Pioneer Spirit: Nehemiah 7

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Today’s reading: Nehemiah 7.

The book of Nehemiah makes Nehemiah’s wall-building famous, but the point of the building was not stones but souls. Nehemiah 7 shifts the focus from masonry foundations to spiritual foundations. Though the wall was built, the city of Jerusalem remained largely empty and full of ruins.

Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt. So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return. This is what I found written there… Nehemiah 7:4-5

Nehemiah repeats a combination census/genealogy first listed in Ezra 2. The lists are far from identical and that has caused consternation for many Bible students. Nearly 100 years had passed between the events of Ezra’s list and Nehemiah’s repeating of the list. The exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon about 537 BC. These are the people recorded in both lists – not those living in the time of Ezra or those of Nehemiah’s day. Ezra came to Jerusalem about 458 BC, some 80 years after the first exiles. Nehemiah arrived in 445 BC or 92 years after the exiles. As Will Kinney states on his website, the differences in the two lists are best understood as an accurate initial list and a somewhat less accurate retelling of the list. Both lists tell the same story, however. God made a way for his people to return to their land so that a holy nation of set-apart people could be reestablished, so that the temple could be rebuilt, so that the family of David could continue to live in the land, and so that the Messiah could come to them.

The pioneering exiles had the faith to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem. Chief among them was Zerubbabel, listed by both Matthew and Luke as an ancestor of Jesus, and the first governor of the reborn nation. The men and women who worked alongside Nehemiah were also pioneers with an equal faith in God to overcome the obstacles that threatened them. By pointing out these early pioneers to the later pioneers, Nehemiah did several things.

  1. He linked them by family and place to former heroes, so that they would be inspired to continue the work.
  2. He gave them and us a record to prove the legitimacy of Israel’s heritage and to help document the genealogy of Jesus.
  3. He reminded us that each individual matters, and that God knows our names and remembers us.

In Ezra, this list of names of those who returned from Babylon under Zerubbabel in 536 B.C. served to document who was a true Jew. In Nehemiah, nearly a century later (444 B.C.), the list answers the question, “Who is available to repopulate the city and to provide for temple worship?” Nehemiah uses the list to instill in the people a reminder of their personal and national identity as God’s people and to encourage them to fulfill their responsibilities in light of this identity. – Steven J. Cole

Image by Hc_07 on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

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