“I was the emperor’s wine steward”
A frequent crossword puzzle clue is something like “The book before Nehemiah;” at least I saw that clue in the Washington Post this past Sunday. It popped out at me because I recently just finished reading that book (Ezra) and am now getting a kick out of the next book, Nehemiah.
Why? All of a sudden I’m noticing the kind of telling detail a writer loves and is supposed to include. I don’t remember ever reading some of those little details before, although this is probably my fourth or fifth read-through of the Bible. (Shame on me, I know that some people read the Bible through every year. I take my time.)
Nehemiah writes in first person, like I do here. What am I loving?
At the end of the first chapter, he tells us, “In those days, I was the emperor’s wine steward.” Hmm. An inside seat. Wouldn’t that make a great beginning for a novel? (Maybe there is one like that. Anyone?)
A little background: Nehemiah is basically about the return of Jewish exiles from Babylonia to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Nehemiah is sent to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. In chapter 1 he tells us that things back then were pretty much like things are today, that those who survived the exile and went back home “were in great difficulty and that the foreigners who lived nearby looked down on them.” Nothing new under the sun.
Then right in the following chapter he takes us ringside where Emperor Artaxerxes is dining and Nehemiah notes that the empress is sitting at the emperor’s side. Why is that important? Is it important? Maybe, because there’s a slight chance the emperor would be in a good mood with his wife right there.
But the emperor, give him credit, notices that Nehemiah is downhearted (about all of the above. The long exile, the return of citizens who are discriminated against just for being from another place.)
Nehemiah tells us that Artaxerxes has never seen him look sad before (likely the job of a wine steward to keep things merry at a meal), and says, “Why are you looking so sad? You aren’t sick, so it must be that you’re unhappy.” Give old Artazerx a bronze star for noticing.
Even Nehemiah “is startled,” he confides, and jumps at the opportunity to bring up the fact that the “city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins.”
Long story short, the emperor sends Nehemiah and some troops to Jerusalem, where he passes “Dragon’s Fountain and Rubbish Gate,” such colorful fine points. These names tell us things about the city: a fountain with an imaginative name and a gate where garbage obviously collects. Sound like our cities?
As Nehemiah sets about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in orderly fashion and with excellent records of everyone who worked on the wall, the Levites doing this, the Priests doing that, I love this sidenote, chapter 3, verse 8: “… but the leading men of the town refused to do the manual labor assigned them by the supervisors.” Sound familiar? It does to my forever blue collar husband.
This is also noteworthy, at least Nehemiah thought it was, in parentheses in chapter 3 verse 12: “([Shallum’s] daughters helped with the work.) I would love to know more about those daughters. Not to brag, but sounds like my daughters who got roped into doing almost everything sons would have done.
And on with delightful details dabbed into verses here and there. Nehemiah is indeed a remarkable man and book and I haven’t finished it yet, so I’m looking forward to it.
It reminds me again how these old books and stories are new every time we take the time to read them again. Some of the Bible is very hard to read (like I wrote about Chronicles not long ago, here.) Some of it is very hard to understand. But I’m liking most of Nehemiah, I think. The old old story with people so very much like us helps us find harmonies in our spiritual journey.
I enjoyed my co-worker Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s confessions and plans along these lines regarding daily Bible reading at Mennobytes blog.