Tom LaPorte

Every Word Counts

Nehemiah 1: 1-3

1 And it came to pass in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, that I took the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had never been sad in his presence before. 2 Therefore the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart.” So I became dreadfully afraid, 3 and said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?” 

Bibles that include superscriptions provide the note "Nehemiah Sent to Judah" prior to this text. A language arts teacher might point out the error that comes in the verb use. Two verses later, number five, Nehemiah asks the Persian King to go to Judah, the land of his ancestors' graves. Perhaps if Biblical editors insist on telling people how to interpret the reading, then "Nehemiah Requests to Go to Judah" makes for a better superscription. This understanding, of course, changes a great deal related to mainstream commentaries of this piece and the entire book of Nehemiah. 

With regard to the verses above, here are some first layer and fairly simplistic concerns I find. Firstly, how does King Artaxerxes know his cup bearer is not sick (V. 2)? Was it a rule that those who served the king stayed out of sight when ill? Secondly, are we to believe the king really cared about the mental or physical well-being of a servant? Verse two can easily be read as sarcasm. Lastly, does it not seem strange that following the customary salutations and lauding of the king, Nehemiah lays out this statement, "Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?” Why the sudden and deep compassion for his heritage, a people in diaspora for generations?

Furthermore, verse three strikes me as a strong tone of voice for a cup bearer. Yet, the story goes on to Nehemiah's favor. Most people lean toward the return to Judah and the rebuilding of the Temple as the crux of this narrative and the entirety of the book of Nehemiah. This is a focal point for sure. Two other possibilities linger. One is that Artaxerxes had need of a loyal envoy in that area of Palestine. Thus, he sent a person of the native lineage to be the governor of Judah. Rebuilding the temple and city would have given Nehemiah legitimacy as a leader with the locals. Another possibility is that Nehemiah orchestrated the entire interaction with King Artaxerxes so as to ascend to a governing role, which is how the story ends. 

Chagall's drawing based on the reading places a divide in the work. He draws a dark line diagonally between Nehemiah and the city. Maybe there is much at work here. To play the role of the arm chair psychologist, one with excellent hindsight, perhaps the awkwardness of the above verses allow a glimpse into the mind of Nehemiah. Did he want to go home and stay? Did he want to restore integrity and dignity to the cemeteries of his forefathers? Did he seek a life outside of the service of the king? Did he have high ambitions for himself? Was he a pawn to the Persian King?

 From the first three verses included above and throughout the book, the reader can easily see, without the assistance of superscription, that Nehemiah had divided allegiances. As one reads the story the unanswered question remains as to how Nehemiah's allegiance was divided, along what lines-Persian, Hebrew or himself?