Nehemiah serves as a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia, and when he learns that Jerusalem has been “broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3) Nehemiah weeps and prays to God to help him return to Jerusalem and redeem the Israelites. He starts the prayer, “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (Neh. 1:5). It struck me anew that the Old Testament God does not give love freely. He loves those only who love him. It is a conditional love, for we have seen God’s anger against those that disobey him. I’m starting to drift toward the conclusion that God, Old Testament God anyway, requires loyalty an obedience over all else. His love for his people is secondary, and conditional on obedience.
Artaxerxes sends Nehemiah to Jerusalem so that he may rebuild it, and Nehemiah does so with the help of the Israelite tribes. The other nations nearby despised this action, however, and saw it as rebellion against their king. They threatened to kill those who were building. This threat again places the Israelites in a weakened position, a dangerous place which only God can deliver them from. Again, I find that the ebb and flow of love and anger coincides with the amount of power the Israelites have. When they are weak they call out to God and God delivers them because they need him, but when they gain strength they turn away and God rejects them. In this instance they are weak, so God will help them. “When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work” (Neh. 4:15). God is credited with frustrating the attacks, even though Nehemiah sets up guards and patrols.
Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem’s walls, serves as its governor for 12 years and returns Jews sold into slavery to exiles back to Jerusalem. Because of his leadership and restoration of the Jewish people, enemies believe Nehemiah is “about to become their king and ha[s] even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’” (Neh. 6:6-7). Nehemiah denies that he is a king, and that is true. But I can’t really blame the neighboring groups too much. The Israelites originally came and slaughtered nearly everyone who used to occupy the land around Jerusalem. Their armies terrified the population that they didn’t kill. Plainly, the Israelites were ruthless invaders. To fear them and believe a king had come to retake the land seems reasonable. Nehemiah, again, does not do this. But the fear is justified.
After Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem, he gathers the people and repopulates the city. They meet in a main square and Ezra reads the Book of Law to them. The people weep. I am reminded again that most of the population could not read, and would listen to their leaders. This reminder helps me understand how a population can seemingly switch entire religions or beliefs so quickly, as they do in Kings for example. If your king says something, and says it’s from God, then you believe it. Leaders then had huge amounts of power over the minds of their followers and citizens. In many ways, if the population doesn’t educate themselves, leaders still do.
After nearly two days of hearing the Book of Law, the people collectively repent their sins and pledge themselves, or perhaps more fittingly re-pledge themselves, to the laws of Moses. “All these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord” (Neh. 10:29).
So we find ourselves back in a familiar place. The Israelites have been delivered from a place of weakness due to a strong leader who credits God over all else. The people have repented from their previous wicked ways. And, this is as consistent as anything else in the Old Testament, anyone who is not from the original tribes will be outcast and despised.
On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent. (Neh. 13:1-3)
Us versus them. Separation. Truly, if you are not descended from Abraham, the Old Testament God wants nothing to do with you. In fact, he probably wants to kill you. It flies in the face of so much of New Testament teachings of Jesus that I’m struggling to reconcile them being part of the same religious canon. This rejection of all foreigners is what still makes Ruth my favorite book so far. Ruth shows what I believe is the ideals of God’s love, as opposed to most of the Old Testament describing the grisly realities of it.
Thank you for reading,