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Nehemiah 5:1-19 – Economic Difficulties


Nehemiah deals with the widespread problem of debt--slavery caused by famine and the need to pay taxes to the Persians.


This chapter relates how Nehemiah dealt with an economic crisis that threatened the unity of the people. Three groups of those unable to manage their debt were represented. One group consisted of those unable to purchase food (5:2). A second group, also suffering due to the famine, could only buy food by mortgaging their property (5:3). A third group needed to mortgage their property or sell their children into slavery to pay the Persian taxes (5:4-5). Despite the NRSV translation of verse 7, "taking interest" on loans to the poor was illegal (for example, Exodus 22:25); rather, the practice of "taking pledges" of persons, land, or goods (sanctioned in Deuteronomy 24:10), as the Hebrew shows, is being condemned. For whatever reason, Nehemiah's people are hanging by a thread.

Nehemiah's response was speedy and effective. On his own authority, he summoned those holding these perfectly legal pledges to release them and to forgive the debts, as would he (5:6-11). The lenders agreed to this sacrifice and released their holdings (5:12-13).

The text closes with a sketch of Nehemiah's own generosity and financial sacrifice drawn from Nehemiah's second term as governor (5:14-19). Though entitled to live off the provincial taxes (the "food allowance of the governor" vv. 14, 18), Nehemiah led by example and refused this compensation.

Nehemiah 5:1-19

Nehemiah Deals with Oppression

5Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin. 2For there were those who said, ‘With our sons and our daughters, we are many; we must get grain, so that we may eat and stay alive.’ 3There were also those who said, ‘We are having to pledge our fields, our vineyards, and our houses in order to get grain during the famine.’ 4And there were those who said, ‘We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax. 5Now 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, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.’

6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints. 7After thinking it over, I brought charges against the nobles and the officials; I said to them, ‘You are all taking interest from your own people.’ And I called a great assembly to deal with them, 8and said to them, ‘As far as we were able, we have bought back our Jewish kindred who had been sold to other nations; but now you are selling your own kin, who must then be bought back by us!’ They were silent, and could not find a word to say. 9So I said, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God, to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? 10Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us stop this taking of interest. 11Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.’ 12Then they said, ‘We will restore everything and demand nothing more from them. We will do as you say.’ And I called the priests, and made them take an oath to do as they had promised. 13I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out everyone from house and from property who does not perform this promise. Thus may they be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said, ‘Amen’, and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.

The Generosity of Nehemiah

14 Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. 15The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. 16Indeed, I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work. 17Moreover, there were at my table one hundred and fifty people, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations around us. 18Now that which was prepared for one day was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and every ten days skins of wine in abundance; yet with all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because of the heavy burden of labour on the people. 19Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.

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