Nehemiah 9:1-6 (NRSV)
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. They stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth part of the day, and for another fourth they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. Then Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani stood on the stairs of the Levites and cried out with a loud voice to the Lord their God. Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.”
And Ezra said: “You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you
Not every example in scripture is a good one. Not every word is meant to edify us through its example. The reality of Ezra-Nehemiah is that it is a historical book. It contains no direct speech from God, though God is often invoked. It is also a book that captures a discrete moment in the history of God’s people – the return to exile and the attempt to return to, “normalcy.” These attempts were marked by the shipment of two key figures within Babylonian Jewish society to Jerusalem. Ezra, a scribe, and Nehemiah the dignitary placed in charge of the area. These were both employees of the new King, King Cyrus of Persia.
When Cyrus conquered Babylon he issued what was known as the “Edict of Return.” According to this edict, all those who were displaced because of Babylonian conquests were allowed to return to their homelands. While the Cyrus Cylinder, that is the physical object bearing this edict has been found, there is an easier way to see it. If you open your Bible to chapter 1 of Ezra, you see an abbreviated version of the Edict. The writer of Ezra changed the language so that, rather than talking about the Babylonian God Marduk, the God of Israel is invoked in the edict. Thus, the author wished to connect Cyrus’s work to a work of God.
Ezra and Nehemiah are two books that tell us what happened when the Exiled Jews returned to Jerusalem. The land was inhabited by the agricultural workers descended from the Jews who were not exiled to Babylon and who did not flee to Egypt. Upon the arrival of the Exilic Community, the people in the land were suddenly under the control of people who, though they spoke the same language and shared the same faith, were fundamentally different than they were. Ezra, Nehemiah, and the rest of the Exiles had taken on Babylonian speech and customs in the same way those who remained in the land had developed their own.
We read in our scripture the climax of Nehemiah. The “Book of the Law,” has been found and the people have wept and promised to keep all that it says. The people mourn their apparent sins and then begin their work. They read that the Jews were to only marry Jews, that Moabites and Ammonites especially are forbidden from fellowship in the people of Israel. Thus, Ezra and Nehemiah, along with the other leadership, resolve that anyone who is unwilling to divorce their foreign wives (it is assumed women who married Babylonians remained in Babel,) must leave the community.
For centuries, this text has been taught as though it were a divine injunction. Yet, we cannot be deceived. Those who had married in Babylon were not traitors, they were doing what they were told. We read in the book of Jeremiah chapter 29 that the Exiles were to, “Take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage.” God erased barriers and allowed the Exiles to grow their community beyond just the children of Abraham. God opened the doors for all people to come into the family of the Faith.
Yet, the post-exilic leadership chose to use their return to Jerusalem as a time to consolidate power. With Persia ruling over them, they had little they could do on their own. Cyrus, though beneficent, was still an emperor after all. So, they removed anyone who might threaten their rule and found out who was loyal and who was disloyal. This purity test, on one level toward the willingness to betray family and the other the willingness to chase a so-called “racial purity,” no one in the community could or should have claimed.
The lesson of Ezra-Nehemiah, two books that we hold dearly in the Canon, should not be that we blindly ascribe righteousness to every action these people carried out. At the end of the day, they cast people out based on their ability to see beyond themselves and to love those unlike themselves. Today, as we as a country strive to treat all people with decency and as we who have historically held power push forward to understand that those unlike ourselves not only matter, but are treasured, beloved, fully realized children of God, we look to Nehemiah not as a paragon, but as a warning. And we, devoted to the new works of God that are fresh every day, should hear Jeremiah crying out to us that we should repent of the old, and bring in the new and not chase after our glory days, that never really were, to begin with. – Amen.