Conjunction Junction What's Your Function? Nehemiah 7:4-7:5

Bridleway and white trail junction in Larkey Valley Wood - geograph.org.uk - 1805869
What is up with the translation of Nehemiah 7:5 and its relation to the previous passage in Nehemiah and particularly Nehemiah 7:4? Many of the major translations (NASB, ESV, NKJV, HSCB, NRSV) render Nehemiah 7:5 as the next clause in a temporal sequence. Showing that this new thought follows in time after the previous events described. Translations do this by rendering the Hebrew conjunction waw as ‘then.’ A couple translations render the waw as ‘and’ (ASV, KJV) which still shows the temporal connectivity between Nehemiah 7:4 and 7:5, but to a lesser degree. It leaves the reader thinking this new thought in 7:5 is more in line with the previous thoughts than might be the case. Several translations leave any sort of conjunction out of their translation making the connection between these verses more ambiguous (NET, JPS), but maybe insinuating a direct connection between Nehemiah 7:4 and 7:5. Most interesting of all are the couple of translations that render the waw as ‘so’ (NLT, NIV). When rendered this way, Nehemiah’s actions in Nehemiah 7:5 are seen to be in reaction to Nehemiah 7:4. So what is the relationship between these verses?

It is probably good here to introduce some of the inner workings of Hebrew narrative. The way Hebrew narrative works is usually through the stringing together of phrases and sections with the waw conjunction. Think of the waw as generally being equivalent to the English word and. Hebrew usually tells a story in a sequential way as we would expect, or at least in the sequence in which the author wants you to hear the story. And it is the repetitive waw’s that hold it all together. What complicates the matter is that there is usually two levels of discussion (or more) going on in Hebrew narrative. There is the mainline discussion, and then more secondary discussions, both being held together and moved along by the waw conjunction. What the interpreter has to decide is how each waw clause is related to the mainline discussion or if it is a continuation of a secondary discussion. Waw is a diverse conjunction and can include all of the nuances mentioned as is evidenced by the variances in the major translations above.  The next step is to analyze the discussion in Nehemiah and see how these verses might be related.

In Nehemiah 7:1 we have a major advance in the story line as Nehemiah introduces this new section with a specific formula: the waw conjunction, coupled with the Hebrew verb to be, followed by a temporal conjunction. The opening of Nehemiah 7:1 is usually translated as ‘And it was when’ or ‘Now it was when.’ These introductory formulas serve to introduce a new scene in Nehemiah’s report. This same phrase is used in the transitions in Nehemiah 6:1 and 4:1. The mainline of the discussion in Nehemiah is transitioning from taking about opposition to the construction of the wall in the first six chapters to a discussion of the reconstitution of the people physically and spiritual as God’s people in Jerusalem. Nehemiah 7:1-4 then becomes the introduction to the events through which Nehemiah will reorganize the city and the people in the rest of the book. In fact Nehemiah 7:1-4 is loaded with waw conjunctions advancing Nehemiah discussion of the appointment of certain men over Jerusalem, but the discussion in these verses is secondary to the mainline of the story. In Nehemiah 7:5 the waw conjunction serves in a resumptive capacity. It is picking up the mainline of the story that Nehemiah introduced in Nehemiah 7:1 which he was sidetracked from for a few verses on details Nehemiah felt important. The first step in Nehemiah’s reorganization of the people comes in Nehemiah 7:5. The waw phrase here is subordinate to the phrase in Nehemiah 7:1, but introduces a new thought; Nehemiah’s first step in organizing the people. The first step was placed in his heart by God and it was to see who had returned from the exile and who could serve in what capacity by enrolling the people by genealogy. In fact this is what Nehemiah records in the rest of chapter 7 (which parallels Ezra 2) is the genealogy of the people that have returned from the exile. Chapters 8-13 will work out Nehemiah’s reorganization and reforms. It seems then that the majority of the Bible translations that select ‘then’ over ‘and,’ ‘[nothing],’ or ‘so,’ best capture the resumptive nature of this waw conjunction.

At the end of the day any of the translations of the waw conjunction in Nehemiah 7:5 seen in the major translations would work. They all show a temporal progression in the narrative following the introduction in Nehemiah 7:1-4. The emphasis seems to be on the temporal progression of the story and not so much on the explanatory nature of the phrase in Nehemiah 7:5 to be explaining God’s reaction to a desolate city. But these things are intertwined. Nehemiah is to reorganize the city and God puts the idea of a genealogical record in his heart so that he can properly organize the city with true Israelites that are qualified for the various positions within in the people of God.

What can we take away from the transition between Nehemiah 7:4 and Nehemiah 7:5? Nehemiah is a man of God that moves as God moves him. After the wall was complete God then led Nehemiah to better understand who was available to reconstitute God’s people in God’s city. We should seek to hear from God on our every move in life. Secondly, there are people who are a part of God’s people and those that are not a part of God’s people. Within the people of God there are people who are particularly qualified to do certain jobs. Everyone who has become a part of the people through confessing Jesus as Lord has a particular role to play. It is our job as believers to be willing to engage with the rest of God’s people in his kingdom as God has gifted and motivated us. Furthermore, the shepherds of God’s people should diligently seek to understand the giftings of their flock and help each and every person find a place of service in the kingdom of God. Now that God has placed you in his kingdom, what is the next step for you?




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