Reflection on Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 9-18 and Mark 4:1-9: “Let the Ancient Words Impart”

by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

It appears the commandment that humanity most neglects is the one that begins “You shall not covet”.  At the heart of all armed conflicts is the desire of one group of people to possess the property (specifically the land and its resources) of another group of people.  To this could be added coveting power and prestige.  It is beyond my comprehension that we otherwise sophisticated people of the twenty-first century should still be endeavouring to possess the lands and wealth of others through the horror of war, and, of course, that horror is so much greater for us than for previous generations because our weapons are so much more destructive and their utilisation so much more indiscriminate.

The ancient Jews knew all too well the suffering that comes as a result of conflict arising from human ambition and greed.  The Bible records the plight of the people of Israel and Judah arising from the rise and fall of a series of empires in the Middle East, each larger than its predecessor – the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Persian, the Grecian (which after the death of Alexander the Great split into four kingdoms), and finally the Roman.  Today’s Old Testament reading refers to a time after the fall of the Babylonian empire to the Persian one. 

The custom of the Babylonian conquerors was to send into exile the people of the nations conquered, primarily the defeated ruling classes, and replace them with administrators loyal to the Babylonians.  Thus the surviving members of the Jewish royal family and their courtiers and presumably their servants, the scribes and the priests, and perhaps the artisans were marched off to Babylon. The illiterate peasants were probably left to till the land for the benefit of their new overlords.  The educated classes clearly took their holy scrolls into exile with them, and during the captivity, they edited these books and wrote new works that would become part of the canon of scripture, such as the Book of Ezekiel.  After the Persians had conquered the Babylonians, the Persian king Cyrus permitted the return of the Jews to their homeland, which the returnees were to administer as a province of the Persian Empire.

Around 50,000 Jews were part of the first migration back to the Land of Israel. They were led by Zerubbabel, a descendant of the House of David, who expected to become the new king of the Jews.  This the Persians wouldn’t countenance.  Sometime later, the second wave of returnees was led by Ezra the Scribe.  Not every Jewish family made the difficult and dangerous journey back to their ancestral homeland.  Babylon continued to have a sizeable Jewish population and continued to be a centre of Jewish scholarship for centuries. The returnees, under leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah, set about re-establishing a national Judaic faith based around a temple and a book.  They began to construct a new temple to replace the one destroyed by the Babylonians, and they began to educate the population on the contents of the scriptures.  In particular, they focused on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible that they attributed to Moses. 

The translators of the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures translated Torah as nomos meaning law, and subsequent English translators have followed the Greek custom, which is somewhat unfortunate, as the Hebrew word Torah means teachings. When the Bible speaks of the Law, it doesn’t just mean rules and regulations, although reading Christian commentaries that’s what you might think it meant.  Reading the Torah means reading the teachings of God, which of course included instructions on how to live, but also included stories about how the Israelite ancestors actually lived; and frankly, Abraham was the patriarch of a family of tricksters, no matter how favoured by God they may have been.  Their history is highly entertaining, but they were hardly people whose behaviour is to be emulated in every instance.  So the Torah is not all about “do this and don’t do that”.  It’s also about how the Israelite people came to be, and how God loves them in spite of their many character flaws. 

The first day of the seventh month of the Jewish liturgical calendar is Rosh Hashanah, a festival day when a complete rest from daily work is commanded.[1]  It is the first of the ten days of awe culminating in Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Hebrew calendar.  This is a time for self-reflection and repentance, not too dissimilar to the self-examination that many Christians undertake prior to Good Friday.  Rosh Hashanah was an ideal day for Ezra and his fellow scribes to commence the religious education of the Jewish people by acquainting them with the word of God.  So on the first day of the seventh month, the people assembled to hear Ezra the community’s leader read from the Law.  He read all morning, which suggests that he didn’t read all five books attributed to Moses, at least not as we now have them. That frankly would take much longer than a morning to read. 

Some scholars suggest that he read the Book of Deuteronomy, which is from the Greek for “second law”.  Deuteronomy is a sort of updated version of the previous four books of the Torah, and some scholars think it was the book of the law supposedly found in the temple during the reign of Josiah, and which the prophetess Huldah was asked to authenticate.[2]  The underlying theology of the Book of Deuteronomy, which teaches that God rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness, aligns well with the theology Ezra seems to have embraced.  It is a theology that gets challenged in other books of the Bible, especially by the Book of Job, which points out that the righteous aren’t immune from suffering, and the wicked can and often do prosper greatly. Deuteronomy also contains the command that the law be read before all of Israel every seventh year during the Festival of Booths.[3]

If indeed what Ezra read to the masses was the Book of Deuteronomy, it is not surprising that the people became concerned about their failure to live according to its teachings.  After all this book promises wonderful blessings for obedience and terrible curses for disobedience.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses,” thunders God from its pages.  “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”[4]  These words must have appeared very powerful to a people whose families had been ejected from the land as a consequence, the prophets said, of their sinfulness.

There was a great deal of consternation, but the clergy class quickly reassured the people.  The first day of the seventh month was, after all, a festival day – a day for feasting with family and friends and for making sure that the impoverished had the provisions they needed to participate in the national celebration.  The next day the heads of family groups presented themselves for further instruction, while their family members no doubt returned to bringing in the last of the harvest (the last grapes, figs, and dates) before the great harvest festival of Sukkot (or Booths) in a fortnight’s time. Sukkot was an unusual festival in that people camped out in huts during it, just like the huts itinerant harvesters lived in during the fruit picking season.  These huts reminded the Jews of the temporary shelters their ancestors had lived in during their wilderness wanderings.[5]

According to scripture the custom of public reading of the sacred text followed by teaching on its meaning, including instruction on its application to our daily lives, goes back at least to Ezra in the fifth century BCE.  It was an important part of the synagogue liturgy in the days of Jesus, when the man (it was always a man) who read a portion from either the Torah, Prophets or Writings (such as the Psalms) would be expected to immediately preach on the passage he had just read.  I suspect our team of readers is pleased that we don’t expect them to deliver off-the-cuff sermons on the Biblical texts we ask them to read.   I know that the five of us who are currently rostered to lead worship and prepare sermons are thankful we have time to prayerfully consider what we will say. 

This being the month the churches of Aotearoa New Zealand and the New Zealand Bible Society have declared to be Bible Month, it is a good time to be grateful for our easy access to the Bible, in a vast array of translations, and to appreciate the considerable scholarship available to help us understand the texts and the cultures that produced them; as well as being a good time to consider our response to the wisdom contained within this library of ancient sacred writings.  In his parable of the sower, Jesus tells us that God generously throws the seeds of God’s word out into the world to land where they will.  It’s up to us to foster their germination and promote their subsequent growth.  Attendance at weekly worship is, of course, one way we do this. It takes considerable effort to research, write, and deliver a meaningful sermon.  So I’d like to acknowledge the efforts our rota of preachers are putting into preparing their reflections, each in their own distinctly individual style.  I think we are enjoying the different approaches and different insights each person brings to the task.  Finally, I can think of no better way to end this reflection than to quote James, who exhorts us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”[6]

[1] Leviticus 23:23-25

[2] 2 Kings 22:8-16

[3] Deuteronomy 31:10-13

[4] Deuteronomy 30:19-20

[5] Leviticus 23:42-43

[6] James 1:22