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Ezra Reads the Law During the Fall Feasts
Following the arrangement of the book of Nehemiah, the seventh month appears to come just five days after the completion of the city wall (compare Nehemiah 5:15). However, the year is a matter of dispute, as there are some chronological questions here and throughout the remainder of the book. It could be that the events of chapters 8-10 describe events that occurred much later—following some of Nehemiah's reforms described in chapter 13. Since the matter is uncertain, we are sticking with the scriptural arrangement in our reading of this section of the book.
The first day of the seventh month is one of God's annual Holy Days—the Feast of Trumpets (see Leviticus 23:23-25). The name of the feast does not occur in Nehemiah 8, but the fact that the first day of the seventh month is a Holy Day is explicitly stated (verses 10-11). This day marked the first day of the civil year and the Jews still refer to it as Rosh Hashanah, "Head of the Year" (the Jewish New Year).
Jews from all over Judea have come to Jerusalem. They gather in the open square between the southeastern part of the temple and the eastern wall (verse 1).
Here, for the first time in the story of Nehemiah, we see the appearance of Ezra. A number of critics maintain that this passage should follow Ezra 10, putting the events it describes long before Nehemiah's arrival (or placing Ezra's arrival long after that of Nehemiah). Nehemiah 8:9, however, shows that Nehemiah was the governor during this episode. The aforementioned critics view his name here as an erroneous editorial gloss. But there is no real warrant for such a conclusion. It is not at all unreasonable to believe the scriptural attestation that Ezra would have still been around 13 or more years after his arrival—that despite Samaritan actions against Jerusalem and the events surrounding the satrap Megabyzus' rebellion probably having swept him from office as governor, he would still have been a respected spiritual leader among the Jews (see also Nehemiah 12:26, Nehemiah 12:31, Nehemiah 12:36). The widespread idea that Ezra returned long after Nehemiah (during the reign of Artaxerxes II instead of Artaxerxes I) is an untenable one, as it requires the scriptural mentions of the two interacting together to be spurious additions to the text.
Returning to Nehemiah 8, Ezra is called on to read to the people from the Book of the Law of Moses. Exactly what the term Book of the Law specifies is debated. Some see it as the entire Pentateuch—the five books of Moses. Others view it as just Deuteronomy. Still others see it as certain sections of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Since Joshua wrote of the Shechem covenant near the end of his life in the Book of the Law (see Joshua 24:25-26), it seems that the book may have encompassed more than what is written in the Pentateuch. Following Ezra's reading, the history recounted afterward in Nehemiah 9 could argue for understanding the Book of the Law in the broad sense of the whole Pentateuch and perhaps even more of Scripture. Whatever the case, Ezra reads to the people for five or six hours, as the word translated "morning" in Nehemiah 8:3 actually specifies "dawn" as the starting point. He continues on until about noon, and the people remain attentive.
As the Law is presented, the Levites help the people to understand it (verses 7-8). The wording here is interesting. Rabbinic tradition maintains that the Levites were here translating the less familiar ancient Hebrew into Aramaic, the common language of the people since the exile in Babylon. And perhaps the phrase translated "gave the sense" does have that meaning—along with possibly explaining outdated idioms and other archaic usages. (Indeed, those skeptics who argue that the Mosaic Law was a priestly invention during the time of Ezra should note that this passage seems to show the Law as a very old document even then.) Yet the phrase that follows, "helped them to understand the reading," may well have referred to some expounding on how to apply the principles and lessons contained in the Law.
On hearing the Law, the people sink into weeping—evidently sorrowful over their failure to live up to its demands. Gauging from this reaction, it seems to have been a long time since the Law was read. It could be that the command to read it every seventh year at the Feast of Tabernacles was being followed (see Deuteronomy 31:9-13) and that it was now seven years since the previous reading. And it may be, if the book is not arranged chronologically, that this whole episode was following the serious lapses of chapter 13, which we will read later.
Though Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites were no doubt glad to see such widespread heartfelt contrition, they nevertheless pointed out the need for the people to strive to refrain from weeping at this time so as to rejoice in God's Holy Day (Nehemiah 8:9-12). The people are encouraged to indulge in fine food and drink and to share with others in need. If the events of chapter 8 followed the completion of the wall by only a few days, as the scriptural arrangement would seem to imply, then there would have been a lot of people in need at this time, given that Nehemiah would have only just instituted his economic reforms of chapter 5 within the past two months.
It is wonderful to see the leaders of the people coming again the next day with a desire to learn more of the Law (verse 13). These leaders were likely being given specialized instruction so as to be able to in turn teach those over whom they served. As they listen, the reading comes to Leviticus 23, which mentions dwelling in booths and the gathering of branches as part of celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles (verses 40, 42-43; compare Nehemiah 8:14-15), the term "tabernacles" denoting booths—temporary shelters. Again, this feast is not named in Nehemiah 8 either. It is simply called the "feast of the seventh month" (verse 14) and said to last seven days with a sacred assembly on the eighth day (verse 18; compare Leviticus 23:33-36, 39).
It is surprising to read in Nehemiah 8:17 that the nation had not made temporary shelters and dwelt under them since the time of Joshua. Clearly, the Feast of Tabernacles had been observed in the intervening centuries, such as under Solomon (see 1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chronicles 7:9) and even more recently under Zerubbabel (see Ezra 3:4). How is it, then, that the Israelites had not constructed booths out of branches for more than 900 years even during times of national faithfulness? It could be that many had but that the "whole assembly" (see again Nehemiah 8:17) had not done so since Joshua's time. Another explanation may be that Leviticus 23 does not explicitly state that the branches are to be used for such construction. It merely states that the people were to gather branches and, mentioned separately, that they were to dwell in temporary dwellings. Perhaps those in intervening centuries understood their temporary housing in Jerusalem as meeting the Feast's requirement or, as Judaism today teaches, that booths could be made with other materials—with the branches simply carried in worship and used for festival decoration. According to this explanation, the Jews at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah come to see the branches as construction material for the booths and reinstitute a practice not seen since Joshua's day. In any case, it is clear from Jewish tradition that the people at some point began carrying branches about as part of their worship during the festival—as observant Jews still do today.
The Feast in Nehemiah 8 is observed with exuberant gladness, reminiscent of the great joy at the renewal of the Passover under Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30:26) and at the revival under Josiah (2 Kings 23:22; 2 Chronicles 35:18). This was a wonderful time, with the Book of the Law being read from each day (Nehemiah 8:18). Indeed, God's law brings great joy—in understanding the truth, and much more in living by it.
Moreover, there was a rebuilt city wall for which to be thankful. Indeed, whether the fall festivals of chapter 8 came the next month after the completion of the city wall or many years later after its rededication, the chapter arrangement fits thematically either way. The autumn festival period represents the time when Jesus Christ will return to the earth to defend His people, restore them and their land and set up His rule from Jerusalem. There was a small prototype of this in the mission of Nehemiah. Furthermore, when Christ returns He will lead Judah and Israel in spiritual reformation. That too is prefigured in the national turning to God at the reading of His law in Nehemiah 8 and the commitment of the people as related in the next two chapters along with Nehemiah's reforms described later in the book.