Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern. This week we are studying Nehemiah 5.
Thematically, Chapter 5 is an awkward fit in the book, an insertion that interrupts an otherwise continuous narrative. The subjects that dominated the previous chapters—the wall project and the local opposition—fade to the background in Chapter 5. At some point in Nehemiah’s governorship, Judah went through a food shortage crisis. During that time, the dual problems of hunger and poverty trumped everything else. As the memoir of a leader, the book of Nehemiah shows the full range of obstacles he addressed and successfully handled.
If the memoir’s storyline is laid out chronologically, and scholars disagree on that point, Judah’s farmers neglected their fields while they worked on Jerusalem’s wall. Their two months of service as part-time militia and full-time builders left little bandwidth to tend to their crops. As a result, the barley and wheat harvest came up short and a food shortage crisis quickly ensued.
Most able-bodied workers rallied around Nehemiah’s vision to refortify Jerusalem. Certain he spoke God’s will for the community, they worked nonstop on the walls for 52 days. At some point after the wall was finished, Nehemiah reported, “there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives” (5:1). The inclusion of wives in the protest suggests that they were speaking out because they had been the ones left to care for the fields while their husbands were working on the wall. The labor shortage at harvest time meant low yields for families to eat and almost nothing leftover to sell. Desperate for food, the people appealed to Nehemiah to give them grain to “eat and stay alive” (5:3).
Granted, rebuilding lives in Judah after decades of exile in Babylon was never easy for the returnees. Seventy years before Nehemiah’s arrival, Haggai described Jerusalem as stricken with poverty, inflation, and hunger. Knowing economic difficulties preceded Nehemiah, the demands of the wall project did not cause the disparities, but it probably exasperated an already tough situation. What Nehemiah could not tolerate, however, was the exploitation of the needy.
As Chapter 5 details the plight of the poor, we learn that the economic problems in Judah were compounded by several factors (5:3-4). To buy grain, the poor took out loans from the wealthier Jews. In some cases, they mortgaged their fields and vineyards to Jewish creditors. The creditors charged punishing interest rates, making it impossible for the debtors to pay off the loans in their lifetime. On top of that, Persia demanded the imperial tax, oblivious to the region’s distress.
The burdensome taxes piled on more debt that the poor could not repay to their lenders. When payments were not made, the creditors confiscated their property. In the worse cases, parents sold their children into debt slavery, leaving families torn apart (5:5).
The hungry mob appealed to Nehemiah on humanitarian grounds. The outcry was “against their Jewish kin” (5:1). They told Nehemiah, “our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves” (5:5). Not everyone living in restored Judah was in the same place financially. To a point, economic disparity is expected in every community at every age. The problem, as Nehemiah saw it, was that the abuse was coming from within the remnant, rich Jews taking advantage of their desperate Jewish brethren.
The previous narratives portrayed a unified people working for the common good, building together and fighting together. However, Chapter 5 breaks the façade, revealing the community was afflicted with the age-old division of the rich versus the poor. Just as in the preexilic community, the elite were taking advantage of the poor with no regard for their shared peoplehood.
One thing that stands out in the dialogue between Nehemiah and the protestors is his radical empathy with the people’s plight. In the building of the wall, Nehemiah had promoted a sense of community without hierarchy. When the people resorted back to putting up barriers between the classes, Nehemiah got very angry (5:6). He gathered all the Jewish creditors together and accused them of “taking interest from your own people” (5:7). In his emotional appeal, Nehemiah gave more weight to the value of their religious and national bond than they had previously considered.
The people responded humbly to Nehemiah’s accusation and they made a sincere commitment to reform. It seems like without Nehemiah’s correction, they were oblivious to the ways they were breaking the laws of their covenant. Their offense was two-pronged. Not only were they exploiting their own kin, but they were also blatantly disobeying God’s commandments.
The Mosaic law forbid Jewish lenders charging fellow Jews interest on anything (Deut. 23:19). If they did give a no-interest loan, they were permitted to ask for a pledge as a protection against default. The law stipulated that the deposit could not be something the poor debtor needed to live, like a coat (Deut. 24:13). According to the laws of Exodus, Jews could have Jewish slaves, but they had to be released every seven years and forgiven of all debt (Ex. 21:2). Jews selling other Jews to work as slaves for gentiles was absolutely forbidden.
Nehemiah explained to the elite that the selling of Jews to gentile nations put him in the position of having to go buy them back (5:8). By the laws’ standards, Nehemiah was not responsible for paying the ransom of any slave who was not his close blood relation. However, he set an example that all in the community were responsible for the welfare of each other. Throughout the centuries, Jews had been persecuted by outsiders, but Jews exploiting each other was more than Nehemiah could endure.
Included in the covenant laws were guidelines for protecting the social welfare of the community. Individuals were responsible for caring for all those on the margins: orphans, widows, the poor, and the foreigners. God cared how his people treated one another. Landowners were to leave the corner of their fields unharvested so the poor and landless could gather grain (Lev. 19:9). When vineyard owners harvested the grape vines and olive trees, they were to leave plenty on the vines and branches and leave any grapes that fell to the ground so the poor could gather what remained (Deut. 24:20). Every third year, a tithe of produce was supposed to be given to the poor (Deut. 14:28). Every fiftieth year, the Jubilee year, all debt was forgiven, family lands restored, and slaves freed (Lev. 25). God was so concerned about the care of the poor and marginalized, he even commanded the people not to judge the poor or be hardhearted toward their plight (Deut. 15:7).
From the sound of things in Nehemiah’s memoirs, the returnees disregarded God’s laws to protect the poor. After a half century of exile, stipulations governing land ownership and gathering a harvest were long forgotten. As a result, the elite acted more like brokers than brothers. They were motivated by individual profit instead of communal progress. Nehemiah had to get them to understand that this was no time for acquiring easy land grabs or getting rich off the disadvantaged. To the credit of the wealthy members, they were jolted by Nehemiah’s charge. Nehemiah wrote, “they were silent and could not find a word to say” (5:8).
Piling on the shame, Nehemiah equated the exploitation of the poor with a lack of fear of God (5:9). He called for a series of emergency measures that would first put a stop to the abuse and then bring charitable reform. Nehemiah was among Judah’s wealthy lenders, even if he was not guilty of exploiting the people with high interest. Because he and his brothers had taken pledges for loans of money and grain, they were well-positioned to lead by example in returning the pledges. Nehemiah called on the lenders to cancel interests and return pledges to their original owners: fields, vineyards, orchards, and houses. Persuaded by Nehemiah’s argument and example, the repentant lenders agreed to the reforms. They took an oath in the presence of priests and promised, “We will restore everything and demand nothing more from them” (5:12). As a visual illustration of the seriousness of their pledge, Nehemiah shook out a folded garment, warning that God would shake out any creditors who reneged on their oath.
The other financial burden on the people was the Persian imperial tax, a factor out of Nehemiah’s control and beyond his power to cancel. As governor, Nehemiah was entitled to a salary of forty shekels of silver and a daily food and wine allowance. Previous governors of Judah took the allowance and lorded their status over the people (5:15). Nehemiah worked without salary for twelve years (445-433 BCE). Alert to the hardship caused by the wall project and famine, he generously financed the needs of the governor’s office out of his own pocket. He used his resources to serve the people, feeding 150 people at his table every day: officials, workers, and servants (5:17). He also refused to acquire land and both he and his servants worked at the wall alongside the people (5:16).
The covenant laws did not require Nehemiah as leader of the people to go to such generous extremes. But Nehemiah was sensitive to the returnees’ situation, understanding the people could not handle any additional burdens. Nehemiah explained that his generosity was rooted in his fear of God (5:15). Historical moments often require leaders that go above and beyond, leaders who prioritize sacrifice over personal advancement, exactly like Nehemiah’s style of leadership. The chapter ends with Nehemiah offering up a sincere prayer: “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (5:19). For Nehemiah, his reward was in heaven.
I am certain God showed favor to Nehemiah for his wise and generous leadership. The Bible reminds believers that generous acts done under the radar are seen by the all-knowing God. A Proverb promises that “whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid in full” (Prov. 19:17). Jesus, during his time on earth, was laser focused on caring for the vulnerable. He taught his followers that every time they cared for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned, they cared for him by extension. He explained, “just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
Thank you for listening. Next week, we are reading Nehemiah 6. With the wall nearing completion, the local enemies launch a multiphase intimidation campaign with Nehemiah as their primary target.
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