Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Nehemiah

Identification of Ezra’s law book

The content of Ezra’s law book has interested scholars who are persuaded by the findings of the so-called documentary hypothesis of pentateuchal sources (J, E, D, and P). Early scholars tended to believe that Ezra brought some version of the Priestly Code (P) with him from Babylon. Others have argued for the entire Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), or simply Deuteronomy itself (D). No consensus exists, but a close reading of the material in Ezra 9:1-2 and Nehemiah 8:13-18 suggests that at least parts of both the P and D sources accompanied Ezra on his return. This means, however, that we are speaking of what we generally call our Pentateuch.

Order of the material

Many commentators are troubled by the placement of Ezra’s reading of the law in the book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 7:73b–8:18) and seek to restore its proper placement in the Ezra memoir between Ezra 8 and 9, which better suits the chronological sequencing. While these verses probably have been taken from their original setting in Ezra and inserted into Nehemiah, scholars now ask theological rather than historical questions, such as why the move was made, and attempt to deal with the text as it now stands.

Political organization

Israel organized itself differently at different periods of its history. In the days of the Judges, charismatic leaders were raised up to govern the people. During the monarchy, kings naturally held sway. But in the postexilic period neither of these political avenues was possible. Ezra-Nehemiah reflects a type of theocracy in which God rules through the priestly hierarchy.

Power to the people

Though Yehud (the name given “Israel” by the Persian empire in the postexilic period) was technically ruled by the Achaeminids, there was some notion of God ruling in a theocracy through the priests. Nevertheless, several weighty matters seem to have been decided by “assemblies” of the people, such as the reading of the Torah (8:1) and, most important, dealing with the problem of intermarriage (Ezra 10:9-14).

Relation to Chronicles

Theological differences between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah have caused a revision of the view that Ezra, Nehemiah, and the books of Chronicles share a common authorship and comprise the so-called “Chronicler’s History.” These differences include Chronicles’ inclusive attitude toward the people of the northern kingdom, emphasis upon the Davidic monarchy, and concern with retributive justice–all essentially absent from Ezra-Nehemiah–as well as the differing understanding of “Israel” in the two works. In Chronicles, Israel is defined as all twelve tribes; Ezra-Nehemiah, however, limits Israel to Judah and Benjamin. Currently, most scholars suggest that Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are separate literary entities.

Religious identity

God’s people were no longer identified as Israelites living under the rule of a Davidic king. Ezra, in fact, came to personify the claim that to be a Jew meant that one adhered to the Torah, God’s law (Nehemiah 8:1). It was believed that adherence to the norms and stipulations of Torah would in and of itself produce a community steeped in the traditions of God’s people.

Religious locale

During this period following the exile, Israel began to realize that the identity change resulting from a life based upon adherence to the Torah meant that one’s religious identity was no longer tied to the nationalistic state of Israel. Torah-based living could occur anywhere, even if the cult could only be practiced in the Jerusalem temple.


Shame plays an important role in Nehemiah. The plight of Jerusalem that motivated Nehemiah’s return was its “shame” (Nehemiah 1:3). Following his personal examination of the city, Nehemiah determined that the city’s “disgrace” (2:17, same Hebrew word) could only be removed by repairing the walls. Thus, the problem was not merely one of defense; the walls symbolized God’s honor. Upon their completion, Jerusalem’s enemies “were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem” (6:16a). Later, Nehemiah will similarly be “disgraced” and suffer “reproach” (6:1–7:3).

Was Nehemiah a eunuch? 

The assumption that Nehemiah was a “eunuch” is long-standing and arises from the fact that some cupbearers in the Achaeminid period were eunuchs and that the Vaticanus text of the Septuagint in Nehemiah 1:11b reads eunouchos (“eunuch”). This, however, is probably not the case since many cupbearers in this period were not eunuchs; several texts from the Achaeminid period distinguish between eunuchs and cupbearers; and the Alexandrinus Septuagint text of Nehemiah 1:11b reads oinochoos (“cupbearer”). The close similarity of the two Greek words suggests that “eunuch” most likely is a scribal error for “cupbearer.”