The book of Ezra-Nehemiah, like the opening of Matthew's Gospel, confronts us with genealogies. These lists do not make for easy or interesting reading in church, nor is it immediately obvious what message we are to get out of such lists.
Part of the solution is to realise that the book is misnamed (the Bible writer is not responsible for the name). The title "Ezra-Nehemiah" subverts the teaching of the book, for the book itself focuses on the part played by the people rather than leaders. Unfortunately, the common title suggests that the book is all about the role played by Ezra and then Nehemiah in the story told. A careful reading shows that the truth is the exact opposite. The book promotes the centrality of the community as a whole, one indication being its many lists of names, for example the list of returnees in Ezra 2 (repeated almost exactly in Nehemiah 7) and the list of wall-builders in Nehemiah 3.
The usual title directs undue attention to the figure of Ezra, but he is not introduced to the reader until Ezra 7. There are several chapters in which Nehemiah hardly features (e.g. Nehemiah 8-9). The main character of the book is the people, and the book ends with the failure of the people to reform themselves (Neh. 13:4-31). The achievements narrated in the book are those of the people themselves (a rebuilt temple and restored city walls) and final failure is attributed to them as well (their unwillingness to separate from things foreign). Such a view of the book is in no way intended as a slight upon the sterling efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah, but the book foregrounds the role of the people of God as a whole in the triumphs and failures described.
Recent uses of Ezra-Nehemiah in teaching and preaching show a tendency to elevate the theme of leadership, especially in interpreting and applying the Nehemiah part of the book. Nehemiah is seen as the leader par excellence and his part in events is viewed as essential and strategic (Nehemiah 1-6), but he is not nearly so prominent when the narrator continues the story in Nehemiah 8-12. The roster of wall-builders in Nehemiah 3 is not attributed to Nehemiah's organisational skill, despite what is commonly asserted. Any approach to the book that sidelines the many lists of people is not likely to properly represent the book's interests or lessons for today.
The exegetical tradition of turning Nehemiah into the model leader is understandable enough, for Christian leaders are looking for guidance and inspiration for their sometimes daunting task. Such expositions usually simply ignore Ezra 2 or Nehemiah 7, and by doing so we suspect that this selective reading of the biblical text is at variance with the presentation of the book.
The cost to the church of perpetuating this tradition unchanged is that it will fail to find in Ezra-Nehemiah a much needed resource for challenging and empowering the common people of the church. The ordinary believer is not to sit back and watch those who are leaders in churches do all the work. More positively, Ezra-Nehemiah gives permission for the people of God as a whole to arise and redouble their efforts in the service of Christ. Renewal in church life requires more than just the efforts of a few exemplary leaders.
It would be a mistake to view the book as promoting the idea that right leadership is the key to the renewal of the life of God's people. The task of building the house of God is delegated by Cyrus to God's people rather than to any one Israelite leader (Ezra 1:3: "Whoever is among you of all his people"). The people who avail themselves of this permission are from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi (1:5). No one leader is allowed to take centre-stage in the narrative, and so the people are led by 12 leaders (the 11 listed in Ezra 2:2 and Shesh-bazzar [1:11]).
The long list of those who go up in the first great caravan (Ezra 2) shows that the book is about what was done and achieved by the thousands to returned to Jerusalem to build the house of God. The rebuilding of the temple is presented as an act of the whole people (3:13), so that it is certainly not to be called Zerubbabel's temple'.
Following an 18-year delay, the work on the house of God restarts through the prophets of God (5:1-2), and the pairing of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, like the earlier pairing of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, fits the presentation that does not allow any leader to be given too much prominence and celebrates the contribution of ordinary people.
Ezra's importance lies in his self-effacing style of relating to others, for this accords with the presentation of the book that brings the role of the whole people of God to the foreground. Ezra makes no use of the enormous powers placed at his disposal by the decree of Artaxerxes (7:11-26). Instead of wielding direct political power, Ezra chooses to teach (note the didactic tone of his prayer in 9:6-15). He lets others take the initiative and make decisions, so that officials approach him (not vice versa) with the report about mixed marriages (9:1-2). Others suggest a remedy to the forbidden marriages (10:2-4).
Ezra then disappears from view until summoned again by the popular assembly in Nehemiah 8, who tell him to bring the book of the law of Moses (8:1). The style of leadership modelled by Ezra (and obviously approved by the narrator) is that of being the servant of the community, responding to community initiatives and requests.
In contrast to Ezra who waits to be asked, Nehemiah is proactive and self-assertive, and his mission to Jerusalem is an agenda drawn up by himself (Neh 1:2-3). He does not consult others before surveying the work that he thinks needs doing (2:12-16) and he imposes his plan on those who will have to do the work (2:17-18). Nehemiah takes an adversarial approach, such that he is nearly always in conflict with others (e.g. Sanballat, Tobiah).
When the narrator takes up the story in Nehemiah 8, Nehemiah is mentioned as present at the popular assembly (8:9) but only as one of several leaders who urge the people to rejoice rather than weep. Though he is the first to sign the community pledge (10:1), a privilege accorded to him as governor, there is not a hint that he was responsible for framing its content. Though Nehemiah fears that his desperate efforts may end in failure (13:30-31), the larger narrative would attribute neither failure or success to him, for it is not his efforts that are the key factor. The failure is that of the community that did not carry through its pledge (Nehemiah 10).
All in all, the book teaches that some styles of leadership are more appropriate than others, however, the decisive factor is not the qualities or actions of individual leaders but the willingness of the believing community to reform itself in accordance with the law of God. It is the many in the pew, not just the one in the pulpit, who need to rise the challenge of serving God. Such an understanding will transform our church life.