Formations 08.04.2019: What Is the Problem?

Drawing shows roots weaving through a foundation.

Nehemiah 1

Nehemiah continues the themes that thread through Joshua. Where earlier Israelites had rejoiced at the failure of Gilead’s walls, these exiles returning to Jerusalem mourn at the sight of the city’s walls in ruin. While the Israelites in Joshua’s day wondered how to relate to the people still inhabiting the land, the returning exiles struggle to find an identity alongside those who had been left behind.

When Nehemiah hears that the walls remain fallen, he weeps and fasts and prays. It is understandable; he wants his community to flourish in a city with the recognizable traits of the city. But as we hear his prayer we uncover the deeper meaning Nehemiah makes of Israel’s place in a postexilic state. His hope and fear is rooted by this conviction: God ordained exile because Israel wandered, and if the nation returned, God would ordain their flourishing.

As inheritors of Scripture, we hold responsibility for evaluating the roots Nehemiah identifies. So as a brief aside, we turn to the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, who has sought to identify roots of oppression and liberation for several decades.

Over time, it became clear that roots are often tangled. His early work took deep care to consider the political, economic, and historical realities contributing to suffering in Latin America. Throughout this period, Gutiérrez called people to push below the surface, beyond charity and economic aid, to change responsible structures.

Then Gutiérrez began to dwell more deeply in spirituality. Rather than leave behind earlier work, Gutiérrez saw that ethical and spiritual roots intertwine with political and economic roots. The resulting notion of integration finds oppression and liberation may occur in all of these roots. The task of theology, and of faith more generally, is aligning these roots toward integral liberation. Oppression in any one root detracts from the liberation of others.

So what does Nehemiah uncover? Of course, there is the conviction that Torah observance sustains God’s blessing that began with Moses. There is also the belief that a wall could further protect the people of God. Given his relationship to Ezra, there may also be the chance that separating the returned exiles from those who remained could establish pure conditions for obedience to the Torah. At the danger of oversimplifying both Ezra and Nehemiah, these are some uncovered roots.

Other questions make me wonder what roots lie still deeper. What role did Babylonia’s imperial aspirations play in the exile? How do Persia’s aspirations affect Nehemiah’s project? How should exiles relate obligations to God and obligations to outsiders as they occur in the Torah?

As in Joshua, we keep these questions alive in our own way. The subjects of this passage parallel our current politics in ways too obvious to ignore. While we disagree over whether asylum-seekers, people who have been forced to move due to external political realities, should be welcomed or detained, promises of walls echo through our national rhetoric. At the same time, questions are raised about the national identity of citizens and leaders who are also people of color. Nehemiah’s prayer in its own ways marks the failure of even these solutions. Neither walls nor purity go to the root. Only God does.

Here, his response of mourning and reflection and prayer invites us in. There are sources of suffering among us, but in the week ahead, we can follow Nehemiah’s example and look for the roots. We might embrace more complicated histories. We might look for more nuance in the sacred texts that center us. We might listen with more compassion and sincerity to all our neighbors. And we might question promises that ignore how tangled roots really are.


• What are the sources of suffering in our community?

• What has led to this reality?

• Who all is affected by these circumstances?

• Where does God work in these situation? Toward what vision does God move?

• What individual actions can help us to join God?

• How might answering to this suffering lead to deeper community?

Reference Shelf

Nehemiah’s Role

Nehemiah’s great success in spite of this disadvantage is a credit to his exceptional abilities as a military, political, and religious leader, to his prophetic sense of social justice, and to his personal goodness. He was a strategic leader in the restoration of Jewish life in Judah after the Babylonian Exile.

At his own request, but with obvious advantages to the Persians, Nehemiah was sent to the postexilic community in Judah as governor with authority to fortify Jerusalem and correct political, cultic, and social practices that were weakening the province of Judah. For Persia his success would strengthen a weak point on its western frontier. For the Jews it meant the strengthening and purification of Jerusalem as a sacred city. The Temple had been rebuilt and, if some of Ezra’s work preceded Nehemiah’s, significant cultic reforms were under way. Jerusalem, however, was still unfortified and was sparsely populated. Nehemiah’s first work was to organize and direct the rebuilding of the city wall. This activity was opposed and threatened by local leaders led by Sanballat of Samaria and Tobiah of Ammon. Therefore, Nehemiah also organized and directed the defense of the people who were repairing the walls. Neither ridicule (Neh 4:1-6), false accusations to the Persians (6:1-14), nor clandestine threats and attacks (Neh 4:10-23) prevented the successful completion of this work. When it was finished Nehemiah led in the dedication of the wall (Neh 12).

David A. Smith, “Nehemiah,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 608.

Materialism and Spirituality

What might a book about the repairing of the wall around Jerusalem and the handling of legalistic issues teach modern readers? One thing is that in biblical faith and worship, material things matter. Humans are ventilated bodies capable of a proper, worshipful relationship with God. Nowhere does the Bible, and particularly not the Hebrew Bible, describe them as eternal spirits encased or captured in unspiritual, mortal bodies. That Christian view arose after the time of the writing of the New Testament and was derived from the church’s Greek culture after the completion of the writing of those books. Modern inheritors of that Greek anthropology read it back into the Bible. In biblical anthropology, we are bodily beings before God, created to worship and to have communion with God. In the Old Testament, the book of Daniel in particular looked forward to the resurrection of martyrs and others. So too in the New Testament, believers are promised that they will be raised (as bodies, though perfected ones) to eternal life. The material world, moreover, is God’s creation.

The construction of the wall around Jerusalem, insofar as its purpose was to “fence in” the holy God and protect the temple from the impurity of outsiders, misunderstood the inclusive nature of God. As we have seen in places in Ezra and will see again in Nehemiah, that exclusivism brought about extreme, unnecessary heartache for some of the people of God and set up roadblocks against others who wished to be part of that people. We must be careful to note the difference. In Nehemiah as in Ezra, the issue lay within people who considered themselves descendants of Abraham. The returnees saw themselves as the legitimate heirs of Jerusalem and the temple and of their benefits. They described those descended from Judeans and others who had remained in Judah as the “out group.” In the new Persian-period Yehud, the returnees alone would hold both religious and political power.

Paul L. Redditt, Ezra-Nehemiah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2014), 218–19.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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