When Bible authors can read their characters’ minds (Nehemiah case study 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

The Jews who lived near the enemies told Nehemiah 10 times that they would attack us from every direction.

This post continues my earlier notes from David Clines’ discussion of traps biblical historians have often fallen into when reading a biblical text that sounds like an eyewitness, biographical record of historical events — with Nehemiah selected as the case study.

Literary criticism must precede historical presumptions

The lesson for historians to learn, argues Clines, is that literary criticism must precede using the text as a source document for historical information. Only by first ascertaining the nature of the source through literary criticism will we know if and how to read it for other types of information.

When the author is an omniscient narrator

In section 2 of his chapter titled Nehemiah: The Perils of Autobiography, Clines begins

It is a sign of omniscient narrators that they have access to the thoughts and feelings of their characters. The narrators of novels do not need to explain to us how they come to know what people are thinking or what they say to one another in private. Nor do the authors of fictions of any kind. But when authors write as the first-person narrators of their work, we are bound to ask how they come to know what they claim to know. (pp.136-135)

In the Book of Nehemiah there are many times the author writes like an omniscient narrator. He also writes as a first-person narrator, and the effect is to persuade readers that what he says about his character’s feelings and thoughts is true.

Only readers on their guard will be alert to distinguishing between what the author could possibly have known, and what he claims to know. And Clines’ observation is that most biblical commentators and historians have been fooled (“taken in”) by the author’s rhetorical technique and accordingly believe whatever Nehemiah says about Sanballat’s intentions, etc.

Sanballat’s reaction to Nehemiah’s arrival

When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel. (2.10)

The author does not describe here any observable fact, such as an outwardly hostile reception. Whether or not Sanballat was pleased or not is only something Sanballat could tell us.

But the problem gets murkier.

The author then proceeds to give us the motivation for this particular feeling of Sanballat and Tobiah. This can only be at best speculative.

  • Can we imagine Sanballat using these words, or anything like them?
  • Can Sanballat have been such a racist, or so blind to his own interests as a governor of a Persian province, that the ‘welfare’ of the citizens of a neighbouring province would have been so displeasing to him?
  • Would Sanballat have been thinking that Nehemiah’s work (building the walls of Jerusalem) was “seeking the welfare of the Israelites”?  — or is not this rather the language and thought of Nehemiah?
  • Would not Sanballat have thought of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea as “Judeans” rather than “Israelites”?

The account is clearly entirely the point of view of Nehemiah about his enemy. It is scarcely “a historical report”.

Now Ezra 4:8-16 does make a claim for some evidence of Samarian hostility against Jerusalem. But the letter is not evidence for Sanballat’s motivations.

Clines asks, even if we grant that Nehemiah is correct in his claim that Sanballat was displeased, what conclusions we are entitled to draw about his motives. He answers: none. There may be many possibilities:

  • he might think he has reason to suspect Jewish loyalty to Persia
  • he might resent having a royal appointee with direct access to the king as his neighbour
  • he might be mistaken about Jewish intentions

As Clines concludes:

Narrators may read minds; but real-life persons, and authors, have to make do with guesswork. Nehemiah as narrator is hardly likely to be a reliable witness to the motives of people he regards as his enemies. But modern historians of the period are so good-natured that they prefer to take Nehemiah’s guesses for truth unless there is evidence to the contrary. Is this a historical method?, I ask. (p.138)

Sanballat’s taunting of the Jews

Now it came about that when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became furious and very angry and mocked the Jews.

He spoke in the presence of his brothers and the wealthy men [or army of Samaria and said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Are they going to restore it for themselves? Can they offer sacrifices? Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?”

Now Tobiah the Ammonite was near him and he said, “Even what they are building–if a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!” (4:1-3)

For us to believe that Nehemiah knew of Sanballat’s rage and what he said in the presence of his brethren and army, we must postulate that Nehemiah had spies at their headquarters to witness all this. Or else that Sanballat’s conversation with these people was right outside the walls of Jerusalem where Nehemiah could overhear them.

Clines discusses a commentator who does read these words as if they are an accurate historical record, remarking that this commentator has clearly not thought about the circumstances required for Nehemiah to know the facts.

Would it not, however, be more probable to suppose that these are Nehemiah’s words put into the mouth of Sanballat; that Nehemiah is, in short, inventing them?

Sanballat’s plot against Jerusalem

Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry.

All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it. (4:7-8)

Once again Sanballat and company are angry (they always are in this narrative, as Clines remarks). How does Nehemiah know? How can we know the planned invasion is not “the product of Nehemiah’s fertile imagination as narrator”?

In verse 12 we read those who lived in the towns near the Samarian areas kept begging Nehemiah to send forces to defend them from an anticipated attack. Some translate the Hebrew to mean that they are begging Nehemiah to send back their men from the work for their own defence.

But as historians we will recognize that rumour among countryfolk does not really amount to evidence of the actual intentions of Sanballat or of the existence of a military decision for the deployment of the army of the Samarian authorities. So how does Nehemiah know about the plan, or is he just guessing? (p. 140)

Short of Nehemiah having spies in the Samarian headquarters, what would count as evidence of a plan to assault Jerusalem?

  1. How about a report of an actual attack?
  2. Or what about the presence of Samarian troops inside Judea?
  3. Or of Sanballat’s troops massing around the city walls?

And how likely is it that a governor of one province would really attack the governor of another province if the latter had the king’s authority for what he was doing?

All Nehemiah tells us is that there was a plan to attack, and that God frustrated it (4:15). For all we know from what we are told here, there were no signs of an imminent attack. We are entitled to wonder if the claim was nothing more than Nehemiah’s fear projected onto those he saw as his enemies.

It is also worth noting that elsewhere in the book the leaders of the neighbouring provinces are on generally good terms with the Judeans: 6:17-1913:4-5, 23, 28

Trying to save Nehemiah as a reliable narrator

Clines notes that some historians (e.g.Myers) nevertheless to salvage Nehemiah’s reputation as a reliable narrator by saying that there were rumours to attack Jerusalem.

Others (e.g. Williamson) have argued that there were plots but that they were “not serious”.

But this is not what Nehemiah says. He says there were real plots.

Still others concede something unhistorical about Nehemiah’s account, but nonetheless still bring it into their historical reconstruction. Thus Blenkinsopp remarks on the narrated conspiracy as being in the form of “the traditional holy war pattern”, but then says that Nehemiah’s account nonetheless “gives us a glimpse into the problems faced by the central government in the more distant satrapies.”

So is Nehemiah’s account mere “holy war” rhetoric or was there really a plot?

Clines says that the most common “scholarly” interpretation is to take Nehemiah’s words literally (Hermann, Noth, Widengren) or even improve on them. Thus Bright adds to Nehemiah’s account “evidence” from Josephus about literal attacks and deaths — even though Josephus could have had no independent sources and is clearly making up his details.

Serious historians, that is to say, but their signature to Nehemiah’s suspicion of a plot to make an armed assault against Jerusalem, even though he gives no hint of how he could have learned of such a plot, and the sheer possibility of such an assault by one provincial governor upon another seems rather slim. This is no way to write history, and it is all due to Nehemiah’s playing the omniscient narrator. (p.144)

Sanballat’s invitation to a meeting at Ono

1 Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), 2 that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono.” But they thought to do me harm.
3 So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?”
4 But they sent me this message four times, and I answered them in the same manner. 5 Then Sanballat sent his servant to me as before, the fifth time, with an open letter in his hand. 6 In it was written:
It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. 7 And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, “There is a king in Judah!” Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together.
8 Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart.” 
9 For they all were trying to make us afraid, thinking, “Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done.”
 Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands. (6:1-9)
Clines quotes from 11 commentaries 11 different (though similar) explanations of what Nehemiah meant to say here. To summarize:
  • Myers: N knew they planned to do him harm
  • Ryle: N hints his enemies plotted to assassinate him
  • Witton Davies: probably to assassinate him
  • Carl F. Keil: probably to make him a prisoner, perhaps even assassinate him
  • Fensham: they decided to eliminate him
  • Brockington: we are not told what they intended: to capture him? to assassinate him? to intimidate him? to give him an opportunity for an armed attack on the city?
  • Williamson: to eliminate him from the scene
  • Noth: tried to intimidate him, or seize him
  • Batten: “The character of the harm cannot be determined by the very general Hebrew word”, but personal violence . . .
  • Widengren: to put him out of the way
  • Herrmann: criminal plans, to capture N
Most of this, of course, goes far beyond what Nehemiah himself says. No one will seriously argue that in Hebrew “to do harm” . . . actually means “to kill”, and it is something of a triumph for the narrator’s art that he has persuaded so many critical thinkers, two and a half millennia on, to “think the worst” when all he uses was an utterly general term! If indeed Nehemiah had thought they intended to kill him, he might surely have been expected to say so in as many words, for he is clearly out to paint the most dramatic picture possible. In fact, he makes perfectly clear to us what he believed his intentions to be: it was that they wanted to frighten him into abandoning the wall building (v. 9).  .  .  . obviously killing him would not be a way of achieving that goal. We conclude that the reconstruction of the intentions of Sanballat and his allies by the consensus of modern scholarship is nothing more than a fantasy they have copied from one another, aided and abetted, no doubt, by the web of intrigue the narrator has so vividly sketched. (pp. 145-146)
So what are we to make of Nehemiah’s statements of his own beliefs and intentions?
Lots. So it will have to be treated in a future post.
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Neil Godfrey

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