Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study)

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by Neil Godfrey

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163, my emphasis)

Clines further remarks that sometimes the very process of asking literary questions can itself lead to the raising — and even the answering — of historical questions. His case study is the Book of Nehemiah.

Clines tests the reliability of Nehemiah on four areas:

  1. narrative about Nehemiah’s own mind, intentions, feelings, motivations
  2. narrative about the minds of other characters, their intentions, feelings, motivations
  3. matters of time, sequence, narrative compression, and reticence
  4. evidence of a romantic imagination at work.

This post looks at Cline’s analysis of the first of these.

Nehemiah’s prayer 1:5-11

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa . . .  For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

5 Then I said:
“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’

10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” . . .

2:1 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. . . .

This prayer seems straightforward enough on a surface reading. Nehemiah is presented as the author who is narrating what he himself did. Nehemiah even tells his readers what he was thinking at the time. So it all sounds like a truthful biographical account.

But it is not. It is a literary artifice and not an accurate record at all. Evidence of this:

  1. He says he was praying for “many days” — three months. So this can hardly be the same prayer that was prayed every day.
  2. Nehemiah was apparently writing at least 12 years after this time (5:14) so he can hardly be recollecting his exact words.
  3. The prayer concludes with a plea for Nehemiah to be given success before the king “today”. But the prayers were over a three month period; the king was not present.

Conclusion: “The prayer has been shaped literarily . . . in order to serve as a preface to the ensuing narrative of Nehemiah’s conversation with the king in ch. 2.”

The author, posing as the main character, is writing as a literary narrator of fiction. The use of the first person voice is intended to add to a sense of authenticity. It reads like a truthful first hand account. But literary analysis, as above, warns us not to assume this really is the case.

Appointment of governors of Jerusalem (7:2)

After the wall had been rebuilt and I had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers and the singers and the Levites were appointed. I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do.

On the surface it appears we are reading a simple statement of the reason Nehemiah appointed Hanani and Hananiah to their job. But the reason given for choosing Hananiah is not a reason. If he were “more faithful than all the others“, we would have a reason for his selection. To say he was more faithful than most is to leave the reason for his appointment unexplained.

Nehemiah’s food allowance as governor (5:14-15)

. . . . neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. . . .

17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.

Clines observes that “almost universally, commentators accept Nehemiah’s self-assessment uncritically.”

But but but, what we really read here is either extreme naivety or bad faith.

It cost an enormous amount to maintain an entourage of 150 or more persons; by rejecting the provincial tax to pay for this, is Nehemiah suggesting that previous governors (including Sheshbazar and Zerubbabel) lacked the “fear of God” because they could not afford to meet the expenses out of their own pockets?

Nehemiah’s populist measure and criticism of earlier governors suggests another motive other than “the fear of God” playing in his mind.

Clines also asks how it is that Nehemiah ever attained to such wealth in the first place. It could only have been through trade of from land, in which case it was inevitably acquired by exploitation of the capital or labour of others.

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Neil Godfrey

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