Mennonite World Review—August 5, 2013
One of the amazing accomplishments of human history has been the sustenance of the Jewish tradition and faith communities. Their survival defies expectation given the traumas and the fragility of this peoplehood.
A crucial moment in our history
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah that we have read this quarter tell of a crucial moment in the history of Jewish communities—and, by extension given that we Christians are direct descendents of the biblical faith communities, a crucial moment in our history.
The kingdom of Judah, centered around the institutions of kingship and temple, had been crushed by the Babylonian empire. With the fall of this kingdom, though, unlike with many similar kingdoms crushed by Babylon—and unlike Babylon the Great’s own fate—the people of Israel did not vanish from the face of the earth. Instead, they adapted to being stateless. Their community survived, along with the values that community had been established to embody.
Their first crucial step, as we have seen, was to rebuild the temple (Ezra 5:1-2). But it was a different kind of temple than Solomon’s temple of Solomon. This time, it served the people instead of the king. After the symbol for the people’s connection with God was in place, they rebuilt Jerusalem. It took the symbolic number of 70 years from the time of the dedication of the temple until the dedication of the Jerusalem city wall that we read about in Nehemiah 12.
The picture in Nehemiah is that the dedication of the wall signals the completion of this onerous task of restoration of the people back in the land. Again, though, as with the temple also with the city. The restoration reflects a transformation. Jerusalem this time is not the city of David or Solomon. It contains no king’s palace. It is not the center of a wannabe empire.
This is a chagrined people living a modest recreation of the city of the promise that had been turned to rubble when the Hebrews lost out in their games of power politics. Crucially, though, this rebuilt city with the rebuilt temple—precisely in their humbleness—become elements of a much more sustainable peoplehood.
Though the dedication of the wall signals the end of the process, Nehemiah includes one more crucial story in chapter 13 before the book concludes.
Already, even in the historical shadow of the destruction of the temple due to the people’s departure from the ways of Torah, problems arise again. The narrator reports how he saw great industry, gathering and transporting food, on the Sabbath (Neh 13:15). The very same disregard for the Sabbath, symbolizing a disregard for the commandments in general, that undermined the people before rears its head again.
Nehemiah seeks to nip the crisis in the bud. “I remonstrated the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your ancestors acts in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city?’” (Neh 13:17-18).
Certainly history since then has seen many occasions when the temptation to disregard the core of God’s expectations for God’s people has been given into. But from the time of Nehemiah to the present, the spirit of the Sabbath regulations has been honored just enough to keep the promise alive—God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s descendents.
The Sabbath remains a powerful symbol for the core meaning of Torah—take time to rest, to turn from your workaday lives toward God and toward God’s people. Remember God’s love and to find renewed strength and purpose to be agents of God’s shalom.