’re about to read in vv. 1-9, “After a period of absence from Judah, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem for another term as governor, only to find the high priest’s relative, Tobiah the Ammonite, ensconced in one of the temple chambers that formerly held temple offerings. Nehemiah ejected Tobiah from his temple apartment…”
– On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people, and it was found written there that no Ammonite or Moabite may ever enter the assembly of God because they did not meet the Israelites with food and water. Instead, they had hired Balaam to curse them, but our God turned the curse into a blessing. As soon as the people heard this law, they separated all those of mixed decent from Israel.
– ESV Study Bible writes, “This text closely follows Deut 23:3-5, which expressly excludes the Moabites and Ammonites from the religious assembly of Israel (for several generations) because of their historical enmity against Israel and their infectious idolatry (see Numbers 22-25). This resembles the measures taken by Ezra a decade or so earlier (Ezra 9-10), but there is no sign here of compulsory divorce. Note Ezra 6:21, which allowed foreigners to join Israel if they embraced Jewish religion, as in the book of Ruth (who was a Moabite).”
– On Balaam, ESV Archaeology Study Bible adds, “The reference is to the seer of Numbers 22-24. An Aramaic plaster inscription dating to the sixth century BC referring to Balaam was found inscribed on a wall in Deir Alla on the Jordan’s east bank…”
– HCSB points out, “Racists cite this act as support for their bigotry. They are mistaken to do so, however. God’s exclusion of Ammonites and Moabites from the assembly was in response to their refusal to assist the Israelites during the wilderness journey (Nm 21:21-24; 22:1-24:25; Deut 23:3-6). Their race was not the issue; their refusal to assist God’s people was the issue. These people experienced God’s vow to bless those who bless Abraham and to curse those who curse him (Gn 12:3; 27:29; Nm 24:9)…”
– Guzik clarifies, “This meant to be regarded as one of the people of Israel and people of God. It meant one could fully participate in the spiritual life of Israel. An Israelite was part of God’s covenant by birth; but an Ammonite or Moabite was not. They had to become a part of the covenant by choice – by joining with God’s covenant people and leaving the gods of their people. They had to choose to reject those gods and embrace Yahweh. This command was a powerful message. It said to these Ammonites and Moabites, ‘You were not a part of the people of God by birth. You must choose this and leave the thinking and deeds of your anti-God culture, and truly join in the spiritual life of God’s people. Unless you leave one and join the other, you will never really be a part of this spiritual life. Come join us!'” On what it meant to separate those of mixed decent from Israel, Guzik continues, “This refers to those who wanted to associate with the people of Israel but did make a full commitment and embrace the covenant. Even today, there may be people of good will in churches; honorable people, who have some respect for God and His word. Yet they are part of the mixed multitude because they have not received God’s covenant of salvation in Jesus. Such people are welcome, but it should be understood where they stand.”
The two images above are from the Apadana relief showing a solemn procession of tribute bearers
– Now before this time Eliashib the priest, who was related to Tobiah, had been appointed over the storerooms of the house of our God, and had provided Tobiah with a large room that had previously been used to store the grain offerings, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, new wine, and olive oil prescribed for the Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests.
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “Eliashib the priest (see 12:10, 22; 13:28) had stopped following the practice of excluding the Ammonites and Moabites (13:1), and the people quit giving their tithes to the Levites (13:10- 12)…Eliashib’s family intermarried with the families of Sanballat (13:28) and Tobiah. Both of these men were enemies of the Jewish community (2:10, 19: 4:1). Tobiah’s use of the storeroom meant there was less room to store tithes and gifts for the Temple workers (cp 10:39; 13:10-12; 2 Chr 31:11) and less space for supplies needed to conduct regular worship at the Temple (Lev 2).”
– While all of this was going on I was not in Jerusalem, because I had returned to King Artaxerxes in Babylon in the 32nd year of his reign. Some time later I asked the king for a leave of absence to come back to Jerusalem. Then I discovered the evil thing that Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of God’s house. I was very angry, and I threw all of Tobiah’s household possessions out of the storeroom. I gave orders to purify the storerooms, and then I had the equipment of the house of God returned, along with the grain offering and the frankincense.
– ESV Study Bible writes, “When Nehemiah was given leave of absence, the king had required him to name a time for his return (2:6). It is not clear whether he had traveled more than once between Jerusalem and the royal court. In any case, he is now called back in the thirty-second year (433 BC; cf 1:1) for an unspecified time…Eliashib…may have been opposed to Nehemiah’s policy of strict separation from the community’s neighbors, and thus may have taken advantage of his perhaps lengthy absence.” On the reference to Artaxerxes as the “king of Babylon” the same source continues, “An unexpected name for the Persian Artaxerxes; but see Ezra 5:13 and 6:22, where Persian kings are called king of Babylon and Assyria, respectively. This is because the successive empires in some sense took on the identity of their predecessors. In addition, Artaxerxes might actually have been holding court in Babylon at the time. Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem must have been before Artaxerxes’ death in 423 BC.”
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible points out, “When people rejected God’s instructions, Nehemiah refused to be silent. Everything associated with the Temple had to be purified and consecrated to God…”
– I also found out that the Levites had not been given their prescribed portions of food, and that as a result the Levites and the singers who performed this work had all returned to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials saying, “Why has the house of God been neglected?” Then I gathered the Levites and the singers together and stationed them at their posts.
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible says, “With Tobiah using the storeroom, there had been no place to store tithes to feed the Levites and Temple singers…They had to farm outside of Jerusalem (12:28-29) to support themselves and could not serve in the Temple.”
– Then all of Judah brought the tithe of grain, new wine, and olive oil into the storehouses. Then I commanded that Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a certain Levite named Pedaiah be in charge of the storerooms, and that Hanan, whose father was Zakkur and grandfather was Mattaniah, be their assistant, because they were considered trustworthy. It was then their responsibility to oversee the distribution to their fellow Levites.
– ESV Archaeology Study Bible remarks that the names Shelemiah, Pedaiah, and Zaccur, “all occur on sixth-century-BC seals and/or in the Elephantine documents.”
– Remember me for this, my God, and don’t erase the good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and its services!
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “Because he stood up for God, Nehemiah asked God to remember his deeds and not abandon him in his time of need. Perhaps he experienced opposition from those he had corrected. See similar refrains in 13:22, 29, 31.”
– In those days I saw the people of Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath. They were also bringing in heaps grain and loading them onto donkeys, along with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of other loads. All kinds of goods were being brought to Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. So I warned them against selling food on that day. People from Tyre who lived there were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and were selling it on the Sabbath to the people of Judah in Jerusalem. So I rebuked the nobles of Judah saying to them, “What is this evil thing you’re doing- profaning the Sabbath day? Isn’t this the way your ancestors acted, causing our God to bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath!”
– NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible writes, “In modern times it [Tyre] is located only about 12 miles north of the border between Israel and Lebanon. Tyre was renowned for its far-flung maritime trade…”
– ESV Study Bible says, “The people of Judah break the Sabbath my trading. Foreigners would not be bound by the Sabbath law, of course, but they find a ready market among the Jews. Sabbath breach was a telling aspect of previous generations’ lax attitude toward the Torah (see Jer 17:19-27; Amos 8:4-6). Here the exile is attributed to it.”
– Guzik points out, “The New Testament makes it clear we are not under the law of the Sabbath in the same sense Israel was under the Old Covenant (Colossians 2:16-17); but we are certainly under the same obligation to make honoring God more important than making money or spending money.”
– When the evening shadows began to fall on the gates of Jerusalem just before the Sabbath, I ordered that the gates be closed and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no goods could enter on the Sabbath day. The traders and sellers of all kinds of merchandise camped outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said, “Why are you camping by the wall? If you do so again, I will forcibly remove you!” From that time on, they no longer came on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites to go purify themselves and come guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath holy.
– NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible says, “The gates began to cast long ‘evening shadows’ even before sunset, when the Sabbath began. The Israelites, like the Babylonians counted their days from sunset to sunset (the Egyptians reckoned their days from dawn to dawn). The precise moment the Sabbath began was heralded by the blowing of a trumpet by a priest.”
– Remember me for this also, my God, and show me mercy in keeping with Your steadfast love.
– In those days I also saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or one of the other peoples mentioned, but were unable to speak the language of Judah at all. I rebuked them and called down a curse on them. I beat some of them and pulled out their hair. I made them swear an oath in God’s name and said, “You will not give your daughters in marriage to their sons, or take their daughters as wives for your sons or yourselves! Was it not because of marriages like these that King Solomon of Israel sinned? There was not a king like him among many nations. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, yet even he was led into sin by his foreign wives! Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible evil and being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”
– ESV Study Bible notes, “Ezra’s measures (Ezra 9-10) apparently had little lasting effect. The real problem of mixed marriages is illustrated vividly here, as the children of these unions, in losing the language of Judah…were in effect losing their entire religious heritage. In his violent but symbolically powerful reaction, Nehemiah calls the people back to the Mosaic law (Deut 7:1-5) and points to the example of Solomon, who was turned from faithfulness to the Lord by his foreign wives (1 Kings 11).”
– Guzik says, “From this strong reaction of Nehemiah, we gather he considered this to be the most dangerous of their sins – pursing ungodly romance, and getting involved in romantic relationships God had said “no” to. His example of Solomon is well taken…If Solomon, one of the wisest and most blessed men ever, sinned with unwise and ungodly romance then no one else should consider themselves invulnerable.”
– Even one of Joiada’s sons, the son of Eliashib the high priest, had become a son- in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. So I drove him away from me.
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “Even the family of the high priest, who were supposed to be Israel’s spiritual leaders, had participated in the sin of intermarriage with unbelieving foreigners…Nehemiah banished the offender, stripping him of status and removing his rights in the Jewish community.”
– ESV Archaeology Study Bible adds this fascinating tidbit, “It is possible that the expulsion of Sanballat’s son-in-law led eventually to the establishment of the Samaritans’ own religion and temple on Mount Gerizim. Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 11.302-12) suggests as much, though placing the story later in the time of Alexander the Great, about a century after Nehemiah.”
– Remember them, my God, for defiling the priesthood, the covenant of the priesthood, and the Levites.
– So I purified the priests and the Levites from everything foreign, and I assigned specific duties to the priests and Levites. I also arranged for the contributions of wood at the designated times, and for the firstfruits.
– Remember me with favor, my God.
– Guzik concludes with this profound insight:
– “At the end of it all, Nehemiah knew he did his best to make the people of God strong, safe, and secure. Beyond that, he also led them to be pure, worshipful, and obedient. Yet, Nehemiah certainly carried a sense of failure…
– “This makes a point vividly clear: the law – that is, rules, vows, promises, covenants, and the such, are all ultimately powerless to stop sin. Only the grace of God, alive and flowing in our lives, can give us the power to truly overcome sin. Paul expressed this in Romans 8:3, among other places: For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.
– “Too many Christians look for victory in the making of rules, of vows, of promises – and fail to find it, because all those things tend to make us look to ourselves, instead of looking to Jesus. The Old Testament history of Israel, from beginning to end, illustrates this. When the nation was first born at the Exodus, despite the most spectacular miracles, displays of God’s glory, and revelation of the law, the people sinned, by crediting a gold calf with their deliverance from Egypt! And now here, at the end of the Old Testament history of God’s people in the promised land, Nehemiah is pulling hair out – his own and those of sinners – because they couldn’t keep their promises to God. If we could be saved by our own promises, by our own commitment to Jesus, then His death would have been noble, but unnecessary. We aren’t saved by some vow we make, or some leaf we turn over, but by trusting in who Jesus is, and what He has done to save us.”