D. Nehemiah’s Inspection of Jerusalem; Reaction of the Officials (Neh 2:11–20)
11 After I arrived in Jerusalem and was there three days,
12 I arose in the night and a few men were with me, and I told no one what my God made clear to me to do for Jerusalem. There was no other animal with me except the one on which I rode.
13 In the dark I went out through Valley Gate to Jackal’s Well and to Dung Gate. I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire.
14 Then I crossed over to Fountain Gate and King’s Pool, and there was no place for my animal to pass.
15 In the dark I went along the valley and inspected the wall. I returned through Valley Gate and was back.
16 The officials did not know where I went and what I did. At that time I said nothing about the work to the Jews, the priests, the citizens, the officials, or anyone else.
17 Then I said to them: “You can see for yourselves the trouble we are in while Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and let us no longer be in disgrace.”
18 I told them that the favor of God was on me and also the words which the king had said to me. They said: “Come, let us rebuild!” So they encouraged themselves for the good cause.
19 When Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they scorned and despised us saying: “What are you busy doing? Are you rebelling against the king?”
20 I replied to them: “The God of heaven will grant us success. We, his servants, are going to build. You have no legal share or right nor a cultic memorial in Jerusalem.”
11–12 On the three days cf. the discussion of Ezra 8:15, 32. It refers here to three days of rest and obtaining information about the situation of Jerusalem. Nehemiah did his inspection secretly at night, accompanied by a few men whose names are not given. He used only one animal to ride on; more animals would have drawn the attention of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. His animal (ḇəhēmâ) might have been an ass or horse, probably an ass, 1 because a snorting horse at night could have attracted attention. In the night while the whole of Jerusalem was soundly asleep, Nehemiah and his small escort sneaked out. The men with him might have been residents of Jerusalem who knew the city well and could direct Nehemiah on his way.
Why the secret mission? Guided by God, Nehemiah had already made plans, but he wanted to keep his thoughts to himself until he had inspected the position to see if his plans could be executed. Thus the people of Jerusalem had not been unduly informed, especially since some of his own people had contacts with the neighboring nations. If they knew about his plans, they could have sold his secret. He wanted to keep his enemies in the dark as long as possible concerning what he intended to do. They must not know what he was planning or else, as in the beginning of the reign of Artaxerxes, they might try to thwart his efforts. Thus Nehemiah was a clever and able man who knew his own people and his enemies.
13–15 Here we have one of the best topographical descriptions of Jerusalem. At the same time we must concede that it is very difficult to locate the places named in this description. All the attempts to locate the places that were made prior to the excavations of K. Kenyon can be left aside because it was erroneously presumed that the walls of the pre-exilic city enclosed both the eastern and western hills. 2 Nothing is left of the walls and gates inspected by Nehemiah on the north and west sides. It is therefore impossible to locate them; they are buried under Herod’s platform. The only place where one could make some progress with identification is on the eastern side. Kenyon is of the opinion that the King’s Pool can be identified either with the Pool of Siloam or the modern Birket el-Hamra. 3 The valley into which he turned is definitely to be identified with the Kidron Valley. There was no place for my animal to pass. Excavations have shown a tumbled mass of stones which could have blocked the way of Nehemiah. 4 The ruins were worse here because the buildings were terraced down into the valley so that when the wall which kept the terraces in position was destroyed, all the buildings fell down the slope and created a wholesale devastation. 5 Archeological evidence reveals further that Nehemiah had decided to abandon that part of the town on the eastern slope and to build the wall on the eastern crest of the hill. 6 This is most revealing, and for the first time some certainty can be obtained about the actions of Nehemiah. It is to be accepted that the city in Nehemiah’s time was smaller than the city of preexilic times. 7
I inspected (from the Hebrew root śbr) occurs in the Qal form only in vv. 13 and 15 in the OT. In the Piel form it has the meaning “hope” or “expect.” 8 In some of the old versions śbr in the Qal form is translated “inspect.” This makes good sense in the context here. 9 The meaning, however, is not at all certain. Jackal’s Well (Heb. ʾên hattannîn). Some want to translate it “Dragon’s Well.” 10 This is also possible, because the Hebrew can mean either “jackal” or “dragon.” The location of this well is disputed. It is generally identified with En-rogel, 11 but lately Braslavi has argued cogently for Siloam. 12
16–18 Nehemiah’s inspection was done in secret. He did not inform the Jewish officials of his intention. Cf. the discussion of v. 11. The officials (Heb. səḡānîm) were probably representatives who were chosen by the congregation. 13 We are not informed about their task. That Nehemiah emphasized their role by referring to them first shows that they were regarded as very important. Citizens (Heb. ḥôrîm) might also be translated “noblemen.” It is not a nobleman in the real sense of the word, however. It is a person with certain rights. “Citizen” would then be more to the point. Anyone else (lit. “and for the rest”). Nobody was informed. Some think that anyone else refers to the laborers who were going to rebuild the walls, but we cannot deduce this from the Hebrew. 14
After Nehemiah had finished his inspection and made his decision about what to do, he summoned all the people enumerated in the preceding verse. Nothing is said of the timespan between vv. 16 and 17. It might have been the morning following his nighttime inspection. For the first time since his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah disclosed the real purpose of his visit, namely, to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He stated that the Jews were in trouble because the defense walls were in ruins and the gates burned down. The skill and persuasion with which Nehemiah put his case comes out clearly in the use of the first person plural. After only a few days he had already identified himself completely with the cause of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The defenseless city was a great danger to the Jews, especially with all the enemies around them. The word trouble (Heb. hārāʿâ) is a strong word. An evil could come upon them because of the poor state of the defenses. Nehemiah selected his words carefully in order to achieve the maximum effect on his audience.
He was also a man of action. His sketch of the poor state of the defenses was followed by an appeal to them to start the rebuilding of the wall. The reason for this is that they could no longer live in disgrace. We may presume that all the important cities around them had their defenses, but the city in the heartland of Judah, the religious center of the Jews, had nothing to protect it. It was a disgrace not only to the city, but to the Jews.
Nehemiah made it clear to them that he was not an upstart who wanted to bring them trouble by acting without permission. In the first place the favor of God was on him (cf. Ezra 7:6). God had sent him on this mission. It was religiously motivated. But in the second place he had also the permission of Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls. This gave him a double authority that was impossible to oppose. The credentials of Nehemiah were now on the table and nobody would be so bold as to gainsay them. His speech had its favorable effect. The congregation undertook to do the work. So they encouraged themselves for the good cause—literally “and they strengthened their hands for the good thing.” The sense of the Hebrew is not quite clear. It might also mean that they started preparing themselves for the work. Others think that they had already started on the work (JB) or now gave their support to the work. 15 Our translation is given in the light of the preceding expression, Come, let us rebuild. With these words they were strengthening their hands, that is to say, they were encouraging themselves.
19–20 When Nehemiah’s intention became known to his adversaries, they started scorning the Jews. We must accept, as we shall see later on, that the enemies were well informed, quite probably by traitors in Jerusalem. 16 Their weapon was scorn and ridicule. The term used for scorned (Hiphil of lāʿag) is a strong word meaning “irreligiously deride.” They did not expect much of the Jews, and they wanted to frighten them out of their wits. On Sanballat and Tobiah cf. the discussion of v. 10. A third enemy has been added here, namely, Geshem the Arab. This name is now also known from extrabiblical sources. Probably the same person is mentioned in Lihyanite and Aramaic inscriptions as “king of Kedar.” 17 At the end of Iron Age II Arabs came into the Negev and Transjordan. The name Geshem is also found in a much later inscription at Beth-shearim. 18
Two scornful questions were asked by the enemies, quite probably in writing, because in the next verse we have Nehemiah’s reply. One of the questions was used to frighten the Jews. They are asked if they are rebelling against the king. This question has a history, because in Ezra 4:12 this argument was used to persuade Artaxerxes to stop the Jews from rebuilding the walls. At that state they were successful, but now they knew fairly certainly that Nehemiah had permission to do it. It was part of their tactics to dishearten the Jews. They had no higher authority to back them, only their own authority.
The reply of Nehemiah is clear. He did not appeal to his authority as granted to him by the king. They knew about it; cf. our discussion of v. 10. Nehemiah gave his religious motivation for this step and he made a careful choice of words. He spoke of the God of heaven, a well-known expression in the Persian court. The Persian king knew that Nehemiah stood in the service of this God. In the name of God they were going to rebuild the walls. This objective should not be scorned.
Nehemiah concluded his reply with certain important legal remarks. Jerusalem was the city of the Jews and the enemies had no legal authority over it. Legal share (Heb. ḥēleq) refers to a share in the constellation of the Jewish nation. If somebody said that he had no share in a certain nation, he was declaring a revolt (cf. 2 Sam. 20:1; 1 K. 12:16). 19 This term with the negative thus means that they were not part of the Jews. Right (Heb. ṣəḏāqâ) refers to the fact that they had no legal right over Jerusalem. Nehemiah was appointed governor by the king, and what he was doing was none of their business. A cultic memorial (Heb. zikkārôn) is a difficult term. It quite probably refers to the cult in Jerusalem. 20 They had no right over the cultic practices (cf. Ezra 4:3). Both Sanballat and Tobiah were also serving the Lord, but in an illegitimate way. They had no jurisdiction over the pure religion of the exiles. With this reply Nehemiah clearly drew the dividing line between himself and his opponents.
9 Cf. for another view J. Heller, “Die abgeschlagene Mauer,” CV 11 (1968), pp. 175–78.
12 Cf. J. Braslavi, “En-Tannin (Neh. 2:13),” Erls 10 (1971), pp. 90–93.
14 Cf. H. Kaupel, “Der Sinn von ʾōśēh hammə lāʾ ḵâ in Neh 2, 16,” Bibl 21 (1940), pp. 40–44.
16 Cf. also the discussion of W. Th. In der Smitten, “Nehemias Parteigânger,” BiOr 29 (1972), pp. 155–57.
18 Cf. F. Vattioni, “L’inscription 177 de Beth She’arim et le livre de Néhémie,” RB 80 (1973), pp. 261–63.