excerpts from Nehemiah
November 24, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Background to Scripture
I have been preaching through the Hebrew scriptures — what Christians call the Old Testament — and today is the last of that series before we move into Advent so before we turn to Jesus I want to give you a very quick review of the history of the Israelites, to put everything in context because remember Jesus was Jewish. These are the stories of his ancestors so for the last time fall, here it is their overall timeline in brief.
Way back in the summer, I began with the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their children who were the fathers and mothers of the Hebrew people, an ethnic group. God called Abraham and Sarah to move to Canaan where they lived as nomads. Eventually during a period of famine, their descendants moved from Canaan to Egypt and after a few generations they were enslaved by an Egyptian Pharaoh. They lived in slavery for several centuries until Moses led the people to freedom and in the wilderness delivered the laws, the ten commandments and other laws, that would bind them together as the nation of Israel. It was the Mosaic law (the laws delivered by Moses) that gave the Israelites (who we now call the Jews) their real identity. When Moses died, Joshua took over and led the people back into their homeland of Canaan, the Promised Land where for a while the Israelites lived as a tribal confederacy led by a series of Judges. They eventually decided to unite the tribes under a single monarch and God appointed Saul to be the first Israelite King. He didn’t work out too well and God replaced him with David, who led Israel to its golden age. It was pretty much downhill from there and two hundred years or so after David’s death, ten of the tribes living in the northern part of the Kingdom were wiped out by the Assyrians. The southern part of the Kingdom known as Judea lasted a little longer. That is, by the way, why today they are known as Jews not Israelites because all of the Jewish people today are descended from the tribes living in Judea, the southern part of the Kingdom. (1) In 597 BCE, however, Babylon conquered them as well, and carted them off into exile in Babylon for about the next 60 years. In 539 BCE, the Persians in turn conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish people to return home, although Judea would no longer be an independent nation but a province of Persia. The period of the Jew’s return is known as the restoration because the Babylonian conquest had reduced the city of Jerusalem and the Temple to rubble and so when they came back a great deal of rebuilding was required. This brings us up to today’s sermon.
The Bible talks about two men in particular who led most of the reconstruction: Ezra (who I talked about last week) and Nehemiah. The Bible says that Ezra returned first — he was part of the priesthood — and he oversaw the reconstruction of the Temple while Nehemiah, who had been an official in the Emperor’s court, came a little later and oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. Once the Temple and the city’s walls had been finished, the Bible says that Ezra and Nehemiah then turned their attention to rebuilding the community of the Jews, re-establishing the Mosaic law which had been neglected during the exile. They began by reading those laws to the people at the Festival of the Booths, a festival of thanksgiving instituted in the time of Moses, and still celebrated by Jews today. You may know it by its Hebrew name, Sukkot. (2)
Excerpts from Nehemiah 8:5-10, 13:1
5 And Ezra opened the book [of the law of Moses] in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. … Also … the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”….
13:1 On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God… When the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent…. 23 In those days also I [Nehemiah] saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.”
Ezra and Nehemiah were filled with gratitude that they had lived to see the day of Jerusalem’s restoration. The two men had dreamed of a day when they could once again live as a community where everyone knew what it was to be a Jew and no one would be afraid to demonstrate their faith to the world; no one would throw them in a flaming fiery furnace or in the lion’s den for daring to pray to God. How often had Ezra thought, “What joy it would be to hear the songs of our fathers and mothers sung in joyous worship at the Temple again?” How often had Nehemiah said wistfully, “What a comfort it would be to live in a city where you could go to a neighbor’s house for dinner and know you would be eating at a kosher table?” Ezra and Nehemiah probably only knew about the golden days in Judah from the stories their parents told and like all stories of “the good old days,” their parents’ tales of long ago times in Jerusalem were probably colored by nostalgia. It is no wonder then, that when Ezra and Nehemiah finally stood at the gates of the newly built Jerusalem with the gleaming Temple behind them and the faces of a hopeful people turned toward them, their hearts swelled with pride and in their imaginations, they saw Jerusalem as a place where, like Lake Woebegone, “all the women would be strong, all the men good-looking, all the children above average,” every table would be kosher, every Sabbath would be holy, and everyone would follow the laws of Moses with gladness in their hearts.
“Let us give thanks for all that God has given us,” they proclaimed in joy. “Let us give thanks for our freedom of worship, for this new community, and for our homes here in Jerusalem.”
And then when the festival of Thanksgiving was over, Ezra and Nehemiah began a program of reform which ended with the exile of women and children whose worship they condemned, who would no longer be allowed to be a part of the new community, and who would be driven from their homes in Jerusalem, sent away to live without husbands or fathers to sustain them.
What turned this festival of thanksgiving for some into a day of cruelty for others? Nehemiah and Ezra’s dream of recreating a community dedicated to the laws of Moses bumped up against the reality that over the many years that Nehemiah and Ezra had been rebuilding the city and Temple, some of the returned exiles had taken wives from among the local people. Like soldiers stationed in other countries, some of the Jewish men had fallen in love with the local women they met. These were not elicit affairs; these were matters of the heart. The men married the women and started families with them which threw a wrench into Nehemiah and Ezra’s plans because those local women were pagans. It was not unusual to see idols to a variety of gods lined up on the shelves of their homes, or to hear the women uttering prayers to pagan gods at the shrines in the villages. Ezra and Nehemiah, raised among the pagans of Babylon, had dreamed of a day when they would no longer have to see those idolatrous statues or hear the names of foreign gods on the lips of their own people, and now that had returned to Jerusalem, they were determined that nothing would sully the shine of this new city. They would hold on tight to the blessing they had received this day, even if it meant taking away that blessing from others.
“In those days,” Nehemiah says at the end of his book, “I cleansed [the men of Judah] from everything foreign.”
And the book of Ezra concludes with this heartbreaking sentence: “and they sent [the foreign women] away with their children.”
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah illustrate in stark terms the dark side of Thanksgiving. When we list all of the things for which we are thankful — food on our table, roofs over our heads, jobs, loving families, health — we are uneasily aware that it can feel as if we are saying, “Thank you, God, that we are not like those people who have to go to the food pantry if they want to eat, who sleep on the streets, who are unemployed, whose families are abusive and broken, or who have cancer, depression, multiple sclerosis, or failing bodies. Thank you, God, that we are not like them, and may their misfortunes stay far away from us!”
Last year, a man in Miami was asked what he thought about the hard line approach toward illegal immigrants which has resulted in separating children from their families at the border. He said, “It hurts my heart to see it, but the culpable ones are the parents who subject their children to crossing the border, or who send them by themselves,” he said. “If we start [allowing people to break laws], what is this country going to become?” (3) Like so many of us, this man feels blessed to live in a country where people respect the law and he can feel safe, but his gratitude has led him to be afraid of anything that threatens that sense of blessing. He is even willing to turn a stony heart to the cries of children taken away from their families if he believes that it will protect the blessings he himself enjoys and holds dear. The pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving that we celebrate this week gave thanks that in this new land they could finally find relief from religious persecution but their gratitude for that freedom didn’t lead them to extend it to others. In their vision of the perfect world, Catholics didn’t fit and the Puritans banned them from the colony. They condemned four Quakers to hanging in Boston for standing up for their beliefs. They banished Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson from the colony for theological “heresies.” Roger Williams used his time in exile to found the colony of Rhode Island where everyone truly was granted religious freedom, and we can be thankful that Rhode Island, not Puritan Massachusetts, became the model chosen by the founding fathers when they wrote the constitution.
We hear a lot today from our self-help culture about the importance of developing an attitude of gratitude, but the end of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah warn us that an attitude of gratitude is not enough. Gratitude for what we have can too easily engender fear that those blessings might be taken away from us, and suspicion toward others who we think might endanger our blessings. Now, I’m not trying to ruin your Thanksgiving celebration by suggesting that there is anything wrong with giving thanks; what I am saying is that we need to consider what is it that God wants us to be grateful for. The gratitude that God expects from us shouldn’t sound like a shopping list: “God, I give thanks for this 14 lb turkey on the table, for the Mazda in my driveway, for my Apple TV and my subscription to Netflix, and especially God for the box of oreos in my cupboard.” These may be great things — especially the oreos — but they are not the blessings which God has bestowed on us. These are not the things for which we should be giving thanks to God.
Even the less consumeristic things for which we often give thanks — family, friends, and health — are really not blessings bestowed on us by God because if they were, we would have to ask why God has favored us while choosing not to favor those who get sick or whose loved ones die or who were not raised in caring homes. We may be grateful to those people for their love of us, or we can say how lucky we are to have enjoyed such good circumstances but we really can’t consider them as blessings from God. If God blesses the faithful with good and happy lives, the apostle Paul should file a complaint.
The attitude of gratitude that God desires us to develop is not one that elaborates our lists of haves in comparison to the unfortunate have nots nor it is one that holds so tightly to our good fortune that it denies it to others out of fear and resentment. I believe that what God calls us to be grateful for is not any thing at all but that we are to be thankful to God for the person God has made it possible for us to be.
“I am thankful, God, that you have shown me what it is to be a kind person. I am thankful that you have shown me what it means to be filled with grace toward others. I am thankful that you have forgiven the sins that have darkened my heart and enabled me to forgive others in turn. I am thankful that you have showed me the ways of reconciliation, that you have helped me believe in peace. It is these things you have taught me to be that have made my life whole.”
Even as Nehemiah and Ezra were trying to hold onto their blessings by driving out the foreign women and children from their midst, the prophet Zechariah was telling the restored Israel that the blessings they should be counting were the blessings of a compassionate heart.
“Render true judgments,” he told them. “Show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” (7:8)
Be thankful that God has taught you how to live in love and peace with others because the greatest blessing any of us can have, is the blessing of a gracious heart.
Three years ago, right before Thanksgiving, Wanda Dench sent a group text to her family saying, “Thanksgiving dinner is at my house on Nov 24 at 3:00 pm. Let me know if you’re coming. Hope to see you all.” When she sent the text, she didn’t realize that her grandson had changed his cell phone number and his old number was now owned by a 17 year old high school student named Jamal Hintin. When Jamal received her text, he texted back,“Who is this?”
Wanda replied, “Your grandma” followed by a smiley face emoji.
Jamal was confused. “Grandma?” he texted back. “Can I have a picture?”
“Of who?” she asked, her turn to be confused.
“You, lol!” he said.
Wanda said, “Yes, I’m here at work,” and snapped a quick selfie.
When Jamal received it, he started to laugh and in turn, he took a selfie which he sent to Wanda saying, ““You not my grandma,” with a laughing emoji. And then he added, “Can I still get a plate tho?”
Wanda’s reply changed her life and Jamal’s. She texted back, “Of course you can [get a plate.] That’s what grandma’s do… feed everyone.”
Jamal and Wanda were so amused by this interchange that they continued to exchange texts and Jamal did in fact go to join Wanda’s family for Thanksgiving dinner. Not only that, he went again the next year bringing his girlfriend, and they have kept in touch ever since. The two chat about once a week and she truly has become another grandmother to him encouraging him in his plans and goals for the future. She says of Jamal, “We’re more of extended family and, best of all, friends.” (4)
Though Wanda may have given thanks that Thanksgiving for the turkey on her table or the roof over her head, it was not those things that made her life blessed; the blessing she had was her compassionate heart that was able to welcome a stranger to her table and make of him a friend. Likewise, Jamal’s blessing was his humor and openness toward others that enabled him to accept Dench’s invitation with such positive grace.
May we this Thanksgiving express an attitude of gratitude but may our gratitude be for the blessings we have received from the heart of a God who has taught us how to be compassionate people, who has encouraged in us mercy and grace toward others, who has shown us the way of peace, and who has created of us people capable of life giving love for all.
1. All Jews today are descended from these southern tribes — Benjamin, Judah, Simeon (which had been absorbed into the tribe of Judah previously) — and the Levites who were a priestly tribe and didn’t hold land.
2. Archaeologists found a letter among documents belonging to the reign of the Persian emperor Artaxerxes I complaining that Johanan the high priest in Jerusalem had ignored requests for help in temple rebuilding. Since Johanan is mentioned in Nehemiah 12:22, we can date the Temple rebuilding to the late 400s BCE and the rebuilding of the city walls would have come soon after that.