Nehemiah The Rebuild: Part 3 – a bigger lesson to learn?

A reflection by Dan Spragg

So here we are at the third installment in the saga of the Jewish people trying to return to their homeland after exile. The whole thing has been a bit of a saga and Nehemiah’s story is no different. Jerusalem is still in a bad state as are the people who have already returned there. Nehemiah embarks on a project to rebuild the walls of the city to make the city complete and safe. They seem to do quite well. They mobilize what seems like a large number of workers, they divide up the work between different family groups and get the work complete in no less than 52 days. Quite an accomplishment. If this is all it was then we could say that perhaps, finally, they were achieving a good outcome! But of course, the story is not that simple! Almost immediately Nehemiah faces opposition, once again from those who are deemed ‘foreigners’. The usual suspects – no surprises as to who the Israelites call their enemies – the Samaritans, the Ammonites, the Arabs, the Moabites. All these people, who probably considered themselves as locals, were refused entry and participation in this rebuild. The wall had to be completed under armed guard because of the animosity. Once the wall was complete we caught a glimmer of hope as people were invited to come and make their homes inside the city. But again those pesky foreigners are troublesome. Nehemiah craftily makes it so that in order to settle inside the city one must prove their ancestry. One must prove themselves to be what he calls a ‘true Isrealite’. There are, as we heard, some who couldn’t and so they were excluded. Another blight on the success of this story. As the people are making their homes within the city Ezra reappears and is invited to teach the law of Moses and a great celebration is held. There is much excitement and a real sense that a line in the sand was being drawn. Perhaps now we might expect a happy ending? Now, perhaps it seems as if the people are willing to return to their living as God’s people in the great newly rebuilt city of Jerusalem. They make a covenant with each other and with God, that from this point on they would live as they were meant to. The Temple practices would be observed – they would worship correctly.  They would observe the Sabbath and keep this day seperate from the rest of the week. But, before anyone gets too excited… Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem after a wee while and finds the Temple abandoned and the Sabbath desecrated with work and, God forbid, trading with foreigners! And so we see Nehemiah react in anger, try to sort out the problems in various ways, and ultimately throw his hands in the air exclaiming, ‘Well God, at least I tried!’ And here the story ends, once again, somewhat anti-climatically. Their hopes and expectations of a wonderful return to the promised land left ruined with conflict and frustration.

Nehemiah’s statement – ‘God, at least I tried!’ points us to an interesting thread in the three stories of Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah. All of these leaders felt called to do something, something that would bring about the hopes and expectations of the people. And, these leaders thought they were doing it in the name of God. That this was what God wanted them to do. But God doesn’t command any of it, not directly that we can see. Their hopes and expectations had been planted over a number of years by prophets such as Isaiah, Hosea, Zechariah and Ezekiel – who promised a return to their land, a saviour-king, that God’s presence would return to the temple, and that they would rule over the nations as opposed to being ruled by them. And so, perhaps seizing a moment, these leaders acted on these promises.

It is an interesting thing to wonder to what extent any of us are doing what God wants us to do. Are these stories a warning against assuming that one is speaking for or doing what God wants? Maybe, but then we could say well, are we not meant to try anything at all unless we hear a direct ‘Word From The Lord’? Put like that it seems a little silly. Of course we are meant to try things and have a go at doing and making and creating something we hope might be useful. There is then something about the idea of discernment, of paying attention, of being in tune with the Spirit of God as we go about doing what we do in order to adjust, stop, change, adapt as we go. I don’t think we can be too hard on Zerubbabel, Ezra or Nehemiah. We may not agree with their methods but we might understand their experience. The experience of attempting to do all they knew what to do and how they were to do it. They only knew what they knew but while this is true for all of us this isn’t an excuse for blindly carrying on despite what appears to be some signals that things need to be done differently.

These signals of course came in the recurring issues with these so called foreigners and in the difficulties the Israelites had in adjusting to life outside exile and in returning to their laws of old. I wonder what is the message in this? Could it be pointing to the idea that a different sort of rebuild is needed? I certainly think so. Especially because many of the old prophets’ visions about the return from exile had the new Jerusalem as a city without walls where all the tribes of Israel and the nations of the world would gather to worship and live in the ways of God together. I think that to get to that bold new vision, one that was expansive, open, inclusive and smelling quite strongly of God’s generous hospitality they had some learning to do.

I’m kind of interested in seeing a sort of version of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ in here. “The hero’s journey is a common narrative archetype, or story template, that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, wins a victory with that newfound knowledge, and then returns home transformed. The hero’s journey can be boiled down to three essential stages: The departure. The hero leaves the familiar world behind. The initiation. The hero learns to navigate the unfamiliar world. The return. The hero returns to the familiar world.”[1] In the end, the hero returns to the familiar, a changed person. Typically we see someone who has grown and evolved and now lives a more fruitful, successful, influential life. Usually they undergo a transformation of character – they become more open, more flexible, generous, and most usually more able to empathise and offer compassion to those around them. The hero almost always possesses the skills they need to complete their challenge. But it is ultimately their character that needs work in order for them to ultimately achieve their work in the world.

I can see it playing out in a couple of ways here. 1. The journey of Israel as a nation. Departure from their familiar land / Learning to live as God’s people in a foreign land / Returning to live in Jerusalem. And 2. Captured within this larger narrative is the journey of each of the leaders in these three stories. While not the classic hero’s journey, I can see how their stories had the potential to be a hero’s journey. What I think we see is their failure to be transformed as they were being invited to. All three, depart from their familiar world – their origin as God’s people in the land of Israel, and their learned places within exile. They encounter lessons on how they are to live in the new Jerusalem – the prophets’ visions present while they encounter the people of other tribes and nations. The ending should have been a return to the familiar world of living as God’s people in Jerusalem, but now with the lessons and experiences transforming them to enable life as the prophets’ hoped for. What caused them to fail? I wonder if a sense of entitlement got in their way – this was their land, they were God’s chosen people – ‘of course God will bless us!’ (Maybe that’s a bit about the current state of Israel today too?) They failed to learn from the interaction with the ‘outsiders’ most obviously in exile where they were more often than not offered hospitality by friendly foreign kings, many of whom made great allowances for them and promoted many Jewish people into positions of responsibility and power. There is too something about being forced into tunnel vision when assuming that what has worked in the past will also work now.

The hero’s journey is of course a particular journey that we are all invited to learn, quite possibly multiple times within our lives. The growth of character that the journey invites us into doesn’t come by doubling down on rules and regulations. It most certainly doesn’t come when our attitudes are entitled, closed minded, unable to observe and learn. And, we cannot expect to grow and learn and be transformed if we operate with a mindset of thinking we know what to do because we have done it in the past. If however we are able to be open, to realise when we are being invited to learn something of value, to take notice and engage when we are being led into moving beyond the surface, then we will find a new world opens up to us. This is the invitation of Christ, as we see in Jesus, of course. To do the work of opening up our inner lives to love, to the way of God. To face what we come up against, so that we are able to return to our lives having grown into more of who we truly are. More open and generous, a citizen in the bold vision of God’s ways in the world. The invitation is there, probably more than we realise, to do the work of stripping back the layers of pretense and defense that our ego’s have built up. If we do this work. The work of ‘denying the self [the ego / false self] and taking up our cross’ as Jesus taught, then we will be amazed at the world we end up inhabiting!

This invitation comes to us as individuals, it comes to us as groups, it comes to us as a church community and it comes to us as the institution. Perhaps a prayer for us could be that we take notice of the invitation at these various levels, enter into the work of transformation, and emerge, over and over again with better outcomes than that of our teachers Zerubabbel, Ezra and Nehemiah!