Biblical historical methods and the Book of Nehemiah (3)

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by Neil Godfrey

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem
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Continuing from the post previous to this one,

Could Nehemiah have had reasonable access to their intentions?

This is the passage being discussed. Sanballat and others repeatedly send messages to Nehemiah to meet them at Ono, but each time Nehemiah, believing that they intend to do him “harm”, declines their invitations with the same reply.

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.


p style=”padding-left: 40px;”> 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)

The obvious question to ask (although Clines whole point – writing around 1994 — is that no biblical historian has asked them, save only one, Fensham, who did at least express some awareness of some issues) is how Nehemiah knew about Sanballat’s intentions.

Did a spy for Nehemiah see and overhear Sanballat say “Let’s do some ‘harm’ (in general) to Nehemiah!”? This is scarcely a convincing explanation.

Is it not in fact rather difficult to plot to do harm in general?

If Nehemiah was really informed about Sanballat’s intentions, then we have to explain why he appears not to have known this. He does, after all, repeatedly send the same invitation as if he has no knowledge of the reasons for Nehemiah’s declining it.

Do the subsequent actions of Sanballat and his allies bear out Nehemiah’s suspicions of them?

Well, nothing actually happens from Sanballat’s side to threaten Nehemiah in person or to sabotage the wall building.

Look at the contents of Sanballat’s letter again. All it says is that:

  • there is a rumour circulating
  • that the wall is evidence of an intent to rebel against the Persian king
  • Nehemiah intends to become king of the Jews
  • the rumour is bound to reach the king
  • he requests Nehemiah to come and discuss the matter

Clines notes the seriousness of these allegations, and their plausibility. But he also notes that Sanballat does NOT say that:

  • he believes the rumour
  • he intends to report it to the Persian king
  • he calls on Nehemiah to deny anything
  • he calls on Nehemiah to stop the wall building

Sanballat only asks for Nehemiah to come to discuss the matter.

If Nehemiah knows something more concrete about Sanballat, something he is not telling us, then we have no further chance of historical reconstruction; but if he is inferring Sanballat’s hostility to him from this letter in itself, is he not jumping to conclusions? (p.148)

Clines even cites an earlier publication of his own in which, like “everyone else”, he comments on Sanballat’s hypocrisy and gamesmanship in professing concern for Nehemiah, while at the same time repeating gossip about him in an open letter!

That is indeed what Nehemiah would have us think. But no one remarks on the significance of the fact — a fact by Nehemiah’s own admission — that Sanballat has sent the news of the rumour to Nehemiah four times already as a sealed letter (6:5). . . . Nehemiah’s narration does not satisfy our reasonable questions; rather it prompts them. (p.148)

Reliable and unreliable narration

A reliable narrator would justify Nehemiah’s suspicions. He would have Nehemiah reply in a way that coheres with Sanballat’s charges.

“An unreliable narrator finds no necessity to make one part of his story cohere with another . . .”

Nehemiah’s reply to Sanballat’s letter does not sound like someone who has any reason to worry about Sanballat’s intentions.

Note, for example, that Nehemiah has written authorization from the Persian king for what he is doing, including requisitions for the building materials. Is it not strange, then, that Nehemiah merely replies with a generality of his innocence? Why not cite the written authorization from the king for what he is doing?

As for his supposed intention to become king, why not declare his loyalty to the Persian king, and announce he does not belong to the Davidic line so cannot be king anyway? By merely replying, “No such things as you say are true” sounds, in Clines words, just like the standard blanket denial of any politician or coup leader who is engaged in some plot. No one believes such vague denials. It certainly would not impress the Persian king when he did hear of the rumour.

How can we explain that the narrator on the one hand has us believe that there are such serious threats and charges against Nehemiah, yet on the other hand expect us to accept that Nehemiah treats all this with such lack of concern?

No such thing has been done“?

Why does Nehemiah reply to Sanballat with these words? The threatening aspect of Sanballat’s letter are the things that are planned — rebellion, kingship.

The only thing in the letter that “has been done” is the building of the wall. No-one can argue about that.

As for the setting up of prophets to proclaim him king, we have no reason to think this has been done. But then again, why does Nehemiah merely reply that “he himself” has not set up such prophets?

Why does Nehemiah not deny that there are such prophets who are urging him to become king?

if he is telling us the truth about Sanballat’s allegations, it is Nehemiah [the character] who has done himself the most harm in this situation. . . . It is also Nehemiah the narrator who sows deep suspicions in his readers’ minds about the truth and coherence of his narrative. (p.150)

Three final points

If Sanballat were really intent on killing Nehemiah, it is strange that his only tactic was his utterly ineffectual trick into persuading him to leave Jerusalem.

It is not necessary to see Sanballat’s interest as either reconciliation or elimination. It is just as reasonable to ask if he foresaw repercussions of Jerusalem’s walls on other provinces in the region, and that there was accordingly a need for some damage-control.

Even if Sanballat did see Nehemiah as the chief stumbling block to peaceful relations, it does not necessarily follow that he planned to kill or imprison him.

To be continued etc  . . . .

Clines discusses a number of other views of Sanballat among historians, but what I have included here is enough to get the idea — of some of the things a historian needs to consider about sources.

What we are seeing here is the need for literary criticism to precede historical analysis, since what is deemed historically plausible or justifiable will itself often depend upon a literary criticism of the text itself.

Next David Clines discusses this question from the perspectives of “time, sequence, narrative compression, and reticence”.

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Neil Godfrey

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