Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – Nehemiah

To do or not to do

Earlier biblical narratives lay emphasis on the actions of the leaders – e.g., patriarchs, judges, kings, prophets. Ezra-Nehemiah shows, on the other hand, that the community can help itself. Zerubbabel and Ezra did not rebuild the temple; the community did. Nehemiah didn’t rebuild the walls; the community did. The leaders gave directions; the community decided whether to do or not to do as directed.

The community also had the will to resist. The matter of interracial marriage is a case in point. Ezra required the community to send foreign wives away, but the community did not all submit to his direction; later, Nehemiah came and again spoke against foreign wives (Nehemiah 13:23–29). The refusal (read: resistance) of the community invites rethinking the wisdom of the harsh theological position against foreign wives. Interracial marriage was a thorn in the side of Ezra-Nehemiah, worried as they were about religious purity, but also arguably demonstrating racism and xenophobia.

In Shakespeare’s play Othello, the main character was despised by his father-in-law, Brabantio. Brabantio is said to have died from his anguish over his daughter Desdemona’s interracial marriage – seen as an “unnatural mistake” – with Othello.

Across history, interreligious and inter-caste marriages have irked traditionalist (or fundamentalist) members of religious communities. So-called honor killing (the murder of a family member who, appealing to Shakespeare, enters an “unnatural” marriage) is one of the extreme responses to such marriages, but unfortunately, such honor killings are still practiced today in some very traditional communities.

In more recent times, same-sex marriage is the thorn in the side of fundamentalist communities. In the modern world, removal of so-called unnatural partners and honor killings cannot be the responses. 

Crises, restoration, and control

Crises come in many forms: ecological, economic, political, pandemic, endemic, warfare – civil and international, and so forth. Sometimes, crises overlap – e.g., the Covid-19 pandemic overlapped with political and societal wars in Ethiopia, Sudan, Myanmar, Haiti, Ukraine – and the underprivileged in those societies shoulder a double portion of the crises.

Crises destroy some people, along with their homes and hopes, and disperse many; those who survive, at home and in diaspora, become – with scars and aches – stronger and more resilient. And as they manage their despair and recover from their losses, they also seek to restore their homes, institutions, and ways.

The main plot of Disney’s animated movie Moana (2016), which draws upon Pasifika (Pacific, Oceania) institutions, is about restoration: of Maui’s hook, of Te Fiti’s heart, of Motunui’s wellbeing, and of islanders’ navigation (wayfinding) wisdom. At the end of the movie, Moana returns to her parents and community and teaches them to “know the way.”

In real life, however, restoration is not free – of troubles, or of add-ons. Former colonies may gain or receive independence, but strings are attached. For instance, when the Pasifika islands became independent from the British Empire, our people could not unshackle our native minds from the myths of Whiteness. And even though the British Empire departed, the Westminster legal system lingered to determine the right/wrong and the just/unjust – up to today in many former colonies.

Post restoration, leaders stipulate policies and laws in the name of unison and harmony (as in Ezra-Nehemiah). But those policies and laws are also for the purpose of controlling the mind and will of the survivors. Freedom for the latter is not complete, yet.

From Pasifika, the British Empire has “departed” but the United States, France, Chile, and Indonesia still occupy (is)lands and worldviews. The legacies and crises of colonization have not ended. Colonialism is alive in Pasifika today, as it was in Yehud (the name that the Persian empire gave “Judah” in the postexilic period) at the time of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Where we belong

Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of various people, to borrow the title of the Samoan novelist Sia Figiel, (re)claiming the place Where We Once Belonged (1997). Figiel used the Samoan storytelling form of su’ifefiloi (which refers to “a woven garland of flowers”) to string together various stories into a cohesive fiction. The shifting and mixing of stories in Ezra-Nehemiah would be reasonable in the lens of su’ifefiloi.

The main character in Where We Once Belonged is Alofa Filiga, a young woman who grows up in a restricted patriarchal society. Between the ages of 13 and 17, as she is coming of age, Alofa learns that other people are in control of her life—through domestic violence, for example, and the individualistic “I” form of Western education that suppresses the “we” culture of the natives—and her response is to seek selfhood and independence.

In Figiel’s winking su’ifefiloi eyes, a garland of stories that strings together opportunities for independence and collaboration, and for self-determination and sovereignty, will help us find and be at home – where we belong.