Thursday of Week 26 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1-12

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 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 from 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 “all the people” gather together 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 southeast 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 children “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, Ezra:

…read from it [the Book of the Law] facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand, and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

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 blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

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). As well, Jehoshaphat:

…bowed down with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the Lord, worshiping the Lord. (2 Chron 20:18)

With the reading and exposition of the Law complete, a number of Levites:

…helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They [the Levites] gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

Rabbinic tradition understands the Hebrew for this expression (‘giving the sense”) as referring to translation from Hebrew into an Aramaic Targum (a translation of Old Testament books or passages). But there is no evidence of Targums at this early date. The earliest extensive Targum is one on Job from Qumran, dated circa 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:

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.

As mentioned already, Nehemiah’s name seems to be an addition which does not belong to the original text.

The people are then told to go and celebrate with a banquet, while not forgetting those who do not have access to food:

Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared…

It is not a time to be sad and mournful:

…for this day is holy to our Lord, and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

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 come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you proceeds to eat your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. (1 Cor 11:20-21)

What kind of a Eucharist would that be?

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:

And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared 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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