The Old Testament lesson for this Sunday is from the Book of the Prophet Nehemiah. The text is Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and provides some fascinating insight into worship and religious traditions as they existed in early Second Temple times. The time in Babylon in exile produces several changes within the Israelite community, some of which still exist today. The one that we are most familiar with is the establishment of the Synagogue. Obviously, in Babylon there is no temple and the people of God are NOT to build a temple anywhere, but in Jerusalem. Thus, because the Babylonians allow the Israelites the freedom to worship their God, there is need for a place to do that. The first Synagogue is built and are still being built today for much the same reasons.
There are, however, other changes. One is the adoption of Aramaic as the lingua franca—the language spoken on the street. Another is the use of the Aramaic box script for the Hebrew alphabet. Also, they established teaching houses and Rabbinic schools which lead to the custom of bar-mitzvahs and later bath-mitzvahs.
The change or development that we note in our pericope today is the way in which the Scriptures were read. This is the first place in the Bible where it states the Law was read first and then the priest sat down and explained it—gave it a clear sense. Before this time, we only have evidence that the Law was read with no explanation. Of course, we see this take place in the New Testament when Jesus reads the Isaiah scroll in the Synagogue and sits down and explains its meaning—how it points to Him. Practically, for the church of today, this may be the first place where we see preaching, or at least the foundation of the practice of expounding upon the Word of God.
Historically, it is also important to understand the context and the timing of this text. The people have returned from exile, and, finally, under the great leadership of Nehemiah, they have re-built the walls of Jerusalem. Now the priest Ezra brings out the scroll, the Torah, and reads the entire thing before all the people of Jerusalem. Then he sits down to give explanation.
Thanks, and appreciation to Andrew Steinmann and his work in the Ezra and Nehemiah Commentary from the Concordia Commentary Series.
8:1 וַיֵּאָסְפוּ (vai-ye-a-se-Fu) root: אסף (aw-saf) Niphal: “to be gathered” Note the plural here in reference to the singular of עם (am). “People” is a collective term here and indicates a large sum of individuals gathered as one.
הָרְחוֹב (ha-re-Chov) from: רחב (rekh-obe) “open place; plaza; broad open space”
הַסֹּפֵר; (has-so-Fer) from: ספרo (saw-far) “learned man; scribe”
תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה (to-Rat mo-Sheh) “The Law of Moses; The Torah of Moses” Note what is being read is the first five books of Scripture. This Torah is that which all other writings are normed to amongst the Hebrews.
8:2 וַיָּבִיא (vai-ya-Vi) root: בוא (bo) Hiphil imperfect: “to bring”
מֵבִין (me-Vin) root: בין (bene) Hiphil participle: “to understand; discern”
לִשְׁמֹעַ (lish-Mo-a) root: שׁמעַ (shaw-mah) Qal infinitive construct: “to hear” Obviously, “understanding” is a theme in this verse and those that follow. It is one thing to hear the Word of God, but there is the need to also understand what is being heard.
8:3 וַיִּקְרָא-בוֹ (vai-yik-ra vo) The verb קרא (kaw-raw) and the preposition ב generally means to read aloud. We see the same in Nehemiah 8:8.
וְאָזְנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶל-סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה (va-a-ze-Nei chol-ha-Am el-Se-fer hat-to-Rah) Steinmann correctly identifies this as a Hebrew idiom literally meaning, “and the ears of all the people were to the Scroll of the Teaching,” meaning, “all the people listened attentively to the Scroll of the Teaching.”
8:5 לְעֵינֵי כָל-הָעָם. (le-ei-Nei chol-ha-Am) Literally: “To the eyes of all the people”. “In the sight of all the people”.
8:6 וַיְבָרֶךְ (vay-Va-rech) root: ברך (baw-rak) Piel “to bless”
אָמֵן אָמֵן (a-Men a-Men) “Surely; truly, truly” Generally translated as Amen! Amen!
בְּמֹעַל (be-Mo-al) from: מֹעל (mo-al) “exaltation; raising”
וַיִּקְּדוּ (vai-yik-ke-Du) root: קדד (kaw-dad) Qal: “to bow; kneel down in respect”
אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה (ap-Pa-yim A-re-tzah) Literally: “two nostrils to the ground”
8:8 מְפֹרָשׁ (me-fo-Rash) root: פרשׁ (paw-rash) Pual participle: “to make a clear translation; to clarify clearly; to be distinctly declared”
וְשׂוֹם (ve-Som) root: שׂים (soom) Qal infinitive absolute coupled with שֶׂכֶל, (Se-chel) “to give understanding; to establish understanding/sense”
8:9 הַתִּרְשָׁתָא (hat-tir-Sha-ta) “governor; a Persian title” This title was given to Nehemiah when he was sent back to Jerusalem from Persia.
תִּתְאַבְּלוּ (tit-ab-be-Lu) root: אבל (aw-bal) Hithpael: “to mourn; to observe mourning rituals”
8:10 מַשְׁמַנִּים (mash-man-Nim) “fat piece; festival dish; fat; tidbit”
מַמְתַקִּים (mam-tak-Kim) “sweet things; sweet drinks”
מָנוֹת (ma-nOt) from: מנה (maw-naw) “share; portion; part”
תֵּעָצֵבוּ (te-a-Tze-vu) root: עצב (aw-tsab) Niphal: “to be worried; to grieve”
חֶדְוַת, (ched-Vat) “joy”
מָעֻזְּכֶם (Ma-uz-ze-Chem) “place of refuge; stronghold; mountain stronghold; strength”
Upon hearing the words of the Torah read and then explained clearly, the people of Israel realize they have violated/been in violation of many of the commands, statutes and laws contained therein. Thus, the people weep and mourn, but they are told to cease with their mourning and rejoice and celebrate as a festival without worry or care, for the day is holy to the LORD who is their refuge and strength. Perhaps one could draw a connection to repentance upon hearing the Law, confession and absolution and the pure joy of the Gospel as we celebrate the holy day of the LORD with feasting and thanksgiving.
Lectionary at Lunch-Various helps to assist you in preaching Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.