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January 27, 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Today’s passage should really start in the second half of Neh 7:73. We could usefully add that verse to the reading in worship. We also note that the lectionary omits vv. 4 and 7, the names of some of those involved in the events. The omission does not affect the story, but will no doubt make life easier for those reading the Old Testament this week.

Neh 8:1-10 gives the background for the whole of chapters 8-10. These three chapters have always puzzled interpreters. The book of Nehemiah mainly concerns the work of the man Nehemiah, the Persian appointed governor of Judea who was responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem some 70-80 years after the return from exile. Chapters 8-10, however, focus on the priest Ezra and the Levites, the establishment of the ‘law of Moses’ (or ‘law of God’) as central in the lives of the people after the return, and the renewal of the covenant. Nehemiah (the person) is only mentioned in 8:9 and 10:1. While the ancient compilers of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were concerned to link the work of Ezra and Nehemiah, modern scholars, with their eye for the details of the story, have always debated the dates for Ezra and Nehemiah, the order in which they did their work, and their exact relationship, if any. However, we should not lose the point of the ancient compilers, namely, that spiritual and religious reform go hand in hand with political, social, and economic reconstruction.

Nehemiah 7 gives a long list of returned exiles who have settled back in their towns. Now in chapter 8 they ask Ezra to read the ‘law of Moses’ to them. The only part of this reading given in detail concerns the festival of Booths (or Tabernacles – in Hebrew succoth). Later that month (Nehemiah 9) the people again gather for fasting and repentance. The form of their repentance is a long prayer recounting the history of Israel, emphasising the people’s rebellion and God’s great mercy.

At the centre of today’s reading is the way the people hear and respond to God’s word. This is also the concern of the Psalm and Gospel readings. Several points and a question arise from the Nehemiah reading.

First, the question. How is the ‘law of Moses’ which Ezra reads to the people related to what we also refer to as the ‘law of Moses’, namely the books of Genesis-Deuteronomy? This is not easy to answer.  Scholars differ in their opinions. We have other descriptions of the one law that is given in detail here, the law of Succoth (8:14-17). They appear in Lev 23:33-43, Num 29:12-38, and Deut 16:13-16. The problem is that the description of the festival in Nehemiah 8 does not accord in detail with any of these. While scholars have drawn different conclusions about the relation between Ezra’s ‘law of Moses’ and the law in the Pentateuch, it is at least clear that the law developed or changed over time, and possibly from community to community. God’s word in scripture is not seen as fixed, immutable, or unchanging, at least not in terms of its relevance and understanding.

This point is underlined by the fact that the Levites, as priests, function as interpreters (or possibly paraphrasers) of the law (v. 7). The law, even though portrayed in this passage as something of great antiquity (it is the ‘law of Moses’), in the new context it needs fresh interpretation, a fresh application to the present world, taking into consideration the new social, economic, and political system, and the new religious context. The same thought is present in the Gospel reading for the day (Luke 4:14-21). Jesus begins to teach in the synagogues. On one occasion he reads from Isa 61:1-2 (Luke 4:18-19). While in Isaiah these words were those of an anonymous servant, Jesus interprets them, according to Luke, in relation to himself (Luke 4:21). The prophet did not write the words in Isa 61:1-2 as if they only applied to some distant, future figure (Jesus). Rather, he or she was interested in the liberation of the captives of their own day. Jesus sees the word of Isaiah ‘fulfilled’ in his own concern for the liberation of captives and the recovery of sight to the blind. So it is also in the reading of the ‘law of Moses’ in Nehemiah 8. The old law was understood afresh, in the context of the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. In the continuous proclamation of the word of God, what is old and familiar is heard afresh as it speaks to a continually changing context.

Finally, we note the response of the people to the word. In Psalm 19 the psalmist celebrates the word of God, as perceived first in ‘nature’, and second as it is understood in the written law or torah. It is sweeter than honey, more desirable than fine gold etc. That same love of the law appears in Nehemiah 8. It is the people who first love the law. They urge Ezra to read the law (v. 1), they are attentive (v. 3), and according to the Hebrew of v. 4, they build the platform for Ezra to use for his reading. Ezra does not force the law upon them, they desire to hear and understand it. While the people are grieved over the reading (v. 9-10), possibly because it reveals their sinfulness or because they have neglected it, what is emphasised is a great sense of joy at its hearing. Both Ezra (vv. 9-10) and the Levites (v. 11) emphasize this, and in response the people’s grief gives way to their joy (v. 12). On this holy day, the ‘joy of the Lord is (the people’s) strength.’ The way in which the law is relevant and applicable to the people of Ezra’s time is part of the joy to be found in it. Similar joy is found in the Psalmist’s exquisite words of praise for the law in Psalm 19, and in the amazement of the people who heard Jesus’ proclamation (Luke 4:22).

Today’s reading is about both the faithful and joyous reception of God’s word seen in the people, and about the faithful proclamation and interpretation of that word to the people by Ezra and the Levites. It is a word for both congregation and preacher. In this combination, the fruitful joy, amazement, and worship that God’s word engenders comes forth. The word of God, however we understand the phrase, comes to life. The emphasis in the passage is not on some abstract reverence for the ‘law of Moses’. It is about the life-giving, renewing, releasing, freeing, sight-giving nature of God’s word, the joy that it can engender, and the joy of wanting to hear it. These are suitable words to hear in this season of Epiphany when we celebrate the presence of God’s word in Jesus present with us.

Psalm 19

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