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

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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. Continue reading “How literary artistry has misled biblical historians: Nehemiah case study (4)”