Tag Archives: Nehemiah

Naivety and laziness in biblical historiography (Nehemiah case study 5)


Rebuilding the Wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) – Public Domain

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation. — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

There has been a very strong tendency to take the Biblical writing at its face value and a disinclination to entertain a hermeneutic of suspicion such as is a prerequisite for serious historical investigation. It is shocking to see how the narrative of the Nehemiah Memoir has in fact been lazily adopted as a historiographical structure in the writing of modern scholars, and how rarely the question of the probability of the statements of the Nehemiah Memoir have been raised. (Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help, p. 164)

This post concludes the series addressing the necessity of literary criticism preceding historical inquiry — and how literary criticism itself can answer questions before the historical investigation even begins. See the Nehemiah or Clines archive for the rest of the series.)

Literary criticism: to be set aside or used as a primary tool?

One finds this confusion between the functions of literary and historical criticisms epitomized by NT biblical historian, James McGrath, when he writes:

The historian is interested in getting back behind the text as a means of gaining access to events that supposedly happened earlier. A literary approach . . . reads the text at face value, and may tell us what a particular author appears to have been concerned to emphasize. . . . A literary approach enables one to grasp the meaning of the story on the level of the text itself. A historical approach digs through and seeks to get behind the text to see what if anything can be determined about the actual historical events. (McGrath, The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, pp. 56-57)

David Clines, on the contrary, does not accept that any such neat divide can be made between a literary and historical approach to documents. He argues that historical questions can sometimes be answered by literary criticism itself:

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. . . . But [in the case study of Nehemiah] the literary and historical have been so closely bound up, historical questions being raised — and sometimes answered — in the very process of asking the literary questions. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163)

The Romantic Imagination read more »

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

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. read more »

Biblical historical methods and the Book of Nehemiah (3)

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem
Image via Wikipedia

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.

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: read more »

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

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

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

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. read more »