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Today's Study

Nehemiah 8:8: Making Clear the Book of the Law?

The issue in this verse concerns the word here translated as "making it clear" (mporas). Some render it "to translate." This would mean that the exiles who had returned from seventy years of captivity in Babylon had become fluent in Aramaic but had lost their ability to understand the text of the Law as it was read in Hebrew.

But if these Jews really had lost their knowledge of Hebrew, then why were such postexilic books as 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi written in Hebrew? If the writers of these texts wanted to reach the Jewish audience of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. , why would they have chosen to use an archaic language that the people no longer grasped?

Approximately one week after the returnees had completed the walls of Jerusalem (Neh 6:15; 7:1), the people assembled in the square in front of the famous Water Gate (Neh 3:26). There Ezra, the scribe, began a public reading of the Torah of Moses (Neh 8:1).

Although Ezra is not recorded as having had a major part in the fifty-two-day rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, he now appeared on the scene as a spiritual leader and as the reader of the Law of God. Ezra had led an earlier return of some fifty thousand Jews from Babylon in 458 B.C. Nehemiah had come later, in 445 B.C. , as a civil leader leading an aroused populace to quickly rebuild the walls of the holy city.

It was the first day of the month of Tishri, the day designated as the Feast of Trumpets (Lev 23:24; Num 29:1). As specified by the law, this was a day of rest and worship. It was a time of preparation for the most significant day in Israel's religious calendar, the Day of Atonement, celebrated on the tenth of Tishri (approximately our September/October).

The assembly included all men, women and children who could understand (Neh 8:2). The meeting began early in the morning, at the break of day, and Ezra read until midday--approximately six hours! He spoke from a wooden platform that accommodated not only his pulpit but also the thirteen Levites who helped him in this work. Just how these thirteen men functioned is not altogether clear. Did they assist him in the reading of the Law, or did they split the people up into small groups from time to time to assist them in their comprehension of what was being read?

As the Book of the Law was opened, the people stood to show their respect for the Word of God. Prior to the reading, however, Ezra led the people in a prayer of praise to the Lord their God. The people responded with "Amen! Amen!" as they lifted their hands and bowed down in worship to the Lord (Neh 8:6).

At this point the problematic verse appears. What does mporas mean? Does it mean "to translate"--in this case, from Hebrew into the cognate tongue of Aramaic--or does it mean to give an exposition of the passage and make the sense clear?

The root from which this word comes, paras, has the basic meaning "to make distinct or separate." It could refer to the way the words were distinctly articu- lated, or better still, to the Law's being read and expounded section by section. The word parasa, a cognate of the term we are considering, was used by the Hebrew Masoretic scribes to speak of dividing the Pentateuch into paragraphs or sections for each reading. Therefore, we cannot agree that the Levites were mere translators for the people. They "broke out" the standard Pentateuchal sections and followed the readings with exposition, "giving the meaning so the people could understand what was being read."

The motive for observing this Feast of Trumpets (or Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year's Day) was the people's thanksgiving for God's gracious assistance in rebuilding the wall. This goodness of God led them instinctively to want to hear more of God's Word. They stood by the hour to listen intently to that Word and to have it explained to them.

There is no need to wonder why so many postexilic books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew. The only alleged evidence that the Jewish returnees could not speak Hebrew is this one word in Nehemiah 8:8, and there are no linguistic grounds for thinking that it means "translating."