My daughter was clearly doing it wrong, and I insisted (with some forcefulness) that she changed it. I was vindicated when she was the only one in her class with the right answers ? but her teacher wasn’t fooled. She said: ‘Give this gold star to your dad.’ I didn’t do it again, mainly because the maths got too hard.
Politics is a profession we often associate with immoral manipulation. This method is sometimes justified because often there appears to be no other way of getting the necessary consensus. The full extent of these coercive styles of leadership sometimes comes out when politicians publish their diaries, deliberately revealing their secrets to increase sales.
Nehemiah kept a political diary in which he was surprisingly candid about how he manipulated people. He probably didn’t expect it to be read, because he really wrote it for God, whom he addresses throughout (eg Nehemiah 13:14,22,29,31). Although his version of events is highly edited, his dubious activities aren’t covered up.
MANIPULATING THE EMPEROR
Nehemiah wasn’t just crafty and determined, he was also capable of underhand tricks, intimidation and even physical bullying. And, like many of the most dangerous people today, he called on God to back him up by praying for divine retribution on his enemies.
His diary starts with some bad news from the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem: the city was in ruins. Nehemiah realised that, as cupbearer to the emperor, he might be in a position to help restore them. Cupbearers weren’t just butlers ? they saw to the emperor’s needs and knew all his intimate secrets. They probably also acted as private counsellors like other trusted court officials. That’s why Solomon introduced his cup bearers to the Queen of Sheba when he wanted to impress her (1 Kings 10:5).
Nehemiah planned his strategy carefully. I used to think that the emperor just happened to notice his unhappiness, but the text implies that this was Nehemiah’s plan. It says he prayed for success and for ‘mercy’ (ESV) from the emperor before appearing in his presence with a sad face. It was a look he put on very deliberately, because the Bible says his real emotion was fear (Nehemiah 1:11-2:2). He was hoping to get the emperor’s sympathy, but he was terrified of losing his job or his head. After all, his job was to cheer the emperor up and help him forget his burdens, not add to them.
Fortunately for Nehemiah, the emperor did show mercy and asked how he could help. Nehemiah was ready with a well-considered list of requests. I don’t suppose the emperor was really fooled by this charade; I suspect that he liked this wily operator. I’m equally impressed: I like the way he asked God for help and, at the same time, did what he could.
CURSING THE OPPOSITION
In Jerusalem Nehemiah met a lot of opposition from those who benefited from the status quo. They tried inviting him for ‘talks’ ? in a lonely place ? but he saw through this and made excuses. They then sent him an open letter implying that his rebuilding plans were part of a treasonous rebellion, but Nehemiah had enough political capital to brush this aside (6:1-6).
Outwardly he seemed unruffled, but his diary reveals the true extent of his anger. This wasn’t sparked by his opponents’ attempts to trap him, but by their intimidation of the ordinary people who were rebuilding the wall. Nehemiah called down on them what is perhaps the cruellest curse in the whole Bible: he asked God to let them be sold as slaves and (much worse) to never to forgive their sins (4:4-5).
Sometimes Nehemiah displayed naked anger. Once, after returning from a long trip he found someone had converted a temple storeroom into a large personal residence. He marched straight in without warning, personally threw out all the household furniture, and then assembled the staff for a reprimand (13:6-11). Another time he threatened violence to some merchants. They had tried to circumvent his new Sabbath regulations by setting up outside the city when they couldn’t come through the gates on the Sabbath. Nehemiah warned them: do that again and I will ‘lay hands on you’ (13:21, ESV). On the face of it, not a particularly violent-sounding phrase, but it reminds me of a car bumper sticker written in Mafia-English: ‘You toucha my car and I toucha your face.’ They got the message and didn’t try again.
He stood up against the powerful and returned a little of what they were meting out
Nehemiah was even physically violent with some opponents. He wrote that when he came across men who had married foreign wives: ‘I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair’ (13:25, ESV). I’m surprised he got away with it, because one of the victims was the high priest’s grandson, who presumably had the connections to report him to the emperor (13:23-28).
Nehemiah was on a very weak legal footing on this occasion. When he had opposed Sabbath trading, the ancient laws were on his side; but marrying a woman from Moab or Ammon (as these men had done) was perfectly legal. The Law prohibited Jews intermarrying with seven specific nations (Deuteronomy 7:1,3) but didn’t prevent other foreign marriages. After all, the kings of Judah were descended from Ruth, who was from Moab.
To understand why Nehemiah was so angry we have to read the part of the story revealed by Malachi, which was written at about the same time. Before marrying foreign wives, these men had divorced their Jewish brides ? an act of ‘treachery’, as Malachi repeatedly called it, ‘which [covers God’s] altar with tears’ (Malachi 2:13-16, ESV). It was probably this divorcing of their old wives, as much as the nationality of their new brides, which angered Nehemiah.
For all his faults, I like Nehemiah. Admittedly he misled and bullied and lost his temper sometimes, but he was honest and didn’t use his position for his own advantage. What made his blood boil was seeing weak people being exploited by thepowerful. It wasn’t the little guys he bullied ? he stood up against the powerful and returned a little of what they were meting out. Even so, he’s hardly a paradigm of moral behaviour. How can we possibly tell children (or adults) to copy his example ? at least without some heavy editing of the full story?
Perhaps the fact that his heroism is built on a series of fault lines is actually a good reason for telling his story as it is. Children can see through fake portrayals and they know (perhaps unconsciously) that hero stories are created by sieving out the murky bits. However, they do respond to stories about flawed but brave individuals who face up to corruption in high places.
So let’s keep telling our children about Nehemiah, because unlike most role models they see today, he didn’t rely on a gun, but on God.