How literary artistry has misled biblical historians: Nehemiah case study (4)

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by Neil Godfrey

Head-piece to the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah 1...

[W]e 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)

In the case of the Book of Nehemiah, [biblical historians] have very often overlooked the fact that it is a literary construction and have tried to use it as if it were a chronicle giving first-hand access to historical actuality. The reason why historians’ usual critical abilities seem to fail them in this particular enterprise seems to be that they have attuned themselves to Nehemiah as author, and have forgotten that the Nehemiah we meet with in the book is in the first place a narrator. (Clines, pp. 152-153)

This is the fourth in my series of posts that began with Literary Criticism, a key to historical enquiry. Nehemiah case study. The series can be followed via the pingbacks at the end of each post (in the “comments” area) or via the Archive Categories for Clines and Nehemiah.

This post looks at David Clines’ section in his Nehemiah chapter discussing the way historians have been misled by the literary artistry in handling the sequence and times of events, and in the way the author has elected to compress aspects of the narrative. Clines heads this section:

Time, Sequence, Narrative Compression, and Reticence

a. Sanballat’s conversation with Tobiah and Nehemiah’s prayer

Nehemiah 4:1-5

1‬. But it came to pass that, when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.

‭2‬. And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What are these feeble Jews doing? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, seeing they are burned?

‭3‬. Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they are building, if a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall.

‭4‬. Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn back their reproach upon their own head, and give them up for a spoil in a land of captivity;

‭5‬. and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee; for they have provoked [thee] to anger before the builders.

Here the author is creating the impression that enemies were insulting Nehemiah’s wall builders within ear-shot, with Nehemiah responding at the same time in a prayer to God.

Historians such as Hugh G. M Williamson and Joseph Blenkinsopp explain the passage exactly this way in their commentaries.

But surely the prayer of Nehemiah (which is the source for the image of enemies standing right beside the builders so they could be heard) is literary, not historical. The language of this prayer is certainly problematical, but Clines remarks that he was not able to find a single commentator who thought it so.

Firstly, the narrative is said to have been written 12 years after the events. Nehemiah is quite capable of explaining what is past history, as when in 2:5 he said he “prayed to the God in heaven”. The prayer clearly represents the situation at the time of the narrative setting — the words of the character Nehemiah in the story. Yet the prayer is uttered in the narrator’s own voice, as if the words of the narrator at the time of composing his story!

Thus: God cannot “hear” a prayer that is either written by the present narrator or uttered twelve years earlier by the narrative character.

Further, Nehemiah says in the prayer, “we are despised”. This can only mean the time of the narrative setting, not its composition.

And the form of the despising was in the mockery “within earshot” of the builders. This pinpoints the time of the prayer — which is in its narrative setting. (At the time of composition of the narrative there were no more builders, the wall having been completed 12 years earlier.)

The literary effect of the composition of the prayer is to carry the narrator — and with him his audience! — back to the time of the building. The narrator immerses himself in the experience of his character.

Yet, as mentioned, historians like Williamson and Blenkinsopp do use this very literary prayer as evidence for their historical reconstructions!

They use this prayer as evidence that the enemies of Nehemiah stood within hearing range of the builders as they taunted them.

Yet the narrator has nowhere indicated that Sanballat and Tobiah and their entourage (and army?) walked right up to the wall and spoke within hearing of the builders. This is a little inconceivable as a realistic scenario. To take the words of this prayer as the evidence for imagining this to be the historical actuality is to misunderstand the literary function of the prayer.

b. Nehemiah’s interview with the king

Nehemiah 2:1-8

‭1‬. And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence.

‭2‬. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid.

‭3‬. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?”

‭4‬. Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.

‭5‬. I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.”

‭6‬. Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, “How long will your journey be, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time.

‭7‬. And I said to the king, “If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah,

‭8‬. and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go.” And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.

Clines observes:

There are many oddities about this conversation, but perhaps the greatest oddity is the way in which commentators seem to take it for granted that the narrative is a tape-recording of some actual conversation. If this had been a third-person narration, and the author had not been Nehemiah himself, no one would have doubted that the conversation was fictional; but it seems to be impossible for most scholars to imagine Nehemiah writing a fiction about himself . . . . (pp.156-7)

The use of the historic past tense too easily allows modern readers to assume that the author is telling us what he believes happened, the facts and nothing but the facts; yet narrators compose fiction in the same way.

Clines addresses one of the several oddities of this passage to which biblical historians “fall prey to Nehemiah’s narrative art.

Because this passage makes no reference to Nehemiah being appointed a governor, biblical historians have taken this silence as decisive evidence that Nehemiah was not appointed governor at this time. (We don’t hear of his governorship until 5:14.)

  1. Thus Noth (The History of Israel) vaguely writes that Nehemiah “became governor of the province of Judah” without referencing any particular date or time.
  2. Myers (The World of Restoration) ambiguously writes “Nehemiah claimed to be the legitimate governor”.
  3. Blenkinsopp (Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary) writes that Nehemiah’s narrative implies that he was not appointed governor before his departure from the king’s court, but must have acquired this position later.

Historians like Noth, Myers and Blenkinsopp are thus giving more weight to their desire to accept the historicity of Nehemiah 2:1-8 despite the strongest probabilities that argue otherwise:

  • It is difficult to imagine that there was any governor in the province at the time of Nehemiah’s commission and whom Nehemiah subsequently supplanted, without dropping a word about it.
  • Nehemiah appears to have been the only royal appointee in the province.
  • Nehemiah’s royal appointment would have required vast provision of materials, as well as the authority to raise finances and manpower, which would have put him in direct conflict with an existing governor if there was one.
  • The Persian court would have viewed the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a significant political and strategic operation.
  • Within weeks of his arrival, Nehemiah is found appointing governors himself (7:2), so presumably he was himself the provincial governor.

Why Blenkinsopp, like others, cannot affirm that the balance of probability lies strongly with an appointment to that office before Nehemiah leaves Susa is because he does not want to deny that the narrative in ch. 2 is historical. (p. 159)

Historians, Clines remarks, even treat ch.2 as akin to “a tape-recording” of historical events.

Why does the narrator not say that Nehemiah was appointed governor in chapter 2? The narrator chooses to tell his readers only what he wants them to know, and in the sequence he wants them to know. The reticence here may have to do with the psychology of Nehemiah, or with a narrative ploy, or simply because the narrator is focussing at this point exclusively on the theme of rebuilding (which was Nehemiah’s pride and joy.)

We as historians do not need to know why it is that Nehemiah reserves any reference to his governorship to a point as late in the text as ch. 5; it is enough that he has done so, and we must make up our minds about when his governorship began from the evidence we have and the balance of probabilities. (p. 159)

Historians have attempted to put the 5:14 matter of fact reference to Nehemiah’s governorship alongside the fictionalized narrative of the dialogue of chapter 2, and to make assessments as if the two pieces of data are of equivalent historiographical worth.

Historians have failed to appreciate the fictionalized character of the conversation with the king. There may well have been a real interview with the king, but we cannot assume that the retelling of it in 2:1-8 is itself historical.

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Neil Godfrey

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