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The Dedication of the Wall and Separation From Foreigners
Many believe that the dedication described in this passage most naturally follows the 52-day rebuilding of the city wall in chapters 3-6. Others see it as occurring a little later if the book's arrangement is chronological. Yet still others recognize it as occurring many years later—following the events of our previous reading. Indeed, a straightforward reading of the text leads to this conclusion. For according to Nehemiah 13:4, the reading from the law in verses 1-3 resulting in a separation from foreigners came before the high priest Eliashib provided Tobiah with quarters within the temple—which happened during Nehemiah's absence (see verses 6-7). And the reading of the law and resultant separation are said to have happened "on that day" (Nehemiah 13:1)—that is, on the day of the events of the previous passage describing the dedication of the wall and Levitical appointments made at the same time.
It appears odd that the city wall would be dedicated more than 12 years—and probably more like 15 or more years—from the time of its completion. It seems more likely that this was a rededication. And there would have been a good reason for this based on our previous reading. Notice in verse 30 that the people, gates and wall were purified. They had been defiled. Consider what had transpired. The wall and gates of Jerusalem had been rebuilt to maintain the peace and sanctity of the people and temple within. Yet the defenses had been "penetrated"—not by force of arms but by permitting evil to flow in (through the admittance of Tobiah and the Sabbath-breaking merchants and the intermarrying with pagans). So there was a real need here to purify the city wall and rededicate it to the sanctifying and protective purpose for which it was constructed. No doubt this would also have refocused the people on the great spiritual work and reformation of earlier years—helping to inspire a national recommitment to God and His ways.
As to the details of the ceremony, "There were two great processions, starting probably from the area of the Valley Gate (Nehemiah 2:13, Nehemiah 2:15; Nehemiah 3:13) in the center of the western section of the wall. The first procession led by Ezra ([12:]36) and Hoshaiah (v. 32) moved in a counterclockwise direction on the wall; the second with Nehemiah moved in a clockwise direction. They met between the Prison Gate and the Water Gate and then entered the temple area (cf. Psalm 48:12-13). 'To the right' [in Nehemiah 12:31] translates yamin. The literal rendering is misleading, as this procession went left to the south. The Semite oriented himself facing east; so the right hand represented the south (cf. the name of Yemen in southern Arabia; see Joshua 17:7; 1 Samuel 23:24; Job 23:9)" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Nehemiah 12:31). Notice also that here we again see Ezra and Nehemiah together as contemporaries.
The specific mention of the prohibition of Ammonites and Moabites from God's national assembly as discovered in the law and the separation this brought about (Nehemiah 13:1-3) is directly related to what had happened in Nehemiah's absence—the admittance of the Ammonite governor to the temple (verses 4-7) and the intermarriage with women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab (verse 23).
Many would contend, and it could well be, that chapters 8-10 describing the reading of the law at the fall festivals and the renewal of the covenant that followed it actually follows after Nehemiah 13:3 chronologically.
As to why the events of our previous and current readings are switched around from chronological order in the book's arrangement, we can perhaps see a logical reason. The first part of chapter 12 (verses 1-26) lists the leaders of the priests and Levites. This is probably followed by a description of the dedication ceremony because it gives a further listing of the Levites and their responsibilities (verses 27-47). Next the reading of the law and resultant separation from foreigners is mentioned because this happened on the same day (Nehemiah 13:1-3). Finally, in the remainder of chapter 13, an explanation is given as to why this dedication ceremony and separation from foreigners was happening. This arrangement, probably chosen by Ezra in his compilation work, also allows the book to end with a prayer for God to remember all that Nehemiah had done in His service (Nehemiah 13:31).
In its note on this verse, Expositor's gives a great summary of Nehemiah's life and work: "Nehemiah provides us with one of the most vivid patterns of leadership in Scriptures.
"1. He was a man of responsibility, as shown by his position as the royal cupbearer.
"2. He was a man of vision, confident of who God was and what he could do through his servants. He was not, however, a visionary but a man who planned and then acted.
"3. He was a man of prayer who prayed spontaneously and constantly even in the presence of the king (Nehemiah 2:4-5).
"4. He was a man of action and cooperation, who realized what had to be done, explained it to others, and enlisted their aid. Nehemiah, a layman, was able to cooperate with his contemporary, Ezra the scribe and priest, in spite of the fact that these two leaders were of entirely different temperaments.
"5. He was a man of compassion, who was moved by the plight of the poorer members of society so that he renounced even the rights he was entitled to (5:18) and denounced the greed of the wealthy (Nehemiah 5:8).
"6. He was a man who triumphed over opposition. His opponents tried ridicule (Nehemiah 4:3), attempted slander (Nehemiah 6:4-7), and spread misleading messages (Nehemiah 6:10-14). But through God's favor Nehemiah triumphed over all difficulties."