NEHEMIAH CHAPTER 8
Ezra Reads the Law (Continued)
– All the people gathered together as one in the square that was in front of the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that Yahweh had given Israel to obey. On the first day of the 7th month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which included men, women, and all who were able to understand what they heard. There in the square in front of the Water Gate, he read it aloud from daybreak until noon in the presence of all of those who could understand. All the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
– Several sources provide valuable insight:
– On the location chosen to gather for the reading:
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible: “The Water Gate was located toward the middle of the eastern wall of Jerusalem, south of the Temple and east of the palace ruins (3:26; 12:37). There was plenty of open space so no one would be excluded.”
– ESV Archaeology Study Bible: “It is interesting that this assembly was held not in the temple courts (as was the assembly of Ezra 3), where the altar was the focal point, but rather in one of the centers of daily life, where God’s wisdom needed to be heard (cf Prov 1:20-21; Deut 6:7ff).”
– NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible weighs in on their choice to refer to Ezra here as “teacher of the Law” rather than “scribe,” “The Hebrew uses the word usually translated ‘scribe.’ The NIV decision to render it ‘teacher of the Law’ reflects the idea that at this period the scribes were taking on a more extensive role (similar to the role played by those called the scribes in the Gospels). Some interpreters see in this development the beginning of what might be referred to as Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbis are recognized as those who instruct the people in the law and lead the synagogues that begin developing around this time as houses of prayer and study distinct from the temple. They gave official interpretations of the text of law and advised people about how to live in accordance with the law.”
– On what constitutes the text mentioned as the “Book of the Law of Moses”:
– NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: “There are at least four views abut what this book represented: (1) a collection of legal documents, (2) the collection of priestly writings, (3) the laws from what we know as the book of Deuteronomy or (4) the Pentateuch as a whole (Genesis – Deuteronomy). Ezra could certainly have brought back with him the Torah, i.e., the Pentateuch, which is the view now favored by most scholars. What we recognize as the books of the Torah, and the Torah itself, would likely have been compiled over time from individual documents (scrolls, tablets, etc) that had been archived and repeatedly taught and recopied since the time of Moses.”
– ESV Study Bible: The phrase presumably refers here to all or most of what is known today as the Pentateuch, though in Deuteronomy similar expressions apparently refer to that book in particular…”
– On the timing, duration, and description of attendees:
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible: “The people came together on this day to celebrate the Festival of Trumpets (Lev 23:24-25), which marked the beginning of a new year in the postexilic calendar. The timeframe from early morning until noon provided about six hours for reading and interpreting (8:7-8): This was not just a ritual reading of the law. It included explanations, insight, and applications.”
– ESV Study Bible: “The people of Israel gathered for worship. The inclusion of both men and women is stressed, since the strict keeping of the great Jerusalem feasts was expected of men only (Deut 16:16-17). ‘Understanding’ is a key theme in this chapter, since it was vital that all should be able to know and learn God’s ways as revealed to Israel. The reading and teaching of the law may have been neglected in the generations since the first return from Babylon. The first day of the seventh month was a day of ‘solemn rest,’ like a Sabbath, in the month in which the Day of Atonement was kept and the Feast of Booths was celebrated (see Lev 23:24-25, 27, 34). Remarkably, the Day of Atonement is apparently not observed on this occasion, or at least observance is not recorded.”
– HCSB address a couple of other topics from a timing and apologetics standpoint:
– “Ezra’s abrupt appearance at this point and the shift to third person reporting has led some scholars to contend that some portion of this material (8:1-10:39) was added to Nehemiah’s memoir by a later editor and that these events actually preceded Nehemiah’s presence in Judah. This is probably partially correct. Most likely this material was placed here by the author of Ezra/Nehemiah. However, Neh 8:9 includes Nehemiah in this event. It seems preferable to conclude that Ezra was active during Nehemiah’s governorship, and that this material was inserted at this point because it fit in the actual chronology of the events of the return. Nehemiah’s memoir notes that the wall was completed on the ‘twenty-fifth day of Elul,’ which was the sixth month in the Jewish calendar (6:15). The covenant renewal ceremony began on the first day of the seventh month (8:2).”
– “Some scholars argue that much of the OT Scriptures were written or obtained their current form during the post-exilic period. The reverence that the people show for the Scriptures in this public reading dictates against this argument. Their response suggests that the people had a long-standing knowledge of and love for their sacred writings.”
– Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform which had been built for this occasion. Standing on his right side were: Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah. Standing on his left side were: Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam. Ezra stood on the platform in full view of all the people, and when they saw him open the book, they all stood up. Ezra blessed Yahweh, the great God, and all the people replied “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped Yahweh with their faces to the ground.
– ESV Study Bible writes, “The platform, together with the group of leading men standing with Ezra, emphasized the solemnity of the reading, and allowed all the people to see and hear Ezra. The act of reading, in this carefully organized setting, is also an act of corporate worship.”
– Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah- all of whom were Levites- were teaching the people the law as the people remained standing. They read from the book, from the Law of God, explaining it and imparting insight, so that the people could understand what was read.
– The Hebrew isn’t exactly clear on the meaning of the phrase rendered above (following NET Bible’s translation) as “explaining it and imparting insight.” NET Bible explains:
– “The exact meaning of the pual participle…(mforash) in this verse is uncertain. The basic sense of the Hebrew word seems to be ‘to make distinct.’ The word may also have the sense of ‘to divide in parts,’ ‘to interpret,’ or ‘to translate.’ The context of Neh 8:8 does not decisively clarify how the participle is to be understood here. It probably refers to the role of the Levites as those who explained or interpreted the portions of biblical text that had been publicly read on this occasion. A different option, however, is suggested by the translation distincte (‘distinctly’) of the Vulgate (cf. KJV, ASV). If the Hebrew word means ‘distinctly’ here, it would imply that the readers paid particular attention to such things as word-grouping and pronunciation so as to be sure that the listeners had every opportunity to understand the message that was being read. Yet another view is found in the Talmud, which understands translation of the Hebrew text into Aramaic to be what is in view here. The following explanation of Neh 8:8 is found in b. Megillah 3a: “‘And they read in the book, in the law of God’: this indicates the [Hebrew] text; ‘with an interpretation’: this indicates the targum; ‘and they gave the sense’: this indicates the verse stops; ‘and caused them to understand the reading’: this indicates the accentuation, or, according to another version, the Masoretic notes.” However, this ancient rabbinic view that the origins of the Targum are found in Neh 8:8 is debatable. It is not clear that the practice of paraphrasing the Hebrew biblical text into Aramaic in order to accommodate the needs of those Jews who were not at home in the Hebrew language developed this early. The translation…adopted above (i.e., ‘explaining it’) understands the word to have in mind an explanatory function (cf. NAB, NCV, TEV, NLT) rather than one of translation.”
– Keeping in mind NET Bible’s reasoning above for opting for a meaning other than translation focused, NLT Illustrated Study Bible offers the following view that supports the “translation” understanding of the text, “The Levites always had the role of teaching people God’s word…In this case, they probably explained the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures to smaller groups of people in Aramaic, the language of Babylon, rather than Hebrew as their first language. Jewish leaders eventually translated large portions of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, allowing people to read and study the Bible in a language they understood.”
– All the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Law. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were teaching the people said to all of them, “Today is holy to Yahweh your God. Do not mourn or cry.” Then he continued, “Go and eat delicacies and drink sweet drinks, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t grieve, because the joy of Yahweh is your strength.”
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “God touched the people’s hearts, prompting them to regret their failures to keep God’s laws. While weeping is an appropriate response to sin (see Ezek 9:4; Luke 6:21), Ezra and Nehemiah encouraged the people to rejoice at what God had done. Because this New Year’s festival was to be a time of joy (Num 29:1-6), weeping would have destroyed the spirit of the day.”
– On eating, drinking, and sharing with others, ESV Study Bible adds, “These are important themes of worship in Deuteronomy, where worship was associated with God’s rich gifts and the privilege of sharing them (Deut 12:12; 14:23, 26, 27-29).”
– And the Levites quieted all the people saying, “Be still and don’t grieve, because this day is holy.” Then all the people went their way to eat and drink, and to share their food with others, and to celebrate with tremendous joy because they had understood the words that were explained to them.
Festival of Booths Observed
– On the 2nd day of the month, the family leaders of all the people, along with the priests and Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to study the words of the Law. They found it written in the Law how Yahweh had commanded through Moses that the Israelites were to live in booths during the festival of the 7th month, and that they should make a proclamation and disseminate this message in all their cities and in Jerusalem: “Go out to the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, myrtle trees, date palms, and other leafy trees to make booths, just as it is written.”
– ESV Study Bible says, “The following day, the leaders of the community, taking up their responsibility for studying the Law, realize that they are in the month of the Feast of Booths, or the feast of the seventh month…”
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible remarks, “The Festival of Shelters [or Booths or Tabernacles] commemorated that the people of Israel had lived in tents during their wilderness journey (Lev 23:33-43; see also Num 29:12-39; Deut 16:13- 15).”
– So the people went out, brought back branches, and made booths for themselves on their own rooftops, in their courtyards, in the courtyard of the house of God, in the square at the Water Gate, and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. The whole assembly of those who had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. The Israelites had not celebrated it like this from the days of Nun’s son Joshua up until that day. And there was tremendous joy! Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God every day, from the first day to the last day. They observed the festival for 7 days, and there was an assembly on the 8th day, in accordance with the ordinance.
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “Although Israel had observed this festival on numerous occasions (1 Kgs 8:2; 2 Kgs 23:22; 2 Chron 7:8-10; 30:26; 35:18; Ezra 3:4) this was an exceptional celebration. The law was to be read every seven years at the Festival of Shelters (Deut 31:10-12). It reminded people of the covenant stipulations and of God’s past acts of grace.”
– Guzik adds, “This was beautiful, simple obedience. Their attitude was that God said it, so we will do it. Even though tradition did not tell them to keep the Feast of Tabernacles… but they relied on God’s Word, not on tradition…Because of their great obedience to God’s Word, there was very great gladness. We often are deceived into thinking the path of gladness is in doing our own thing, but gladness and freedom come only through obedience.”