The title character and apparent author of the biblical book of Nehemiah was a Jewish cupbearer in the court of the Persian emperor in the mid-5th century BCE. Having lobbied successfully to be appointed governor of Judea, he instituted political reforms and repaired the walls of Jerusalem. Reviewing Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage, a study by the rabbi and former U.S. government official Dov Zakheim, David Wolpe examines the career of this great Jewish leader:
Zakheim makes a plausible case that Nehemiah’s reforms amounted to “a new constitution, the first of its kind in Jewish history and perhaps the first of its kind anywhere.” There had been other codes of law, of course, but a constitution is “more than a code of law. It marks a commitment by a people to organize their governance according to agreed-upon principles.” Nehemiah used religious law but was not confined to it, proving a reformer as well as an urban revivalist. . . .
In his conclusion, Zakheim summarizes Nehemiah’s role in this way: “Senior official, governor, statesman, legislator, religious enforcer, national leader, social reformer—Nehemiah was a man of many roles, and he excelled at them all.” [Nehemiah’s predecessor or contemporary] Ezra is remembered in Jewish history as the man who restored the Torah to the nation; Nehemiah was the restorer of Israel’s national identity and cohesion. In that sense, both figures and their missions were complementary. Any observer of modern Israel—where questions of religion’s place in nationality are argued each day, and where a small nation is surrounded by enemies—must marvel at how little has changed in a world where so much has changed.
In addition to the roles listed by Zakheim, however, there is one more to add to Nehemiah’s résumé, perhaps the most important one: Nehemiah was the author of his own story. As Pindar wrote several hundred years later, “Unsung, the noblest deed will die.” Nehemiah both made and shaped history. . . . [T]he nation he revived endured in its land for another 500 years before the Romans exiled it. Two-thousand years later, when the walls of the city were refurbished, his legacy was commemorated by his descendants.
More about: Ancient Persia, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Jerusalem, Nehemiah