January 24, 2016
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian Church
Imagine if you will that, as the last potteries closed in East Liverpool, a group of citizens decide to go off to New York City to seek their fortunes. They prosper, but they never really assimilate, working hard to pass on their Ohio Valley culture to their children and their grandchildren. They decorate their children’s nurseries with the Potter’s mascot; they codify East Liverpool slang into a formal language; they make their children memorize litanies of all the great Steelers players and keep alive the ancient art of making pottery.
Many years after their grandparents had left East Liverpool, some of these “Ohio Vallians” decide to return and rebuild “their” city. They get a special edict from congress giving them control over the local government. Then, with edict in hand, pockets full of money, wearing meticulously preserved Potter’s t-shirts and letter jackets, they show up in town, take over city hall and start telling everyone what to do. Furthermore they dismiss the locals as impure because, in the struggle to stay alive in their depressed city, they have lost the art of making pottery, have only a casual relationship with the Steelers and don’t speak in a perfect East Liverpool dialect.
If you can imagine that, you can get some sense of what Jerusalem was like in 538 BC. Two generations before, in 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, dragging the religious and political leadership in to exile in Babylon. Faced with the threat of assimilating and loosing their religion and culture, the exiles began codifying what had been a relatively loose mix of religion, culture and oral tradition. The Jews prosper in Babylon, but never assimilate, always longing to return home.
Finally, in 539 BC, the Jews get their chance. King Cyrus of Persia conquers Babylon. One year later, royal decree in hand, cultural relics looted by the Babylonians safely stowed in wagons, the Jews return to rebuild their city. To their surprise, the locals – Jews who stayed behind and endured in their destroyed city, are not overly happy to be bossed around by a bunch of holier than thou Jews from the big city.
Reconstruction goes slowly to say the least. It takes twenty-five years to rebuild the temple. Ninety years later the walls are still in ruins. When Nehemiah, a Jewish official in the Persian court, hears of the city’s struggles, he weeps on behalf of a homeland he’s never seen. He brings his case to the king, who appoints him governor of Jerusalem, gives him access to the royal treasury, and gives him permission to refortify the city.
In 445 BC, Nehemiah shows up in Jerusalem, implements systems of shared labor and revenue collection, and begins rebuilding the walls. After a year or so of labor, the wall is done. As the people gather for the annual harvest festival, the priest Ezra stands in the courtyard of the temple and reads from the law, celebrating the renewal and reconstruction of the city.
A lot of ancient history that brings us to one big question. Why, for Nehemiah, was that wall so important that he risked everything to go to Jerusalem and build it? Why, for that matter, do calls for a wall on the US Mexico border, or a wall between Israel and Palestine, or privacy fences between suburban backyards resonate with so many? What is it about walls?
I had won the giant Powerball jackpot last week, one of the first things I would have done is commissioned a contractor to build an authentic New England style stone wall through my woods. Part of that is aesthetic – I grew up wandering the woods in New England and stumbling upon old walls marking the boundaries of long overgrown farms. Part of that is practical. The property line in the woods is vague and some of my neighbors dump junk back there. A wall might encourage them to keep their junk out of my woods.
Nehemiah achieves a similar dual purpose in rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. In part the walls are defensive – they protect the city from intolerant neighbors, marauding bandits and any enemies of the Persian King who might be seeking to wound a far flung, poorly defended corner of the empire. But they are also cultural. Just as a wall in my woods would help defend my vision of what woods are for – a tree house, a shade garden, habitat for chipmunks and squirrels against the visions of my neighbors; Nehemiah’s walls create a barrier between the “pure” Judaism of the exiles and the looser observance of those who had never experienced Babylon. Not surprisingly, the completion of the wall corresponds with a call for the “pure” Jews – those whose families came from Babylon – to separate themselves culturally from the “people of the land” – the Jews whose families never went to Babylon. The descendents from Babylon pledge not to intermarry, to keep the Sabbath (now made easier by the ability to close the city gates to restrict movement) and to observe the festivals and offerings.
Walls can help create identity. But they can also trap us. As the walls grow higher, Nehemiah’s concern for purity increases. It wasn’t enough for those descended from the exiles to pledge not to intermarry with those whose families had never been to Babylon – those who were in mixed marriages had to divorce and disown their children. It wasn’t enough to enforce the torah upon everyone in the city, certain foreigners were to be banned from even living in the city because of ancient feuds recorded in scripture.
Nehemiah ends his account of rebuilding the walls with the following story:
“In those days I saw Jews who had married foreigners; and half their children could not speak the language of Judah but spoke the language of various peoples. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God that they would not act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women. I saw another neighbor who was of a family that had been in the priesthood before the reforms took place. I chased him away from me, for his family had defiled the priesthood and not kept the covenant.” The pursuit of purity gives birth to oppression; those whose ancestors had been exiled begin to exile others.
If I ever build that wall in the woods, it will be a low wall. A wall children can climb over and walk upon. A wall over which neighbors can share a story, or deer can jump. For clear boundaries are good. But so is community across life’s many divides.