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Covenant to Obey God and Support His House (Nehemiah 10) January 8-9

It is apparently still the 24th day of the seventh month (see chapters 8-9). Nehemiah lists the signers of the covenant made on this day (see 9:38). "The way someone 'signed' a document in the ancient world was similar to the use of a wax seal in more recent times. A distinctive seal was pressed into soft clay. The pattern of the seal showed what authority issued that document" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 10:1).

Nehemiah was the first to sign. Verses 2-8 then list the priests who placed their seals on the covenant. "Some of these names appear in a later list as heads of priestly houses (12:11-20). Twenty-one priests who were heads of households signed the agreement in the name of the houses and families of their respective classes. Ezra's name does not appear, perhaps indicating that he was not the head of a household" (note on 10:2-8). It could also be that Ezra wrote the document, serving not as a representative of the people in this covenant but as a mediator between the people and God—perhaps alongside the high priest Eliashib, whose name does not appear here either.

Seventeen Levites, some of whom later appear as heads of Levitical orders (see 12:8), also signed (10:9-13)—as did 44 civil leaders (verses 14-27). As for the rest of the people, though they did not themselves sign, they did agree to the terms of the covenant, which called for a curse on them if they failed to keep their oath of obedience to the Law that God gave through Moses (verses 28-29).

Special mention is given in the covenant to not intermarrying with people from the neighboring nations (verse 30). It could be that this problem was given consideration because of what happened prior to Ezra's governorship (see Ezra 9-10). However, it could also refer to the resurfacing of the problem as later discovered by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:23-30). As was mentioned in the Bible Reading Program comments on our previous reading, the reference to the people having separated themselves from the peoples of the lands in 10:28 (and 9:2) have led some to conclude that the events of chapters 8-10 occurred much later in Nehemiah's administration than where they fit in arrangement order (compare 13:3). Yet it could be that this covenant came early in Nehemiah's administration and the problems arose later in spite of it. The biblical record demonstrates time and again that knowing what God wanted them to do was no guarantee that the people would do so.

Another concern addressed in the covenant is the buying of wares and grain—that is, doing one's shopping for the coming days—on the Sabbath (10:31). Here again is a very specific problem that Nehemiah later dealt with as governor (see 13:15-22). Perhaps this was an issue addressed early on in Nehemiah's administration that defiantly returned at a later time. The Sabbath command is appropriately known as the "test commandment" (compare Exodus 16, especially verse 4) because it presents a strong challenge for people to set aside their normal everyday wants and business in order to worship God. On the other hand, if the chapter arrangement of Nehemiah is not chronological, it could be that the problem occurred late and that this covenant followed it. Since the two problems of intermarriage and Sabbath breaking occur in both contexts, the latter seems a distinct possibility. As The Expositor's Bible Commentary notes on Nehemiah 10:31: "The provisions of vv. 31-34 may have been a code drawn up by Nehemiah to correct the abuses listed in chapter 13 (e.g., vv. 15-22)."

The people also agreed in the covenant to observe the Sabbatical year—that is, in every seventh year they would leave their fields uncultivated (to allow the nutrients in the soil to build up, thereby preventing the depletion of the land) and cancel debts owed them (10:31; see Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-7; Deuteronomy 15:1-6).

They further agreed to pay a temple tax of a third of a shekel for the ongoing expense of temple worship services—similar to the half shekel paid by the Israelites in Moses' day for the tabernacle (see Exodus 30:11-16). Expositor's lists a few possible explanations as to "why the offering should be a third rather than a half shekel. (1) Some maintain that the half-shekel of Exodus (30:16; 38:25-28) was meant as a onetime offering for the construction of the tabernacle and therefore has no bearing on the offering in Nehemiah 10:32. (2) Others argue that the offering was reduced from one-half to one-third because of economic impoverishment. (3) Some argue that the later shekel was based on a heavier standard, thus one-third of the later shekel was equal to one-half of the earlier shekel. That is, the later Babylonian-Persian shekel was twenty-one grams, whereas the former Phoenician shekel was fourteen grams, hence one-third the former was equal to one-half the latter" (note on verse 32).

Verse 34 says that lots were cast to determine who would provide the "wood offering" and in what order. Though no such offering was directly mentioned in the law, it is clear that the perpetually burning altar fire would have required an ongoing supply of wood (compare Leviticus 6:12-13). "Josephus mentions 'the festival of wood-offering' on the fourteenth day of the fifth month (Ab), when all the people were accustomed to bring wood for the altar (War[s of the Jews, Book 2, chap. 17, sec. 6]…). The Mishnah (Taanith 4.5) lists nine times when certain families brought wood" (note on Nehemiah 10:34).

The covenant further confirms that the people would be faithful in the offering of the firstfruits and firstborn and in the payment of tithes (verses 35-38). The focus of these commitments is brought out well in the last words of the document: "We will not neglect the house of our God" (verse 39). Like Sabbath breaking and intermarriage, failure to provide for the temple and priesthood through tithes and offerings was yet another matter specifically addressed by Nehemiah in chapter 13 (verses 10-14)—lending further support to the possibility that the covenant of chapter 10 was made after the events of chapter 13.

As the "house of our God" today is His Church, we should see in all this a parallel for us. We must all be committed to separating ourselves from the world, obeying God in all areas of our lives and providing for the needs of the Church and the work He has given it to do.

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