1The heavens tell of the glory of God;
And their expanse declares the work of God's hands.
2Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
7The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
8The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
10They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much pure gold;
Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
New American Standard Bible (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation.
1All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3Ezra read from it 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. 4The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.
5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then 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. 7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. The interpreters gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9And 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. 10Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
11So the Levite priests stilled all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." 12And 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.
Today's post-exilic Hebrew text from the book of Nehemiah writes Torah for every instance of the English translation "law." Torah is the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament; Torah is all of the spoken and written history, poetry, songs, liturgies, and sagas God used to call and claim a people, to shape a common life to the fullest extent possible before Jesus Christ. Torah includes the ten words or commandments of the Sinai Covenant—Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21.
Ezra and Nehemiah originally were a single book on one scroll. Similar to the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, they got separated because available scrolls weren't large enough to write all the text onto only one. Some of Ezra-Nehemiah probably belongs to early on when some of the people who'd been exiled to Babylon returned to their former home turf in Judah; some may reflect centuries later. Babylon had been cultural, geographic, religious (probably culinary, too) displacement. By the time of the New Moon Event in Nehemiah 8, they'd rebuilt the city walls (safety) and the temple walls (identity), yet the people found themselves subjects of Persia—another empire. During this general time period scribes and scholars assembled, edited, and codified much of the current Old Testament. Nehemiah and Ezra both were employees of Persia that actually sent them to provide spiritual and political leadership to God's people.
Ezra 7 tells us Ezra (who traced his heritage back to Moses' brother the high priest Aaron!) was a "scholar of the text of the commandments of the Lord" and "had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to teach the statues and ordinances in Israel." As priest and scribe, Ezra would have been among the approximately 3% of the people who could read and write. Ezra's heart for scripture and his position as spiritual advisor to those he'd known from exile would have qualified him to interpret Torah to the community.
Today's reading is the only time the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) features Nehemiah in its 3-year cycle, though the Anglican Communion (that sometimes differs slightly) has two additional ones.
You know the story! After God's people left slavery in Egypt they technically were free and on their way to the place God first promised Abraham. As they wandered across the desert they needed to trust God's daily provision because (without technology) no one could build, manufacture, count, or stockpile anything in any desert. Along the way they received God's gift of the ten words or commandments with guidelines and boundaries for continuing together in freedom. Scholars consider both the nomadic desert lifestyle and the commandments of the Sinai Covenant constitutive events, similar to how the constitution of an organization or a country defines individuals and communities.
You may remember there were several water features along the way to the Land of Promise, starting with the sea that overwhelmed the enemy, finally arriving at the river they had to cross. Water is life!
Around this time of Nehemiah 8 previously spoken or orally transmitted texts were starting to be written down. Around this time of Nehemiah 8, most of those who asked Ezra to read Torah had returned from exile in imperial Babylon; though they'd had some familiarity with scripture and carried their devotion with them, very few could read or write, and we know how forgetful humans can become, especially when engulfed by a different culture and religion.
At the start of today's account everyone (men, women, children) gathered at the Water Gate. Near Gihon Spring? On the way to the pool at Siloam? Water is life! Almost definitely many of Ezra's listeners had forgotten Torah because they'd been exiled from the Exodus' identity-forming embrace of the Sinai Covenant. As Ezra read, "The interpreters gave the sense, so that the people understood the [interpreted] reading."
Every time I've read and loved this passage, I've imagined "all the people wept when they heard the words of the law" must have been tears of joy, yet the half-dozen commentaries I read all said tears of grief from being convicted of their sins and wrong-doings. Yet again… although we know the commandments as gifts of grace; we sometimes talk about the bitterness of the law, the sweetness of the gospel. Could those tears have come from mixed feelings of sorrow and joy? Nehemiah and Ezra both told the people don't weep! Celebrate with rich food and extravagant drink! In a preview of Jesus' welcoming and feeding all comers, the governor and the priest charged them to provide festive food for everyone who didn't have any.
This interactive communal experience of reading, hearing, interpreting, understanding, and living the words of scripture was very much the same as we do in preaching, teaching, and in our own individual study. Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann talks about being "fully texted people" who know and who live scripture: People of the Book who interpret scripture for their own context.
Keep On Reading!
Immediately they celebrated the Feast of Booths or Sukkoth, a festival of double thanksgiving for the exodus and for the commandments. Sukkoth re-enacted the exodus in tents that offered some shelter yet stayed somewhat open to weather and elements. Scholars consider both the nomadic desert lifestyle and the commandments of the Sinai Covenant experiences that formed Israel as God's people. At this Sukkoth, former exiles who likely had forgotten a whole lot claimed trust and obedience in God of the Exodus, God of the commandments, in the same way as people of the original exodus. In a real, physical, tangible sense they became People of the Book! Read, heard, interpreted, and lived.
14They found it written in the law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month. 17And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. … And there was very great rejoicing. 18And day by day, from the first day to the last day, Ezra read from the book of the law of God. They kept the festival seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.
Where We Live: Keep On Reading!
The interactive experience of reading, hearing, interpreting, understanding, and living the words of scripture is exactly what we do in preaching, teaching, and in our own individual study. I've mentioned the gospel in one word? "Remember!" When they heard Ezra read, some within the assembly gathered at the Water Gate started to remember; some probably learned for the first time because the community had been exiled a long time. Contrary to many popular purveyors of self-improvement, instead of forgetting the past, rather than concentrating solely on the future, scripture tells us remember, remember, remember. Recall and recollect by telling the stories of liberation and resurrection—re-enact, them, too. Bring them to life!
Fully texted People of the Book? Read, heard, interpreted, known, and lived!
God called and claimed Ezra's listeners by the Water Gate. God called and claimed Israel amidst seas, springs, streams, and rivers. How about us?