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Indigenous Elites in the Nehemiah Memoir

But setting aside the means through which Nehemiah sought to deal with opposition and to assert himself, the heart of the imperial mission seems to have been the establishment of a birta (citadel) in Jerusalem which is likely to have been a response to problems in the region. These problems concerned the aggrandisement of indigenous elites who seem to have extended their rule beyond what the Persian government permitted.

See Also: Empire, Power and Indigenous Elites (Brill, 2015).

By Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley
Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies
Trinity College Dublin
May 2016

While there is some disagreement over some of the precise verses, the Nehemiah Memoir (NM) is usually identified as Neh 1:1-7:5; 11:1-2; 12:31-43 but some (including the present author) include parts of 12:27-43 and 13:4-31. It appears to be a report written by Nehemiah (or for him) to the Persian government giving an account of his activities in Jerusalem, and in particular, of opposition which he encountered from local, indigenous elites within and beyond Yehud. Behind his activities, he claims, was an imperial order: he had been commissioned to restore the walls of Jerusalem which in his capacity as cup-bearer to the Persian king, he reports had been burnt with fire (Neh 1:1-3). This damage to the walls was probably recent and might even perhaps have resulted from local disputes between indigenous rulers. In any case, it is clear that Nehemiah arrived to a Jerusalem which had no governor (pehah), even though he indicates that the settlement had previously been the residence of Persian appointed governors (Neh 5:15) who might have been removed by powerful local dynasts such as Sanballat of Samaria and his supporters (Fitzpatrick-McKinley 2015).

Nehemiah’s basic mission was to repair the walls and to install troops in a birta (citadel) which he was to establish in Jerusalem. He clearly incorporated some personal concerns which were probably informed by his background as a Judean who was employed in Babylonia by the Persian government. Such concerns included attention to the Jerusalem temple, elimination of Tobiah through the legal measure of a ban on intermarriage which Nehemiah may have believed would render Sanballat’s grandson’s marriage to a daughter of Eliashib null and void, and therefore the oath sworn by the leading men of Jerusalem to Tobiah, Sanballat’s client, also null and void. But setting aside the means through which Nehemiah sought to deal with opposition and to assert himself, the heart of the imperial mission seems to have been the establishment of a birta (citadel) in Jerusalem which is likely to have been a response to problems in the region. These problems concerned the aggrandisement of indigenous elites who seem to have extended their rule beyond what the Persian government permitted.

From the beginning of Nehemiah’s efforts to fulfill his imperial mission, local elites appear on the scene objecting to his activities, and Nehemiah’s night time inspection of the settlement’s walls indicates his awareness that he would encounter opposition (Neh 2:12-16). That he should have proceeded with caution is not surprising, since the local political structures in the region stood to be so severely imbalanced and altered by the change in the function and status of Jerusalem. The first, most persistent, and perhaps most threatening of Nehemiah’s opponents was Tobiah the Ammonite who appears to have been resident in Ammon, which may have been an important district (medinah) in the period engaged in wine production, and perhaps even with its own pehah (Herr 1992: 1663-66; Herr 1995; 121-25). Some have regarded Tobiah as pehah of Ammon (McCown 1957: 63-76), although Nehemiah 2:10 refers to him as “slave,” a designation likely intended to diminish Nehemiah’s most challenging opponent, whatever its possible wider meanings. Whatever his imperial title (and perhaps he did not even have one), Tobiah’s influence clearly extended beyond the region of Ammon. Ties between Jerusalem and Ammon may have arisen as a result of the presence of Yehudim in Ammon which can be traced to the time of the Babylonian attacks on Judah (Jer 40; 1 Macc 5:13).A number of scholars have suggested that the account about Ammon is a projection of later times and belongs to the third century Hellenistic setting when the Jerusalem Oniads and the Tobiads centred in Ammon were in dispute about the high priesthood (Wright 2004: 137) However, Ammon had earlier been involved in Jerusalem affairs as Judeans sought shelter there from neo-Babylonian attacks, and as can be witnessed in the sixth century BCE when the king of Ammon, one named Baalis, likely participated in the conspiracy to murder Gedaliah (Jer 40:14). The NM clearly indicates that Tobiah the Ammonite had a relationship with Eliashib, the high priest in Jerusalem, who seems to have flourished through what can well be described as a client-patron relations. Client-patron relationships require the payment of tribute in the form of produce and services to the patron by the client. In return the client’s local influence is guaranteed by the patron, and he might also be entitled to protection and credit (Westbrook 2005:210-33). Such relationships are often governed by the swearing of an oath (Neh 6:18), and can include marriages between the families of the two parties. This last feature is probably represented by the marriage of Sanballat’s grandson to a daughter of Eliashib, a marriage which links the Jerusalem high priestly family to the ruler of Samaria who guarantees his client Tobiah’s right to exercise his influence through his patronage of the Jerusalem elites (Neh 13:28-29; see also Neh 6:18 which reports that a nobleman, Meshullam ben Berechiah, had married his daughter to a son of Tobiah).

Nehemiah’s mission would be most effective if he could secure the support of the leading men of Jerusalem, (including the high priest Eliashib), as well as leaders the text refers to as ‘leaders of districts’ and ‘half districts’ of Jerusalem (Neh 3:9-19), leaders of ‘districts’, ‘half districts’ outside of Jerusalem (Neh 4:7), and “heads of fathers’ houses” (Neh 7:70), but these Jerusalemite elites are reported to have gone behind Nehemiah’s back, swearing oaths to Tobiah (Neh 6:17-18), and even installing Tobiah in a chamber in the temple when Nehemiah was absent (Neh 13:4-7). Indeed, even the prophets of Jerusalem conspire against him (Neh 10:14). Nehemiah 3:5 reports that the nobles of Tekoa “would not do the work (lower their necks) to serve their rulers.” This likely implies that while Tekoa provided workers, believing perhaps that as an aspect of their duty as Persian subjects they had no choice, the reluctance of the rulers of Tekoa to participate, indicates their dissatisfaction with Nehemiah’s attempts to implement the imperial project. That they dared to refuse participation could be an indicator of their sense of confidence that the Persian authorities were at a sufficient distance for them to resist. They had likely become reliant on the protection of figures such as Tobiah who in turn could depend on his patron Sanballat (Fitzpatrick-McKinley 2015: 167-171).

It is clear that from the point of view of Jerusalem elites, they would be better served by continuing their established client – patron relationship with Tobiah, than they would be by entering into a new one, of quite a different nature perhaps, since it bore the stamp of a renewed assertion of imperial authority, an authority physically present in the reality of Persian troops stationed in a birta in the settlement. While Persian troops were likely already present in Samaria, which was described in contemporary documents as a birta, these troops under the authority of Sanballat had perhaps lost sight of their imperial duties and were networked into the local political systems headed by the indigenous elites of the region. Such circumstances are known to have occurred elsewhere in the Persian empire necessitating the use of spies, “the eyes of the king”, who travelled from settlement to settlement throughout the empire to test the loyalty of local satraps and pehahs.

From the point of view of the Jerusalemite ruling men and the high priest Eliashib, the arrival of Nehemiah and his troops was threatening because it disrupted the economy as manpower and resources were entirely dedicated to the wall project (Neh 5). Perhaps more seriously, it interfered with already existing and profitable patron – client relations. Their local patron Tobiah was also challenged by this imperial reorganisation. He turns to his patron Sanballat of Samaria who likely functioned as a local governor (pehah), although the NM never gives him this title. The narrative seems to imply that Sanballat had lost sight of his duties as pehah and was behaving more like an independent local dynast, while at the same time taking advantage of imperial structures which meant that as pehah he had the authority to assemble troops from Samaria and districts beyond (Neh 4:2-7). It seems likely then that on a day to day basis rulers like Sanballat and Geshem operated as kings or chiefs, but reported to the Persians as pehahs, and this is known to have occurred elsewhere in the Persian empire (Fitzpatrick-McKinley 2015). Since the reorganisation of Samaria under the neo-Assyrians, the settlement had expanded and thrived without any noticeable or radical decline following the Babylonian conquests and the transition to Persian rule. In Nehemiah 4:7, Nehemiah reports the assembly of troops by Sanballat and his clients, Tobiah, the Arabs and the Ashdodites. The presence of Ashdodites may have resulted from fear among leaders there that regions assigned to Ashdod by the neo-Babylonians which had formerly been part of Judean territory might now be reassigned to Jerusalem. While the tone of the discourse – a tone set of course by Nehemiah or his scribe – leads the reader to think in terms of an anti-Jerusalem conspiracy of these groups led by Sanballat, but prompted by the complaints of his client Tobiah, it is evident that the real concern of these local, indigenous elites was the change in the balance of power which would no doubt accompany the establishment of the new birta in Jerusalem. Samaria’s influence up until this point must have extended to Jerusalem, an influence probably exercised through Sanballat’s client Tobiah, an influence which the Persians authorities now sought to curb.

Present also in the assembly of those concerned about the walling of Jerusalem is Geshem the Arab (Neh 6:1, 6). It is difficult to guess at his interests here, although Arabs had been moved into Samaria by the Assyrians (according to both biblical and Assyrian sources), and some have suggested that Arab groups moved into Judah following the destruction of Jerusalem and of forts designed for defence against Arabs on Judah’s southern frontiers. Arab peoples sent tribute to the Persians and otherwise served the Persians in perhaps an indirect way, by controlling local groups of Bedouin and through facilitating Persian exploitation of their long established knowledge of the spice trade. Geshem and his family appear to have controlled a number of Arab tribes, and in this sense he could be called a “superchief” (that is if Geshem is to be identified with the Geshem of the inscriptions, see Cross 1986:387-94). Nehemiah 6:2 reports Geshem’s and Sanballat’s sending of messages to Nehemiah, an indication perhaps of the close allegiance of Geshem to Sanballat, but likely with Geshem as subservient to Sanballat in what could be described as a patron – client relationship. Perhaps Geshem’s involvement is to be explained by the fact that he was a loyal client of Sanballat. He rallied around him in the face of Nehemiah’s challenge because this was required by the patron – client relationship. Or perhaps he is present because Nehemiah’s restructuring of Jerusalem and its environs under imperial orders stood to effect the balance of power between indigenous elites more generally in the region. Geshem was attempting to protect his own interests. Nehemiah’s ruling on sabbath trade (Neh 13:15-21 which I consider to be part of the NM) might have directly effected Geshem’s activities in the region, activities which were watched over by Sanballat, and perhaps also more locally by Tobiah to whom the ruling men of Jerusalem and Eliashib the high priest had sworn an oath of loyalty (Neh 6:17-18). It is speculative, but nonethless worth pointing out, that with the permission of Sanballat, Geshem may have been operating a spice trade in the region which served the needs of the Jerusalem temple (as well as other local markets) and Nehemiah’s new regulations on trade in Jerusalem would effect this adversely (Neh 13:4).

Thus, we find a number of indigenous elites in the background of the NM, and these figures appear to have established a network which was headed by Sanballat from the birta of Samaria. Nehemiah’s arrival created a great disturbance in the region, even causing Sanballat to assemble his clients and troops. If the region was well organised, and if indeed Sanballat the Persian appointed pehah of Samaria was leading a co-operative network of local rulers, why would the Persians have risked upsetting the status quo by establishing a new birta in Jerusalem which would house newly arrived troops from the imperial centre? Moreover, why send an “outsider” such as Nehemiah, an imperial appointee from outside the region to carry out this task? Would not the Jerusalemite elites, such as Eliashib and those identified as “the leading men” of Jerusalem, have responded better to the imperial commission to establish a birta if Tobiah had been appointed? He was afterall well networked into the system of local elites and more likely to collaborate with Sanballat, while the text of the NM makes no effort to conceal Nehemiah’s unpopularity with both the Jerusalem elites and those in the surrounding regions.

It has been suggested that Jerusalem was to be a birta as an imperial response to revolt in various parts of the Mediterranean in the mid fifth century BCE (Hoglund 1991:65-66; 200-21) and also that the Persians wanted to establish a citadel en route to Egypt, since they were increasingly concerned about revolt there (Edelman 2005:75, 333). In my view, however, while not dismissing these explanations , the explanation might be sought in more local issues. The very fact that Sanballat challenged the imperial appointee Nehemiah in his attempts to carry out an imperial order, combined with the fact that even a fairly insipid character like Eliashib turned to Tobiah for assistance against Nehemiah who caused a great deal of political, social and economic disruption, indicates that in the mid fifth century BCE, the Persian government regarded the region of Yehud and its environs as unstable. The new birta was intended to challenge, and also to severely limit the powers of the pehah Sanballat and of his clients, individuals such as Tobiah who in turn was patron to Eliashib and the ruling men of Jerusalem, and Geshem the Arab. The imperial presence would reduce the areas of Sanballat’s influence in a deliberate attempt by the Persian government to control the local indigenous elites who were at risk of operating with far too much independence. Even though the NM emphasises the religious zeal and piety of Nehemiah in relation to the temple and the purity of the Yehudim, from an imperial perspective, this part of Nehemiah’s activities was relatively unimportant. It could be described as part of an ethnic colouring which Nehemiah brought to his imperial mission. Effectively the area in and around Jerusalem, which up until the time of Nehemiah had been administered by Sanballat –probably through his client, Tobiah – was being reassigned. That the splitting up of districts between various indigenous elites was used to limit the power of indigenous elites who were perceived as a threat, can be witnessed in Persian policies in Lycia where Xanthus, once the stronghold of the most powerful Lycian dynast who dominated other Lycian dynasts, was eventually reassigned to the governor of Caria to be incorporated into that district (Bryce 1983: 31-42; Fried 2004; Fitzpatrick-McKinley 2015). In Persian ruled Phoenicia similar reassignment of settlements and districts to more trustworthy local, indigenous elites can also be witnessed (Grainger 1991:111-12; Sekunda 1991: 89-91). It has even been suggested that the Persians encouraged competition between local elites as a way of ensuring that there would never be sufficient unity for revolt.

While the influence of various local elites would be reduced, it was certainly not the intention of the Persian government to eliminate these elites, for that might have interfered too directly with local economies. It is likely that the presence of troops in the birta in Jerusalem would be sufficient to curb the activities of Tobiah whom the Persians wished to restrict to his own traditional territory. At Sardis a birta was established at a short distance outside of the settlement. It was manned by troops of non-local origin, but while its presence must have been acutely felt, life in Sardis continued as normal with the local indigenous elites continuing to operate the economy and to thrive (Dusinberre 2003).

Did Nehemiah’s mission to curb the power of local indigenous elites succeed? This is of course more or less impossible to answer because of a lack of sources, but we should note that in the centuries following Persian rule when Palestine fell first into Ptolemaic and then into Seleucid hands, Arab rulers still operated in the region, Samaria was still a vital administrative centre (as evidenced by the Wadi Daliyeh Papyri, the Elephantine Papyri and Josephus’ Ants. 11), and Ammon continued to play a role for two hundred years to come. For the Ptolemaic period, we have little or no sources for Jerusalem and little evidence that the settlment was of much significance, while by contrast the descendants of Tobiah (Mazar 1957:137-45) operated a fort at Iraq el’ Amir on behalf of the Ptolemaic king. Jerusalem was restored of course, but not until the Seleucid period when eventually it would regain its independence under the Hasmonean kings. Nehemiah’s imperial mission to severely limit the power of local elites, and in particular that of elites ruling from Ammon, then was not perhaps as successful as his memoir would suggest.


Bryce, T. R.
1983 “Political unity in Lycia during the “Dynastic” Period,” JNES 42:31-42.

Cross, F.M.
1986 “A New Aramaic Stele from Tayma,” CBQ 48 no. 3:387-94.

Dusinberre, E. R. M.
2003 Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Edelman, D.
2005 The Origins of the ‘Second’ Temple: Persian Imperial Policy and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem. Bible World. London: Equinox.

2015 Empire, Power and Indigenous Elites: A Case Study of the Nehemiah Memoir. Supp JSJ Leiden: Brill.

Fried, L.
2004 The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Period. Biblical and Judaic Studies 10. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Hoglund, K.
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Grainger, J. D.
1991 Hellenistic Phoenicia. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Herr, L. G.
1992 “Two Stamped Jar Impressions of the Persian Province of Ammon from Tell el-‘Umeiri,” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 36:163-66.

1995 “Wine Production in the Hills of Southern Ammon and the Founding of Tell el-‘Umayri in the Sixth Century BC,” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 39:121-25.

Mazar, B.
1957 “The Tobiads,” IEJ 7:137-145;229-238.

McCown C. C.
1957 “The Araq el Emir and the Tobiads,” BA 26: 63-76.

Sekunda, N.
1991 “Achaemenid Settlement In Caria, Lycia and Greater Phrygia,” 83-143 in Achaemenid History VI: Asia Minor and Egypt. Ed. H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, A. Kührt. Leiden: Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.

Wright, J. L.
2004 Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 348. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter.

Comments (1)

If I understand, the expected and implied result of Nehemiah's mission, which is presented as the creation of a fortress which is both strongly Jewish and strongly representative of Persian imperial power, would have been a reduction in the power and status of other regional forces. You say that there is little sign of this reduction, so that N's mission was not all that successful. Perhaps this interesting point should be set beside the claim, which I think some make, that there is no real trace of Nehemiah's wall. Surely we must face at least the possibility, not that welcome my faithful Christian self, that the Nehemiah Memoir is really the Nehemiah Novel, retrojecting on to the Persian past the status of Jerusalem in Ptolemaic times.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 06/02/2016 - 13:42

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