Who was Nehemiah? What did The Prophet Nehemiah do? Information on the biography, life story of Nehemiah.
NEHEMIAH, was a leader of the Jews in the 400’s b.c. His name is Hebrew for “the Lord has comforted.” In the Diaspora» he settled in Susa, capital of Elam and winter residence of the Persian kings. There he became the royal cupbearer, one of the oldest and highest court positions in ancient Babylonia which remained “an honor of no small account” among the Persians (Herodotus, book iii:34). The cupbearer served both as taster of the king’s wine and as guardian of the royal apartment (Xeno-phon, Cyropaedia, book i :3, 8-9, 11). The office, much desired by Persian nobles, was ordinarily awarded to persons of distinguished lineage. Eusebius of Caesarea maintained that Nehemiah was a descendant of the old Jewish royal family. It has been held that Nehemiah’s allusion to the sin of the house of his fathers (1:6) and to Jerusalem as the city of the graves of his fathers (2:3-5) and the charge of his enemies that the prophets in Jerusalem said of him, “There is a king in Judah” (6:7) would support such a view, but there is no Biblical evidence of Nehemiah’s royalty and except for the name of his father, nothing is known of his antecedents.
Ctesias’ statement that the office of cupbearer was held by eunuchs is supported by the royal reliefs at Persepolis which indicate that at least from the time of Xerxes the office was held by eunuchs in Persia, as elsewhere (compare Genesis 40:7; also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book xvi: 8, 1). Only such an individual could serve the queen (Nehemiah 2:6). Emasculation should have excluded Nehemiah from the Jewish community (Deuteronomy 23:1) and it would be understandable that as a eunuch Nehemiah would have been reluctant to enter the temple (Nehemiah 6:11). In post-exilic times, however, there was a more inclusive attitude toward such persons. Psalm 127 has been regarded as directed against Nehemiah and Isaiah 56:3 has been considered by some as a reply to that attack.
Nehemiah served under Artaxerxes but the Bible does not specify which of the Persian rulers by that name was his patron. A Jewish Aramaic papyrus of 407 b.c. indicates that under Darius II, Johanan (Jehohanan), the son (probably grandson) of Nehemiah’s contemporary Eliashib (Ezra 10:6; Nehemiah 12:10-11, 22), was high priest in Jerusalem and that authority in Samaria was in the hands of the sons of Sanballat who had been a vigorous opponent of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:10; 4:1-2 ; 6 :1-2). Hence it is exceedingly probable that Nehemiah’s king was Artaxerxes I Longimanus (r. 464-424 b.c.), father of Darius II.
In 445 b.c., Nehemiah’s “brother” Hanani (Nehemiah 1:2, 7:2), and other Judeans visiting at Susa, informed Nehemiah of the misery of the Judeans who were scorned by their neighbors and defenseless because the walls of Jerusalem had been broken down and its gates burned by fire. Many regard it unlikely that the reference was due to the Babylonian destruction of the city in 587-586 b.c. and argue that the poignancy of Nehemiah’s grief suggests a more recent disaster. Obscurity of the history of Palestine during the Persian period makes it difficult to determine the date and circumstances of the destruction. It may have occurred during the great revolt which swept the West (c.486-485 b.c.) at the accession of Xerxes I, but more probably during the very time of Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:11-23).
When Nehemiah’s grief marked his face in the presence of the king, Artaxerxes questioned him and granted him leave to go to Judah, the place of his fathers’ sepulchers, to rebuild it. Diplomatically Nehemiah refrained from mentioning to the king the name of Jerusalem or its fortifications, for Artaxerxes had stopped the building there until further notice (Ezra 4:21-22). Nehemiah was given a military escort and official documents to Persian officials in the West to facilitate the journey and assist him. The king appointed him “governor” (pechah), a rather elastic title held by officials of several degrees of rank. Albrecht Alt interprets Nehemiah’s title as “commissioner,” suggesting that he had but temporary authority in order to complete a specific and limited task. \
At Jerusalem, Nehemiai; kept his identity secret until he had made an inspection by night of the state of the ruined city defenses. The details given regarding the survey, the assignments of labor on the walls, and the procession around the city at the time of the dedication of the walls (Nehemiah 2, 3, and 12) furnish valuable topographic information regarding Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah. When the extent of the task was known, Nehemiah revealed his identity and sought the cooperation of the Judeans in the task of restoration. The priests repaired the walls adjacent to the temple area and the rest of the work was assigned in part to individuals who sometimes worked just opposite their houses, and in part to labor gangs from neighboring Judean towns.
New, vigorous leadership in Judah with royal support and the prospect of the fortification of defenseless Jerusalem aroused the opposition of the non-Jewish neighbors of Judah. Chief among Nehemiah’s opponents was the Horonite, Sanballat (Nehemiah 2:10), governor of the province of Samaria just north of Judah. With him was Tobiah the Ammonite who was apparently the highest Persian official over Ammon, the region of Transjordan just east of Judah. The homestead of his family has been found at ‘Araq el-Emir in Transjordan where the family was prominent politically down into Hellenistic times. The third opponent of Nehemiah was the Arabian, Geshem (Gashmu or Gashamu), as mentioned in Nehemiah 2:19. To judge from an Arabic inscription found at Hejra, he bore the same title “servant” applied to Tobiah in the Bible. “Arabian” seems to be an administrative rather than an ethnic title, indicating the Persian province of Arabia which incorporated ancient Edom, south of Judah. Nehemiah’s arrival doubtless meant the delimitation of the powers that these neighboring officials may have exercised previously over prostrate Judah.
Jewish efforts were at first ridiculed by their foes, but as the work progressed it was taken more seriously and rumors came to Nehemiah that an attack in force against the work in Jerusalem was planned. At once Nehemiah appointed his own soldiers as guards of the work, armed his workmen, organized shifts of workmen and guards, and stationed trumpeters to sound the alarm in case of attack. There is no evidence of a military campaign against Jerusalem and the work proceeded without interruption to its conclusion in 52 days.
Several attempts were made, however, to eliminate Nehemiah as the Jewish leader. He declined an enemy request to meet with his foes Sanballat and Geshem at Chephirah in the valley of Ono (near modern Lydda) at some distance from Jerusalem to discuss reports of Jewish sedition which were to be sent to the king. The threat of such reports to the Persian court worried Nehemiah but he branded the rumors as lies and refused to leave Jerusalem. Since such meetings often resulted in assassination, Nehemiah doubtless feared personal injury. It is possible that some prophets enthusiastic about Nehemiah’s leadership were eager to proclaim him king of Judah, but Nehemiah repudiated such action. When a prophet warned him of the danger of an attack upon him and urged him to hide within the very temple sanctuary itself, Nehemiah regarded it as an enemy plot to turn the people against him on religious grounds. Since his presence in the temple would be a sacrilege, contrary to Hebrew law, Nehemiah firmly refused to hide in the temple. Supporters of Tobiah among the Jewish nobles in Jerusalem kept Nehemiah’s enemies informed about his plans and acts in Jerusalem; but despite the efforts of the foes, the walls of Jerusalem were successfully strengthened and repaired and gates were set up. Then, in a ceremony including a circumambulation of the city walls, the clerical’ and secular leaders dedicated the fortifications.
As “governor” Nehemiah was concerned with more than the fortification of the city. He sought to enhance the prestige of fortified Jerusalem by repopulating it and making it, rather than Mizpah, the administrative center of Judah. It was decided that one tenth of the entire population of Judah should be moved to the newly fortified but still rather depopulated Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:1-2). An effort was also made, as far as possible, to buy back to the Jewish community those Jews who had been sold into slavery to pagan masters (Nehemiah 5:8). Nehemiah also assembled the Jewish leaders at Jerusalem as the
principal democratic governing force- responsible to the governor. When seeking a solution to the social and economic problems of Judah, Nehemiah always consulted the Jewish leaders first and appealed directly to the people only when responsible leadership failed to act.
Extended drought in Judah caused distress and created social problems Nehemiah sought to solve. A farmer short of produce was caught between the tax collector and the wealthy money lenders. Rich Jews, anxious for business profit, willingly took mortgages on farms and vineyards for ready cash which quickly vanished in a time of famine prices. Lacking collateral for loans, the farmers had to turn over to the creditors members of their families and sometimes themselves as servants. High rates of interest and shortage of funds made redemption of such Jews extremely difficult and resulted in virtual slavery (Nehemiah 5:1-13). When the creditors were fellow Jews the embittered farmers complained to Nehemiah who was indignant at such illegal behavior which divided and weakened the Judeans. When the nobles were reluctant to act, Nehemiah appealed directly to the people; the offenders, facing exclusion from the community, promised to reform.
Although the present Biblical text presents Nehemiah and Ezra as contemporaries in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8:9; 12:36), it is unlikely that the same king would send to Jerusalem two men with official support and authority at the same time. Although Ezra and Nehemiah in part attacked the same problems, in the Biblical narrative Ezra and Nehemiah ignore one another in a way that would be surprising if they were contemporaries. The texts which present them as being in Jerusalem together are suspect and it is highly probable that Nehemiah and his activity preceded that of Ezra who, to judge from the Jewish Aramaic papyri, probably was active under Artaxerxes II Mnemon after Nehemiah’s career in Jerusalem was past.
Nehemiah’s leave extended until the 32d year of Artaxerxes I (433 b.c.) according to Nehemiah 5:14. He offered himself and his belongings freely, foregoing the usual dues that former governors had collected (Nehemiah 5:10, 14—15, and 18) and spreading his table generously for all who attended his court (Nehemiah 5:17-18). Then, after setting up his “brother” Hanani as chief over Jerusalem (Nehemiah 7:2), Nehemiah returned to his duties in Susa. But continued drought and accompanying poor economic conditions created new problems for Judah. The payment of tithes to the temple for support of the clergy diminished and the dependent Levites left the temple to make a living on the farms. Temple store chambers stood empty. The influence of Tobiah the Ammonite, already apparent during the residence of Nehemiah in Jerusalem, increased. A large storeroom in the temple was turned over to him for his use. Furthermore, the son of Joiada, of the family of the high priest, married the daughter of Nehemiah’s enemy, Sanballat, the governor of Samaria.
Rumors impelled Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem after a lapse of considerable time. He still maintained his authority, for his orders to both clerics and laymen were obeyed. He had To-biah’s things forcibly thrown out of the temple storeroom and had the place purified ceremonially. The Levites were ordered back to their service in the temple and the flow of tithe produce needed for their support was renewed (Nehemiah 13:12). Presumably it was also he who attended to such other practical matters of temple support as the temple tax, the wood offerings, and the first fruit offerings and gifts (Nehemiah 10:32-37a).
The decline of religious observance was reflected also in the attitude toward the Sabbath. In Judah, Nehemiah found the farmers working as usual on the Holy Day and Phoenician tradesmen holding their market in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. We are not told of how he proceeded against Jewish offenders, but to frustrate the foreign tradesmen he ordered the city gates kept closed during the Sabbath. When the foreigners encamped outside of the city walls on the Sabbath, Nehemiah angrily threatened personal violence if the act were repeated (Nehemiah 13:15ff.; compare 10:31). He was also disturbed to find Jewish men married to pagan women from neighboring lands. He who, at a time when Aramaic was the popular tongue, wrote his narrative in good Hebrew, was upset by the fact that children of some Jewish fathers did not speak Hebrew but their mother’s tongue. Nehemiah personally beat such Jewish offenders and pulled their hair (Nehemiah 13:23-25). Nothing is said of such expulsion of women and children as was required in the time of Ezra under similar circumstances (Ezra 10:11, 19, 44), but it may be implied in the oath that was required (Nehemiah 13:25; compare 10:28-30). Nehemiah was particularly indignant against the member of the high priest’s family who had married the daughter of San-ballat. This priestly offender was banished from the Judean community (Nehemiah 13:28). Josephus records the event incorrectly in another chronological setting (Antiquities, book xi: 7, 2) in the time of Alexander the Great, and he links it to the establishment of the Samaritan temple and cultus on Mt. Gerizim.
Nehemiah’s reforms give valuable clues to his personality and character. He was a hard-headed, businesslike, practical politician and man of affairs. He pursued his limited goals indefatigably. He was enterprising and shrewd, sometimes bold and sometimes cautious. He had a fine sense of justice and great sympathy with the oppressed of his own peoples In a measure, he anticipated the exclusivism of Ezra and for practical reasons showed antipathy toward his non-Jewish neighbors. His temper flared easily and he did not hesitate to employ violence in redressing wrong. He was a sincerely pious person and looked forward with some anxiety for his reward. Again and again he pleaded that God should remember his good deeds for Israel. This seems to have been the motive of Nehemiah in recording his acts. Later generations did remember him and celebrated his actions. Although the incomplete I Esdras does not mention Nehemiah, his narrative was read in Greek as a separate book as late as the time of Ben Sira (c.180 b.c.) and when II Maccabees 2:13 was written, and his story was incorporated by the Chronicler in his narrative in the Bible. In Ben Sira’s praise of famous men, which is silent about Ezra, Nehemiah’s work on the wall of Jerusalem is praised (Ben Sira 49:13), and later tradition credited him with retrieving the sacred fire of the temple from the Spring En-Rogel where it was believed to have been concealed during the period of the exile (II Maccabees 1:19-22). His greatest contribution, however, was his example of devoted patriotism. It has been said of him, “. . . the love he bore for Jerusalem inspired a devotion that caused poets to sing, martyrs to confess, patriots to die, and one of the great religions of the world to live.”