Nehemiah 13 Unhappy Returns

Is discrimination ever justified? How should we deal with past (or present) sins against us? How do we want to be remembered- By whom? “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.

On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever

Okay, I’m a little confused by the chronology here. I wonder if perhaps Ezra is still compiling the Old Testament, and periodically holding public readings to review or publicize the new completed portions (like Bible translators may do today). That would imply that this “day” is when the reading got around to the unhospitable Moabites:

Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.

I must admit, I kinda feel sorry for a guy who’s mostly famous for losing a debate with a jackass. Not so the Israelites, who feel compelled to honor the ancient grudge:

Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.

To be honest, I’m not sure this action was necessary — the old prohibition was only to the “tenth generation”, after all, which arguably could have passed. Still, there clearly is already something rotten in Denmark:

And before this, Eliashib the priest, having the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God, [was] allied unto Tobiah:

Ouch. Now that’s sad, especially given how Eliashib had done for rebuilding the wall. Alas, it is still true today that great leaders often make place for great wrong in their lives:

And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded [to be given] to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the offerings of the priests.

And where is Nehemiah when all this is going on?

But in all this [time] was not I at Jerusalem: for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king:

Hmm. Its hard to say from the passage, but it sounds almost as if the purification from the Moabites was the proximate cause of Nehemiah’s arrival, which led to him discovering Eliashib’s sin:

And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.

which he understandably wasn’t happy about:

And it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber.

He didn’t just clean house:

Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat offering and the frankincense

He also recognized that the system had broken down:

And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given [them]: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field.

And brought the process owners together:

Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together, and set them in their place.

to restore the proper functioning:

Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries.

with new leadership, just to be safe:

And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah: and next to them [was] Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah: for they were counted faithful, and their office [was] to distribute unto their brethren.

He then makes a curious plea:

Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.

I used to read that as more a personal lament — that he wants the comfort of knowing God will remember his hard work. But, now I wonder if it is more a desire for an enduring legacy: “I’ve spent so much time building this, Lord; please don’t let evil men destroy it.”
Certainly he sees plenty of other threats:

In those days saw I in Judah [some] treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all [manner of] burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day

Which he deals with equally forthrightly:

Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing [is] this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day?

since he considers it a grave offense:

Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath.

Grave enough to threaten violent action:

Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do [so] again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no [more] on the sabbath.

He even appoints Levites to continue the watch:

And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and [that] they should come [and] keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day.

Perhaps as part of his desired legacy:

Remember me, O my God, [concerning] this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.

Though, now it sounds even more like a personal favor. What does he want to be spared from? From seeing Jewish society decay, or assimilate?

In those days also saw I Jews [that] had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, [and] of Moab: And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.

In this context, the prohibition against intermarriage actually makes a little sense. In fact, it is of a piece with the other two prohibitions. It is not a question of racial purity (after all, they are ancestral kin) but cultural integrity. Like trading on the Sabbath, marrying outside God’s covenant is a case of trying to provide for ourselves on our own terms, rather than trusting God to take care of us — and what He gives us according to His timing is enough. This lack of faith in God (perhaps aggravated by untrustworthy leaders) keeps us from presenting the tithe, and thus undermines both the ritual of thanksgiving as well as the priestly leadership.
Whew! In that context, it is perhaps easier to understand Nehemiah’s violent reaction:

And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, [saying], Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves.

Since he is all too well aware of where such thinking leads:

Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin.

He is also bluntly clear that marriage is a social act, not a private one:

Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?

and he follows this logic all the way to the top:

And [one] of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, [was] son in law to Sanballat the Horonite: therefore I chased him from me.

You can almost feel the burden contained in this now-familiar lament:

Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites.

This is not just a man who has built a wall; he is someone who spent his life trying to lay the foundations for an entire society, and unto the end pours himself out for that purpose:

Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business; And for the wood offering, at times appointed, and for the firstfruits.

You can almost hear the wistfulness in his final “remember me”, as if he was longing to hear the Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Remember me, O my God, for good.

God, while I am uncomfortable with some of Nehemiah’s tactics, I stand in awe of the devotion and tenacity that motivated them. I know that I am far from ruthless enough in my own life with those “small” sins that erode my ability to even hear your voice, much less fulfill your Law. Father, cleanse me from everything which is a stranger to you, and institute watchfulness and thanksgiving in my heart, that I may give you your due at the appointed time, whatever that may be.
And as we close out the life of Nehemiah, I am reminded both of the endurance of what he built, and yet also how those very institutions had become whitewashed walls by the time of Christ. Father, please, save me from such a fate. May what I build only be used to glorify you. May I leave a legacy that never forgets who You are, and all that You have done. Please, remember me, by helping me to always remember you.
In Jesus name I pray, Amen.