“Boundaries and Borders”: Conceptions of the Other in the Book of Nehemiah

14 02 2009

The title of this post is the title of a paper that I am giving tomorrow morning at AAJS, the Australian Association of Jewish Studies. I have finally written it, and thought that I might post it here on my blog before actually delivering it. It has been an interesting learning process for me: I wrote my synopsis (contained below) before writing the actual paper. Fashioning a paper has therefore been as much a labour of researching the subject matter as it has been of constraining my research to fit the title and synopsis to which I had already committed. I expect this is a common problem. Enjoy!

Traditionally believed to have been written by Nehemiah himself, the book of Nehemiah deals with one man’s attempts to rebuild Jerusalem in the face of opposition both within and without the community. With a focus on the outlawing of intermarriage, and also on the construction of a wall around the city, the text centres its attention on the removal and marginalisation of foreign elements. This process of ‘purification’ is not only indicated in the nature of the city’s construction, but even in the manner in which the text itself was composed. By suggesting two different phases of composition, both by Nehemiah, this paper aims to indicate the means by which Nehemiah attempted to shape orthodox ‘Judeanism’ through his construction of a memoir.

Composed, presumably, at some point in the fourth century BCE, the two books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the events that took place with the return of the Judean exiles from their brief captivity in Babylon. I emphasis their status as two books for, despite a number of indications that they were originally presented as one, it is as two books that they appear in standard Bibles today and it is, despite a certain degree of overlap and repetition, as two books that they read. My focus this morning is on the second of the two: the book of Nehemiah.

Traditionally ascribed to the pen of the governor Nehemiah himself, the text utilises a number of different narrative styles and genres. There are liturgical formulations, such as Nehemiah’s lengthy prayer in the first chapter, as well as long (and highly repetitive) lists, such as the list of builders in chapter 3, that seemed designed to try the patience of anybody who wishes to read the book for pleasure. In addition, there are long narrative sections that detail Nehemiah’s role as governor and the events that led to the reconstruction of the city, and even snatches of dialogue that bear the hallmarks of poetry. Suggestions, therefore, that the text had a single author, or that it was composed at a single time, are difficult to sustain. Methods of dealing with the heterogeneity of the various sources have been fraught, however, with various difficulties of their own.

The mainstream assumption, and one that has existed (mutatis mutandis) since Spinoza, is that there is a source contained within the book of Nehemiah that goes back to the governor’s pen, but that all else derives from the writings of a later author. The most basic form of this theory, and the form that was espoused by Samuel R. Driver in 1892, is that the sections of the text to have been composed in the first person were all part of this source (named the “Nehemiah Memoir”), but that the sections that do not speak of Nehemiah at all – not to mention those snatches of text that mention him in the third person – were of later composition.

There are problems with this assumption, but the main problem centres around the fact that there is absolutely nothing to stop an author from writing in the third person (or from omitting himself from his own memoir from time to time), nor is their anything to obstruct a later author from adopting the style of the memoir into which he is inserting his text, and speaking of himself as though he too were Nehemiah. For this reason, separation of the Nehemiah Memoir from other sources within the same text needs to be done on stylistic and linguistic grounds and, while it may be guided by superficial differences within the text, it should not be controlled by them.

Broadly speaking, and pending a more detailed analysis, the sections of the text that have been ascribed to Nehemiah are the following: chapters one through seven, which describe Nehemiah’s appointment as governor of Jerusalem right up to the completion of the wall, chapter 12, verses 27-43, which describes the cultic dedication of the wall, and chapter 13, which describes the purification of the temple storage rooms, the zealousness with which Nehemiah puts an end to violations of the Sabbath, and the abolition of mixed marriages. These three sections all describe either a physical or a spiritual delineation of what it means to be Judean. The first two sections describe the physical wall that goes around the city, and marks it off from the outlying geographical areas from which a perceived physical danger emanates, and the third section describes the cultic means by which the holy vessels of the Temple and the “holy seed” that is the Judean people (in the words of Ezra), are separated from the unholy and foreign elements that defile them even within the city limits. From that perspective, the second section forms a sort of bridge: it describes the physical wall, but it also describes a cultic ceremony that spiritually sanctifies the wall and makes it something holy.

This separation into three sections is very neat, but those three sections are not internally homogeneous. The first of these sections, in addition to the historical narrative, contains the prayers of Neh 1:5-11, 3:36-37, 5:19, and 6:14. It also contains the long lists in 3:1-32 and 7:8-72. In some instances, removal of the prayer or list actually aids the sense of the surrounding narrative, giving that prayer or that list all of the hallmarks of an inserted text. I shall take the prayer in chapter 1 as an example.

Scholars have pointed out the fact that the language of this prayer is decidedly Deuteronomistic, meaning that it has much in common with the language of Deuteronomy (and the so-called Deuteronomic history), but not much in common with the language employed elsewhere in Nehemiah. Names for God like האל הגדול והנורא, words like ברית (covenant) and מצות (commandments), as well as a focus on the notion of sin having led to exile and repentance leading to return, are all Deuteronomistic. Scholars have utilised this language in order to delineate this prayer as a particular text in its own right.

Detractors might easily point out that this sort of language and these sorts of themes are common to the genre of liturgy, but the text of the prayer actually interrupts the flow of the narrative at that particular juncture. What is more, the statement in chapter 2 that Nehemiah then prayed would seem to presuppose that he had not prayed prior to that point. Removing the prayer from chapter 1 makes the text more, rather than less, readable – a situation that is also realised with the removal of the lists in chapters 3 and 7 and, while it may not be affected with the removal of the short petitions at the end of chapters 3, 5 and 6, their inclusion in the text fails to further the narrative and their style is so inimical to their surroundings that they may likewise be satisfactorily dispensed with. Suggestions that Nehemiah wrote these texts along with the rest of his memoir would not only argue against what we come to expect of an author, but raise all sorts of problems in relation to the text’s coherency.

Jacob Wright wrote a response to this problem in 2004: a book entitled, Rebuilding Identity. His central thesis was that the book of Nehemiah was actually a tiered construction, wherein one text accrued on top of another, almost as a form of midrash on the text to which it was responding. I won’t go into detail with his thesis now, except to note that, while exceptionally clever, it is also exceptionally fragmenting. The book of Nehemiah does lend itself to this sort of extreme deconstruction, but doing so actually divests the text of any meaningful underlying narrative, and simply presents us with a plethora of smaller texts, woven together almost by accident, and maintained without any real regard for coherency or style.

Before presenting an alternative (and simpler) theory, I would first like to sum up what I have so far presented. We have chapters 1 through 7 which, while largely in the first person, contain two long lists that don’t mention Nehemiah and which are stylistically contrary to the surrounding narrative, which they slow down with their interruption. One of these lists, the list in chapter 3, gives favourable predominance to Eliashib (and, to a far lesser extent, Meshullam): two individuals against whom Nehemiah expresses enmity later on in his memoir. There is also a long prayer in chapter 1 that both interrupts and contradicts the narrative in which it rests, as well as stylistically inimical petitions at the ends of chapters 3, 5 and 6.

Similar problems to these plague the second and third sections of the memoir: Neh 12:27-43 and chapter 13. In the case of the former, scholars have indicated the fact the text is concerned with priests and singers: two concerns that do not elsewhere find expression in the Nehemiah Memoir. While this, in itself, may not seem too solid an objection to the integrity of this section, the generally fragmentary nature of its account has given rise to the supposition that, while commencing from Nehemiah himself, it had been worked over by an editor to a greater degree than had other sections of the memoir. Chapter 13, while somewhat more homogeneous in style and language, also features three brief petitions which, like the petitions at the end of chapters 3, 5 and 6, does nothing to further the narrative and which is contrary to the style of the surrounding chapter.

When one considers these problems, the appeal of Wright’s thesis is evident. Nonetheless, I would like to advocate an alternative theory – that of H.G.M. Williamson, who approached this problem in 1985. First and foremost, Williamson pointed out how some of the petitionary texts (one from chapter 5 and three from chapter 13) bear a direct relation to details mentioned in the non-Memoir chapter 10. He argued that their inclusion could only have been after the composition and inclusion of the tenth chapter. Nonetheless, he also argued that the tenth chapter was itself composed after the composition of the Nehemiah Memoir, and that it functioned as an independent document. In other words, Nehemiah composed the Nehemiah Memoir, an independent author composed the treaty of chapter 10, and then a subsequent editor placed the treaty of chapter 10 before the narrative of chapter 13, and added petitions to the thirteenth chapter that were reminiscent of the treaty of the tenth.

This would all be terribly confusing, were it not for the fact that Williamson suggests that this secondary editor was none other than Nehemiah himself. The Persian king’s proposal, as recorded in Neh 2:6, to send Nehemiah to Jerusalem as governor presupposes a governorship no longer than that which is required to build a wall and fortify the city. It is in response to Nehemiah’s concerns over the state of the wall that the king grants his request, and the king’s wanting to know the time by which Nehemiah will return to Susa would argue against the possibility that it is for a more extended period that he is being given leave. Nonetheless, Nehemiah 5:14 makes it abundantly clear that Nehemiah remained in Jerusalem for a period of twelve years.

Williamson’s suggestion is that Nehemiah’s initial memoir was composed in Aramaic and written for the benefit of the king. It was businesslike and matter-of-fact, comprising the lists of chapters 3 and 7, but not including the prayer of chapter 1. David Marcus, in a 1998 paper entitled “Is the Book of Nehemiah a Translation from Aramaic?”, provides a number of examples of phrases within these sections that, when translated directly from Hebrew into Aramaic, suit the syntax of Aramaic better than they suit the syntax of Hebrew.

Subsequent to the composition of this text, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem and, after a period of time, reworked his original document into a Hebrew text that made more explicit mention of his own personal accomplishments, and added an element that would have appealed to readers of the Hebrew Bible: namely, the liturgical sections, some of which make reference to a previously-composed pledge, worked by Nehemiah into chapter 10.

Williamson’s theory may seem complex but, pending a more involved linguistic analysis, it appears to be borne out by the stylistic evidence. Furthermore, it allows the text to retain a certain integrity, of which it is divested by proposals like those of Wright that assign every different element to a different author, and the overall work to an editorial process that cares more for the preservation of text than it does for message or style. What is more, when we consider that Nehemiah may have, himself, worked over his own memoir, we gain a deeper appreciation of the manner in which he changed as a governor, and of the different problems that he faced: primarily, his military fortification of Jerusalem, the city; subsequently, his spiritual fortification of the Judeans as an ethnic group.




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