Tag Archives: Nehemiah 13

Rules and Exceptions

On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God.

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
Nehemiah 13:1,3 (NIV)

A large part of my daily vocation is working with companies and their Quality Assessment (QA) efforts. You know, when you call and they say, “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes”? That’s a piece of what our company does.

Many years ago I observed a pattern in many companies with whom I consulted on their QA programs. An exceptional situation will result in a general rule for the population. Often, the rule had more of a detrimental effect than the exceptional situation that started it ever would. Let me give you an example.

Our team’s customer surveys (another piece of what our company does) typically find that customers appreciate a company who knows their name (Remember Cheers? “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”) and offers a personal service experience. Then one day a well-meaning Customer Service Representative (CSR) makes a mistake and addresses the caller by the wrong name or butchers the pronunciation of an unusual sounding name. The customer goes postal on the CSR and calls back to speak with managers and executives up the org chart making a huge deal out of a relatively little thing. Management, not wanting to have that happen again, makes a general rule: CSRs will no longer address customers by name!

The result? One exceptional, cranky customer who made a mountain out of a molehill has resulted in all customers getting a diminished service experience from the company.

Then I began to realize that this isn’t just something that happens in business. It happens all the time in families, churches, communities, and cultures. In fact, it happens in today’s chapter, but I bet you didn’t see it if you read the chapter.

Back in the days of Moses, there were two exceptional enemies of the Hebrews. The Ammonites and Moabites had gone out of their way to curse the Hebrews and attempted to thwart their passing through the land. Because of this, the law of Moses contained an exceptional rule:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.

Deuteronomy 23:3-4 (NIV)

Then, I read again what Nehemiah and the returned exiles did when they read this text:

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.

Nehemiah 13:3 (NIV) [emphasis added]

Do you see what they did there? They took an exceptional situation that applied to two specific people groups (the Moabites and Ammonites) being allowed into the temple, and they expanded into a general rule excluding all people of foreign descent from the entire land.

Here’s the kicker. In doing this, they were breaking another very specific law of God in Leviticus 19:

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.'”

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)

I can see the legal wrangling spinning in the hearts and heads of Nehemiah and his people: “If we exclude all foreigners from the land, then we won’t have any of them residing among us, and that renders the Leviticus rule moot!”

By the way, what Nehemiah and the people are doing in today’s chapter is part of why Jesus came 400 years later to find a culture of separation, animosity, prejudice, and hatred between Jews and Gentiles. If they’d have interpreted Deuteronomy 23:3-4 differently and made Leviticus 19:33-34 their general rule, things may have just have turned out differently.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking of all the ways we still do this today. Parents have one child who rebels and they clamp down their draconian rules on all of their children in the belief that the entire brood is a bunch of little rebels waiting to happen. Two young people at a school dance go too far and the girl ends up pregnant, so the church outlaws dancing in any form as evil. One dumb terrorist thought he could plant a bomb in his shoe (simply resulting in him burning his feet), and now billions of travelers have to have their shoes removed and x-rayed at every airport in the world.

By the way, I think both extremes of the political spectrum do this, as well. Let me give you two easy examples. The right does it with guns: “Because the Constitution made an exception for Colonists to have a musket to defend themselves against enemies and provide food for their tables, there’s no reason why I can’t have an M-16 and a rocket launcher in my home arsenal.” The left does it with abortion: “Because there are tragic situations of rape, incest, and life-threatening situations, we should allow abortion for all women, for any reason, right until the moment of delivery in the ninth month.”

The further I get in my life journey the more I observe that we humans are largely driven by fear, distrust, and emotional over-reactions. I don’t want to live that way. I’d rather have my life, words, and actions driven by faith, hope, and love. And, the latter most of all.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Silly and Sad Places

I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name….”
Nehemiah 13:25a (NIV)

Along my journey I have, on occasion, found myself amidst those who are legalists as in their faith. In my youth there was a time when I embraced a narrow, legalistic view of faith and life. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from the experience.

I spent one semester attending a legalistic Bible college. Everything was controlled and dictated by the administration. There were rules about how to could and couldn’t dress. There were rules about how you could and couldn’t wear your hair. There were rules about what you could and couldn’t and drink. There were rules about words, rules about relationships, rules about beliefs, rules about time, rules and there were rules about rules. Behind all there rules were ominous administrators and faculty members constantly and vigilantly on the lookout for rule breakers who would be swiftly punished and branded. As an off-campus commuting student I was immediately branded as suspect as I spent so much time out of the school’s strict control. I found it a silly and sad place.

Life for a legalist exists inside a black and white world defined by a list of religious “dos” and moral “don’ts.” It’s a maddening existence in which the things which are strictly forbidden become even more tempting. The stakes on controlling behavior continually rise. Eventually the rules become more perverse than the behaviors they’re trying to avoid.

That’s what I observe in today’s chapter. Nehemiah tackled a huge project in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the restoration of the temple. Bricks and mortar are one thing. Now he’s tackling a much messier task of trying to modify and control human behavior. He’s trying to make people tow the line with regard to Judaic religious laws. When you get to the point that you’re cursing people, beating people, pulling out their hair, and forcing them to take oaths then you’ve definitely joined the legalistic elite. Nehemiah even has a perverse sense of earning some kind of spiritual merit badge for being God’s behavior police. Four times he repeats his mantra of “Remember me God.”

This morning I find myself thinking about Paul, who came out of the same legalistic Jewish tradition as Nehemiah. In fact, Paul at one time acted much like Nehemiah. When Paul encountered Jesus he had been on his way to the city of Damascus. It was there he desired to arrest, convict, imprison and (he hoped) sentence to death those rule breaking Jews who were following Jesus. He’d already successfully put one of Jesus’ rule breaking followers to death. Jesus changed all that, and within a few years Paul was leading the charge in embracing non-Jewish Gentiles and directing followers of Jesus away from strict Jewish tradition.

I am so glad that my days of legalism are behind me. I’m thankful that, somewhat like Paul,  my path led away from silly and sad places where legalism reigns and sucks the Life out of you. This morning I’m grateful to have journeyed to a place where freedom and grace give rise to Life-giving good things.