Mennonite World Review—July 22, 2013
Nehemiah eight gives us a snapshot of a period early in postexilic Israel where the centrality of the books of the law (the Pentateuch, the first five books) is affirmed. This is actually the first place in the Bible where the authority of that part of scripture is explicitly affirmed. This is a concrete expression of the core resource that will allow the people of Israel to sustain their identity as God’s people.
One thing to notice here is the direct link with Joshua (8:17). This was the first time since Joshua’s days that the people followed the command to build booths to live in during the week-long celebration of the Festival of Tabernacles. The purpose of this remembrance is to commemorate the time in the wilderness prior to entry into the promised land. The return to this practice after hundreds of years marks the time of exile that the people had experienced in the generation prior to the rebuilding of the temple.
Just as in the time of Joshua, as the people settle in a new land and make a new beginning, they stop to remember the faithfulness of God. In response to God’s faithfulness, the people purpose to walk in God’s ways, to embody Torah in the land God had given them.
And, as in the time of Joshua, the people here are called to rejoice. This resolve to live according to Torah is not a burden, it is a source of joy. It is all God’s mercy. The order of salvation is clear here as it was in the time of Joshua: First, God acts to give the people the land. Second, in response to God’s gift, the people purpose to live according to God’s commands.
After the celebrating the Festival (notice the direct command to the people to be joyful, Nehemiah 8:10), the people gathered again for a time of fasting and confession. Unlike the Festival, this day was not directly part of the commandments. Along with the call to celebrate comes a call to mourn the failures of the past—and to make this time of mourning a regular part of their common life.
This ceremony of mourning lasted about “a fourth part of the day” (that is, six hours, 9:3), about the same amount of time spent reading Torah in the previous celebration (8:3). The prayer of confession that makes up the rest of Nehemiah nine recounts once again the story of the people of God.
As in other repetitions of this story (among many, see Psalm 106 and Hosea 11), this prayer emphasizes God’s mercy that called the people, gave them life, and provided them with resources to live in covenant with God. Then it confesses how the people turned from God over and over again. The final word, though, is God’s “steadfast love” (9:32).
The order of these ceremonies has profound significance. The first word is God’s mercy. This evokes celebration because this mercy is the bedrock, the deepest reality, the true basis for the identity of the community and the unchangeable reality of Israel’s God.
Then comes the time of confession and mourning. God’s mercy is always present; it does not depend for its existence upon anything the people do. The honest self-awareness, the vulnerability to repent follows after the mercy—the mercy is not conditional upon the confession. But clearly the confession is crucial for the human side of this relationship.
The people must acknowledge their unfaithfulness and genuinely grieve it in order to be free to embrace the life God offers. And this embrace stands as the final word as well—celebrate then mourn then seek God’s empowerment to live again as free and faithful people.