Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Nehemiah

Content of Ezra’s “law book”

The question of the contents of Ezra’s law book has divided scholars who are persuaded by 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. Other scholars have argued for the entire Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), and a few argued for only Deuteronomy or a version of Deuteronomy. No consensus exists, but a close reading of Ezra 9:1-2 and Nehemiah 8:13-18 suggests that Ezra brought with him at least parts of both the P and D sources.

Location of the material

Some commentators are troubled by the placement of Ezra’s reading of the law in the book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 7:73b–8:18) and shift it to the Ezra memoir between Ezra 8 and 9, which better suits the chronological sequencing. While these verses were probably taken from their original setting in Ezra and inserted into Nehemiah, scholars also ask theological questions, such as why the move was made, and read the text in its received form.

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 “Judah” by the Persian empire in the postexilic period) was technically ruled by the Persians, 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 the policy against interracial marriage (Ezra 10:9-14).

Relation to Chronicles

Theological differences between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah subvert the traditional view that these books 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 read Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah as 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 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 of the Persian empire 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.”