Nehemiah Cleans House

“With this theory of the joke in mind, the final chapter of Nehemiah is holy and hysterical.”

In his book, Deep Exegesis, Peter Leithart speaks of the biblical text as many things, but none is more confronting than his viewing the text as a “joke.” His explanation, however, makes perfect sense. What makes a joke funny? It is either prior knowledge to which not everyone is privy, or a confounding of expectations (which are also based on prior knowledge to some degree). The Bible is full of such jokes, and realizing one is in on the joke is immensely satisfying.

The great thing about the Bible is that, if we read from the beginning, and we are paying attention, we are the in crowd, and the Author expects us to pick up on His subtleties. In the Scriptures, these are repetitions of certain words (such as “shatter,” for example, which ties a cursed Israel to the plagues upon Egypt) and repetitions of structure, which are entirely overlooked by modern commentators, who can’t seem to fit more than a single Hebrew or Greek word into their heads at one time for serious observation.

With this theory of the joke in mind, the final chapter of Nehemiah is holy and hysterical. We sit around in Bible study and commend him for dealing with the sins of old Jerusalem which are starting to sprout once again like weeds in his new Jerusalem. But I believe the Author has structured the chapter (and thus the events) so that those in on the joke might laugh and cheer his every move.

Firstly, here is the “matrix” structure of the chapter (to support some of the offensive and crazy things I have written lately). Since Nehemiah is cleaning house, it makes sense that the chapter is Tabernacle-shaped. And as this is a final cycle, the overall subject is Glorification and Covenant Succession, or Temple, Jew-Gentile relations (Booths), marriage and offspring, and the future.

Moses is read. Expulsion of the children of Lot (prologue) (Creation – Genesis)
Expulsion of Tobiah (Division – Exodus)
Portions of the Levites restored (Ascension – Leviticus)
Wrath incurred for profaning the Sabbath (Testing – Numbers)
The walls and gates of the city separate Jew from Gentile (Maturity – Deuteronomy)
Unconverted women and children expelled; the High Priest’s grandson expelled for intermarriage (Conquest – Joshua)
Memorial requested (Glorification – Judges)

While we are at it, we should also notice that the first stanza (represented in line 1 above) deliberately foreshadows the content of the entire chapter:

On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. (Genesis – Sabbath)
And in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, (Exodus – Passover)
for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, (Leviticus – Firstfruits)
but hired Balaam against them to curse them— (Numbers – Pentecost)
yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. (Deuteronomy – Trumpets)
As soon as the people heard the law, (Joshua – Atonement)
they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent. (Judges – Booths)

Now, before we get to the joke, we should also notice that the passage begins with the words of Moses and ends with the triune obedience of Nehemiah as the “bridal man.” He has remembered the Word of God and now asks God to remember him.

So, what is the joke here? It is a reference to Genesis 1-9, and its three-level Tabernacle architecture, the Garden, the Land and the World. Without this knowledge, we won’t get the joke. With this knowledge, based on a reading of the Bible as a book by a single Author (who is actually smarter than we are, likes to drop hints and deliberately obscures things for us to discover), the structure itself is a threefold architectural allusion. The text does not state this explicitly, and many would argue that this is eisegesis, but the events follow a pattern repeated so many times in previous Scripture that we have no excuse to ignore it. Being so deliberately obtuse when it comes to the Bible is only possible through an unnatural literary “dissection.” It is to treat the Bible like no other literature, and thus, not like literature at all. Masked as “conservative” and “cautious”, the stupidity is mind-boggling, and the arrogance outstrips even mine.


Firstly, Tobiah the Ammonite, who had previously opposed the reconstruction (Nehemiah 2, 4), and is now living in the Sanctuary. He is a snake in the Garden, squatting in God’s domain, “sitting (enthroned) in the Temple of God.” Notice that this creeping thing is living in a large room which had previous contained the priestly food, that is, the Tree of Life. As with the sin in Eden, this was related to a greater sin in the next domain.


Secondly, we can see that the refusal to give the Levites their portions and the trading with Tyrians on the Sabbath are a sort of “corporate” version of the sin of Cain, who presented his kingly firstfruits offering before Abel’s priestly offering, thus putting kingdom (the Tree of Knowledge) before priestly obedience (the Tree of Life). Cain went and built a “fortress” to protect himself from vengeance. Here, Nehemiah protects the “Abels” from the influence of the Cainites.


Finally, we can see that the intermarriage of the men of Israel with unconverted women, and the resulting godless offspring, would eventually destroy Israel as it had done under the kings, and this corresponds to the sin of the sons of Seth in Genesis 6. (Note that this is not, nor is ever, racial but Covenantal.)

Why would the reader be cheering? Because Nehemiah is a man filled with the Spirit of God, plaiting a whip, cleansing the Temple (Leviticus 14:33-57), the holy city and the people of God in righteous indignation, offering a firstfruits in all three domains and allowing God to fill all three domains once again as a mighty, rushing wind.

“Passion for your house has consumed me,
and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”

(Psalm 69:9 NLT)

One final note. Nehemiah beats (Deuteronomy 25:2) and tears out the hair (or shaves) the Covenant breakers. Wesley says, “The hair was an ensign of liberty among the eastern nations; and baldness was a disgrace, and token of slavery and sorrow.”

“I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.”
(Isaiah 50:6)

The books of Nehemiah follows the Bible Matrix, but so do Ezra and Nehemiah as a unit. With that in mind, Ezra tears his robe and tears out (or shaves) his own hair as a priestly Covenant head (Ezra 9:3; ), and Nehemiah calls the people to mourn (as Covenant body) because they had previously vowed to break off these marriages (Nehemiah 10:29). All Israel was now called to be like a Nazirite, a priestly warrior bride working within the Gentile empire. Together, Ezra/Nehemiah is totus Christus, bald, naked and cruciform at the inauguration of a new Jerusalem.

See also Exploiting Nehemiah.
PHOTO: If you don’t get the joke, just to make a point, I’m not going to tell you.

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