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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Nehemiah 13



Verses 1-14

With Nehemiah Having To Return To Report To Artaxerxes, Unholiness Again Began To Infiltrate The Holy City, A Situation Which Had To Be Dealt With On Nehemiah’s Return (Nehemiah 13:1-14).

It should be noted here that Nehemiah was not satisfied with having established Jerusalem as a fortified city in its own right, but was equally concerned that it be established as the holy city. He had in mind the eschatological hopes which depended on such holiness. He never asks God to remember him for achieving the building of the wall, (the thing for which he is best remembered), but rather that He will remember the contribution that he has made towards the holiness of Israel and of the holy city.

This subsection, opening with ‘at that time, on that day’ (Nehemiah 13:1) and closing with ‘remember me --’ (Nehemiah 13:14), divides up as follows:

· The separation out of Israel of those who had mingled among them, on the basis of Deuteronomy 23 which describes who may be accepted into the assembly of YHWH and excludes Moabites and Ammonites (Nehemiah 13:1-3).

· The infiltration into the Temple area of Tobiah the Ammonite as a consequence of his being provided with a chamber there by Eliashib the priest who oversaw the chambers in the Temple (Nehemiah 13:4-5).

· The fact that this occurred in the period between when Nehemiah returned to Artaxerxes to report to him, and the time of his return (Nehemiah 13:6-7).

· Nehemiah’s expulsion of Tobiah’s household stuff from the chamber (Nehemiah 13:8).

· The necessary purifying of the chamber and its return to its proper use (Nehemiah 13:9).

· The restoration of the collection of the tithes (Nehemiah 13:10-12).

· The replacement of Eliashib by new authorities over the Temple chambers (Nehemiah 13:13).

· Nehemiah’s prayer that he be remembered by God for what he has done (Nehemiah 13:14).

Nehemiah 13:1

‘On that day/at that time (beyom) they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people, and in it was found written, that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God for ever,’

The time note connects this passage with what has gone before. It is always possible that Deuteronomy 23 was read out at the end of the celebrations over the completion of the wall, on that very day, but yom regularly indicates a period of time. Thus we should probably translate with the more vague ‘at that time’. Regular readings of the Scriptures took place before the people at the feasts, and no doubt also regularly on the Sabbath to all who gathered at the Temple, so that we do not know exactly when this took place. But it was the day on which the people had drawn to their attention the exclusion for ever from the assembly of Israel of Moabites and Ammonites.

Deuteronomy 23:3 literally reads, ‘an Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of YHWH, even to the tenth generation shall none belonging to them enter into the assembly of YHWH for ever’. This was clearly interpreted at this time as indicating permanent exclusion. It did not exclude them from worshipping YHWH or approaching the Temple if they were converted to Yahwism. What it excluded them from was becoming full members of God’s people Israel. ‘The assembly of YHWH’ was the full gathering of all the adult males of Israel. The case of Ruth who was a Moabitess does not come into the reckoning for she was a woman who married a true-born Israelite and converted to Yahwism. As a woman she could never be a member of the assembly of YHWH, but officially her husband was.

It should be noted that the original intent of the Law was to prevent an Ammonite or Moabite from becoming true Israelites for sufficient period of time (the tenth generation) to ‘purge their contempt’. Edomite and Egyptian converts to Yahwism could become true Israelites after three generations. The word translated ‘for ever’ means ‘into the distant future’. But it was by Nehemiah’s time seen as signifying that they could not become true Israelites forever.

Nehemiah 13:2

‘Because they did not meet the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse them: however our God turned the curse into a blessing.’

And the reason for this exclusion, as taken from Deuteronomy 23:4, was that it arose because of the failure of the Ammonites and Moabites, who were related tribes, to welcome them with food and water when Israel under Moses initially approached the land of Canaan. Rather they had hired Balaam the sorcerer so that he would curse them. It had, however, been unavailing, for YHWH had turned his curse into a blessing.

The passage in Deuteronomy then goes on to deal with other less permanent exclusions, but this part was no doubt cited because it explained Nehemiah’s reaction against the residence of Tobiah the Ammonite within the Temple precincts.

Nehemiah 13:3

‘And it came about when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude (or ‘those who mingled among them’).’

And the consequence of hearing this from the Law was that ‘they separated from Israel all the minglers among them’. Whilst the same word (translated ‘mixed multitude’) is found in Exodus 12:36 it had there a somewhat different meaning. There it referred to foreign slaves who fled with the Israelites from Egypt and mingled among them in their flight. The vast majority of them became true Israelites through subscribing to the covenant at Sinai, and through their subsequent circumcision on entering the land. Here in Nehemiah 13:3 it probably refers to those who worshipped YHWH on a syncretistic basis, in the same way as Tobiah did, who had somehow ingratiated themselves into Israel in such a way as to be treated as ‘Israel’, or at least in such a was as to be able to worship YHWH along with them. We are not told how they were separated. It may have been by exclusion from dwelling in Jerusalem. Or it may have been by excluding them from gatherings of the assembly of Israel. Or it may have been by exclusion from worship in the Temple because of their syncretism. We can compare how the syncretistic YHWH worshippers of Samaria were not allowed any official part in the Temple (Ezra 4:1-3). But the point that lies behind the words is that Israel excluded from among themselves all who were not pure worshippers of YHWH. It was all a part of the purifying of the holy city and ensuring within it only the true worship of YHWH. That this took place after Nehemiah’s return from seeing Artaxerxes as described in Nehemiah 13:6, is apparent from the ‘now before this’ of Nehemiah 13:4.

Nehemiah 13:4-5

‘Now before this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being allied to Tobiah, had prepared for him a great chamber, where previously they laid the meal-offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the grain, the new wine, and the oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, and the singers, and the gatekeepers; and the heave-offerings for the priests.’

‘Now before this.’ If taken specifically this suggests that what happened in Nehemiah 13:1-3 occurred after this date, so that Tobiah the Ammonite had a chamber in the precincts of the Temple when that occurred. That would mean, either that what happened in Nehemiah 13:1-3 occurred after the return of Nehemiah, or that because of his powerful influence, Tobiah was not included in the general purging of Israel from idolatrous elements which took place in the interim, until after the return of Nehemiah.

And the reason for Tobiah’s great influence was that he was ‘allied’ to Eliashib, a priest who was responsible for the chambers in the Temple precincts. This may have been due to a trade alliance, or even a marriage alliance (Tobiah was son-in-law to a prominent Jew named Shechaniah the son of Arah, and his son Johanan had married the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah (Nehemiah 6:18), a prominent wallbuilder (Nehemiah 3:4; Nehemiah 3:30) and priest (Nehemiah 3:28; Nehemiah 3:30). Both Shechaniah and Meshullam were presumably of the Jewish aristocracy). But if so we are not given details. Or alternately it may indicate a close friendship between the two which enabled Tobiah to pressurise Eliashib into providing him with a chamber in the Temple precincts.

We read in Ezra 8:33 of a fourfold responsibility for the Temple treasures, at that time consisting of two priests, Meremoth, the son of Uriah, and Eleazar the son of Phinehas, and two Levites, Jozabad the son of Jeshua, and Noadiah the son of Binnui. Furthermore in Nehemiah 13:13 we learn of four who were appointed for the same purpose in the time of Nehemiah, namely Shelemiah the priest and Zadok the scribe, together with two Levites, Pedaiah and Hanan. Their responsibility was for the Temple treasures, and this would include the safety and distribution of the tithes, and these would all be stored in the Temple chambers. We also know that in the time of Ezra’s initial arrival one of the Temple chambers was occupied by ‘Johanan the son of Eliashib’ (Ezra 10:6). This last would tie in well with an Eliashib ‘who was over the chamber’, and it is doubtful if Ezra was there speaking of Eliashib the High priest because, although he mentions four Eliashibs, he nowhere mentions an Eliashib as the High Priest (see Ezra 10:6; Ezra 10:24; Ezra 10:27; Ezra 10:36). When speaking of Eliashib the High Priest Nehemiah always uses the full title ‘high priest’ (Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 3:20; Nehemiah 13:28). Thus this ‘Eliashib the priest’ would appear to have been a kind of priestly caretaker of the Temple chambers, undoubtedly almost a full time job, and one given only to a high level priest, with one responsibility among others being that he could allocate the chambers, many of which would have been available to prominent priests, enabling them to perform their functions more efficiently. That he allocated one to his son may cause us to frown. That he allocated one to an Ammonite, who was a syncretistic worshipper of YHWH, eventually caused everyone to frown. It may well be that the appointments in Nehemiah 13:13 resulted in his replacement.

The ‘great chamber’ allocated to Tobiah by Eliashib must have been very large for it was one of those previously used to store meal offerings, and frankincense, and the vessels of the house of God (Nehemiah 13:9), the latter vessels possibly containing the tithes of corn, wine and oil, or they may have been Temple vessels, and therefore costly. It also seemingly contained the heave-offerings of the priests. This usage for other purposes had been made possible because there had been a failure to gather in the tithes, so that the other storage chambers (compare 2 Chronicles 31:11-12) were sufficient for the storage now required. That the High Priest and the priests turned a blind eye to it ties in with the fact that earlier we have been informed that many influential Jews were in sympathy with Tobiah (Nehemiah 4:12; Nehemiah 6:17-19), who may well previously have been deputy-governor with responsibility over Judah. As long as their own chambers were not affected (and each priestly clan presumably had a chamber for its patriarch) they were not averse to the presence of Tobiah in the Temple courts. As a consequence he was now presumably seeking to increase his influence in Jewish society, and infiltrate into Temple worship, no doubt with a view to making both compatible with the views of surrounding nations. It was a sign of how close true Yahwism was coming to being debased.

Nehemiah 13:6

‘But in all this I was not at Jerusalem, for in the thirty second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I went to the king.’

Nehemiah now explains that all this was none of his doing. Had he been in Jerusalem it would not have been allowed. But he had been called on to report to Artaxerxes. It was common practise for such kings to recall prominent men so that they could report, and renew their oaths of loyalty. This is the second indication that we have of the fact that Nehemiah’s initial governorship was restricted to about twelve years (compare Nehemiah 5:14). It may well be that he was not expected to return.

The title of Artaxerxes as King of Babylon is unexpected, although it was a title Artaxerxes would have claimed when dealing with affairs in Babylon (compare Cyrus king of Babylon in Ezra 5:13). It may suggest that at this time Artaxerxes was in Babylon and that Nehemiah had reported to him there.

Nehemiah 13:6

-7 ‘And after certain days I asked leave of the king, and I came to Jerusalem, and understood the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.’

We have no information as to the length of the ‘certain days’, but we need not doubt that they were long enough to have enabled problems to have arisen in Judea. It had been long enough for Tobiah to worm his way into the Temple precincts, and for the gathering of tithes to become dilatory to such an extent that Temple worship had been affected, and both of these factors suggest a period of some years.

But it appears that Nehemiah was aware of the possible failures of the people whom he had left behind in charge of Judah and its worship, and was deeply concerned, for he asked the king’s permission to return to Judah, presumably in an official capacity, although not necessarily as Governor. He was concerned that unholiness may have begun to mar the holy city. And he was proved to be correct. For on arrival in Jerusalem he learned of what Eliashib had done for Tobiah the Ammonite, in providing for him a chamber in the Temple precincts, ‘in the courts of the house of God’. For any syncretistic worshipper of YHWH to have been introduced into such close proximity with the Temple would have marred the holiness of the Temple, and for it to be in the person of an Ammonite rendered it doubly so. With him present Jerusalem was no longer the holy city, and the Temple was no longer pure.

We have in this a reminder of how easy it is to slip from being dedicated to God as described in chapter 10, and from being willing to make sacrifices for God as described in chapter 11, to being willing to compromise with those who might seem to be able to benefit us politically and materially. With Nehemiah gone it clearly seemed expedient to those remaining in Jerusalem to cosy up to those in the area with political power, and one means of doing this was through Tobiah who in a sense had a foot in both camps. He was sympathetic to Jews who were willing to compromise, being closely related to them, and he was in a position of authority in Samaria. Had Nehemiah not returned, and had Malachi not prophesied, Israel might well once again have become syncretistic and, humanly speaking, have disappeared from history.

Nehemiah 13:8

‘And it grieved me sorely, therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber.’

The expression here is strong. Nehemiah was ‘sorely grieved’. As a godly man concerned about God’s will and God’s Law, and about the purity of God’s Temple his heart was smitten. It must have seemed to him as though even the Temple authorities, whose major concern should have been the holiness of the Temple, were prepared to stand back and see it defiled. He saw in it the same dangerous downward path that had previously led to the destruction of Jerusalem.

But Nehemiah was a man of action, and he was also in a position to act, and he therefore arranged for all Tobiah’s household stuff to be forcibly removed from the chamber, and ‘cast forth’, making it quite clear that Tobiah had no right to be there. There could be no place for those connected with idolatry in the Temple of YHWH.

Nehemiah 13:9

‘Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and I again brought there the vessels of the house of God, with the meal-offerings and the frankincense.’

Then he gave command that ‘the chambers’ be ritually purified, for he saw the whole building as having been ritually defiled by Tobiah’s presence within it. Once again we see the emphasis on ritual purification already expressed earlier in Nehemiah 12:30; Nehemiah 12:45; Nehemiah 12:47. He was concerned to preserve Jerusalem as a holy city.

And once the chambers had been purified he again brought into them the vessels of the house of God, along with the meal-offerings and the frankincense, all of which were supremely holy to God (‘most holy’ - Exodus 30:36; Leviticus 2:1-3). The non-mention of the tithes is a reminder that at this point in time the tithes had mainly ceased to be gathered. And in view of the fact that those who gathered them would also be the ones who benefited from them we must assume that the problem arose from an unwillingness by the people to pay the tithes, although in saying this we must remember that many of them would have been finding it hard to survive (compare Nehemiah 5:1-5). It was in the light of such a situation that the prophet Malachi prophesied in Malachi 3:8-12, reminding the people that if they were faithful to God in such matters, He would be faithful to them.

Nehemiah 13:10

‘And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them; so that the Levites and the singers, who did the work, were fled every one to his field.’

The ‘portions of the Levites’ came from the tithes, and as these had not been gathered the Levites received no portion. Note that ‘the Levites’ in the first clause are ‘the Levites and singers’ in the second clause. This is a reminder that the term ‘the Levites’ was used in two ways, firstly of the Levites as a whole, including the singers and gatekeepers, and secondly of the group of general Levites who were not singers and gatekeepers, but served God in other ways, including the gathering of tithes. It is noteworthy that although they would not receive their due portions (Nehemiah 12:47) the gatekeepers remained in Jerusalem in order to fulfil their duties of watching over the affairs of the Temple.

As a consequence of the lack of tithes the Levites and the singers had returned to the task of obtaining a living by returning to their own fields which they had occupied on their return from Babylonia. They had occupied this land because the Levitical cities had ceased to be such. And besides the Levitical cities within the province of Judah had been for the benefit of the priests. The Levites had thus had to find land to occupy on their return, and they had found it within a circle around Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27-28). It was to this that they returned. It went without saying that the worship in the Temple had been greatly affected.

Nehemiah 13:11

‘Then I contended with the rulers, and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together, and set them in their place.’

Once Nehemiah had perceived what had happened he had a set to with the rulers as to why they had allowed the house of God to be forsaken by the servants of YHWH. That his words were effective comes out in that the rulers clearly arranged for the recommencement of the collection of the tithes (Nehemiah 13:12). At the same time he arranged for the Levites and singers to be brought together and set in their place so that they could perform their holy functions. This would include participation in the daily worship of the Temple, and the gathering of the tithes. It should be noted that there was no thought that the Levites and singers might refuse. They were seen as being servants of God, duly appointed by God, and therefor as much responsible to serve as the people were to pay tithes.

Nehemiah 13:12

‘Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries.’

From then on the system of tithes was officially restored, and ‘all Judah’ brought their tithes of grain new wine and oil to the treasuries, that is to the Temple storerooms, including the chamber from which Tobiah had been expelled.

Nehemiah 13:13

‘And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah: and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were counted faithful, and their business was to distribute to their brothers.’

Then he set over the storerooms, which contained the Temple’s wealth, competent men whom he considered to be reliable and honest (‘faithful’), here called ‘treasurers’. These consisted of Shelemiah the Priest, Zadok the Scribe (i.e. secretary/accountant, who was probably also a priest), together with two leading Levites, Pedaiah and Hanan. And their main business was to see to the distribution of the tithes. Hanan would appear to have been slightly subordinate to the main three.

This followed the pattern of Ezra 8:33. But if such a committee had had permanent status, it had clearly failed in its responsibilities with regard to the tithes and the wrong use of the store-chambers. It would be inevitable therefore that it would be replaced. It is quite possible, however, that with the cessation of tithing Eliashib alone had been responsible for what was in the storehouses. And certainly it is unlikely that Eliashib would have been allowed to retain his position after what he had done.

Nehemiah 13:14

‘Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds (covenant deeds) that I have done for the house of my God, and for its observances.’

This is the first of four ‘remember’ prayers which close off the book. See also Nehemiah 13:22; Nehemiah 13:29; Nehemiah 13:31, and compare Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 6:14. As he would before the king, so does he also call the attention of God to the faithfulness with which he has performed his duties and had fulfilled His commands (in every positive case it follows examples of what he has done in ensuring the carrying out of specific instructions in God’s Law). Here he wants God to note how he has preserved the purity of His house, and the purity and continuation of its observances, in the manner prescribed by the Law, through God’s prescribed servants. He has faithfully fulfilled his responsibilities to the covenant.

The plea that God would not wipe out his good deeds (his chesed) may well have reflected the fact that he did rejoice in the idea that God had wiped out his sins (a regular use of the verb - Psalms 51:1; Psalms 51:9; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22). He does not want God to wipe out everything. He wants at least something to be remembered in his favour. He wants to hear God say, ‘well done, My good and faithful servant’. We might indeed translate chesed (covenant love) as ‘covenant deeds’ (note the use of chesed in the next remembrance statement in Nehemiah 13:22, and often elsewhere, to indicate God’s covenant love). This is not the prayer of a self-seeker, but of a dedicated man who, aware of his own unworthiness (Nehemiah 13:22 b) and of how little he has done, loves his God and wants it to be remembered that he has at least sought to fulfil His covenant. This should be the prayer of us all.

Verses 15-19

Ensuring The Purity Of Jerusalem By The Enforcement Of The Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-19).

Having purified the Temple and Temple worship, Nehemiah now turns his attention to the city of Jerusalem. This too he sees as defiled by forbidden activities on the Sabbath (compare how they had promised in Nehemiah 10:31, ‘And if the peoples of the land bring wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy of them on the sabbath, or on a holy day.’). And he takes steps to ensure that it cannot happen. Indeed as with the issue of tithing he no doubt saw this observance of the Sabbath as necessary in order to bring in the eschatological age, as proclaimed by the prophets, which was promised to those who hallowed the Sabbath and faithfully offered their tithes to God (Jeremiah 17:25-26; Malachi 3:8-12). Nehemiah was not just concerned with establishing Jerusalem. He was even more concerned with ensuring that Jerusalem was the holy city (Nehemiah 11:1; Isaiah 52:1) with the hope of introducing that eschatological age promised by the post-exilic prophets (Haggai 2:6-7; Haggai 2:21-22; Zechariah 14).

Nehemiah 13:15

‘In those days I saw in Judah some men treading wine-presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses (with them); as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified (against them) in the day in which they sold victuals.’

‘In those days.’ We once again have a vague time note introducing a subsection (compare Nehemiah 12:44; Nehemiah 13:1; Nehemiah 13:23). The change to the plural is necessary because what Nehemiah now describes occurred over a period of time.

His first accusation was against Jews who were involved in business and trade on the Sabbath day. He described how he had seen men in Judah treading their winepresses on the Sabbath day (pits in which the grapes were placed and trodden down in order to release the juice, which was gathered in another adjacent pit) and gathering their sheaves, and lading their asses with them in order to bring them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. They also brought in wine, grapes and figs, and other commodities on the Sabbath day, set up their stalls, and sold them on the Sabbath day. They no doubt saw the day when most were at leisure in Jerusalem as a good business opportunity. And all this flouted God’s command, to ‘remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy -- you shall do no manner of work on the Sabbath day’ (Exodus 20:8-10), a command that applied equally to Jews and those who lived among them. And it went against their own promise Nehemiah 10:31 ‘And if the peoples of the land bring wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy of them on the sabbath, or on a holy day.’

All this was a reminder of pre-exilic days, the days that had led up to the destruction of Jerusalem. Then also men had chafed because they could not conduct business of the Sabbath (Amos 8:5). And Jeremiah had rebuked those who bore burdens and brought them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day (Jeremiah 17:21). And he had subsequently assured the people of two things, firstly that if they refrained from profaning the Sabbath by bringing burdens through the gates on the Sabbath day, then the Davidic throne would be established and ensured, and men would flock from Judah and Benjamin, and places round about, bringing offerings and sacrifices to the house of YHWH, and the city would remain for ever. But if they would not listen to the requirement to hallow the Sabbath day, and would not refrain from bringing burdens into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then God would conversely ensure the cessation of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 17:19-27).

Nehemiah 13:16

‘There dwelt men of Tyre also in it, who brought in fish, and all manner of wares, and sold on the sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.’

But there was worse. Not only were Jews flouting the Sabbath day, but foreigners were also being allowed to do so. There were Tyrians who were bringing fish, and all manner of wares, and selling them on the Sabbath day to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. The Jews were not only allowing the idolatrous Tyrians to enter God’s holy city on God’s holy day, but were actually encouraging them by buying goods from them on the Sabbath day. They were thereby dishonouring God in the eyes of strangers, and were themselves flouting the Sabbath by buying goods which they would then have to carry home. And it went against their own promise given in Nehemiah 10:31 ‘And if the peoples of the land bring wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy of them on the sabbath, or on a holy day.’ That the very presence of the Tyrians was seen as a problem comes out later when Nehemiah does not even allow them to camp outside Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:20-21), waiting for the Sabbath to pass. So Nehemiah is concerned both for the holiness of Jerusalem, and the holiness of the Sabbath.

Nehemiah 13:17-18

‘Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, “What evil thing is this that you do, and profane the sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil on us, and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.”

Nehemiah then rebuked the aristocrats of Judah for allowing such things, and even participating in them. He pointed out that in profaning the Sabbath day they were doing evil. This was similar to the charge that Jeremiah had brought against Jerusalem in his day, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem which he prophesied would follow as a result (Jeremiah 17:19-27). Did they not therefore remember how their fathers had behaved in the same way with the result that God had brought evil on them and their city? And yet here they were bringing even more wrath on Israel. by profaning the Sabbath day. For an example of this regular Biblical concept compare Ezra 10:14, where it would be the result of them allying themselves with idolatrous foreign wives. It is noteworthy that Nehemiah did not just issue a decree. He wanted the aristocrats of Judah to be aware that what was happening was grossly displeasing to God, and to be willing to cooperate with him in seeing that the profanation of the Sabbath should cease. It is important for any leader to ensure that those whom he leads understand why he does what he does.

Nehemiah 13:19

‘And it came about that, when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut, and commanded that they should not be opened till after the sabbath, and I set some of my servants over the gates, that no burden should be brought in on the sabbath day.’

Accordingly acting with his usual rapidity Nehemiah set his own escort to guard the gates on the Sabbath day from that time on, and commanded that the great gates of the city be closed as soon as it became dark within the gate ways at the commencement of the Sabbath, and that they should not be opened again until after the Sabbath. Entrance and exit for ordinary citizens would be possible through small doors within the gates, but strict orders were given that no burdens be brought in on the Sabbath day. His measures were clearly effective, as the next verse makes clear.

Verse 20

‘So the merchants and sellers of all kind of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice.’

Nothing daunted the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares still came to Jerusalem prior to the Sabbath, or on the Sabbath, and encamped themselves outside the city. The aim was probably twofold. Firstly in the hope that the people of Jerusalem would come outside the gates in order to buy, although it should be noted that that would be strictly limited as the buyers would not be allowed to carry their purchases into the city. They too would be ‘burdens’. And secondly so that as soon as the Sabbath was over they would be able to stream into the city. But Nehemiah informs us that they only did this ‘once or twice’.

Verse 21

‘Then I testified against them, and said to them, “Why do you lodge about the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on (arrest) you .” From that time forth they came no more on the sabbath.’

And the reason that they only did it once or twice was because Nehemiah warned them that if they appeared again and encamped outside the city on the Sabbath they would be arrested. His concern may have been that they were still profaning the Sabbath, even though not in Jerusalem, or it may have been because he considered that their proximity to the holy city on the Sabbath day marred the holiness of the city on that day, in the same way as Tobiah’s continued presence had marred the holiness of the Temple.

Verse 22

‘And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day.’

As a longer term measure Nehemiah called on the Levites, of whom many were experienced gatekeepers, to come and guard the gates. This was not in order to act in a military role, but so as to preserve the sanctity of the Sabbath, a fitting levitical duty. The religious aspect of their appointment is brought out in that they had to purify themselves. They were to have their part in preserving the holiness of Jerusalem without which God’s future promises could not come to fruition, and in order fittingly to do this it was necessary for them to be purified. The use of Levites would have disarmed the population who may well otherwise have become uneasy at the role being carried out exclusively by Nehemiah’s own men, and suggests that Nehemiah’s position enjoyed some considerable support in the Temple. As in Nehemiah 13:1 the subsection then ends with a ‘remember --’ request to God.

Nehemiah 13:22

‘Remember with respect to me, O my God, this also, and spare me according to the greatness of your covenant love.’

His prayer here is that God will take note of what he has done in protecting the sanctity of His Sabbath day, and will thus spare him, not as a reward, but in view of the greatness of the covenant love revealed in that same covenant that he had protected.

It is noteworthy that Nehemiah only asks God to remember what he has done when it is in direct fulfilment of His covenant. (Thus he does not ask to be remembered for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem). In Nehemiah 5:19 it was because he had ensured the carrying out of the provisions of the Law for the poor of the land (e.g. in Deuteronomy 15:1-11), and the Law against a ruler piling up wealth (Deuteronomy 17:17). In Nehemiah 13:14 it was because he had fulfilled the provisions of the Law by expelling an Ammonite from permanent residence in the Temple in accordance with Deuteronomy 23. Here it is because he has ensured the fulfilment of the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-10). In Nehemiah 13:31 it is because he has ensured the purity of the priesthood and of the Temple in accordance with the Law, has ensured that the God-chosen priests and Levites have fulfilled their legal responsibilities, has ensured sufficient supplies of wood for the sacrificial fires, and has ensured the gathering of the firstfruits, all in accordance with the Law.

Verses 23-27

Separation From Idolatrous Foreign Women (Nehemiah 13:23-27).

Nehemiah’s final act to which he calls God’s attention is his purifying of Jerusalem (or possibly of the new Israel) from idolatrous foreign women. It is made clear that these women had not converted to Yahwism, nor had they brought up their children to be Yahwists, otherwise they would have ensured that they knew Hebrew and/or Aramaic so that they might be able to understand the Scriptures. This was something that was incumbent on every Jew, and on every convert. Thus, as with Tobiah, Jerusalem was defiled by their presence. Furthermore otherwise genuine Yahwists (as Solomon had been) were being led astray. It is this last fact that is the emphasis of the passage.

There is no suggestion that the situation was widespread, as it had been in the days of Ezra 9-10. Rather it is revealed as a local affair dealt with locally. It had been over twenty years since Ezra had taken action against marriages with idolatrous foreign women. Now the practise had begun to creep back, and Nehemiah deals with it in his usual forthright manner.

It should be noted that in Nehemiah 4:7 the Ashdodites and the Ammonites were of those who actively opposed the building of the wall. They had been no friends of the Jews.

Ashdod was the name of the Persian province bordering Judah on the west. Moab and Ammon were to the east. Unlike in the time of Ezra the idolatrous foreign marriages here appear to have been limited to women of these three areas.

Nehemiah 13:23-24

‘In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, of Ammon, of Moab, and their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.’

Ashdod was the name of the Persian province to the west and its notabilities would probably have had constant contact with Jerusalem, which was now the capital city of the province of Judah. These marriages may thus have been limited to the Jewish aristocracy who were seeking political and trading influence. Alternately, but less likely, they may simply have been cross border marriages. But if the latter were the case we would have expected the children soon to learn Aramaic as they mixed with Jewish children. They would not be brought up in the same isolation as the children of wealthy aristocrats. The situation therefore smacks very much of children brought up in an exclusive environment, with Ashdod-speaking servants being responsible for their education. The Moabites and Ammonites spoke a language basically similar to the Jews, as we know from the Moabite inscription, although it might not have sounded like it to Nehemiah. But probably their children were not so discernibly ignorant of Hebrew and Aramaic as the children of Ashdod, which may explain the cryptic ‘spoke half in the speech of Ashdod’. Their languages were, however, sufficiently different that it would cause misunderstanding when hearing the reading of the Scriptures, but it would certainly not have appeared to be as barbaric as the language of Ashdod.

With regard to Ammon and Moab, we know of the intermarriages of the daughters of Jewish aristocrats with Tobiah and his son, who were both Ammonites, for we have been told that Tobiah was son-in-law to a prominent Jew named Shechaniah the son of Arah, and that his son Johanan had married the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah (Nehemiah 6:18), a prominent wallbuilder (Nehemiah 3:4; Nehemiah 3:30) and priest (Nehemiah 3:28; Nehemiah 3:30). Both Shechaniah and Meshullam would presumably be of the Jewish aristocracy. We can therefore understand a tendency for some who supported Tobiah to encourage intermarriage with aristocratic Ammonite sons and daughters. Once again political and trading influence was probably at stake. And as Ammonites and Moabites were closely allied, and were brother tribes, it would be natural for aristocratic Moabite men and women also to be involved.

What appears to have shocked Nehemiah the most was the inability of children of half the marriages to speak anything other than ‘the speech of Ashdod’. In other words they only spoke a language which was totally beyond understanding. This was possibly what first drew the situation to his attention. There may not only have been one language spoken in Ashdod. It was a Persian province including a number of nations. ‘The speech of Ashdod’ may not therefore signify a single language, but any language spoke in Ashdod. All would have appeared equally barbaric. And as we have suggested above their ‘speaking only the speech of Ashdod’ clearly indicated that they were not being brought up to understand the Jewish Law, which could only have bad consequences for the future. Thus underlying his horror at their not speaking Hebrew/Aramaic was a recognition of the fact that they were being brought up to worship the gods of Ashdod. And at the best this could only lead to syncretism. He could see Israel slowly slipping away from the pure worship of YHWH.

Note On The Words ‘and their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.’

It is clear that this is unlikely to mean that their children each spoke half Ashdod, half Hebrew, for then it could not have been said of them that they could not speak in the Jewish language. There would have been many bi-linguists in Jerusalem who were pure Yahwists so that being bilingual would not have been a matter for concern. It may signify:

· That half the children spoke in the Ashdod speech, as their mothers came from Ashdod, while the other half spoke in either Ammonite or Moabite (‘according to the language of each people’).

· That being aristocrats the Jews in question had more than one wife so that some of their children were brought up to speak Hebrew, because they had mothers who were Yahwists, while the others were brought up to speak the Ashdod languages because their mothers came from Ashdod. The latter would then have been brought up to worship the gods of Ashdod.

· That half the children of Ashdod mothers had not learned to speak Hebrew, whilst the other half had. This might explain why only some were severely punished.

Without more information we cannot be dogmatic, but whichever way it was it disturbed Nehemiah sufficiently to cause him to take drastic action, because he recognised the danger of encroaching idolatry.

End of note.

Nehemiah 13:25

‘And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons, or for yourselves.”

It appears from what happened that the Jews involved were summoned together before Nehemiah to present their defence, for we learn that he ‘contended with them’ (see Nehemiah 13:26), whilst Nehemiah 13:27 (‘shall we then listen to you?’) certainly suggests that they put forward a bold defence. We are probably not to see in this description that Nehemiah lost his temper and began pulling at their beards, (for that the incident would have had to be very local indeed), but rather that he passed a judicial sentence on them, solemnly cursing them and sentencing some of them to be beaten and have hairs pulled out, either of their beards or their heads. To decimate a man’s beard and hair was to subject him to shame (compare 2 Samuel 10:4; Isaiah 3:24; Isaiah 15:2; Jeremiah 48:37; Ezekiel 29:18). Thus by this they were being publicly shamed. We can compare how God’s Servant described a similar punishment applied to himself in Isaiah 50:6, something clearly designed to humiliate him. In Ezra 9:3 we find how Ezra subjected himself to the same humiliation, although in his case self-imposed.

They were also made to swear before God that they would not in future “give your daughters to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons, or for yourselves.” This was Biblical language based on the requirements of the Law (Deuteronomy 7:3; Exodus 34:16). It will be noted that it is not specifically said they were required to put away their wives, and if that was the case it may be an indication of the high status of their wives. (Even Nehemiah had to consider possible appeals to the King of Persia). In that was so the situation was unlike that in Ezra. On the other hand it may be that divorcing their foreign wives was implied in the verdict (‘or for yourselves’) and was simply not mentioned in this very abbreviated account.

Nehemiah 13:26

“Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations was there no king like him, and he was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless even him did foreign women cause to sin.”

Nehemiah then gave a powerful Scriptural example in order to back up his case. He pointed them back to Solomon, outstanding among kings, beloved of God and granted the kingship of Israel by Him. Yet even this king who was so great and powerful, and owed God so much, was led astray into idolatry by his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1-8). What chance was there then for lesser people to resist the temptations put in their way by idolatrous foreign wives.

Nehemiah 13:27

“Shall we then listen to you to do all this great evil, to trespass against our God in marrying foreign women?”

Thus in view of the example of Solomon their persuasive arguments carried no weight. It is quite clear that the husbands were seeking to put up a defence for their actions, a defence which Nehemiah swept aside. Note how he describes marrying idolatrous foreign wives as a ‘great evil’. It was no light matter. And by it they were trespassing against God and His word. It is difficult in the light of this to see how he could do anything other than insist that they divorce their idolatrous foreign wives.

Verse 28-29

The Banishment Of A Member Of The High Priest’s Family For Marrying A Non-Israelite Woman And Thus Disobeying God’s Law And Defiling The Priesthood (Nehemiah 13:28-29).

Nehemiah 13:28

‘And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. Therefore I chased him from me.’

It may here have been Joiada, the son of Eliashib, who was High Priest, or it may at this stage have been the Elisashib who was still High Priest, the Hebrew could mean either. But the important point is that the High Priest had condoned the marriage of Joiada’s son to the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite, something forbidden in Scripture. For the Law was quite clear on the fact that a member of the High Priest’s family, who could at some stage act as High Priest, could only marry a woman who was a trueborn Israelite virgin (Leviticus 21:14). This was why he was seen as having ‘defiled the priesthood’ (Nehemiah 13:29) by marrying a syncretistic Yahwist who was not a true born Israelite.

The fact that this meant that Sanballat, Nehemiah’s arch-enemy, had thereby gained considerable political influence in Israel, being able to influence the High Priest himself (the marriage would not have happened without the High Priest’s approval), explains Nehemiah’s harsh action. The son, together with his wife, had to be removed from any sphere where he could exercise influence. He was thus expelled from Jerusalem, presumably taking shelter with Sanballat in Samaria. And thereby Jerusalem was cleansed and kept holy.

Nehemiah 13:29

‘Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites.’

This is the second time that Nehemiah has called on God to remember the evil things that others have done, contrary to the covenant. The first was in Nehemiah 6:14 where he called on God to remember what Sanballat, Tobiah, and the current Hebrew prophets, had done to try to entrap him into being afraid and as a consequence breaching the covenant. Here he calls on God to ‘remember’ those who have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. The plural ‘them’ can only mean the High Priest’s family, for it was they who had caused the priesthood to be defiled.

The ‘covenant of the priesthood and the Levites’ presumably refers to the covenant that they entered into, based on the Law, when they came of age to enter the priesthood and levitical service. For the priests it would include the provisions of Leviticus 21, but would especially have reference to them keeping themselves ritually clean. The Levites also were expected to keep themselves ritually clean, otherwise they would not be able to serve in the Temple. Nothing ritually unclean was to enter the Temple area.

This covenant is mentioned in Malachi 2:4-8. It was a covenant which offered the priests and Levites life and peace, because they feared YHWH and sought to do His will. In consequence the law of truth was in their mouth, and they walked rightly and sought to turn people from their iniquity. But now by corrupting the Law they had caused many to stumble, who no doubt followed the High Priest’s example, and would themselves produce ‘profane seed’. Thus they had defiled the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites.

Nehemiah 13:30-31

‘Thus I cleansed them from all foreigners, and appointed charges (ordinances, offices) for the priests and for the Levites, every one in his work; and for the wood-offering, at times appointed, and for the first-fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.’

A comparison of these verses with the covenant promises in chapter 10 is interesting.

· I cleansed them from all foreigners, compare Nehemiah 10:30

· I appointed charges (ordinances, offices) for the priests and for the Levites everyone in his work, compare Nehemiah 10:32-33; Nehemiah 10:38-39.

· For the wood offering at the time appointed, compare Nehemiah 10:34.

· For the firstruits, compare Nehemiah 10:35-37.

The preciseness of order (apart from omission of the Sabbath observance laws) would not appear to be a coincidence and suggests that Nehemiah is pointing out to God that he has ensured the fulfilment of the sure agreement that Israel had made. He had already asked God to remember him for ensuring the observance of the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-22, compare Nehemiah 10:31). For this he wanted ‘his God’ to remember him, for good. It is noteworthy that he does not seek that God will remember him as the wallbuilder, but rather as the one who has ensured the fulfilment of God’s covenant and the proper maintenance of Temple worship. And in view of his seeing Jerusalem as the holy city, and as the city which must be kept pure at all costs, he may well be asking to be remembered so that God would through him introduce the eschatological kingdom, which in essence was his prayer in Nehemiah 1:9.


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.

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