Lesson 1 of 6
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Summary of Nehemiah


Nehemiah concludes a cycle of episodes begun in the Book of Ezra: return and reconstruction of the temple under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:5–6:22); return and reconstruction of the community under Ezra (7-10); and in the Book of Nehemiah, return and reconstruction of the city walls under Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:1–7:73a). The Book of Nehemiah is concerned with the last return; the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (2:11–6:19) and the repopulation of the city (11:1-36).  Similar to the previous missions, this task is met with opposition from the surrounding peoples (2:10–5:19); the opposition is overcome, and the project ends with a joyful celebration (12:22-43). Following a brief interlude, Nehemiah returns for a second term as governor and carries out a number of reforms (13:4-31).


Ezra and Nehemiah are our only narrative sources for the restoration after the Babylonian exile, 538 to 430 B.C.E. The postexilic period witnessed the reestablishment of the Jewish religious community in Jerusalem and the implementation of the Torah. Though the situations we face are quite different from those encountered by the postexilic community, both Ezra and Nehemiah provide many examples of hard work coupled with prayer, faith in and submission to God as a formula for accomplishing difficult missions, a formula that is as relevant today as it was then.


Nehemiah is the 16th book of the Old Testament, coming immediately after Ezra and before Esther. In the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (the Jewish ordering of the books), Nehemiah comes between Ezra and Chronicles – the three books that conclude the collection.


Jewish tradition identifies Ezra as the author of the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles. However, some scholars believe Ezra and Nehemiah come from a different hand than Chronicles and that various older traditions have been gathered and edited by a postexilic editor, with an autobiographical section believed to be written by Nehemiah, the so-called Nehemiah memoir (Nehemiah 1:1–7:73a; parts of 12:27-43; and 13:4-31).


The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, separate works in English Bibles, appear as a single book in the earliest manuscripts, suggesting that they are best read and interpreted as a literary unit. Uncertain dates for Ezra and differing understandings of the compositional history of this material make precise dating impossible, though recent scholarship favors a date somewhere in the first quarter of the fourth century B.C.E.


Nehemiah presents an account of the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem and the repopulation of the city under the direction of Nehemiah, promulgation of the law by Ezra, and subsequent reforms by Nehemiah.


Ezra-Nehemiah should be read as a theological, rather than a chronological, presentation of the return of Israel after the exile to Babylon. The theological flavor of Ezra-Nehemiah is evident in the flow of the narrative: the rebuilding of the temple, followed by the purification of the people; the rebuilding of the walls, followed by the reading of the Torah. Ezra-Nehemiah presents a formative period for biblical Israel’s nation building, religious institutionalization, and scriptural development.