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Artaxerxes or Sanballat?

Reforming Society | Rebecca Walker | 10 September 2010
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Rebuilding the Walls…

The book of Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Persia had invaded Babylon, and some Jewish exiles had been allowed to return to Jerusalem. Zerubbabel and Ezra had been commissioned to rebuild the temple but the houses, the walls and gates of the city were still in a state of ruin. The lack of city walls left the city defenseless against enemy attacks. In contrast to the ruined Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s story starts in the city of Susa. Under the Achaemenid Persian dynasty Susa flourished as one of the three royal cities [1]. It was a city from where the Kings of Persia ruled over the vast Persian Empire.

The book of Nehemiah tells the story of how Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem, despite the opposition of Sanballat the Horonite and others, who were set to lose out if the position of the Jews was restored. In the book there is an interesting contrast between the actions of King Artaxerxes who supported Nehemiah, gave him resources to start the rebuilding and gave him a royal guard for his trip back to Jerusalem; and those of Sanballat and his friends who continually attempted to thwart the rebuilding.

This is the same tension that Aboriginal Australia finds itself in now. Some non-Indigenous people would like to hold onto the advantages of being an inheritor of colonialism like Sanballat. Yet some non-Indigenous people are willing to get behind the rebuilding of Indigenous culture and society like King Artaxerxes. Like Jerusalem after the Babylonian invasion, Aboriginal culture has been largely decimated; and like Jerusalem, God has a plan to prosper and restore Aboriginal culture and society. Like Jerusalem, many workers are spread across the different segments of wall to do the reconstruction. Like Jerusalem, there are those who would prefer the rebuilding never takes place…

Australia’s Colonial Experience

As recently as the 1930s 84% of the earth was under European colonial rule [2]. European colonisation pillaged wealth from the colonies and “violently reshaped physical territories, social terrains, knowledge systems and human identities” [2]. As decolonisation processes took place in the second half of the twentieth century white settlers in Australia, “began to duplicate the imperialism and colonialism of their former colonial masters” [3]. That is to say, while Australia may not consider itself to be a colony of England anymore, the actions of non-Indigenous Australians can still be interpreted through a colonial frame. There are many vestiges of colonialism that lurk beneath the surface of Australian political discourse.

The British colonisers used a process of dehumanisation to legitimise the settlement of Australia. The argument went that “superior races” had the right, in fact the responsibility to settle the lands of the “uncivilised”. Darwinian theories of evolution were used to provide a scientific basis for the subjugation of “lesser races”, as they were clearly “less evolved” than the enlightened Europeans [4]. H. K. Rusden wrote in the Melbourne Review of 1876: “The survival of the fittest means that might—widely used—is right. And thus we invoke and remorselessly fulfil the inexorable law of natural selection when exterminating the inferior Australian” [5]. (Today the Aboriginal deaths continue, but the deaths are in police custody or because of third world living conditions).

Where the settlement of Australia was different from other colonial projects was that in other countries there was at least some acknowledgement of that the indigenous people were the original owners of the land. However, in Australia the legal fiction of terra nullius was used to justify the settlement [5]. In a perversion of the biblical text, Locke interpreted God’s command to ‘subdue the earth’ to mean that ownership of land happened when there was some kind of agrarian input. So because Aboriginal people did not farm, it was a “small extrapolation from this kind of argument to the notion of terra nullius, which could claim that no one actually possessed land until agrarian labour was added to the earth” [5].

Although terra nullius was overturned in the Mabo decision, the way that land rights are managed still privileges the claim of the crown over the claims of the Aboriginal people. The system that stole the land in the first place, is now the system that gets to decide whether Aboriginal people have any enduring claim to the land. The underlying issue of the usurpation of Aboriginal sovereignty has not been rectified. We continue to live in a country where one group of people asserts sovereignty over another; where the invader culture is deemed to be the “Australian” culture and Aboriginal culture a minority one that must join with “mainstream” culture.

However, God does not share this view. The bible consistently paints God as being on the side of the oppressed and marginalised. In 1838 the Baptist minister John Saunders wrote: “Let the Hawkesbury and Emu Plains tell their history, let Bathurst give her account, and the Hunter render her tale, not to mention the South… The spot of blood is upon us, the blood of the poor and defenceless, the blood of the men we wronged before we slew, and too, too often, a hundred times too often, innocent blood… We have, therefore, reason to dread the approach of the Lord when he cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: ‘For the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain’” [5]. These words are as true today as in 1838.

Let’s Get Behind the Rebuilding

God is angered by the treatment of Australia’s first peoples, and is at work to bring about healing and restoration. The church in Australia stands at a crossroads. As a result of the Surrender conference in March, a letter was written by Aboriginal elders and those gathered, to ask the Australian church to stand with their Indigenous brothers and sisters. From Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17:20-23), we know that God wants the church to be completely united. Jesus prayed that we would be one, as He and the Father are one. God is calling us to stand in unity with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters and fight for justice. The question is will we heed that call?

If Australia is going to move past its colonial history, and the first peoples are to be restored to their rightful place, then we need a new understanding of our history. We need to see it for what it was—an imperialist endeavour, for the benefit of the colonisers at the expense of Australia’s first peoples. We need to admit that Australia continues the injustices of its colonial history, exemplified in the intervention, police brutality, Aboriginal deaths in custody, and the removal of children. We need to “resolutely resist new temptations to exercise mastery over others” [5].

Like Sanballat the Horonite in the book of Nehemiah, we may feel threatened by the rebuilding of Aboriginal culture and society. However, we have a choice whether we will listen to that fear. Our Aboriginal brothers and sisters are asking us to stand alongside them. Will we deny them? Will we partner with God to do something about the long-term damage that has been done in this country? Or will we prefer to be comfortable with the status quo, even though it means our first peoples continue to suffer injustice? Or will we be like King Artaxerxes who supported Nehemiah, gave him resources to do the rebuilding and gave him a royal guard for his trip back to Jerusalem?

Let’s not be like Sanballat the Horonite! God will fulfil his purposes, with or without us. Despite the machinations of Sanballat, the wall was completed, and “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). God will accomplish his purpose for Australia.

Additional Resources



Wood DRW, Marshall IH. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1996.


Ramachandra V. Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic; 2008.


Samuel S. A Postcolonial Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. London: T & T Clark; 2007.


Said EW. Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd; 1978.


Brett MG. Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press; 2008.