I want to look at the tradition of public reading through three different texts that show different aspects of it. Today’s text is a story comes from one of the lesser read books of the Old Testament, Nehemiah. It’s the only passage from Nehemiah that crops up in the Sunday lectionary for the main service. Parts of this story, from Nehemiah 8, crop up on the third Sunday of Epiphany (or the third Sunday in Ordinary Time) in Year C.
(If any of the words I’ve just used (lectionary, Epiphany, Ordinary Time or Year C) phase you, then you can find them all defined in the Glossary.)
Here’s the text. (The reason for putting the word LORD in capitals is a long-standing convention inherited from Judaism. It signifies that the Hebrew text is not the word Lord, but the four-consonant name of God – YHWH.)
The priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also the Levites helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.Neh 8:2-3,5-6,7b-8
The story is set at a time the biblical lands are under the jurisdiction of the Persian empire. Persia has allowed Jews to return to their ancestral lands, and Ezra and Nehemiah are among those who hold leadership roles in the Jerusalem community. There are a number of historical puzzles about the story we will leave to the scholars to puzzle over, such as exactly how Ezra and Nehemiah’s different missions from the Persian court to Yehud (the Persian province of Judah) actually relate, but the main points I want to draw out are unaffected by them.
Like the other two examples to follow, this public reading is accompanied by worship. In fact, the descriptions of worship are tantalising. The people stand up, they join in Ezra’s prayer by saying “Amen” and lifting up their hands, then they bow, they prostrate themselves, and lower their faces to the ground. It sounds more like what we are accustomed to see in Islam, than in either Judaism or Christianity, and is one of those intriguing glimpses of what we wish we had more of: an actual description of how people prayed – at least on solemn public occasions.
This is presented by the storyteller as a special event. It is not a regular act of worship, but seems to be a formal proclamation of a local constitution for the Persian province of Yehud (i.e. Judah, or the area governed from Jerusalem), some four and a half centuries before the birth of Jesus. What English bibles have called “The Law of Moses” and Jews refer to as Torah (or at least an early edition of it) is read from not just as a religious text, but as a legal and political one also. This Torah – a Hebrew word that means “instruction” or “teaching” – is read in public because it concerns the public world. It is not until the modern period that anyone thinks religion is a private matter.
Ezra “publishes” the law by the kind permission of the Persian empire, which seems to have been unusually happy among ancient imperial powers to give the nations within its territory a significant degree of cultural autonomy. Provided no-one got too uppity they could practice their own culture, and Israel, like other regions within the empire, could shape their society according to their ancestral traditions. Israel’s understanding of how to live under God and God’s law is the heart of these traditions, guarded, developed and passed on by an elite of scribes and priests. Outside this class of priestly scribes, nearly everyone else would encounter the law and the ancestral traditions through hearing them read.
There appears to have been a slight snag. It would seem that without help, they can’t understand what’s being read. It looks as though Ezra is reading in the Hebrew language, but the language ordinary people speak is the common tongue of the region, Aramaic. The Levites act as a team of translators, giving at least the gist of what is being read. There is a gulf between the literary culture and language of the scribes, and the spoken versions of ordinary people. But if what is being read is the law of the land, then it’s really important, and not just optional, to understand it. In the end, the goal is reading (or listening) with understanding. This is not simply reading for the sake of ritual performance.
In most Christian churches today, other people have done the hard work this passage leaves to the Levites. Ordinary Christians don’t have to wrestle with texts in Greek and Hebrew, and English-speaking Christians are blessed with more translations than any other language group in the world. But even then, some can be hard to understand. Readers can do a lot to help understanding by the way they read, but there will remain a good number of instances where we need others to give the sense. (It’s what preachers are for!)
Nonetheless, the goal of public reading is to help people towards understanding. A reader is not simply carrying out a ritual for its own sake, and so the beginning of good reading comes in trying to make sense of what is being read. It’s my hope that this is exactly what this blog series will help you do.