I don’t remember for sure where it came from. I was quite young when it was given me. I kept in a box. From time to time, I would look at it. Flip through its pages, maybe reading a part of it, then putting it back where I kept it. A few times a year, I would bring it out again. Though underused, it was like the ring of power. It was precious to me. It moved with me from Southern California to Salt Lake. My name was written in the front of it.
It – was a small Bible that contained the New Testament, the Psalms, and Proverbs. In retrospect, it must have been from the Gideons, though I have a recollection that it came from my Sunday school at the Covenant Church we attended in southern California. As precious as it was to me, I have no idea what became of it.
One time when the Gideons made a presentation at Our Saviour, they left some of those New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs Bibles. I took one. It remains in my glove box.
I’ve had several Bibles since then. The Jerusalem Bible, when it came out, was my favorite for several years.
When I went to seminary, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible had just come out. The buzz on campus was that it was the best English translation to date. In the first semester of seminary, two of the required courses are Intro to the Old Testament and Intro to the New Testament. I decided I needed an NRSV for those classes.
When I went to the bookstore, I discovered that everyone else had the same idea. All that was left were three copies of a red letter edition of the NRSV. You know, the red letters are printed wherever Jesus says something. I bought one. The TA in the New Testament class immediately made value judgements of my theology.
Whether the letters of a Bible are printed in black, red, blue, or green, it is all the Word of God. We say it is the Word of God because of belief and tradition. The Old Testament is a little more complicated, but the books of the New Testament are in the New Testament through a consensus of the church over several centuries. The leaders of the church in all places settled on the books of the New Testament by the 5th century. The church decided that it was these books that were written by human beings, inspired by God, and who were witnesses (or at least close to the witnesses) of Jesus.
Except for the literary Prophets and the wisdom books, the core of the Old Testament was edited into its final form during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. The source documents have never been discovered and are likely lost to history. The edited version is what was considered to be sacred and preserved. It was after the return from the exile that Nehemiah and Ezra enter into history.
The books of Nehemiah and Ezra describe what happened in Judah after the return from the Babylonian exile. After the Persian king Cyrus allows the exiles to return home, many did but it was a dribble that happened over many years. We don’t know the exact dates Ezra and Nehemiah went to Jerusalem, but it was something approximating 80 to 100 years after Cyrus’ decree. Even after all this time, Jerusalem is still in ruins. There were already several waves of returnees before them. The only knowledge Ezra and Nehemiah had of the exile is the stories that they were told and the history that was edited during the exile that we know of as Deuteronomy through 2 Kings.
In these two books, Ezra and Nehemiah are the primary figures. Who were they? Nehemiah was a court official of the Persian king Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah to be governor of Judah. Nehemiah went to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and finish the process of building a new temple. The Samaritans and the governor of Syria both opposed these measures and complained the Artaxerxes. For Nehemiah, it is good to have the king as a friend.
Ezra was a scribe – the same group of people who often opposed Jesus in the gospels. A scribe literally wrote. In this case, scribes are the people who copied the scriptures, in the form they had them then, letter for letter over and over again. This process made the scribes experts in what the scriptures said. Also at this time, Hebrew was essentially a dead language. The people spoke Aramaic.
We are told that it is the people who demand that the Law of Moses or Torah be read to them. That seems farfetched to me. How did they know about the Torah? And why would they want something read to them in a language they don’t understand?
In any case, Ezra reads the law to the people so they could understand it. It was read to them in Hebrew, because a good scribe could do no less. We are told it was interpreted. The Levites and likely some priests taught the people. They likely translated the Hebrew into Aramaic and added some commentary. To do this would require much planning, coordination, and teaching. So I don’t think this was spontaneous.
Picture the scene: Ezra opens the book (technically a scroll), likely dramatically, in front of the people elevated above them. This is a solemn occasion. The book or scroll is likely Deuteronomy. Ezra blesses God: God, the author of the Law of Moses that is for the people to observe and obey. It is a law that they are unfamiliar with. They are going to hear it for the first time. In anticipation, they give their assent by saying “Amen, Amen.” They then “bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord.” (Nehemiah 8:6b)
This reading of the law happened on the first day of the seventh month. This is a holy day set aside in Leviticus as a day of rest, of sabbath. The Jewish calendar is still a lunar calendar. In the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, this is 1 Tishrei. Ezra and Nehemiah declare that this day is holy. It is so holy that the day is a Jewish holy day called Rosh Hashanah.
This day is also thought of as the beginning of the Jewish religion. They can no longer be a nation. They are a province of the powerful Persian Empire. Since they cannot be a nation, they can be a religion, Judaism, named after their province, Judah. The foundation of Judaism is the Law of Moses.
The people wept hearing the words of God in the Law of Moses. This was much more than a recount of the Sinai experience, an event that happened many centuries before. The people weep because this is their story. God intervened in human history to save them. It was the same God who intervened in history and sent them from exile to home. The laws that Ezra and Nehemiah are trying to impose are not arbitrary. They were given by God.
The people of Judah are subdued.
To celebrate the day, Ezra and Nehemiah encourage the people to no longer weep, but to rejoice. “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) The next verse that was not read says that the Levites among the people reinforced this command. (You will have fun and you will like it!)
The Word of God just doesn’t seem to be as influential today. Ezra and Nehemiah gave the people a purpose and a goal and an identity. That doesn’t happen in this country today. Here everyone is their own expert of what is meaningful to them. Now this is not a bad thing, unless someone is ignorant, delusional, or both.
The thing about the Word of God, as we know it, is that it has been tested and criticized for centuries. And it still stands up. Most people who reject God’s Word do not read it. They did not have Ezra or anyone else read it to them. They didn’t have Levites around to have it make sense to them.
Some do study the Bible but do so as a piece of fiction. My Uncle Lloyd was such a person. When he read Genesis, he assumed that it was a book of history and was therefore, ludicrous. Genesis is no such thing. It is a story, but it is a story of humanity pushing away from God and God’s multiple attempts to bring humanity back to God. As history, it made no sense to him. But he failed to see the big picture of the book.
This theme of pulling away from God is repeated over and over again throughout the Old Testament. The apex of the story happens when the Word of God takes on flesh. In the person of Jesus, we are literally joined with God. We are heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:17)
As Timothy Saleska notes, “We too have God’s word to sustain us. That word is not just a history lesson to us, nor is it a dry list of rules we have to follow. It is our story. It is the story of our life and death and resurrection in Christ. It is a story with the power to make us weep and fill us with joy.
“In other words, the word does for us what it did for ancient Israel. It gives life. And, like the postexilic community, we gather around the word on our ‘day of Sabbath rest,’ our Sunday. It is a day of feasting on the Lord’s Supper and celebration of the resurrection and our resurrection hope. It is a day of joy when we are reminded of the Lord’s grace in our lives and in which we receive strength to live ‘between the times.’”
As Jesus read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
This is Jubilee. This is for all people. Let us rejoice and have fun and like it. Let the one who has ears, listen. (Mathew 11:15, 13:9, Mark 4:9, Luke 8:8, 14:35)
 Saleska, T. E. (2001). Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C. In The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume one (p. 256). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.