Thursday of week 26 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Neh 8:1-4, 5-6, 7-12

A dramatic scene where Ezra, the priest-scribe, gathers the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It is also a highly meaningful passage for Christians. Scholars say that the chapter from which today’s reading comes should be inserted in the Book of Ezra after Ezr 8:36. The mention of Nehemiah in the passage was inserted later after the displacement of passages in Ezra-Nehemiah. There is no clear evidence that Nehemiah and Ezra were ever in Jerusalem at the same time. Although we are in the Book of Nehemiah, the passage is about Ezra. See the readings from the Book of Ezra for last week, Week 25. We are told that it is in the 7th month, the beginning of the civil year, and the returned Israelites are now settled in their towns. But now they all gather together “as one man” in the square in front of the Water Gate. They ask Ezra, a scribe, to bring the Book of the Law of Moses which had been prescribed for them. The Water Gate was south east of the Temple and not on sacred ground. Squares were normally situated near a city gate. Scribes, as their name indicates, originally served kings as secretaries, such as Shaphan under Josiah, where the Hebrew word for ‘scribe’ is translated “secretary”. Other scribes took dictation – such as Baruch, who wrote down what Jeremiah spoke. We need to remember that most people, probably including even kings and highly placed administrators, could not read or write. However, from the exilic period on, the ‘scribes’ were scholars who studied and taught the Scriptures. In the Gospel they are often referred to as “teachers of the Law” and paired with the Pharisees. Some Pharisees would certainly have been also Scribes. In the New Testament period they were addressed as “Rabbi” – a title often accorded to Jesus himself. The “Book of the Law” that the people are asking for would be the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) as it existed at that time. Four views have been proposed concerning the extent of this Book: (1) a collection of legal materials, (2) the priestly laws of Exodus and Leviticus, (3) the laws of Deuteronomy, (4) the Pentateuch. Surely Ezra could have brought back with him the Torah, i.e., the entire Pentateuch. So, on the first day of the 7th month, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, consisting of men, women and all those old enough to understand. The first day of the 7th month makes it October 8 in the year 445 BC. In pre-exilic times the feast of the seventh month (Sept-Oct) began the new year. It was celebrated as the Feast of Trumpets, with no work being done on that day and the holding of a sacred assembly. Normally, women did not usually take part in assemblies but were brought, together with children, on such solemn occasions. Then, in the square in front of the Water Gate, in the presence of the men and women, and of those old enough to understand, Ezra read from the Book of the Law from dawn till noon, while all the people listened attentively.  The scene is reminiscent of Moses reading the Law to the people at Mount Sinai. Apparently, the people stood for five or six hours – from dawn until noon, listening with great attention to the reading and explanation of the Scriptures. So that he could be better seen and heard, Ezra stood on a wooden dais erected for the purpose. Around him stood a number of prominent citizens. As he opened the book to read, all the people rose to their feet. (It would, of course, have been a scroll and not a ‘book’ as we understand the word.)  The rabbis deduced from this verse that a congregation should stand for the reading of the Torah. It is customary in Eastern Orthodox churches for the congregation to stand throughout the service and the Vatican II liturgy also recommends standing for most of the liturgy, except when listening to the Word of God (and even then one stands for the reading of the Gospel). At the end of the reading Ezra uttered a word of blessing for Yahweh, the great God, whose word they had just heard. And the people gave their total endorsement by raising their arms and shouting “Amen! Amen!” They then bowed down and prostrated themselves, face to the ground, before Yahweh. The repetition of ‘Amen’ conveys the intensity of feeling behind the affirmation. In our Catholic liturgy we have a ‘Great Amen’ at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. In practice, it very often is hardly more than a pathetic murmur. Private acts of worship often involved prostration “to the ground”, as in the case of Abraham’s servant, Moses before the Lord at Sinai (Exod 34:8), Joshua before an angel of the Lord (Jos 5:14) and Job at the news that his whole family and herds have been wiped out (Job 1:20). In 2 Chron 20:18 Jehoshaphat and the people “fell down in worship before the Lord” when they heard his promise of victory. With the reading and exposition of the Law complete, a number of Levites explained the Law to the people, while the people all remained in their places. And Ezra continued reading from the book of the Law of God, translating and giving the sense; so the reading was not just heard but understood. Rabbinic tradition understands the Hebrew for this expression (‘giving the sense”) as referring to translation from Hebrew into an Aramaic Targum. But there is no evidence of Targums (free Aramaic translations of Old Testament books or passages) at this early date. The earliest extensive Targum is one on Job from Qumran, dated c.150-100 BC. Targums exist for every book of the Old Testament except for Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah. The effect of this reading on the people was great. “Then his excellency Nehemiah and the priest-scribe Ezra and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people, ‘Today is sacred to Yahweh your God. Do not be mournful. Do not weep’. For the people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law.” As mentioned already, Nehemiah’s name seems to be an addition which does not belong to the original text. On the contrary, they are told to go and celebrate with a banquet, while not forgetting those who do not have access to food. “You may go; eat what is rich, drink what is sweet and send a helping to the man who has nothing prepared.” It is not a time to be sad and mournful, “for today is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad: the joy of Yahweh is your stronghold.” They are to enjoy delicious festive food, prepared with much fat. Normally, the fat of sacrificial animals was offered to God as the tastiest element of various sacrifices such as burnt offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings. On such occasions, the fat of the animal was not to be eaten. It was also customary for God’s people to remember the less fortunate on joyous occasions. Paul has strong words for Christians who celebrate without remembering the more needy: “When you assemble it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for everyone is in haste to eat his own supper. One person goes hungry, while another gets drunk” (1 Cor 11:20-21). What kind of a Eucharist is that? The Levites also consoled the people urging them to calm down, to remember it was a sacred day and no time to be sad. Then the people did as they were advised, they “went off to eat and drink and give helpings away and enjoy themselves to the full, since they had understood the meaning of what had been proclaimed to them.” In a way, with the presentation of the Law, their return was complete.

What happens in this account has many similarities with our celebration of the Eucharist:

– We listen to the Word of God read to us and have it interpreted so as to understand it better and see how it applies to our present life situation.

– Like the people in the story, we, too, stand in reverence for the Word of the Gospel.

– We remember with shame and sadness the suffering and death that our Saviour endured to liberate us from our many sins and from never-ending death.

– But we also celebrate with joy and thanksgiving his Resurrection and share together the bread and wine which are his Body and Blood.

– Like them, too, we shout a Great Amen! of thanksgiving and welcome and acceptance.

– And, afterwards, we live out what we celebrate by sharing what we have with those in greater need than ourselves.

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