A Boy of The Book
(A short story based on Nehemiah 8)
Joel leaned his head against his mother’s rough tunic, but then roused himself and immediately straightened, forcing his eyes, once again, toward the direction of Ezra’s voice. He was thankful that he and his mother had found a place near the platform, because the smell of new wood and the clear ringing tones of Ezra’s reading provided focus amidst the sea of adult bodies that pressed around him in the assembly. If Joel stood with his neck craned just so, he could see Ezra standing on the platform, reading from the scroll, and he wondered why Ezra’s voice showed no signs of tiring. How did Father stand so still on the platform? Joel could tell that he was listening intently today because he looked so serious, so stern. He had been proud when Father’s deep voice had rung out above all the others calling, “Bring out the book!” Others had quickly joined in until, there, before the Water Gate, Ezra and his helpers had arrived with the scrolls, had mounted the platform, and had begun to read the history of Joel’s people — God’s people, the Israelites.
There had been an audible groan when Ezra read the story of Adam and Eve being cast out of God’s beautiful garden, but, then, as the sun had climbed higher in the sky, Joel had joined in with the cheering when Moses led the people away from Egypt, and they had crossed safely over the Red Sea. The story arc soon took a nosedive. Complaining. Faithless idolatry. Defiance and defeat. Wiping sweat off his brow, Joel wondered if it was just the beating sun that was making him feel queasy –or was it his ancestors’ disobedience that was making his stomach churn as they turned their back on YAHWEH, their Deliverer. Again? Really?
Sadly, Joel was no stranger to the hard facts of Israel’s rebellion. He had been born in the shadow of a city-wide building project, and the hollow shell of half-built Jerusalem was evidence enough that his own people had, indeed, turned their backs on God, and God had allowed their enemies to triumph over them. He wished that he could be a small boy again and cover his ears to shut out the searing words, their record of rebellion. Joel turned toward his mother with questioning eyes, and was surprised to see tears on her cheeks. Looking around, he realized that many of the adults were wiping away tears — even the men, and soon, one by one, old and young, the people fell on their faces, tears mixing with the dust, crying out to YAHWEH for mercy. In an instant, Joel had gone from feeling small and surrounded to feeling exposed — and afraid, seeing such deep sadness etched on the faces he trusted.
“They’re right!” he groaned. “We haven’t been following the Law all these years. No one has celebrated the feasts! No one has opened The Book until today!” Joel shivered in spite of the midday sun, and he remembered his own disobedience to Mother and Father, recalling that Moses had had plenty to say about that when he came down off the mountain. Drying his eyes on his sleeve, Joel noticed that Nehemiah had joined Ezra and the priests on the platform. Incredulous, he heard Nehemiah’s command:
“Do not sorrow!
Do not be grieved!
Do not mourn or weep!”
The joy of the Lord is your strength!”
Later Joel would wonder how feelings could change so quickly. Fear of offending a holy God was transformed in an instant to celebration and true joy. The reading of The Book had revealed their sin, but it was also pointing the way to a new beginning. Nehemiah was already sending people away to eat and drink and rejoice, and Joel realized that he was hungry — very hungry! He held his mother’s hand to avoid becoming separated in the crowd, and they smiled as they waited for Father to join them. They, too, would celebrate because God’s grace and mercy would have the last word. By His power, Joel would begin to follow Him too. His people would, once again, be People of the Book.
Joel and his family were far from understanding the perfect Lamb of God who would “bypass the sacrifices consisting of goat and calf blood, instead using his own blood as the price to set us free once and for all, ” Hebrews 9:13,14. However, Ezra’s reading from The Book had turned their eyes away from the past and its weight of failure toward a future of promise and redemption. Commentator, Derek Kidner said it masterfully:
“This day was to prove a turning point. From now on, the Jews would be predominantly ‘the people of a book.’ At the dedication of Solomon’s Temple there had been glory and beauty, natural and supernatural, to overwhelm the worshippers. Here the focus, apart from a wooden platform , was a scroll – or more exactly, what was written in it. Its opening brought the people to their feet.”
May it be the same in our day.
This fictionalized account of Nehemiah 8:1-11 is the nineteenth in a series of posts in which I ponder “just one thing” each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, as I travel slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class. If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link: https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.