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A Summary of Israel's Story

The following is based on the summary of Israel's story found in Nehemiah 9. We will note the contents of each section of Nehemiah 9, give further detail from the stories found in the relevant biblical books and then briefly compare the material in Nehemiah 9 with that in other summaries. You might like to consult the list of the summaries of Israel's story given in the class handout as you read below.

The story of human beginnings and the ancestors of Israel (Neh 9:6-8)

The story in Nehemiah begins in 9:6 with reference to God's creation of the heavens, the earth, and the seas. The text reflects the creation account in Genesis 1 but does not refer to any other episode in Genesis 1-11 such as the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3), Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), the flood (Genesis 6-9) or the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). These stories tell of human rebellion and later the spread of humankind throughout the earth.

In other summaries only a few details from the stories in Genesis 1-11are mentioned. The creation account in Genesis 1 is reflected in Pss 135:6-7 and 136:4-9 as well as in Nehemiah 9. Beyond that, only very late summaries like those in the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books of Sirach (44:16-18; 49:16) and Wisdom (10:1-4) refer to these stories.

Following the reference to creation, Neh 9:7-8 tells of God choosing Abram and bringing him out of Ur of the Chaldeans. God finds Abraham faithful (cf. Gen 15:6) and makes a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites etc., a promise to which God is later faithful. The writers of Nehemiah 9 and many of the other summaries know the tradition of the movement of Abram from the east to a promised land (cf. Gen 11:27-12:3). The presence of the people in the land is a recurring theme in Ezra's prayer (Neh 9:8, 15, 35-37). Most of the other summaries refer to a promise made to Abraham and the other patriarchs of numerous descendants as well as a promise of a land to possess.

Other episodes from the stories of the ancestors in Genesis are occasionally mentioned in the summaries. These include: Genesis 17 - covenant and circumcision (Sir 44:20); Genesis 18-19 - the story of Lot (Wis 10:6); and Genesis 22 - Abraham's test in sacrificing Isaac (Sir 44:20; Wis 10:5; 1 Macc 2:52; Heb 11:17). Sir 44:19-23 refers to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from whom the twelve tribes of Israel descend, as successive generations in a single family tree as they are in Genesis 12-50.

The story of the ancestors in Genesis ends with Joseph, the favoured son of Jacob, being sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37-50). While Joseph eventually finds favour in Egypt and rises to high government office, his family suffers famine in the land of Canaan and so journey to Egypt for food. Joseph is finally reconciled to his brothers and keeps his family alive through the famine. Some of the summaries recall this story briefly (Ps 105:17; Wis 10:13-14; 1 Macc 2:53; and Acts 7:9).

The deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the law on Sinai and provision in the wilderness (Neh 9:9-15)

The story of the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt is given in some detail in Neh 9:9-12. The  plagues ("signs and wonders") are referred to in vv 9- 10 alongside the actual deliverance. The description of Israel passing through the sea (v 11) combines language from Exod 14:22 and 15:5. Neh 9:12 then speaks of the pillars of cloud and fire given to guide Israel. These are mentioned in Exodus 14 -15. Neh 9:13-14 then conclude with a reference to the giving of the law through Moses with special reference to the Sabbath law (Exod 20:8-11; 31:12-17).

The story as it appears in Exodus 1-15 adds detail on the situation of the Israelites in Egypt. It also gives detail on Moses' birth and childhood and on his flight from Egypt after killing an Egyptian. He is then called by God to return to Egypt to deliver the Israelite people (Exodus 1-6). In Exodus 7-15 we read of the plagues God sends on Egypt as Moses tries to convince Pharaoh to let the his people go and then of the actual escape through the waters of the Reed Sea with guidance via the pillars of cloud and fire. Exodus 16-18 tell of the wilderness journey to Mt. Sinai (called Mt. Horeb in Deuteronomy and some other places). Moses spends some time on the mountain and God makes a covenant with his people, giving Moses the Ten Commandments and other laws as part of that. Details of the law make up the remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers 1-10. All that time Israel remains camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

The story of the captivity in Egypt and deliverance through the sea appears in nearly all of the summaries. In many cases it amounts to only a brief reference (e.g. Deut 6:20-22; 26:6-8; 1 Sam 12:8 etc.). However, in some summaries considerable detail is given on various aspects of the story (e.g. Ezek 20:5-10; Ps 78:42-51; Wis 10:17-21; Acts 7:17-37). Only rarely is reference made to Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law (Neh 9:13-14; Ezek 20:11-12; Jud 5:14). The one exception to this is the story in Sir 44:23b-45:26 which focuses on Moses going before God on Mt. Sinai to receive the commandments, particularly those relating to Aaron, Moses' brother, who was anointed as priest. The writer of Sirach wanted to stress the priestly covenant and function of Aaron in his account of Israel's history. In two New Testament summaries other specific episodes are mentioned, namely the worship of the golden calf while Moses was still up on Mt. Sinai (Acts 7:38-44; cf. Exodus 32) and the observance of the Passover just before the departure from Egypt (Heb 11:38; cf. Exodus 12).

Forty years in the wilderness, conquest and possession of the promised land (Neh 9: 16-25)

The first part of the next section in Nehemiah 9 is occupied with further episodes at Mt. Sinai and in the wilderness. There is mention of the grumbling of the people in the wilderness (vv 16-17) with particular reference to the desire to return to Egypt (cf. Exod 15:22-27, 16:4-35, 17:1-7 and Num 11:4-34 where the people complain because of lack of water or food). Whereas in Exodus and Numbers the complaints anger the Lord and he sometimes punishes them, in Nehemiah 9 the story emphasises the goodness and mercy of God toward the people (vv 17, 20). Further stress on the goodness of God is seen in Neh 9:21-25 where the continued journey through the wilderness, as well as the conquest of the land are described. Special reference is made to the conquest of King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan (cf. Num 21:21-35 and Deuteronomy 2-3).

In the Torah, Num 10:11 tells how the people leave Mt. Sinai and recommence their journey in the wilderness. The theme of complaints by the people in the wilderness continues (Numbers 11). It is even present when they near the promised land. They refuse to enter for, although the land is rich and bountiful, there are giants living there (Numbers 13). The Lord is angry with them (Num 14:11-12) and it is only through the intercession of Moses that the Lord forgives the people's rebellion. However, the Lord vows not to let any of the present generation see the promised land (Num 14:13-25). They are condemned to remain in the wilderness.

The rest of the Book of Numbers records further laws and events on the journey including the episodes with Sihon and Og mentioned in Nehemiah 9. Joshua is appointed as Moses' successor (Num 27:12). It is at this stage of Israel's story that the Book of Deuteronomy comes in. After forty years in the wilderness, the second generation of Exodus Israelites are poised to cross the Jordan River into the promised land. Deuteronomy consists of a series of speeches by Moses to the Israelites. He recounts the journey from Mt. Horeb; urges obedience to the law when Israel have entered the land; and gives further detailed prescriptions. Some of these laws are very close to ones already given in Exodus - Numbers 10 (e.g. laws on slaves, Deut 15:12-18 and Exod 21:1-11), while others are new (e.g. the law on the king, Deut 17:14-20). Deuteronomy concludes with a series of shorter speeches (chs 29-33) and an account of Moses' death (ch. 34).

The Book of Joshua takes up the story of the conquest of the promised land under Joshua's leadership. It first describes that conquest in terms of a series of conflicts (Joshua 1-12) and then concentrates on the way the land was divided among the twelve tribes of Israel (Joshua 13-22). The book ends with an account of the renewal of the covenant between the people and God once they are settled in the land. However, we note that the Book of Judges opens with another tale of conquest in Judg 1:1-2:5 before recounting the death of Joshua (Judg 2:6-10). The Judges account presents a picture of individual battles fought by the various tribes of Israel against the inhabitants of the land. Some of these battles give victory to Israelite tribes but others do not.

A number of the summaries mention the wilderness period only briefly if at all (e.g. 1 Sam 12:8; and Acts 13:18) while others recount it at some length (e.g. Pss 106:14-34). The particular events mentioned are limited in number, for example the people's rebellion (e.g. Ps 78:19,40), lack of water and food (e.g. Ps 105:40-41), the pillars of cloud and fire (e.g. Ps 105:39), the golden calf (e.g. Acts 7:40-42) etc. The account of the wilderness wanderings in Jud 5:14-16 stands in contrast to all the other summaries by virtue of its totally positive view of the period. The conquest of the land is usually treated very briefly if at all in these summaries (e.g. Heb 11:30-31).

Rebellion, prophetic warnings, and conquest by enemies (Neh 9:26-31)

In Nehemiah 9, the life of the people in the land is described as a cycle of rebellion against God, God punishing them, and then being merciful when they cry to him. There is a general reference to the people killing God's prophets through whom God has warned them (vv 26, 30). Virtually no details of the period are given. The section ends with reference to God handing his people over to 'the peoples of the lands' although even this was not an end to his people (v 31). This is probably a reference to the exile of the peoples of Judah and Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians (cf. 2 Kings 25).

The period covered by these verses is covered by the books of Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as well as the prophetic books of Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah 1-39 and some smaller works. ! and 2 chronicles gives a parallel account to the story in Samuel and Kings. We can only give a brief sketch here of the material in these books.

As we noted the book of Judges begins with further material on the conquest of the promised land (Judg 1-2). It pictures early Israel as a confederation of usually twelve tribes bound together by worship of a common God, by covenant, and law. The book is organised around the stories of twelve 'judges', who in most cases are really military leaders. The whole book is shaped by a pattern not dissimilar to that in Neh 9:26-31: the people sin, God punishes them, the people repent and God delivers them through a judge.

The Books of Samuel record the end of this period. 1 Samuel 1-12 focus on Samuel, a character of many roles - judge, prophet and priest. He stands in a similar position to Moses and ministers at the tent sanctuary that moves around among the tribes. The main threat to the tribes at this stage comes from the neighbouring Philistines. The people are not happy with the old arrangement of leadership and request a king like the nations to deal with the Philistine threat (1 Samuel 8-12). 1 Samuel 13-31 is concerned with the failure of Saul, the first king, who is unable deal with this threat, and with the rise of David. By the end of 1 Samuel, Samuel has died, and the Philistines have killed Saul and his sons. The way is open for a new era under David.

In 2 Samuel David consolidates his rule. He is anointed king over the tribe of Judah. After he defeats the Philistines he brings the remnants of Saul's house under his control. David is then anointed king over all Israel, the northern tribes as well as Judah in the south. He establishes his capital in a 'neutral' location, namely Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 9-24 is then concerned with strife within David's family over the matter of succession to the throne.

1 Kings opens with the death of David and the struggle among his sons for the throne. Solomon is victorious in this struggle. 1 Kings 3-10 then focuses on the wealth and power of Solomon. A key element in the story is the building of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5-6). Only at the end of the story, in 1 Kings 11, do we read anything negative about Solomon. He is condemned for his foreign alliances, the associated marriages to foreign princesses, and the resulting potential for apostasy by Israel. Rebellion breaks out following Solomon's death and subsequently there is a split in the kingdom between the northern tribes, who become the kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah that remains loyal to David and Solomon's line.

The remainder of the books of Kings is concerned with the fortunes and relations of the two kingdoms. The account focuses on the activities of the successive monarchs. The story of the northern kingdom of Israel is marked by frequent changes in kingship and negative criticism of all its kings. Notable among them are Ahab (1 Kgs 16-22), during whose reign Elijah prophesies (1 Kgs 17 - 2 Kgs 2), and Jeroboam II (2 Kgs 14). During this period the Assyrian empire begins to exert strong influence over Syria and Palestine. The heartland of the empire was the Assyrian homeland at the upper reaches of the Tigris River, far to the northeast of Palestine. Israel and Judah were often required to pay tribute to the Assyrian king. The reign of Jeroboam II, a period of prosperity and relative peace, was the time when Amos and Hosea were prophesying in Israel. The end of the Israelite kingdom came quickly after the death of Jeroboam II. The people were taken as refugees to other lands and foreigners settled in their place (2 Kings 17). It was at this time that the prophet behind Isaiah 1-39 was active in Jerusalem offering his advice to Ahaz, king of Judah.

The kingdom of Judah survived the fall of Israel but only at the price of being a vassal to Assyria. Rebellion against Assyria (e.g. under Hezekiah [2 Kings 18-20] and Josiah [2 Kings 22-23]) was never long lasting. When the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians, control over Judah and Jerusalem passed to the new imperial power. The Judeans rebelled against the Babylonians but in a short while found themselves enduring a series of sieges by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem eventually fell, the palace and the temple were destroyed and the upper echelons of Judean society were deported. Thus began the period of the Babylonian exile.

The period prior to the exile is not covered in detail in many of the summaries. For the most part it is noted as a time of disobedience and unfaithfulness on the part of Israel and/or Judah (e.g. in Pss 78, 106; Ezek 16, 23; Jdt 5; Wis 12) and by God's great compassion toward his people ( Ps 106). A few characters from the books of Samuel and Kings are found in some summaries (Ps 78:68-72; Acts 7:45-47; 13:19-22; Heb 11:30-40) and there is an occasional general reference to the prophets (Acts 7; Jam 5; Heb 11). The fall of the northern kingdom of Israel is mentioned in Ps 78:67. Only the book of Sirach gives detailed coverage of the period naming many characters from the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings and with reference to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve prophets in particular.

Life after Exile (Neh 9:32-37)

Nehemiah 9 passes quickly over the period of the exile. The writer stresses the continued disobedience of the people and their leaders in contrast to God's continued faithfulness (vv 32, 35) even in the context of judgment (v 33). The section ends with a lament over the continuing captivity of the people even in the very land that God promised to their ancestors.

It is not easy to put together the story of Judah after the exile. This is mainly because there is insufficient clear evidence to date certain biblical characters or even books with any precision. We can only piece together part of the story with any reliability. The end of the exile came with the Persian conquest of Babylon. The Persians allowed the exiles to return home. A call for the return of the people to Jerusalem is found in Isaiah 40-55. The Persian emperor Cyrus released the treasures of the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had captured and decreed that the people of Judah and Jerusalem could build a temple for their god in Jerusalem.

The book of Ezra begins with the Persian Empire already established. There is some confusion in the book over the various migrations back to Jerusalem. It is clear, however, that those attempting to rebuild the temple under the decree of Cyrus encountered resistance by people referred to as "the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin" (Ezra 4:1) or "the people of the land" (4:4). After some delays a later Persian emperor, Darius, reconfirmed the decree of Cyrus and work on the temple was resumed. Ezra 6:16 records the dedication of the new (second) temple. The prophetic books of Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 and Isaiah 56-66 are concerned with this period. Malachi, Ezekiel 40-48 and Daniel 1-6 are associated with the general period.

The characters of Ezra and Nehemiah were involved in the reconstruction of Jerusalem and its life. Under Ezra's leadership considerable reform in the worship and activities of the people took place (Ezra 8-10). Nehemiah was involved in the rebuilding of the walls of the city as well as other government activities. However, after Nehemiah it gets even more difficult to put together a coherent picture of events. Some material seems to belong clearly to the period, e.g. Zechariah 9-14, Daniel 7-12, Esther, all by virtue of their contents. However, exact location of this material in the overall sequence of events is impossible. Some verses in Daniel 7-12 seem to refer to events in the 2nd century BCE, making it (possibly) the latest book in the shorter Protestant canon. However, some books from the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books are even later than this, e.g. Ecclesiasticus or Sirach. There are other Jewish works that come from the late Old Testament/Hebrew Bible period or even later which reveal further information about the people and events of the time. These include a number of the documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls and others which are now part of the collection called the Pseudepigrapha.

None of the other biblical summaries of Israel's story supply us with much information about the post-exilic period. Sirach mentions Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and Nehemiah in this context (49:11-13) as well as Job and the twelve prophets (49:9-10). Jud 5:19 speaks generally about the return of the people to Jerusalem, of its sanctuary, and of the people settling in the hill country. Other biblical books are included in some of the summaries from time to time (cf. 1 Macc 2:59-60; Heb 11:33-35).

Howard Wallace