The Bible is clear that Ezra was reading the Law (Nehemiah 8:3) and the Levites helped the people understand it (Nehemiah 8:7). And I learn that the first "they" in Nehemiah 8:8 refers to the Levites that read the Law. Does the first "they" in this verse also refer to Ezra, or is it's focus on what the Levites were doing? If it also refers to Ezra, then the second "they" in Nehemiah 8:8 that refer to the activity of the Levites (compare Nehemiah 8:7) can also refer to Ezra. Concluding that Ezra, like the Levites, didn't only read the Law, but also helped the people to understand it.

It seems to me that "they" in both instances in Nehemiah 8:8 refers to only the Levites. If so, then Ezra only read the Law (Nehemiah 8:3). The Levites, on the other hand, read the Law and helped the people understand it. So Ezra read the Law in Hebrew (and I assume also helped the people understand it) to those who could understand the language (Nehemiah 8:3), but the Levites were responsible to read in Hebrew the Law (as a side note, how did they do this? Did they take turns passing the Book of the Law? Did they read aloud again after Ezra read? Or did they read aloud the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew?) to then translate it into Aramaic, interpret it, and make it intelligible for the people who cannot understand Hebrew to understand?

I hope I made myself understandable and I am not sure if there are too many questions for one post. My main question is, Who are "they" in Nehemiah 8:8? The rest comes from trying to understand Nehemiah 8:8 in its context. Any help Hebrew grammar can provide will be very helpful. Please feel free to make corrections to this post, if needed, for the sake of clarification.

  • Ezra was a priest (Neh 8:2, 9) and a descendant of Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5), thus Ezra was also a Levite. Your question kind of makes it seem like you don't think Ezra was a Levite. Is that what you are really asking, if Ezra was a Levite?
    – user6503
    Oct 11, 2016 at 19:55
  • Sorry for the misunderstanding, Brian. I believe what the Bible says and its implications, that includes Ezra being a Levite. I was just only making the distinction of Ezra and the Levites like Nehemiah 8:7 makes the distinction (where the Levites were named). Perhaps another way I can ask the same question, does Nehemiah 8:8 continue with this distinction, where "they" (both times) refer specifically to those Levites named in the previous verse?
    – E. Cardona
    Oct 11, 2016 at 20:22

2 Answers 2


The style of Nehemiah 8:8 follows the common parallel format in which there are two (and sometimes more) clauses that have synonymous semantic content. The two clauses are:

ויקראו בספר בתורת האלהים מפרש ושום שכל


ויבינו במקרא

Both clauses start with a verb form that is third person plural and hence translated as, "And they read" and "and they explained". In the parallel style format, the "they"s in both clauses refer to the same group of people.

The question of to which group of people the "they"s of Nehemiah 8:8 refer is more complex. Nehemiah 8:2-4 presents a version of the reading of the law, and Nehemiah 8:5-8 appears to present a different version or perhaps a record of a different event. Note that there is a different list of assistants in each version.

So it looks like the "they"s in Nehemiah 8:8 refer only to the people mentioned in Nehemiah 8:7. This list refers both to a set of people by name, most of whom are also listed in Nehemiah 10:10 as Levite leaders, and to the Levites in general, but not to Ezra himself.

Note that Nehemiah 8:1 and 8:4-5 refer to Ezra as "Ezra the scribe" and that Nehemiah 8:2 refers to Ezra and "Ezra the priest". Neither refer to Ezra as a Levite. Although priests are also Levites, it appears that Nehemiah 8:1-8 uses these titles to refer to the distinct religious roles of priests and Levites. In this sense, Ezra is a priest, not a Levite.

So the "they"s of Nehemiah 8:8 probably refer to the list in Nehemiah 8:7 which does not include Ezra himself. That is, in this version of the events, Ezra is presented as a master of ceremonies but has delegated the task of reading the Hebrew text as well as the task of explaining the text.

The inclusion of two or more versions of an event, usually contradictory, is a hallmark accretive texts and anthologies of traditions, and is common in the Hebrew Bible. The early Jewish sages weren't bothered by this. All of the contradicting versions were considered equally sacred. In this particular case, it appears that there are two traditions that were redacted together. There might have been an accompanying oral tradition that we have lost that provided the explanation. My speculation is that the first version refers to a specific, one-time event that was similar to the covenant renewal ceremonies mentioned in the pre-exilic books, and the second version refers to the institution of an ongoing practice.

Regarding the method of teaching, it might be useful to consider the some of the older Jewish teaching traditions from the time before the advent of the printing press that are still alive today, namely the Yemenite Jewish traditions. In these traditions, the teacher (the "Mori") reads a Hebrew verse out loud slowly and the congregation repeats the verse in unison, word for word. Then the Mori reads the Aramaic translation and proceeds to the next verse. The rate is about 40 verses per hour.

  • You say: "My speculation is that the first version refers to a specific, one-time event that was similar to the covenant renewal ceremonies mentioned in the pre-exilic books, and the second version refers to the institution of an ongoing practice." This is an excellent observation. Too much is made of differences in events which can easily be explained by seeing them as two distinct events with common elements. Oct 14, 2016 at 19:27

I don't think this passage is being as precise as you are.

Earlier in the chapter, there are several Levites named, including Ezra. This group of Levites read the Law to the people, and explained it. Was Ezra simply reading the Law, or was he one of the ones engaged in the explaining? The passage does not specifically tell us.

There's a lot of stuff in the Bible that isn't precisely spelled out because that level of precision is not necessary. Even in this very chapter, Ezra is referred to as Ezra the scribe (v. 1), and as Ezra the priest (v. 2)--the passage does not specify that these are actually the same people, but that's OK: it can be picked up in context.

Now, we can extrapolate based on knowledge of how modern Judaism handles teaching the Law. You have a main Teacher, several students, and the congregation. The main teacher reads the Law, and if the congregation has questions, they ask at the appropriate time. Simpler questions are handled by the students--this is part of their learning process, a "train the trainers" approach, if you will. More difficult questions are handled by the Teacher, as is any correction that may be needed if one of the students gives an incorrect answer.

That may not be how it was handled by Ezra that day, as Judaism has changed since the destruction of the Second Temple. But it is a reasonable extrapolation, so long as we realize that it does involve some guesswork on our part.

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