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Nehemiah viii. 1-8.

The fragmentary nature of the chronicler's work is nowhere more apparent than in that portion of it which treats of the events immediately following on the completion of the fortifications of Jerusalem. In Nehemiah vii. we have a continuation of the governor's personal narrative of his work, describing how the watch was organised after the walls had been built and the gates set up.210210   Neh. vii. 1-3. This is followed by a remark on the sparseness of the city population,211211   Neh. vii. 4. which leads Nehemiah to insert the list of Zerubbabel's pilgrims that the chronicler subsequently copies out in his account of Zerubbabel's expedition.212212   Neh. vii. 5-73 = Ezra ii. Here the subject is dropped, to be resumed at Nehemiah xi., where the arrangements for increasing the population of Jerusalem are described. Thus we might read right on with a continuous narrative—allowing for the insertion of the genealogical record, the reason for which is obvious—and omit the three intermediate chapters without any perceptible hiatus, but, on the contrary, with a gain in consecutiveness.

These three chapters stand by themselves, and they272 are devoted to another matter, and that a matter marked by a certain unity and distinctive character of its own. They are written in the third person, by the chronicler himself. In them Ezra suddenly reappears without any introduction, taking the leading place, while Nehemiah recedes into the background, only to be mentioned once or twice, and then as the loyal supporter of the famous scribe. The style has a striking resemblance to that of Ezra, from whom therefore, it has been conjectured, the chronicler may have derived his materials.

These facts and minor points that seem to support them, have raised the question whether the section Nehemiah viii.-x. is found in its right place; whether it should not have been joined on to the Book of Ezra as a description of what followed immediately after the events there recorded and before the advent of Nehemiah to Jerusalem. Ezra brought the book of The Law with him from Babylon. It would be most reasonable to suppose that he would seize the first opportunity for making it known. Accordingly we find that the corresponding section in 1 Esdras is in this position.213213   1 Esdras ix. 37-55. Nevertheless it is now generally agreed that the three chapters as they stand in the Book of Nehemiah are in their true chronological position. Twice Nehemiah himself appears in the course of the narrative they contain. He is associated with Ezra and the Levites in teaching The Law,214214   Neh. viii. 9. and his name stands first in the lists of the covenanters.215215   Neh. x. 1. The admission of these facts is only avoided in 1 Esdras by an alteration of the text. If we were to suppose that the existence of the name in our narrative is the result of an interpolation by a later hand, it would be difficult to account for this, and it273 would be still more difficult to discover why the chronicler should introduce confusion into his narrative by an aimless misplacement of it. His methods of procedure are sometimes curious, it must be admitted, and that we met with a misplaced section in an earlier chapter cannot be reasonably questioned.216216   Ezra iv. 7-23. But the motive which probably prompted that peculiar arrangement does not apply here. In the present case it would result in nothing but confusion.

The question is of far more than literary interest. The time when The Law was first made known to the people in its entirety is a landmark of the first importance for the History of Israel. There is a profound significance in the fact that though Ezra had long been a diligent student and a careful, loving scribe, though he had carried up the precious roll to Jerusalem, and though he had been in great power and influence in the city, he had not found a fitting opportunity for revealing his secret to his people before all his reforming efforts were arrested, and the city and its inhabitants trampled under foot by their envious neighbours. Then came Nehemiah's reconstruction. Still the consideration of The Law remained in abeyance. While Jerusalem was an armed camp, and while the citizens were toiling at the walls or mounting guard by turn, there was no opportunity for a careful attention to the sacred document. All this time Ezra was out of sight, and his name not once mentioned. Yet he was far too brilliant a star to have been eclipsed even by the rising of Nehemiah. We can only account for the sudden and absolute vanishing of the greatest figure of the age by supposing that he had retired from the scene,274 perhaps gone back to Babylon alone with his grief and disappointment. Those were not days for the scholar's mission. But now, with the return of some amount of security and its accompanying leisure, Ezra emerges again, and immediately he is accorded the front place and Nehemiah—the "Saviour of Society"—modestly assumes the attitude of his disciple. A higher tribute to the exalted position tacitly allowed to the scribe or a finer proof of the unselfish humility of the young statesman cannot be imagined. Though at the height of his power, having frustrated the many evil designs of his enemies and completed his stupendous task of fortifying the city of his fathers in spite of the most vexatious difficulties, the successful patriot is not in the least degree flushed with victory. In the quietest manner possible he steps aside and yields the first place to the recluse, the student, the writer, the teacher. This is a sign of the importance that ideas will assume in the new age. The man of action gives place to the man of thought. Still more is it a hint of the coming ecclesiasticism of the new Jewish order. As the civil ruler thus takes a lower ground in the presence of the religious leader, we seem to be anticipating those days of the triumph of the Church when a king would stand like a groom to hold the horse of a pope. And yet this is not officially arranged. It is not formally conceded on the one side, nor is it formally demanded on the other side. The situation may be rather compared with that of Savonarola in Florence when by sheer moral force he overtopped the power of the Medici, or that of Calvin at Geneva when the municipal council willingly yielded to the commanding spirit of the minister of religion because it recognised the supremacy of religion.

275In such a condition of affairs the city was ripe for the public exposition of The Law. But even then Ezra only published it after having been requested to do so by the people. We cannot assign this delay of his to any reluctance to let his fellow-countrymen know the law which he had long loved and studied in private. We may rather conclude that he perceived the utter inutility of any attempt to thrust it upon inattentive hearers—nay, the positive mischievousness of such a proceeding. This would approach the folly described by our Lord when He warned His disciples against casting pearls before swine. Very much of the popular indifference to the Bible among large sections of the population to-day must be laid at the doors of those unwise zealots who have dinned the mere letter of it into the ears of unwilling auditors. The conduct of Ezra shows that, with all his reverence for The Law, the Great Scribe did not consider that it was to be imposed, like a civil code, by magisterial authority. The decree of Artaxerxes had authorised him to enforce it in this way on every Jew west of the Euphrates.217217   Ezra vii. 25, 26. But either the unsettled state of the country or the wisdom of Ezra had not permitted the application of the power thus conferred. The Law was to be voluntarily adopted. It was to be received, as all true religion must be received, in living faith, with the acquiescence of the conscience, judgment, and will of those who acknowledged its obligations.

The occasion for such a reception of it was found when the Jews were freed from the toil and anxiety that accompanied the building of their city walls. The chronicler says that this was in the seventh month;276 but he does not give the year. Considering the abrupt way in which he has introduced the section about the reading of The Law, we cannot be certain in what year this took place. If we may venture to take the narrative continuously, in connection with Nehemiah's story in the previous chapters, we shall get this occurrence within a week after the completion of the fortifications. That was on "the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul"218218   Neh. vi. 15.i.e., the sixth month. The reading began on "the first day of the seventh month."219219   Neh. viii. 2. That is to say, on this supposition, it followed immediately on the first opportunity of leisure. Then the time was specially appropriate, for it was the day of the Feast of Trumpets, which was observed as a public holiday and an occasion for an assembly—"a holy convocation."220220   Lev. xxiii. 24. On this day the citizens met in a favourite spot, the open space just inside the Water Gate, at the east end of the city, close to the temple, and now part of the Haram, or sacred enclosure. They were unanimous in their desire to have no more delay before hearing the law which Ezra had brought up to Jerusalem as much as thirteen years before. Why were they all on a sudden thus eager, after so long a period of indifference? Was it that the success of Nehemiah's work had given them a new hope and confidence, a new idea, indeed? They now saw the compact unity of Jerusalem established. Here was the seal and centre of their separateness. Accepting this as an accomplished fact, the Jews were ready and even anxious to know that sacred law in which their distinction from other people and their consecration to Jehovah were set forth.

Not less striking is the manner in which Ezra277 met this welcome request of the Jews. The scene which follows is unique in history—the Great Scribe with the precious roll in his hand standing on a temporary wooden platform so that he may be seen by everybody in the vast crowd—seven Levites supporting him on either side221221   In Neh. viii. 4 six names are given for the right-hand contingent and seven for the left-hand. But since in the corresponding account of 1 Esdras fourteen names occur, one name would seem to have dropped out of Nehemiah. The prominence given to the Levites in all these scenes and the absence of reference to the priests should be noted. The Levites were still important personages, although degraded from the priesthood. The priests were chiefly confined to ritual functions; later they entered on the duties of civil government. The Levites were occupied with teaching the people, with whom they came into closer contact. Their work corresponded more to that of the pastoral office. In these times, too, most of the scribes seem to have been Levites.—other select Levites going about among the people after each section of The Law has been read in order to explain it to separate groups of the assembly222222   Not translating it into the Aramaic dialect. That would have been a superfluous task, for the Jews certainly knew Hebrew at this time. Ezra and Nehemiah and the prophets down to Malachi wrote in Hebrew.—the motley gathering comprising the bulk of the citizens, not men only but women also, for the brutal Mohammedan exclusiveness that confines knowledge to one sex was not anticipated by the ancient Jews; not adults only, but children also, "those that could understand," for The Law is for the simplest minds, the religion of Israel is to be popular and domestic—the whole of this multitude assembling in the cool, fresh morning when the first level rays of the sun smite the city walls from over the Mount of Olives, and standing reverently hour after hour, till the hot autumn noon puts an end to the lengthy meeting.

278 In all this the fact which comes out most prominently, accentuated by every detail of the arrangements, is the popularisation of The Law. Its multiplex precepts were not only recited in the hearing of men, women, and children; they were carefully expounded to the people. Hitherto it had been a matter of private study among learned men; its early development had been confined to a small group of faithful believers in Jehovah; its customary practices had been privately elaborated through the ages almost like the mysteries of a secret cult; and therefore its origin had been buried in hopeless obscurity. So it was like the priestly ritual of heathenism. The priest of Eleusis guarded his secrets from all but those who were favoured by being solemnly initiated into them. Now this unwholesome condition was to cease. The most sacred rites were to be expounded to all the people. Ezra knew that the only worship God would accept must be offered with the mind and the heart. Moreover, The Law concerned the actions of the people themselves, their own minute observance of purifications and careful avoidance of defilements, their own offerings and festivals. No priestly performances could avail as a substitute for these popular religious observances.

Yet much of The Law was occupied with directions concerning the functions of the priests and the sacrificial ritual. By acquainting the laity with these directions, Ezra and his helpers were doing their best to fortify the nation against the tyranny of sacerdotalism. The Levites, who at this time were probably still sore at the thought of their degradation, and jealous of the favoured line of Zadok, would naturally fall in with such a policy. It was the more remarkable because the new theocracy was just now coming into279 power. Here would be a powerful protection against the abuse of its privileges by the hierarchy. Priests, all the world over, have made capital out of their exclusive knowledge of the ritual of religion. They have jealously guarded their secrets from the uninitiated multitude, so as to make themselves necessary to anxious worshippers who dreaded to give offence to their gods or to fail in their sacrifices through ignorance of the prescribed methods. By committing the knowledge of The Law to the people, Ezra protected the Jews against this abuse. Everything was to be above board, in broad daylight; and the degradation of ignorant worship was not to be encouraged, much as a corrupt priesthood in later times might desire it. An indirect consequence of this publication of The Law with the careful instruction of the people in its contents was that the element of knowledge took a more exalted position in religion. It is not the magical priest, it is the logical scribe who really leads the people now. Ideas will mean more than in the old days of obscure ritual. There is an end to the "dim religious light." Henceforth Torah—Instruction—is to be the most fundamental ground of faith.

It is important that we should see clearly what was contained in this roll of The Law out of which Ezra read to the citizens of Jerusalem. The distress with which its contents were received would lead us to suppose that the grave minatory passages of Deuteronomy were especially prominent in the reading. We cannot gather from the present scene any further indications of the subjects brought before the Jews. But from other parts of the Book of Nehemiah we can learn for certain that the whole of the Pentateuch was now introduced to the people. If it was not all read280 out in the Ecclesia, it was all in the hands of Ezra, and its several parts were made known from time to time as occasion required. First, we may infer that in addition to Deuteronomy Ezra's law contained the ancient Jehovistic narrative, because the treatment of mixed marriages223223   Neh. x. 30. refers to the contents of this portion of the Pentateuch.224224   Exod. xxxiv. 16. Secondly, we may see that it included "The Law of Holiness," because the regulations concerning the sabbatic year225225   Neh. x. 31. are copied from that collection of rules about defilement and consecration.226226   Lev. xxv. 2-7. Thirdly, we may be equally sure that it did not lack "The Priestly Code"—the elaborate system of ritual which occupies the greater part of Numbers and Leviticus—because the law of the firstfruits227227   Neh. x. 35-39. is taken from that source.228228   Lev. xxvii. 30; Num. xv. 20 ff., xviii. 11-32. Here, then, we find allusions to the principal constituent elements of the Pentateuch scattered over the brief Book of Nehemiah. It is clear, therefore, that the great accretion of customs and teachings, which only reached completion after the close of the captivity, was the treasure Ezra now introduced to his people. Henceforth nothing less can be understood when the title "The Law" is used. From this time obedience to the Torah will involve subjection to the whole system of priestly and sacrificial regulations, to all the rules of cleanness and consecration and sacrifice contained in the Pentateuch.229229   Strictly speaking, the Hexateuch, as "Joshua" was undoubtedly included in the volume. But the familiar term Pentateuch may serve here, as it is to the legal requirements contained in the earlier books that reference is made.

A more difficult point to be determined is, how far281 this Pentateuch was really a new thing when it was introduced by Ezra. Here we must separate two very different questions. If they had always been kept apart, much confusion would have been avoided. The first is the question of the novelty of The Law to the Jews. There is little difficulty in answering this question. The very process of reading The Law and explaining it goes on the assumption that it is not known. The people receive it as something strange and startling. Moreover, this scene of the revelation of The Law to Israel is entirely in harmony with the previous history of the nation. Whenever The Law was shaped as we now know it, it is clear that it was not practised in its present form by the Jews before Ezra's day. We have no contemporary evidence of the use of it in the earlier period. We have clear evidence that conduct contrary to many of its precepts was carried on with impunity, and even encouraged by prophets and religious leaders without any protest from priests or scribes. The complete law is new to Israel. But there is a second question—viz., how far was this law new in itself? Nobody can suppose that it was an absolutely novel creation of the exile, with no roots in the past. Their repeated references to Moses show that its supporters relegated its origin to a dim antiquity, and we should belie all we know of their character if we did not allow that they were acting in good faith. But we have no evidence that The Law had been completed, codified, and written out in full before the time of Ezra. In antiquity, when writing was economised and memory cultivated to a degree of accuracy that seems to us almost miraculous, it would be possible to hand down a considerable system of ritual or of jurisprudence by tradition. Even this stupendous act of282 memory would not exceed that of the rhapsodists who preserved and transmitted the unwritten Iliad. But we are not driven to such an extreme view. We do not know how much of The Law may have been committed to writing in earlier ages. Some of it was, certainly. It bears evidence of its history in the several strata of which it is composed, and which must have been deposited successively. Deuteronomy, in its essence and original form, was certainly known before the captivity. So were the Jehovistic narrative and the Law of the Covenant. The only question as regards Ezra's day turns on the novelty of the Priestly Code, with the Law of Holiness, and the final editing and redaction of the whole. This is adumbrated in Ezekiel and the degradation of the Levites, who are identified with the priests in Deuteronomy, but set in a lower rank in Leviticus, assigned to its historical occasion. Here, then, we see the latest part of Ezra's law in the making. It was not created by the scribe. It was formed out of traditional usages of the priests, modified by recent directions from a prophet. The origin of these usages was lost in antiquity, and therefore it was natural to attribute them to Moses, the great founder of the nation. We cannot even affirm that Ezra carried out the last redaction of The Law with his own hand, that he codified the traditional usages, the "Common Law" of Israel. What we know is, that he published this law. That he also edited it is an inference drawn from his intimate connection with the work as student and scribe, and supported by the current of later traditions. But while this is possible, what is indubitable is that to Ezra is due the glory of promulgating the law and making it pass into the life of the nation. Henceforth Judaism is legalism. We283 know this in its imperfection and its difference from the spiritual faith of Christ. To the contemporaries of Ezra it indicated a stage of progress—knowledge in place of superstitious bondage to the priesthood, conscientious obedience to ordinances instituted for the public welfare instead of careless indifference or obstinate self-will. Therefore its appearance marked a forward step in the course of Divine revelation.

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