NEHEMIAH CHAPTER 5
Nehemiah Stops the Oppression of the Poor
– Now some of the men and their wives raised a cry of protest against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, “We have large families. We must get grain to eat to stay alive.” Others were saying, “We’re putting up our fields, vineyards, and homes as collateral in order to get grain during the famine.” Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. And now, even though we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews, and though our children are just like their children, yet we have found it necessary to subject our children to slavery. Some of our daughters are already enslaved, but we are powerless to help because our fields and vineyards now belong to other people.”
– The following sources explain:
– NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: “The economic crisis faced by Nehemiah is described in ch 5, in the middle of his major effort to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Since this building project only lasted 52 days (6:15), some scholars have considered it unlikely that Nehemiah would have called a great assembly (5:7) in the midst of such a project. They suggest that the assembly was called only after the rebuilding of the wall, taking v. 14 as retrospective. Nevertheless, the economic pressure created by the rebuilding program may have brought to light problems long simmering that had to be solved before work could proceed. Among the classes affected by the economic crisis were the landless, who were short of food (v. 2), the landowners compelled to mortgage their properties (v. 3), those forced to borrow money at exorbitant rates because of oppressive taxation (v. 4), and those forced to sell their children into slavery (v. 5).”
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible: “Some farmers had diverted their efforts from raising crops to building the wall, leaving their large families in need of food to survive. Someone had to feed their families, or they would have to stop work on the wall and go hoe to work in their fields. Some small landowners had mortgaged everything to survive. The famine made the problem worse because grain was scarce and the price of food naturally increased. Despite the famine, the Persians did not cancel the onerous royal tribute due at harvest time.”
– NET Bible: “The poor among the returned exiles were being exploited by their rich countrymen. Moneylenders were loaning large amounts of money, and not only collecting interest on loans which was illegal (Lev 25:36-37; Deut 23:19-20), but also seizing pledges as collateral (Neh 5:3) which was allowed (Deut 24:10). When the debtors missed a payment, the moneylenders would seize their collateral: their fields, vineyards and homes. With no other means of income, the debtors were forced to sell their children into slavery, a common practice at this time (Neh 5:5). Nehemiah himself was one of the moneylenders (Neh 5:10), but he insisted that seizure of collateral from fellow Jewish countrymen was ethically wrong (Neh 5:9).”
– ESV Study Bible: “Temporary debt-slavery (but not permanent chattel- slavery) was permitted in Mosaic law among Israelites, and was often the only way a debt could be paid, either after six years (Deut 15:12) or at the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:39-40). But even this practice might hit families hard in the current situation; there is also the suggestion that those taken into debt-slavery are not being treated properly.”
– I became extremely angry when I heard their outcry and these charges. After seriously considering the matter, I brought charges against the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called a large assembly against them and said, “We are doing our best to buy back our fellow Jews who were sold to foreign nations. Now you are selling your own people, so that we can buy them back!” They could find nothing to say and were utterly silent.
– ESV Study Bible writes, “The nobles and officials within the Jewish community are accused of oppressing their own people, showing that the danger to the community comes not only from outside but also from within. Oppression of the weak by the strong had been one of the reasons for God’s anger that had brought about the exile (see Isa 5:7, 8-10; Amos 2:6-8)…Nehemiah stresses this kinship in order to drive home the people’s neglect of this great principle underlying the law…In his anger, Nehemiah brings out the irony of the Jews being redeemed from exile only to be sold into slavery by their own brothers.”
– NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds, “The sale of fellow Israelites as slaves to Gentiles was a particularly callous offense and was always forbidden (Ex 21:8). Joseph’s brothers nonetheless sold him to the foreign traders (Ge 37:12-36). We know from Joel 3:6 that Jews were being sold to Greeks (c. 520 BC).”
– Then I continued, “What you’re doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our foreign enemies? I myself, as well as my relatives and my associates are lending them money and grain. But let us abandon this practice of charging interest. Give them back immediately their fields, vineyards, olive orchards, and houses, as well as the interest you’ve been charging them on the money, the grain, the new wine, and the olive oil.”
– ESV Study Bible says, “Nehemiah admits that he and his closest associates are implicated in the injustice and therefore presents his moral challenge as something to which he himself must respond. This appeal not only commands a return of the interest that was illegitimately seized, but is apparently a general amnesty, occasioned by the crisis and going beyond the provisions for debt- release (Deut 15:1-11) or jubilee (Leviticus 25), since it is to be done without delay…”
– They responded, “We will give everything back and no longer demand anything from them. We will do as you say.” Then I called the priests and made the nobles and the officials swear an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “If you fail to keep your promise, may God shake you like this from your homes and from your property.” At this the whole assembly replied, “Amen!” and they praised Yahweh. Then the people did as they had promised.
– On Nehemiah shaking out the folds of his robe, ESV Study Bible remarks, “A symbolic action matching the words of the curse that follow…This type of curse- formula was a solemn, conventional way of compelling commitment to a course of action. By saying Amen, the whole assembly took upon itself the terms of Nehemiah’s curse.”
– Furthermore, for the entire 12 years that I was governor of Judah- from Artaxerxes’ 20th year until his 32nd year- neither I nor my relatives ate from the food allotted to the governor. But the former governors, those preceding me, had heavily burdened the people, taking food and wine from them as well as a pound of silver. Their associates were also domineering over the people. But I did not act that way because I feared God. Instead, I devoted myself to the construction of the wall. All my associates were gathered there for the work. We did not purchase any land.
– ESV Archaeology Study Bible writes, “This is the first indication that Nehemiah held this official post in the province of Yehud (Judea) within the larger satrapy of ‘Beyond the River.’ He governed 12 years, from 445/444 to 433/432 BC. Governors apparently had the right to raise taxes for their own use but Nehemiah declined due to the Jews’ economic trouble. Instead, he supplied sustenance for those who worked with him during this time, implying considerable personal means. The cuneiform business documents of ‘Murashu and Sons’ excavated at Nippur demonstrate that some Jews living in Babylonia had become very wealthy.”
– NLT Illustrated Study Bible adds, “This section describes Nehemiah’s consistent policy of servant leadership and personal generosity.”
– NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “‘Governors’ is plural of Hebrew pehah (also the same in Aramaic), which is used of Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel and various Persian officials. It was once believed that Judah did not have governors before Nehemiah, and that this refers to governors of Samaria. New archaeological evidence, however, confirms that the reference is to previous governors of Judah. A collection of bullae (seal impressions) yields the names of some of the governors prior to Nehemiah.”
– Moreover, there were 150 Jews and officials who routinely ate at my table, in addition to those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, 6 choice sheep, and some poultry were prepared for me, and every 10 days a large supply of all kinds of wine. Despite all this, I refused to claim the governor’s food allowance because the burden on the people was so heavy.
– NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible explains, “As governor, Nehemiah is expected to entertain both domestic and foreign dignitaries, as well as pay the salaries of the 150 officials…The cost of this is supposed to be offset by the ‘food allotted to the governor’ (taxes levied, cf v. 14), which Nehemiah has refrained from collecting, meaning that these ‘business expenses’ are coming out of his own pocket.”
– O my God, please remember me favorably for all that I have done for these people.
– Guzik says, “Nehemiah, in his own life, lived the way he told the nobles and rulers to live – to not take personal advantage of another’s need. He did what every godly leader must do: he never expected more of his followers than he expected of himself. Some think that Nehemiah was wrong for saying all the good things he did. Jesus clearly taught us that our good works must not be done to show others how spiritual we are…But in his prayer, Nehemiah did not look for praise from man – but from God…”