The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days, I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
Those are the first four verses of the book of Nehemiah, found towards the end of most Hebrew Bibles, and in the religion section of your local bookstore. If it was published as an independent work, you’d find it in the autobiography section.
Nehemiah was a governor of Persian Judea under King Artaxerxes I. Eventually, he became a Jewish national leader and it was on his watch that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt. The book of Nehemiah is his story, and an important one at that.
In Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage (Magid Books 978-1592643691), author Dov Zakheim has a written fascinating biography and a running commentary to this often-neglected biblical work.
Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and found a city in ruins, its inhabitants devastated, leaders corrupt, and the Jewish religion on the brink of annihilation. His mission was to restore the Temple, city, and people to its former grandeur.
In the preface, Zakheim writes of his fascination with Nehemiah, and admired him as a man who made a lasting mark as a statesman and as a religious leader. Zakheim sees Nehemiah as an enduring example for later generations to emulate.
While not a religious leader, Zakheim knows his ways around governments, having spent decades in civil service. As under-secretary of defense in the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, he Zakheim brings a unique view with his knowledge of the inner workings of government, while all the while being true to the original text.
Zakheim attempts to paint an honest portrait of Nehemiah as a person and leader; but readily admits that there’s simply too little material to work with to create a comprehensive account. While Ron Chernow wrote a 900 page biography of Alexander Hamilton; the archival record for biblical figures is simply far too sparse to create a similar biography.
Zakheim does a good job of describing the situation that the Jewish nation faced during Nehemiah’s time. In the years after the destruction of the First Temple, many thought the destruction was the end of the Jewish nation. Nehemiah found a nation completely demoralized and in a state of spiritual lethargy. He eventually achieved the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the nation, both in their religious and nationalistic ethos.
Another task he took to was ensuring the usage of Hebrew as the national Jewish language. Zakheim writes that this was mean to create a language of Jewish identity.
While Nehemiah lived about 2,600 years ago, and was a cup-bearer (officer of high rank in royal courts whose duty it was to serve the drinks at the royal table; a position of greatly valued and given to only a select few throughout history) to Artaxerxes; Zakheim writes how Nehemiah’s story is still timely; relevant and cogent to this very day.
Nehemiah was a complex personality living at a time of transition. He presided over one of the least known yet most critical developments in Jewish political history since the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylonia. He introduced a new constitution, the first in Jewish history, and perhaps the first of its kind anywhere. Nehemiah was a man to be reckoned with.
A many of myriad roles, Zakheim paints a fascinating picture of a man who excelled at the myriad roles and tasks he undertook. Nehemiah was a visionary without being a prophet, a man who revived his demoralized people and ensured their return to their homeland.
This is an interesting and compelling read, and Zakheim captures Nehemiah story which is quite relevant to 2017 – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Hopefully our current leaders and their cup-bearers will act as in a fashion as wise as Nehemiah.