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Nehemiah or Nechemya ( ; , "Comforted of/is the LORD ," Standard Hebrew Nəḥemya, Tiberian Hebrew Nəḥemyāh) is a major figure in the post-exile history of the Jews as recorded in the Bible, and is believed to be the primary author of the Book of Nehemiah. He was the son of Hachaliah, (Neh. 1:1) and probably of the Tribe of Judah. His ancestors resided in Jerusalemmarker before his service in Persiamarker. (Neh. 2:3).

Personal history

Nehemiah lived during the period when Judah was a province of the Persian Empire, (see also History of ancient Israel and Judahmarker) having been appointed royal cup-bearer (Gr. oinochoos) at the palace of Shushan. The king, Artaxerxes I (Artaxerxes Longimanus), appears to have been on good terms with his attendant, as evidenced by the extended leave of absence granted him for the restoration of Jerusalem.

Primarily by means of his brother Hanani, (Neh. 1:2; 2:3) Nehemiah heard of the mournful and desolate condition of Jerusalem, and was filled with sadness of heart. For many days he fasted and mourned and prayed for the place of his fathers' sepulchres. At length the king observed his sadness of countenance and asked the reason of it. Nehemiah explained this to the king, and obtained his permission to go up to Jerusalem and there to act as tirshatha, or governor of Judeamarker.

He arrived in Jerusalem in the 20th year of Artaxerxes I, (445/444 BC) with a strong escort supplied by the king, and with letters to all the pashas of the provinces through which he had to pass, as also to Asaph, keeper of the royal forests, directing him to assist Nehemiah.

Although not all scholars are agreed, there is textual and other evidence that Nehemiah was a eunuch. He certainly seems to have been regarded as such in later Judaism - the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, describes him as a eunochos (eunuch), rather than an oinochoos. Further, he served in the presence of both the king and queen, which increases the probability of his having been castrated. According to Jewish law, no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Thus Nehemiah could not enter certain areas of the temple. His enemy Shemaiah attempted to trick him into doing so. Another explanation is that Nehemiah was not a priest and was not authorized to go into those portions of the Temple reserved for the priests.

Without children to remember him for posterity, Nehemiah prayed repeatedly: Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people. Later tradition relaxed the Deutoronomic prohibition and pledged posterity for eunuchs in the divine memory. Nehemiah's service to his people and nation - despite prejudice and social and religious disadvantage - did indeed make a difference to the accommodation, if not yet the affirmation, of a denigrated sexual minority.

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah began to survey the city secretly at night, and formed a plan for its restoration; a plan which he carried out with great skill and energy, so that the whole wall was completed over an astounding 52-day span. "So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days" (Nehemiah 6:15).

Rebuilding of Jerusalem

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem


He rebuilt the walls from the Sheep Gate in the North, the Hananel Tower at the North West corner, the Fish Gate in the West, the Furnaces Tower at the Temple Mount's South West corner, the Dung Gatemarker in the South, the East Gate and the gate beneath the Golden Gatemarker in the East. Eilat Mazar an Israeli Archaeologist and Ephraim Stern, professor emeritus of archaeology at Hebrew Universitymarker and chairman of the state of Israel archaeological council, claim that sections of these walls built have been found. This claim is disputed by Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv Universitymarker.

Nehemiah remained in Judea for thirteen years as governor, carrying out many reforms, despite the opposition that he encountered (Neh. 13:11). He built up the state on the old lines, "supplementing and completing the work of Ezra," and making all arrangements for the safety and good government of the city. At the close of this important period of his public life, he returned to Persia to the service of his royal master at Shushan or Ecbatanamarker. Very soon after this the old corrupt state of things returned.

Some commentators believe that Malachi now appeared among the people with words of stern reproof and solemn warning; and when Nehemiah again returned from Persia, (after an absence of some two years) he was grieved to see the widespread moral degeneracy that had taken place during his absence. He set himself with vigour to rectify the flagrant abuses that had sprung up, and restored the orderly administration of public worship and the outward observance of the Law of Moses. (Neh. 13:6-31)

Of his subsequent history we know nothing. Probably he remained at his post as governor till his death (about 413 BCE) in a good old age. The place of his death and burial is, however, unknown.

Nehemiah was the last of the governors sent out from the Persian court. Judea was annexed to the satrapy of Coele-Syria after this point, and was governed by the Syrian-appointed high priest.

Book of Nehemiah

The book of Nehemiah puts the historical record of Nehemiah's mission in a theological context. Viewed from a political angle his actions were the result of the Persians' desire for increased security in the Levant and enhancement of Imperial control.

The reality of the 5th century BCE was that the Egyptian revolt continued with an increasing Greek military presence. The security concerns of the Persian Empire required some strategic reforms, namely the refortification of Jerusalem and proper categorisation of people living within the Levant. Hence the rebuilding of the walls and the ban on inter-marriage. (Ezr. 10: 1-3, Neh. 13:23-25)

This however is highly unlikely. As Christian Hauer and William Young noted, "Nehemiah, Ezra, and prophets like Malachi were vexed by Israelite marriages to foreign women. The two reformers obliged citizens of Jerusalem to rid themselves of foreign wives. This policy was not racist. The women who troubled the reformers were those who remained pagan and foreign. Women who converted to Judaism were no longer foreigners.."

Rabbinic literature

Nehemiah is identified in one haggadah with Zerubbabel, the latter name being considered an epithet of Nehemiah and as indicating that he was born at Babylon ("Zera'+ Babel"; Sanh. 38a). With Ezra, he marks the spring-time in the national history of Judaism (Cant. R. ii. 12). A certain mishnah is declared by the Rabbis to have originated in the school of Nehemiah (Shab. 123b). Still, Nehemiah is blamed by the Rabbis for his seemingly boastful expression, "Think upon me, my God, for good" (Neh. v. 19, xiii. 31), and for his disparagement of his predecessors (ib. v. 15), among whom was Daniel. The Rabbis think that these two faults were the reason that this book is not mentioned under its own name, but forms part of the Book of Ezra (Sanh. 93b). According to B. B. 15a Nehemiah completed the Book of Chronicles, which was written by Ezra.

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