Through the years the first readings in our Masses give us short samples of each of the Old Testament books. At times, as is the case today, the sample is too short to give us an idea of what happens in the book. Our reading today is from Nehemia, so let me outline what the book is about.
It takes us back to 450 B.C. when Jerusalem was part of the Persian Empire. We know how the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 600 B.C., taking the people off to seventy years of captivity. That captivity ended in 530 B.C. when Cyrus the Second of Persia let the people return to Jerusalem.
Nehemia, whose story we pick up today, was the grandson of a Jewish couple who decided to stay on in Persia rather than return to Jerusalem in 530 b.c. They got on so well there, that their grandson Nehemia came to be an officer in the court of King Artaxerxes.
Nehemia had heard that Jerusalem was in bad shape both morally and physically. He heard there was sinfulness and tumbling down walls. So, the story picks up with Nehemia asking to be sent to Jerusalem to find the best way to straighten matters out.
The conclusion of his mission had him recommending that the Law of Moses should be adopted as the civil law for Jerusalem. The people of Jerusalem and the Persian judges accepted his recommendation, provided that the Jews could adopt amendments to the Bible’s law to suit changing times.
They started by adopting three amendments about supporting the temple, not marrying foreigners, and not buying produce brought in on then Sabbath. That was fine; but four hundred and fifty years later, by Our Lord’s time, law books containing the amendments filled the temple, making it impossible for ordinary people to avoid violations.