Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
The reconstituted people of Israel came together on a holy day and asked for a reading from the book of the Law. Far from being a happy experience, this section of Nehemiah ends with weeping, and the religious leaders telling the people to hide their emotions. What is going on?
The reason that the people gathered at the water gate that year was twofold. First, they had just finished the city walls of Jerusalem a few days earlier (Nehemiah 6:15), and the new moon festival seemed like a great time to celebrate their massive accomplishment. Jerusalem was a walled, protected city once again, for the first time in generations! Secondly, they gathered for the festival of trumpets on the first day of the month of Tishrei (Leviticus 23:24). This day would become known later as Rosh Hashanah, but that celebration seems to rise in importance later, along with Yom Kippur, which is completely ignored in this chapter. The people gathered, and they wanted to hear Ezra proclaim the law, but they did not know how it would affect them.
A careful reading of this pericope points out that not everyone had equal access to the text. Ezra read the book of the Law of Moses in the ears of all the men and women who could understand, and all the people were attentive to his reading (Nehemiah 8:3). There are two groups hearing Ezra: those who could understand and those who could not, but who were still listening attentively. Ezra had specially chosen assistants and Levites whose job it was to explain what he was reading to the people (verse 7). These assistants read from the Law, translated it, and then interpreted it in the hearing of the people (verse 8). Many men and women understood the law as it was read. But others needed to have it translated and then interpreted for them. This interpretation, especially, seems to have been the cause of much sadness among the people.
Rashi, the great 11th century CE French rabbi and Biblical commentator, argued that the people wept because they were confronted with how many ways they had failed to fulfill the laws of Torah. That certainly may be the case, and most commentators follow this tradition. I want to raise another possibility. I wonder if the people were weeping because some of the interpretations provided by the Levites were hurtful and injurious.
Contextually, the last time that Ezra gathered the people and proclaimed law to them had been a difficult time as well. Ezra called the people together under penalty of forfeiting their land if they did not appear (Ezra 10:7). It was a miserable, cold and rainy day (in late Nov or early Dec) when Ezra told the assembly to divorce all non-Israelite wives and send away all mixed-race children (Ezra 10:9-11). The people used the weather as an excuse to delay rending families apart. Since it was so cold, the people would extend the divorce process over the next several months (Ezra 10:12-14).
Meanwhile, Ezra began an investigation, with the help of the heads of families, into who had a marriage that they interpreted as impermissible (Ezra 10:16). It was these same heads of families who followed up with Ezra the next day to investigate how to implement what they heard the day before during the reading and interpretation of the Law (Nehemiah 8:13). I wonder if the forced dissolution of families, which Ezra preached before, was again the main point of the interpretation that Ezra and those who worked with him provided for the people. After the time for festivals was over, the first actions of the people seem to have been the separation of Israelites from foreigners (Nehemiah 9:2). It certainly could be, as Rashi argues, that the people wept because of their sinfulness before the Law. But, I think the context of this passage in Ezra-Nehemiah indicates that many of the people wept that day because they were hearing their families and children preached against and interpreted as sinful.
I think this passage from Nehemiah serves as a cautionary tale for interpreters and preachers. The Law’s ability to clarify how humans have fallen short of God’s hopes and expectations for us is useful for pointing toward the necessity and gift of God’s grace. That said, preaching human interpretations of Law has frequently led to demonization of certain kinds of relationships or families. Whether interracial or LGBTQ marriages are the target, I do not think that God is ever interested in separating families or trying to force people to stop loving each other. I think we can understand Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12), and particularly the reference to hardness of heart leading to divorce (verse 8) in this light.
It is frequently the hardness of heart in religious leaders that leads to devaluing certain kinds of families or couples. Jesus interpreted Moses as allowing divorce, but certainly not commanding it. Ezra and Jesus had many of the same texts, and yet they arrived at vastly different interpretations of what God desired. Sadly, both Ezra and Jesus’ teachings on divorce have been interpreted themselves in ways that have caused further weeping. Let us not be the source of such weeping!
Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites insisted that the people not weep or mourn, because it was a holy day (Nehemiah 8:9). And yet, it was their own interpretations of the Law that caused the tears in the first place. It is true that not everyone is able to understand Scripture on their own. For those who rely on us to explain and interpret the text to them, let us be sure not to interpret texts in ways that harm the community or insist on “remediations” that Jesus preaches against.