The scene that is presented to us today from the book of Nehemiah is much more significant than it perhaps at first appears. The people of Israel have recently returned from the devastating period of exile in Babylon, which began with the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BCE, and which was only coming to an end because the Babylonian empire had itself been conquered by the Persians, and their new king Cyrus was favourable to the people of Israel returning to their homeland and resuming their life there. The slow recovery, which included the reconstruction of basic services in the city, including the wall around Jerusalem, was led by Nehemiah and supported by the scribe Ezra. Until this time, most Jewish religious life was centred either in the home or in the temple. But when the temple was destroyed, the place of the home began to increase in prominence. So the action of Ezra gathering the whole nation together in the main square of the city and to read the scriptures to them together was utterly radical. It had never happened in the whole 1500 year history of God’s people before this time. The description of this event is very moving – complete with the strong emotional responses of the people as the word is proclaimed, interpreted and explained in their midst over a six-or-so hour period by Ezra. Most likely he read from the book of Deuteronomy – which usually doesn’t provoke quite as strong a reaction when it is read within the context of the Catholic Mass!
This event is also significant because it allowed an increased focus to the reading and study of the scriptures as a liturgical event – and not just a part of the life of the family. This paved the way for the creation of a synagogue service which we see in part in the Gospel today, as well as the eventual transition from sacrificial Judaism to Rabbinical Judaism after the destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 CE. By the time of Jesus, the meeting hall or assembly hall began to take on a specifically religious character, and a corresponding liturgy that would form the basis of Christian worship had developed. The synagogue service (or Beit Knesset in Hebrew) began with the recitation of the Shema (Deut 6) followed by the 18 Benedictions; then there was a reading from the Torah or the Prophets (arranged systematically over a three-year cycle) followed by a short interpretation or sermon, and a benediction concluded the service.
Sunday Three, Season of the Year, Year C.
Nehemiah 8:2-10; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21