Lesson 5 of 6
In Progress

Theological Themes in Nehemiah


A close reading of Ezra-Nehemiah finds David mentioned only in conjunction with worship (for example, Nehemiah 12:24, 36-37, 45-46). This is striking, compared with Chronicles, where David dominates the narrative and often replaces the exodus in parallel passages in Samuel and Kings. Especially jarring is the lack of interest in God’s promise to David of an eternal dynasty (2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17), and only Hattush (Ezra 8:2) is mentioned as of the Davidic line, despite Zerubbabel’s Davidic descent (1 Chronicles 3:17-19) and prominent place in the building of the temple. If the omission of David is deliberate, the relevance of David for the postexilic community is called into question. Since they thought of themselves as “slaves” to the Persian crown (Nehemiah 9:36) and no Davidide had occupied the throne for several generations, one can understand their position.

God’s hand

Ezra (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31) and Nehemiah (1:10; 2:8, 18) both claim that “the hand of our God” was upon them, directing their missions. This also becomes a fruitful way to speak of God’s grace since “God’s hand” is usually nudging those around the Jewish community to provide for them in caring ways. In five of the above references the Hebrew wording (“according to the hand of”) is a technical expression for royal benevolence in its other canonical occurrences (1 Kings 10:13; Esther 1:7; 2:18). This may be a covert way of claiming that God is still king, despite the Persian rule of Yehud, and that it is God’s grace and beneficence that sustains them.

Mixed marriage

In both Ezra and Nehemiah, mixed marriage is seen as a serious sin that threatens the community. Ezra had dealt with the problem by insisting on the divorce of foreign wives (Ezra 9-10), but apparently the problem persisted in the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:23-29). The harshness of this solution continues to trouble readers who fail to see the problem posed by intermarriage. In these books the return to the Promised Land is depicted as a second exodus employing much of the imagery of the first exodus from Egypt and the occupation of the land. Just as Moses had addressed his contemporaries regarding the danger of intermarriage with the indigenous population for fear that such marriages would turn the Israelites away from the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:1-5), so Ezra and Nehemiah are concerned about the purity of their charges and see such marriages as a breach of the covenant.

Nehemiah’s role as “cupbearer”

Nehemiah 1:11 refers to Nehemiah as a “cupbearer.” Though it sounds like a menial task, Nehemiah’s role as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, was an important position. The position of “cupbearer” in the Achaeminid (Persian) court was a position of honor and trust. The cupbearer stood guard over the food and drink of the king, offering protection from political rivals who might try to poison him. This meant that the cupbearer stood beside the king at every meal. When Hanani brought the news of Jerusalem’s ruined state, Artaxerxes was aware of the grief it caused his trusted official, Nehemiah.


Both Ezra and Nehemiah encounter strong opposition to their work from the neighboring peoples. In Nehemiah, every successful advance is met with opposition by Sanballat and his associates: in 2:10, upon hearing of Nehemiah’s mission; in 2:19-20, following Nehemiah’s decision to rebuild the walls; in 4:1-3, following Nehemiah’s successful organization of the project; in 4:7-8, following the completion of half the wall; in 4:15, when the people return to their efforts armed with sword and trowel; in 6:1-9, foiled by Nehemiah’s defense, they attack Nehemiah himself; in 6:16, following completion of the wall.

This theme of opposition forms the narrative backbone of the Nehemiah memoir (1:1a–7:73a). Each stage of the rebuilding concludes with one of these notices, and the notices themselves gradually intensify as seen in the swelling numbers of the opposition and the movement from “displeasure” through “ridicule” and to personal attacks upon Nehemiah himself.


Both Ezra (9:6-15) and Nehemiah (1:5-11) pray. The long prayer in Nehemiah 9:6-37 is attributed to Ezra in the Septuagint and the NRSV, but is probably a prayer of the Levites. All three are prayers of confession. The Ezra and Nehemiah prayers begin with “I” statements that quickly move to “we” statements, showing how closely they identify with their people. The Levites’ prayer is, obviously, the prayer of a group. Nehemiah frequently prays during the intensifying opposition to his mission that he experienced (2:20; 4:4-5, 9; 6:9) as well as upon first hearing of the sorry state of Jerusalem while in Susa (1:5-11a).


In both Ezra and Nehemiah, the people separate themselves from the other nations in order to maintain their identity (Ezra 6:21; 9:1; 10:11; Nehemiah 9:2; 10:28). The books portray a community composed of Judeans who had returned from Babylonian exile and their descendants. Much of the opposition the community faced arose from their stringent belief in maintaining their separateness both politically and religiously. For Nehemiah the political aspects were primary and appear most clearly in his struggles against those who opposed his rebuilding of Jerusalem. His struggle against the community’s mixed marriages was also decidedly political, though Nehemiah used scriptural references drawn from Deuteronomy 7; 23; and 1 Kings 11 to combat marriages contracted for economic reasons among the upper classes.


Nehemiah 5 depicts an economic situation that threatened to destroy the people. A major cause of this crisis was a shortage of food that led to the practice of debt-slavery, a concept foreign and disturbing to contemporary sensibilities, especially when it is realized that Israelites were allowing their own sons and daughters to become slaves. The legal traditions of the Old Testament permitted the poor to work themselves out of indebtedness by allowing creditors to use their land or possessions, or even by becoming slaves temporarily. This was for the benefit of the poor to enable them to become self-sufficient eventually. These “slaves,” technically “debt-slaves,” are to be distinguished from the “chattel slaves” in ancient Near Eastern law. The servitude of a Hebrew debt-slave was limited to six years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12; Jeremiah 34:14) and they were to receive gifts once they were freed that would enable them to maintain their economic security (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).