Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Public Reading of the Law. the Feast of Tabernacles. A Public Fast Held, and a Covenant Made to Keep the Law - Neh 8:1
These three chapters form a connected whole, and describe acts of worship and solemnities conducted by Ezra and other priests and Levites, Nehemiah as the secular governor being only twice mentioned in them (Neh 8:9; Neh 10:2). The contents of the three chapters are as follows: On the approach of the seventh month, which opened with the feast of trumpets, and during which occurred both the feast of tabernacles and the great day of atonement, the people were gathered to Jerusalem; and Ezra, at the request of the congregation, read to the assembled people out of the book of the law on the first and second days. It being found written in the law, that the Israelites were to dwell in booths during the seventh month, it was resolved to keep the festival in accordance with this direction; and this resolution was carried into execution by erecting booths made with branches of trees on housetops, in courts, and in the public places of the city, and celebrating the seven-days' festival by a daily public reading of the law (Neh 8). On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the congregation again assembled, with fasting and mourning, to make a public confession of their sins, and to renew their covenant with God (Neh 9, 10).
The second clause of Neh 7:73 belongs to Neh 8, and forms one sentence with Neh 8:1. "When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in their cities, the whole people gathered themselves together as one man in the open space that was before the water-gate," etc. The capitular division of the Masoretic text is erroneous, and makes the words, "and the children of Israel were in their cities," appear a mere repetition of the sentence, "and all Israel dwelt in their cities." The chronological statement, "when the seventh month came," without mention of the year, points back to the date in Neh 6:15 : the twenty-fifth Elul, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes; on which day the building of the wall was completed. Elul, the sixth month, is followed by Tishri, the seventh, and there is nothing against the inference that the seventh month of the same year is intended; the dedication of the wall not being related till Neh 12, and therefore occurring subsequently, while all the facts narrated in Neh 8-11 might, without any difficulty, occur in the interval between the completion of the wall and its dedication. For, besides the public reading of the law on the first two days of the seventh month, the celebration of the feast of tabernacles, and the public fast on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month (Neh 8-11), nothing more is recorded (Neh 11:1, Neh 11:2) than the execution of the resolve made by Nehemiah, immediately after the completion of the wall (Neh 7:4), viz., to increase the inhabitants of Jerusalem, by appointing by lot one of every ten dwellers in the surrounding country to go to Jerusalem and dwell there. This is succeeded by lists of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and of the cities of Benjamin and Judah, and lists of the priests and Levites (11:3-12:26):
Neh 8:1-2. The public reading of the law. - Neh 8:1-3. The introduction to this narrative (Neh 7:73b-8:1a) is identical with Ezr 3:1. The same matter, the assembling of the people on the approach of the seventh month, is described in the same words. But the object of this assembling of the people was a different one from that mentioned in Ezr 3:1-13. Then they met to restore the altar of burnt-offering and the sacrificial worship; now, on the contrary, for the due solemnization of the seventh month, the festal month of the year. For this purpose the people came from the cities and villages of Judah to Jerusalem, and assembled "in the open space before the water-gate," i.e., to the south-east of the temple space. On the situation of the water-gate, see rem. on Neh 3:26; Neh 12:37., and Ezr 10:9. "And they spake unto Ezra the scribe" (see rem. on Ezr 7:11). The subject of ויּאמרוּ is the assembled people. These requested, through their rulers, that Ezra should fetch the book of the law of Moses, and publicly read it. This reading, then, was desired by the assembly. The motive for this request is undoubtedly to be found in the desire of the congregation to keep the new moon of the seventh month, as a feast of thanksgiving for the gracious assistance they had received from the Lord during the building of the wall, and through which it had been speedily and successfully completed, in spite of the attempts of their enemies to obstruct the work. This feeling of thankfulness impelled them to the hearing of the word of God for the purpose of making His law their rule of life. The assembly consisted of men and women indiscriminately (אשּׁה ועד אישׁ, like Jos 6:21; Jos 8:25; Sa1 22:19; Ch1 16:3), and לשׁמע מבין כּל, every one that understood in hearing, which would certainly include the elder children. The first day of the seventh month was distinguished above the other new moons of the year as the feast of trumpets, and celebrated as a high festival by a solemn assembly and a cessation from labour; comp. Lev 23:23-25; Num 29:1-6.
Ezra read out of the law "from the light (i.e., from early morning) till mid-day;" therefore for about six hours. Not, however, as is obvious from the more particular description Neh 8:4-8, without cessation, but in such wise that the reading went on alternately with instructive lectures on the law from the Levites. "And the ears of all the people were directed to the law," i.e., the people listened attentively. המּבינים must be understood according to לשׁמע מבין כּל of Neh 8:2. In Neh 8:4-8 the proceedings at this reading are more nearly described.
Ezra stood upon a raised stage of wood which had been made for the purpose (לדּבר, for the matter). מגדּל, usually a tower, here a high scaffold, a pulpit. Beside him stood six persons, probably priests, on his right, and seven on his left hand. In 1 Esdras, seven are mentioned as standing on his left hand also, the name Azariah being inserted between Anaiah and Urijah. It is likely that this name has been omitted from the Hebrew text, since it is improbable that there was one person less on his right than on his left hand. "Perhaps Urijah is the father of the Meremoth of Neh 3:4, Neh 3:21; Maaseiah, the father of the Azariah of Neh 3:23; Pedaiah, the individual named Neh 3:25; the Azariah to be inserted, according to 1 Esdras, the same named Neh 3:23; a Meshullam occurs, Neh 3:4, Neh 3:6; and a Malchiah, Neh 3:11, Neh 3:14, Neh 3:31" (Bertheau).
Ezra, standing on the raised platform, was above the assembled people (he was כּל־העם מעל). When he opened the book, it was "in the sight of all the people," so that all could see his action; and "all the people stood up" (עמדוּ). It cannot be shown from the O.T. that it had been from the days of Moses a custom with the Israelites to stand at the reading of the law, as the Rabbis assert; comp. Vitringa, de Synag. vet. p. 167.
Ezra began by blessing the Lord, the great God, perhaps with a sentence of thanksgiving, as David did, Ch1 29:10, but scarcely by using a whole psalm, as in Ch1 16:8. To this thanksgiving the people answered Amen, Amen (comp. Ch1 16:36), lifting up their hands (ידיהם בּמעל, with lifting up of their hands; the form מעל occurring only here), and worshipping the Lord, bowing down towards the ground.
And Jeshua, Bani, etc., the Levites, expounded the law to the people (הבין, to cause to understand, here to instruct, by expounding the law). The ו copulative before הלויּם must certainly have been inserted in the text by a clerical error; for the previously named thirteen (or fourteen) persons are Levites, of whom Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, and Hodijah occur again, Neh 9:4-5. The names Jeshua, Sherebiah, Shabtai, and Jozabad are also met with Neh 12:14; Neh 11:16, but belong in these latter passages to other individuals who were heads of classes of Levites.
"And they (the Levites) read in (out of) the book of the law of God, explained and gave the sense; and they (the assembled auditors) were attentive to the reading." The Rabbis understand מפרשׁ = the Chaldee מפרשׁ, of a rendering of the law into the vulgar tongue, i.e., a paraphrase in the Chaldee language for those who were not acquainted with the ancient Hebrew. But this cannot be shown to be the meaning of פרשׁ, this word being used in the Targums for the Hebrew נקב (קבב), e.g., Lev 24:16, and for בּאר, Deu 1:5. It is more correct to suppose a paraphrastic exposition and application of the law (Pfeiffer, dubia vex. p. 480), but not "a distinct recitation according to appointed rules" (Gusset. and Bertheau). שׂום is infin. abs. instead of the temp. finit.: and gave the sense, made the law comprehensible to the hearers. במּקרא ויּבינוּ, not with older interpreters, Luther ("so that what was read was understood"), and de Wette, "and they (the Levites) made what was read comprehensible," which would be a mere tautology, but with the lxx, Vulgate, and others, "and they (the hearers) attended to the reading," or, "obtained an understanding of what was read" (בּ הבין, like Neh 8:12, Dan 9:23; Dan 10:11). Vitringa (de syn. vet. p. 420) already gives the correct meaning: de doctoribus narratur, quod legerint et dederint intellectum, de autitoribus, quod lectum intellexerint. The manner of proceeding with this reading is not quite clear. According to Neh 8:5-8, the Levites alone seem to have read to the people out of the book of the law, and to have explained what they read to their auditors; while according to Neh 8:3, Ezra read to the assembled people, and the ears of all were attentive to the book of the law, while we are told in Neh 8:5 that Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people. If, however, we regard Neh 8:4-8 as only a more detailed description of what is related Neh 8:2, Neh 8:3, it is obvious that both Ezra and the thirteen Levites mentioned in Neh 8:7 read out of the law. Hence the occurrence may well have taken place as follows: Ezra first read a section of the law, and the Levites then expounded to the people the portion just read; the only point still doubtful being whether the thirteen (fourteen) Levites expounded in succession, or whether they all did this at the same time to different groups of people.
The celebration of the feast of the new moon. - Neh 8:9 Then Nehemiah, the Tirshatha (see remarks on Ezr 2:63), and the priest Ezra the scribe, and the Levites who were teaching the people, said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord our God. Mourn not, nor weep; for all the people wept when they heard the words of the law." היּום is the new moon of the seventh month. The portion read made a powerful impression upon the assembled crowds. Undoubtedly it consisted of certain sections of Deuteronomy and other parts of the Thorah, which were adapted to convict the people of their sin in transgressing the commands of the Lord, and of the punishments to which they had thus exposed themselves. They were so moved thereby that they mourned and wept. This induced Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites, who had been applying what was read to the hearts of their hearers, to encourage them.
And he said to them (viz., Nehemiah as governor and head of the community, though the fact that his address is mentioned does not exclude the participation of Ezra and the Levites): "Go, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send gifts to them for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; neither be ye sorry, for joy in Jahve is your refuge." משׁמנּים, fatnesses (λιπάσματα, lxx), fat pieces of meat, not "rich cakes" (Bertheau); comp. שׁמנים משׁתּה, Isa 25:6. ממתּקּים, sweetened drinks. The sense is: Make glad repasts on good feast-day food and drink; and send portions to the poor who have prepared nothing, that they too may rejoice on this festival. מנות, gifts, are portions of food; Est 9:19, Est 9:22; Sa1 1:4. Hence we see that it was customary with the Israelites to send portions of food and drink, on festivals, to the houses of the poor, that they too might share in the joy of the day. נכון לאן for נכון אין לאשׁר (see rem. on Ch1 15:12), to them for whom nothing is prepared, who have not the means to prepare a feast-day meal. Because the day is holy to the Lord, they are to desire it with holy joy. יהוה חדות is a joy founded on the feeling of communion with the Lord, on the consciousness that we have in the Lord a God long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth (Exo 34:6). This joy is to be to them מעוז, a strong citadel or refuge, because the Almighty is their God; comp. Jer 16:19.
The Levites also strove to pacify the people, saying: "Hold your peace, i.e., give over weeping, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved."
This address had its effect. The people went their way, some to their houses, some to their lodgings, to partake of festal repasts, and to keep the feast with joy; "for they gave heed to the words that were declared to them," i.e., they took to heart the address of Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites.
Celebration of the feast of tabernacles. - Neh 8:13 On the second day were gathered together the heads of the houses of all the people, of the priests, and of the Levites to Ezra the scribe, to attend to the words of the law. The infinitive להשׂכּיל may indeed be taken (as by Bertheau) as the continuation of the finite verb, instead of as infinitive absolute (Ewald, 352, c); this is, however, admissible only in cases where the second verb either states what must be done, or further describes the condition of affairs, while להשׂכּיל here states the purpose for which the heads of the people, etc. assembled themselves unto Ezra. Hence we take להשׂכּיל in its usual meaning, and the w before it as explicative. אל השׂכּיל, as in Psa 41:1, expresses taking an attentive interest in anything. They desired to be further and more deeply instructed in the law by Ezra.
And they found written in the law that the Lord had commanded Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: "Go forth to the mount, and fetch olive branches, etc. to make booths, as it is written." This statement is not to be understood as saying that the heads of the people sought in the law, fourteen days before the feast, for information as to what they would have to do, that they might prepare for the due celebration of the feast of tabernacles (Bertheau). The text only states that the heads of the people again betook themselves to Ezra on the second day, to receive from him instruction in the law, and that in reading the law they found the precept concerning the celebration of the festival in booths, i.e., they met with this precept, and were thereby induced to celebrate the approaching festival in strict accordance with its directions. The law concerning the feast of tabernacles, of which the essentials are here communicated, is found Lev 23:39-43. In Deu 16:13 they were only commanded to keep the feast with gladness. The particular of dwelling in booths or bowers is taken from Lev 23:43; the further details in Neh 8:15 relate to the carrying out of the direction: "He shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook" (Lev 23:43). Go to the mountain, a woody district, whence branches may be obtained. עלי, state constructive plural of עלה, leaf, foliage, here leafy boughs or branches of trees. זית, the olive, שׁמן עץ, the wild olive (oleaster), the myrtle, the palm, and branches of thick-leaved trees, are here mentioned (the two latter being also named in Leviticus). כּכּתוּב does not relate to the preparation of the booths, but to the precept that the feast should be kept in booths. In Neh 8:16 the accomplishment of the matter is related, presupposing a compliance with the proclamation sent out into all the cities in the land, and indeed so speedy a compliance that the booths were finished by the day of the feast. The object (the branches of Neh 8:15) must be supplied to ויּביאוּ from the context. They made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the open space at the water-gate (see on Neh 8:3), and the open space at the gate of Ephraim. On the situation of this gate, see rem. on Neh 3:8. The open space before it must be thought of as within the city walls. On these two public places, booths were probably made by those who had come to Jerusalem, but did not dwell there; while the priests and Levites belonging to other places would build theirs in the courts of the temple.
And the whole community that had returned from captivity (comp. Ezr 6:21) made themselves booths and dwelt in booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day, had not the children of Israel done so. כּן, so, refers to the dwelling in booths; and the words do not tell us that the Israelites had not celebrated this festival since the days of Joshua, that is, since they had taken possession of Canaan: for, according to Ezr 3:4, those who returned from captivity kept this feast in the first year of their return; and a celebration is also mentioned after the dedication of Solomon's temple, Ch2 7:9; Kg1 8:65. The text only states that since the days of Joshua the whole community had not so celebrated it, i.e., had not dwelt in booths. Neither do the words imply that since the days of Joshua to that time no booths at all had been made at the celebration of the feast of tabernacles, but only that this had not been done by the whole congregation. On former occasions, those who came up to Jerusalem may have regarded this precept as non-essential, and contented themselves by keeping the feast with solemn assemblies, sacrifices, and sacrificial feasts, without making booths and dwelling in them for seven days.
And the book of the law was read from day to day. ויּקרא with the subject indefinite, while Ramb. and others supply Ezra. The reading of the law was only ordered at that celebration of the feast of tabernacles which occurred during the sabbatical year, Deu 31:10. The last day was the seventh, for the eighth as a עצרת did not belong to the feast of tabernacles; see rem. on Lev 23:36. כּמּשׁפּט like Ch2 4:20, and elsewhere.