Difficult Bible Passages: Nehemiah 13:25
Was Nehemiah grossly overreacting here?
As is often the case in this irregular series, the text under question is not so much difficult to understand as it is perplexing and puzzling to many modern readers. Because so many Christians today are far more influenced by the surrounding pagan culture than they are the truth of God’s word, a passage like this will easily bother them and upset them. Yet it is they that need to change – not the biblical text.
Let me present the wider context of the verse (Neh. 13:23-31):
In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people. And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?”
And one of the sons of Jehoiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. Therefore I chased him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have desecrated the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the wood offering at appointed times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.
It is the first half of verse 25 of course that so many folks – including too many Christians – would find all rather shocking and unacceptable: “And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair”. The truth is, if Nehemiah was with us today and did something like this, I suspect that most Christians would say he is unloving and unChristlike, and even seek to have him arrested!
They are so filled with the spirit of the age, and so steeped in fake tolerance and unbiblical notions of love, that they would be utterly appalled at this sort of behaviour. Of course these same Christians would likely also be just as appalled at the behaviour of Jesus when he deliberately formed a whip, went to the temple and started flipping tables over while berating those who were there.
In both cases lots of contemporary believers would argue that such behaviour is just not acceptable – nor Christike! But the reason for this is rather straightforward: Western Christians today have so lost sight of who God is, how holy he is, how horrible sin is, and how far we have walked away from God, that they cannot see that the things Nehemiah and Jesus did were perfectly acceptable – and fully necessary.
Sure, I am not saying believers today should necessarily go around and punch out apostates and reprobates, or start smashing up furniture. But the same zeal for God and his reputation should be ours. The same hatred of sin should be ours. The same fear of God should be ours. The same righteous indignation should be ours.
But that is mostly lost in today’s churches – at least here in the West. Today we happily wink at sin, idolatry and disobedience, while condemning those who speak prophetically about the evils of our age – including the evils found in our churches.
Before bringing in some commentary here, let me briefly note three things. One, Ezra too had reacted strongly to mixed marriages, but in his case he pulled out his own hair! As Ezra 9:1-3 states:
After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled.
Also, as we are informed in Nehemiah 10:30, the people had previously taken a solemn oath about such things, making them even more guilty of this great sin: “We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons”. So they were fully responsible for their actions, and deserved this very harsh rebuke.
And the idea of the children not learning the Hebrew language was serious business indeed. Jewish history and culture were passed down through the Hebrew tongue, and not having that would have sidetracked if not derailed the direction Israel was heading in – including eventually bringing in the Messiah.
Let me draw upon just one commentator here. Derek W. H. Thomas has penned these helpful words:
Not only had they deliberately flouted the promise they had made (Neh. 10:28-30; 13:3), but the Jews had allowed the reform that had been so wondrously wrought among them to disintegrate within a generation. Furthermore, one of these marriages joined the high priest’s grandson to none other than Sanballat the Horonite’s daughter – the very Sanballat whose earlier campaign with Tobiah and Geshem had almost ruined Israel’s attempt at reform. Could a worse scenario have been imagined than the one Nehemiah encounters? Nehemiah chases the high priest’s grandson from the temple (13:28). Sometimes chasing troublemakers away is the right thing to do….
As governor, Nehemiah was head of the judiciary, and the “beating” referred to may be a reference to the penalty afforded certain criminal offenses according to Deuteronomy 25:1-3, and the hair-pulling may be a reference to the fact that the guilty were forced to shave their heads as Ezra had done to himself when encountering this problem in his own time (Ezra 9:3).
We may respond negatively to Nehemiah on account of the anger he displays – three times in this chapter he tells us that he is angry (Neh. 13:8, 21, 25) – and the fact that the story is told in the first person, hinting at action that sounds to us autocratic….
Furthermore, the corrective discipline that Nehemiah invokes sounds draconian in our ears perhaps because such discipline is rare or nonexistent in the modern church. It sounds less than loving to our ears because we have grown so accustomed to excusing immoral behavior rather than dealing with it.
Thomas then offers this telling and terrific quote by J. I. Packer from his devotional book on Nehemiah:
What we must bear in mind here, however, is that the conventions and expectations of our smooth post-Christian, relativistic, secular, amoral Western culture are not necessarily in line with the truth and wisdom of God. Any embarrassment we might feel at Nehemiah’s forthrightness could be a sign of our own spiritual and moral limitations rather than his. Was it weakness that in Nehemiah’s code of conduct the modern shibboleth, “thou shalt be nice” seems to have had no place, while “thou shalt be faithful to God and zealous for God” was evidently basic to it? Would Moses, David, Jesus, or Paul ever have qualified as “Mr. Nice Guy”? The assumption, so common today, that niceness is of the essence of goodness needs to be exploded. Nehemiah should not be criticized for thinking that there are more important things in life than being nice.” (p.182).
Amen to that. I have written before about how we must rid ourselves of the Gospel of Nice, as in this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/02/10/god-and-niceness/
And I have written before about how sin in the camp and idolatry needs to be dealt with strongly – perhaps even harshly: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/04/14/on-dealing-with-idols/
So Nehemiah was right to do what he did, and he was right to be greatly concerned about God’s holiness. The church today could use more of this sort of sanctified righteous indignation.
8 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Nehemiah 13:25”
That was the consequence of God’s people forgetting their command to remain pure, to marry their own, & have children who maintain the pure worship of their God & speak their language.
Quite so Stephen.
That sounds a lot like the racial policy of the Third Reich. How can this be reconciled with Christianity?
Thanks Robert. But you completely miss the point here. This has absolutely nothing to do with racial separation or discrimination, but everything to do with religious purity and not being compromised by pagan practices and beliefs. This is exactly what New Testament Christianity also consistently affirms. As but one example, the Christian is NOT to marry or have quite close associations with non-believers, as 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 clearly states:
So yes, this can be 100% reconciled with Christianity.
Thanks Bill, what comes to mind is that Christians today should marry another Christian so they have a happy family. I didn’t do this and ended up with my first husband being addicted to alcohol making my first marriage very hard without much money etc but my first husband did stop drinking alcohol and we had the last 5 years of marriage sort of ok before he passed away but not as good as the marriage I have now with a Christian. Also, a generation ago my uncle being brought up strict Methodist would chase Jehovah Witness witnesses off his land as he believed they were preaching a wrong gospel. I don’t do that but just tell them I read my Bible and try to read and listen to Christian things and they go away after giving me one of their little leaflets they probably had to pay for.
Absolutely correct Bill. Our culture is more interested in being nice and not offending others rather than being holy. We would prefer to bless sin rather than call sinners to repentance.
Robert Zundel, this is not about race, but religion. The Israelites were not to marry outside their religion and the vast majority of other nations were pagans. Hitler was about race, but the Old Testament is about religion. Israelites were only supposed to marry other believers in the One True God. There are stories in the OT about people who were of other nationalities, such as Ruth, who nevertheless were believers in the One True God. There were other Gentiles who became believers in the One True God.
Great article Bill !