Oh dear Lord! There it is again: the meme spreading the false equivalence of the Old Testament’s Nehemiah, rebuilder of Jerusalem, to Donald J. Trump, accidental president of the United States. As if it hasn’t been enough to hear far too many evangelicals compare Trump to King David and even Cyrus the Great (yes, I have seen it), now we must add Nehemiah?
Who was Nehemiah?
The meme says that Nehemiah was not a priest; however, some rabbinic literature does identify him as a kohen (priest), and as a member of King Artaxerxes’ court, kinda sounds like he could pass for a politician. But anyway …
He was King Artaxerxes’ cup bearer. (Or a eunuch. Depending on the translation. But let’s stick with cup bearer.) He was a trusted officer in the Medo-Persian court who served drinks at the king’s table and kept possession of the king’s cup to ensure that no one poisoned it. (In some courts, the cup bearer might even be asked to take the first sip of the king’s drink just for added insurance.) This wasn’t a lowly position, by the way. Nehemiah was not a “gofer” or a coffee boy; in fact, he would have been in the king’s presence most of the time and considered a valuable advisor and officer of the court.
When was Nehemiah?
The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jews beginning in 597 BC. Later, Cyrus the Great of Persia, a more reasonable conqueror, defeated the Babylonians and allowed those Jews who wanted to, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. He even helped foot the bill.
Five kings later, Nehemiah served King Artaxerxes in the 5th Century BC. For context, the 5th Century was:
- Fifty years of Persian wars
- It was also a time called the Greek classical period, which was a dominate cultural influence, mostly through art, literature, and philosophy
- It was the time when Socrates walked and talked (As an aside, since 1989, I can never see the name “Socrates” without hearing Bill and Ted.)
- The time of great playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes
- The time of the Greek physician Hippocrates, after whom we have named the Hippocratic oath
- In the East, it was a time of Gautama Buddha and Buddhism; and the rise of Jainism
- The Hindu text Bhagavad Gita was written
Where was Nehemiah?
Modern day Iran, thousands of miles from Jerusalem.
What did Nehemiah do?
Jerusalem’s wall was in bad shape after the Babylonian conquest and Jewish exile. A remnant of Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, but the city lay in such ruin and disrepair that it caused them shame. To make matters worse, they hadn’t had a prophet since Malachi, either. (Prophets were important to them as they were the teachers, the oracles, the voice of God, the mediators between Yahweh and his people.) It was a pretty sad time for a people whose God blessed them above all other nations. So they appealed to Nehemiah.
You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace. (Nehemiah 2:17)
Notice that not only were they vulnerable to attack, they were embarrassed to be seen as God’s people living in such deterioration, as though God had abandoned them. The importance of rebuilding Jerusalem and its wall was as much symbolic as strategic.
Nehemiah asked for permission to lead a group to rebuild Jerusalem, and in 445 BC, King Artaxerexes granted Nehemiah’s request. He appointed him governor of Judah and sent workers and the military with him to rebuild Jerusalem. Not only would this make Jerusalem safer, it would send a message to the other nations that God was indeed still with them.
When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. (Nehemiah 6:16)
Notice some key differences between the meme and reality: Nehemiah was not a builder; the existing wall was rebuilt/repaired; it was not a new wall, not something that did not exist before Nehemiah. In fact, city walls had been a thing for thousands of years. Also, Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of both the city and its wall – Jerusalem was/is a city, not a country.
Interesting, too, is that the Nehemiah/Trump comparison doesn’t mention that Nehemiah: (1) may actually have been a eunuch (the Biblical word for transgender?); (2) canceled the debts of all Jews; (3) and enforced the Mosaic Law, (4) including demanding divorces of Jewish men from their non-Jewish wives.
The text in the above meme is not in the Bible, though it certainly might look as if it were, right? It’s a pretty clever con, too, because it draws parallels between Nehemiah and Trump that simply do not exist. Not in the Bible. Not in history.
Where these words do exist is in evangelical Robert Jeffress’ sermon on Inauguration Day 2017, in front of the man who made “Build that wall!” the rallying cry of his presidential campaign: Donald J. Trump.
And the man God chose was neither a politician nor a priest. Instead, God chose a builder whose name was Nehemiah. And the first step of rebuilding the nation was the building of a great wall. God instructed Nehemiah to build a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack. [Read the full text of Jeffress’ sermon here.]
Notice that the meme does not attribute the Jeffress quote to Jeffress. That’s because it is meant to appear as though it were Biblical text.
There is plenty to say about Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s “spiritual advisors,” but not here. Here, we are only going to contemplate what happens when the Bible is misused to make a political point and when memes intentionally mislead readers, causing them to believe that it’s quoting scripture.
There’s no such thing as a harmless Bible meme-lie
- It shuts down any opposing argument. It seems Biblical! How can I be against Trump’s wall?
- It creates unnecessary conflict between people of faith who have not (or will not) read the book of Nehemiah to find out the truth.
- It encourages reliance on religious leaders for political opinions.
- Proof texting is a gross abuse of scriptures and is especially grievous when you add lies to the text to get a bigger bang for your buck. From Jeffress’ version of Nehemiah: “mainstream media,” “economic recession,” “terrorist attacks.”
- It’s offensive to Christians who actually read and/or study the Bible.
- It arms non-believers and critics by proving their case against Christianity. Anyone can Google. If they check out Nehemiah they will discover that this meme is a lie, therefore, to them, it’s further proof that Christians are crazy. End of story.
- It promotes confirmation bias and groupthink.
- It’s downright manipulative propaganda. Shame shame shame.
- It’s insulting. To Jesus. Period. After all, Jesus had very strong words against corrupting scripture in the name of power.
- It makes for an extremely lazy and weak Christianity. Yes. Intellectually and spiritually lazy. And weak.
Regardless of our religious (or non-religious) affiliation, we all need to be careful about sharing online propaganda. It’s so easy to share a meme because we like what it says -truth or not. But Christians should never, ever, ever pass on lies about scripture, about God, about Jesus. There is no good reason for it, no justification at all, but somehow, to me, it seems particularly abhorrent to do so in furtherance of one’s politics.
What do you think?