Nehemiah 11 A Capitol Idea

Questions: Why induce people to live in the Capitol? Why focus on the leaders? Who’s responsible? Does it matter? “Read More” to pursue answers in Nehemiah.

Lord, speak to me through your Spirit and your Word, your Body and your Blood;
that I might know you as you are, and manifest the image of Christ in this world,
and the world to come. Amen.

Nehemiah 11:1-36

Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. The people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.

Hmm. Even now that Jerusalem has walls and is secure, living there appears more a burden than a privilege; that is, the “losers” of the lottery were apparently the ones who had to live there! Why was it necessary to have more people in the city, and why was it considered risky? And was it different for the commoners (who came by lot, or the occasional heroic volunteer) than for the rulers?

Well, the whole thrust of Nehemiah is that the integrity of Jerusalem is central to the identity of Israel. This would explain both why the leaders had to live there, and why the people as a whole felt it was necessary to have sufficient people there to “provide for the safety and prosperity of the city.” However, that still doesn’t explain why people had to be coerced to live there. Does it?

One possibility, of course, is that an agrarian population wouldn’t want to live in towns at all, though that can’t be the whole story:

Now these [are] the chief of the province that dwelt in Jerusalem: but in the cities of Judah dwelt every one in his possession in their cities, [to wit], Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the Nethinims, and the children of Solomon’s servants.

Clearly, lots of people were willing to live in cities, but the important point appears to be that they’d prefer to still live near ertheir own property. I would imagine it must be like English landowners, whose income was primarily tied to their land, but might maintain a residence in town for business and social reasons. In that case, it would make sense that leaders would have had both an obvious need to be in Jerusalem, as well as the wherewithal to manage their estates from a relatively large distance.

But if that’s so, then what of the “common folk” who were forced to live so far from their own land, to round out the economy and defenses? More, who would volunteer under such circumstances?

Well, some of the volunteers presumably took great pride in defending their capital, and perhaps exchanged an agrarian career for a military one:

All the sons of Perez that dwelt at Jerusalem [were] four hundred threescore and eight valiant men.

Others similarly saw it as a place of opportunity, for civil service:

And Joel the son of Zichri [was] their overseer: and Judah the son of Senuah [was] second over the city.

Of course, some had religious obligations at the temple:

Of the priests: Jedaiah the son of Joiarib, Jachin. Seraiah the son of Hilkiah, the son of Meshullam, the son of Zadok, the son of Meraioth, the son of Ahitub, [was] the ruler of the house of God

And some might have had multiple motivations:

And their brethren, mighty men of valour, an hundred twenty and eight: and their overseer [was] Zabdiel, the son of [one of] the great men.

I suspect these — along with a few merchants — were the ones who volunteered, or stayed naturally because of their office. While some conscripts probably found their calling along similar lines, though, I suspect the rest continued as farmers, which implies to me that they’d have to give up their ancestral land and take over new ground nearer the capitol (which was presumably underpopulated post-exile, else there wouldn’t have been the need for forced resettlement).

That had to have been difficult, especially after all the effort they’d made to get back to their land! Yet, it was essential for their continued survival as a people. The center must hold, or everything would fall apart. A difficult lesson to swallow; though, as usual, Nehemiah never shrinks from paying the price, or asking others to do the same.

In this context, it is interesting that the main business of the capital — at least as described here — is worship:

* And Shabbethai and Jozabad, of the chief of the Levites, [had] the oversight of the outward business of the house of God.
* And Mattaniah the son of Micha, the son of Zabdi, the son of Asaph, [was] the principal to begin the thanksgiving in prayer:
* Moreover the porters, Akkub, Talmon, and their brethren that kept the gates, [were] an hundred seventy and two.
* Of the sons of Asaph, the singers [were] over the business of the house of God. For [it was] the king’s commandment concerning them, that a certain portion should be for the singers, due for every day.

I’d be tempted to dismiss this focus on spiritual activity as merely a quaint historical coincidence. Yet, curiously, it touches on some issues about business and governance that I had been pondering in other blogs, which bear directly on the question of legitimate authority. It is similar to the questions the late Peter Drucker — one of the first advocates for decentralization — raised about capitalism. How does one keep commerce from being exploitation? How is governance different than tyranny?

The answer, I believe, is that leaders need to see themselves as accountable both upwards (e.g., worship), and downwards (e.g., service). Perhaps that is why Nehemiah — after spending so much time on the big city of Jerusalem — lists all the villages:

And for the villages, with their fields, [some] of the children of Judah dwelt at Kirjatharba, and [in] the villages thereof, and at Dibon, and [in] the villages thereof, and at Jekabzeel, and [in] the villages thereof…

and gives a nod to both the business community:

Lod, and Ono, the valley of craftsmen

and the decentralized religious leadership:

And of the Levites [were] divisions [in] Judah, [and] in Benjamin.

Strong leadership — and a strong center — are clearly vital. But in order for them to be healthy, they must understand both their place and their purpose.


God, as an independent American, I must confess that I find Nehemiah’s coercive leadership rather disturbing. Perhaps that is because I’ve lost sight of what godly leadership is supposed to be, and under what circumstances submission (even if painful) can be healthy. Most of all, I fear I understand far too little of what it means to be submitted to you, and how to view my personal authority (over myself and others) from the perspective of an offering in the house of God. Father, as I seek to grow in authority and power, may I never lose sight of the overall purpose of simultaneously glorifying you and blessing others, rather than building my kingdom. I ask this in Jesus name, and in light of His cross, Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title plays with the various spellings and meanings of the word capital.