Reading Nehemiah 13
You might think the title rather alarming, but it comes, of course, from Ephesians 4:27 “Be angry, yet do not sin. Do not let the sun set upon your anger and do not give the devil a foothold.”
The opposite trajectory is described by Jesus when he said, “I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me.” (John 14:30)
In the first instance we are warned against demonic footholds. In the second, their absence is remarked upon. Satan could find no foothold in Jesus.
In Nehemiah 13, the worst has happened. A foothold has already occurred and it looks set to become a stronghold.
That which you tolerate will one day dominate.
So what did they tolerate? What was the foothold? Look at Nehemiah 13:1-3:
“On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, 2 because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) 3 When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.” (Nehemiah 13:1-3)
Previously (see Chapter 10), the Israelites had vowed not to intermarry, but after this ten year gap, we find that this vow has been ignored.
But why make it at all? Isn’t that racist?
The record refers to the wilderness wanderings when the Ammonites and the Moabites refused to accommodate the travelling people of Israel, but instead hired the prophet Balaam to curse them.
(You remember the affair with the donkey?)
So there was a pattern of hostility from their earliest association. It became a kind of “Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” thing.
But in Exra 9, perhaps a generation before Nehemiah’s day, an already tense situation worsened. Ezra had led a group back from Babylon to Jerusalem and he, too, discovered intermarriage:
“After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, ‘The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. 2 They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.’ (Ezra 9:1-2)
Ezra was devastated: “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.”
As he prays, he reveals the real reason for the demand to keep Israel separate from A & M:
“But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands 11 you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: “The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. 12 Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.” (Ezra 9:10-12)
It’s important to realize that this is not a matter of racial bigotry but moral purity and social safety. The issue was not their race but their lifestyle. When we lived in a certain area of London, we were very concerned that our children didn’t become part of the prevailing gang culture or get into the drug scene or fall victim to the street violence that had become distressingly commonplace.
What kind of parent would not be concerned about these things? Answer: a bad one.
The concern here was that if these people were allowed to intermarry with Israelites the lifestyle of Israel would be compromised. And don’t forget the overarching principle that Paul draws from the narratives of the Old Testament, that God intends us to draw a lesson for ourselves from this passage, that “all these things happened to Israel as examples for us upon whom the ends of the ages have come,” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
An example of what?
Ammon and Moab represent the example of an ancient choice of evil. Ammon and Moab were the sons of Lot, the nephew of Abraham. During the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s family escaped to a cave (minus Mrs Lot, who, according to my son’s account, was “assaulted”). And then the sordid story unfolds of Lot’s two daughters being impregnated by their drunken father and producing A & M.
So Ammon and Moab were related to Israel and yet tainted, according to this ancient story.
It is interesting too to read that this original association was sex-related, for in the intervening generations, the ongoing trouble between the tribes of Israel and the peoples of Moab and Ammon invariably involved the sense of Israel being corrupted or morally polluted by contact.
So, as we said above, association was forbidden not because of racial intolerance but because of the desire for righteousness within the covenant family.
It’ the same with us. We are constantly struggling in what Paul calls the battle between “flesh” and “spirit.” We would love to get rid of the flesh because it tricks us and traps us, corrupts us and injures us. But you cannot because it is related to you. Yet we are called to live above it, in victory, while we struggle with it. We are called to overcome it, and to walk with God nevertheless. That is the normal struggle of the Christian life.
So how does this condition relate to the story of Nehemiah?
Nehemiah 13:4-9 tells the story of a foothold gained by the Enemy at the very centre of the action, within the temple itself.
“Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, 5 and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil prescribed for the Levites, musicians and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.
6 But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission 7 and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. 8 I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. 9 I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense.” (Nehemiah 13:4-9)
Here’s the foothold: the high priest had allowed his grandson to marry into this Ammonite family. We learn later in this chapter that he had married the daughter of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, who was an ally of Tobiah the Ammonite. Both of these were enemies of Nehemiah. This cosy alliance led to an invitation to Tobiah to actually move into the temple itself. To make room for him the high priest took over the storeroom that was set apart for the grain, oil and incense used by the Levites in their purification and ritual ceremonies. So there were two wrongs involved. An Ammonite and his family were actually living in the temple of God, contrary to the Law of Moses; and second, in order to permit that they had deliberately defrauded the Levites of their rights of storage.
And Nehemiah promptly evicted them and fumigated the room.
How intolerant! Couldn’t he just have lived and let live? No. Some things cannot be manoeuvred around or swept under the carpet. You cannot compromise with evil. You have say no to it. It’s similar to the incident in the New Testament when Jesus came into the temple and found it filled with money-changers making extravagant income off the sale of the sacrifices and offerings required in the temple. It was a sordid scene of commercializing the worship of Israel. Jesus reacted in a way similar to Nehemiah’s response here. He made a whip and went slashing and flashing around the Temple, upsetting tables and driving the moneychangers out — much to the distress of many pacifists ever since! It indicates that there is a time for drastic action. There is a time for strong stands against evil which others have indifferently accepted.
Evil sneaks up on you, doesn’t it? One compromise leads to three more. That which you tolerate will one day dominate.
Jesus was brutal about compromise: “If your right hand offends you, cut it off. If your right eye offends you, pluck it out,” Matthew 5:29-30). Take action. Do not allow these evil things to remain. Even if it takes painful effort to do so, end it!
Nehemiah went still further, as Nehemiah 13:10-12 records: “I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. 11 So I rebuked the officials and asked them, ‘Why is the house of God neglected?’ Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms.”
This neglect of the Temple is a result of the practice of intermarrying with Ammonites and Moabites. When Tobiah moved into the temple and they had to throw out the grain and oil and incense that the Levites needed, it meant that the Levites had no supplies to work with. Since they could not perform their ministry, they could not even be adequately supported, so they went to work in the fields to earn a living for themselves.
The centre of their life as a nation was not being maintained.
How about us? If we let our Bible reading and prayer life slip then God has no easy way of talking to us on as daily basis. And false forces start to creep in and take over. What it calls for is drastic, deliberate action to change the whole picture. This is what Nehemiah did. He rebuked the officials, we are told. Insistent on obeying the Scriptures, he calls them to account. Then he calls on the people to bring in the tithes and the oil and the incense again and to refill the temple storage areas, allowing the Levites to go back to work. Thus God’s order was restored in the nation.
Sometimes you just have to be tough.