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Ezra & Nehemiah

World of Finance

Nehemiah 5

Lesson audio

As of the writing of this lesson the mortgage foreclosure crisis seems to be winding down in America. But for the last few years we have been treated to any number of news stories showing someone being thrown out of their home because they can’t pay the mortgage. It is an interesting thought that Americans accept the stories as being sad instances of what must absolutely be done. Good liberals will ask what the government should do about this crisis; good conservatives will shrug their shoulders and say it’s the individual’s fault for purchasing a house he or she couldn’t afford but no one seems to blame the bank. That’s a change in American attitudes from the Great Depression. We’ll take the history of that attitude back about 2500 years in today’s lesson.

High Finance

We must begin with a review of how the ancient Law of Moses dealt with the concept of loans and mortgages.

Loan with Collateral

The process of obtaining a loan in the ancient Jewish world is rather different than it is today. The closest modern parallel would be taking something to a pawn shop. You bring something to the shop; they loan you the money and keep the item until you either redeem the loan or abandon it, in which case they sell the item. In those days you would bring forward a pledge. This is some item of value which acted as security to the one who is making you the loan. There were several regulations concerning what could be pledged and how it was pledged.

·         One of the most common items to be pledged was a cloak. Practically everyone had one; it was probably the most valuable garment that the average poor man had. But the law is quite strict that this pledge had to be returned to the poor man every night — so he can roll himself in it like a blanket and not freeze in his sleep[1]. The lender was warned that God would hear the poor man’s complaint if you did elsewise, “because I am gracious.” It’s a common theme in the Law of Moses; God is the one who cares for the poor, the widow and the orphan.

·         Under no circumstances could you take a millstone in pledge[2]. You were taking the man’s livelihood; it seems to make little sense unless you were taking vengeance. The Scripture says this would be like “taking a life in pledge.”

·         Nor could you take any garment which belongs to a widow[3]. Widows, orphans and the poor are under the special protection of God.

Perhaps most interesting of all is this: when you took a pledge, you were not allowed to go into the debtor’s house to get it. You had to wait outside while he went in and got it and brought it out to you[4]. It seems that God was interested in the dignity of his people, so that the borrower would not feel ashamed or invaded.

Sold into Slavery

The reader must understand that slavery in ancient times was usually the result of one of two things: either you were captured in battle, or you became so indebted that you were sold to pay your debts. It was also very common for your children to be sold to pay your debts. So the racial aspect of slavery that we understand in American history played little part in their thinking; in this week’s reading it plays not at all. Slavery was a financial condition.

Jewish law was particularly strict concerning someone who was Jewish and was enslaved. The law required that he be a slave for no more than six years, at the end of which time you released him. You didn’t just send them away; you sent him away with great liberality. You provided him with animals from your flock, wine and grain so that he might be established and thus avoid becoming a slave again[5]. If the individual wanted to, he could become your slave permanently — but that was the slave’s choice. This choice was often made because the slave may have acquired a wife while a slave and she might still be a slave. By the standards of the time, these rules were incredibly merciful.

Nor will you allowed to treat your slave like you would a slave from another community (non-Jewish). A Jewish slave was to be treated as if he were a hired hand[6]. The argument in all of this was that the Jews were slaves in Egypt; they are to remember what a lousy deal it was. Therefore, why would you inflict it on your fellow Jew?

Interest and Usury

We may begin with a note concerning the English language. “Usury” in the King James Version is what we today would call “interest.” The idea that it is excessive interest is a change in the language. One of the stereotypes that is common in the English language is that of the Jewish moneylender; Shakespeare established this well in the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. It is therefore interesting to find that the collection of interest by one Jew from another was forbidden by the Law of Moses[7]. A Jew was allowed to charge interest to a foreigner, however[8].

The most common interest rate found in antiquity is 1% — per month. It is not entirely clear that this is what’s going on in today’s readings, but it is most likely the case. This was a standard during the Roman Empire which defined excessive interest is being greater than that. But for the Jew lending to the Jew, interest was not only forbidden but carried with it the reprobation of God:

Proverbs 28:8 NASB  He who increases his wealth by interest and usury Gathers it for him who is gracious to the poor.


The reader will note the repetition “interest and usury”; the distinction in the original is whether you take it in money or in kind.

Despite all the warnings, by the time of Christ the taking of interest was a commonplace in Jewish society. Readers will of course remember the parable of the talents in which the returning master demanded that at least he should have his money back with interest[9]. Apparently, the temptation to make a buck has been around for quite some time.

It is also evident from the Law of Moses that the purpose of a loan from one Jew to another was not to make money, but to assist your Jewish brother in getting back on his feet. That’s a very different view than we take today. Interestingly, the modern socialist view is that the money cannot be loaned but only given. We may wonder aloud what effect this has on the psychology of the recipient.

Example of Nehemiah

Nehemiah 5:1-19 NASB  Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.  (2)  For there were those who said, "We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live."  (3)  There were others who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine."  (4)  Also there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards.  (5)  "Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others."  (6)  Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words.  (7)  I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, "You are exacting usury, each from his brother!" Therefore, I held a great assembly against them.  (8)  I said to them, "We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?" Then they were silent and could not find a word to say.  (9)  Again I said, "The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?  (10)  "And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury.  (11)  "Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them."  (12)  Then they said, "We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say." So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise.  (13)  I also shook out the front of my garment and said, "Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied." And all the assembly said, "Amen!" And they praised the LORD. Then the people did according to this promise.  (14)  Moreover, from the day 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, for twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor's food allowance.  (15)  But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God.  (16)  I also applied myself to the work on this wall; we did not buy any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.  (17)  Moreover, there were at my table one hundred and fifty Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us.  (18)  Now that which was prepared for each day was one ox and six choice sheep, also birds were prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the governor's food allowance, because the servitude was heavy on this people.  (19)  Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.


Plight of the People

We can see at once that the loans being made are not the kind of business transaction that would be expected today. In fact, the average bank’s view these people as a very poor risk. We may look at their complaint:

·         The first complaint is that they are starving. They run out of money and they can afford to buy food; the farm is been mortgaged to somebody else so they can’t grow it. Their next step is to sell their children into slavery.

·         The second complaint is one that’s familiar to us: taxes. Most kingdoms had some variation of what we would call property tax. People in California experienced this one passed proposition 13; the real estate value of their homes went up so fast that their income could not possibly keep pace with it. When the tax collector throws you out of your home for nonpayment, things are bad.

These people have done what they can; they borrowed money, they mortgage the house in the fields and eventually sold their sons and daughters as slaves. Now they’re broke, starving and still in debt. One wonders how much sympathy and practical help they would get from social conservatives today.


There are four things I would point out to you about Nehemiah’s response to this situation.

·         The first is that he rightly accuses the richer part of the population of exacting interest, which is forbidden by the Law of Moses. In this place and time, that makes it not only a sin but a crime. This is plain and simple, dead to rights.

·         He then points out that he and his fellow workers have industriously been buying Jewish people out of slavery, presumably enslaved to the surrounding population, only to find that his fellow Jews are creating more Jewish slaves for him to buy. He is righteously outraged.

·         He then does something which strikes the modern mind as extremely strange: he tells them to give back (note the verb) what they have taken as pledge. To understand this we shall have to dig a little deeper.

·         Finally, he admits he is embarrassed by their conduct. He is ashamed to be their governor.

To understand this, we must recall that the Jew regarded the land as something which was given to his family when the nation of Israel came out of slavery in Egypt. He was not permitted to transfer it from one tribe to another, and at the year of Jubilee the land reverted to its original owners. This is very different in our use of land, which makes it practically a commodity. So they would not have seen Nehemiah’s orders in quite the same light that we might.

There is more to it. We look at a loan as being something which enables the recipient to buy something, paying over time — and also makes money for the person making the loan. Nehemiah would’ve viewed a loan as a way of getting your brother Jew back on his feet. Understanding the financial transaction that way shows us the different light they had on it.

Nehemiah’s Example

There is no sense in trying to straighten people out morally if your own life is crooked. We need to look at Nehemiah’s example as well.

·         As we mentioned above, he’s been in the business of buying back Jewish slaves. He’s trying to reestablish the nation of Israel in the land which it was given, and one of the things he’s doing is returning a Jewish slave to the Jewish land by buying him back from a non-Jewish owner.

·         His conduct as governor is also exemplary. He doesn’t live it up; he doesn’t lord it over the Jews but rather acts in a modest fashion.

·         As we saw last week, he has been the man in charge of building the wall. That has great advantages to a city in this time; Nehemiah is a public benefactor.

·         On top of all that, he fed hundred and fifty people a day at his table. This is a practical example of both politics and charity.

With this kind of conduct, he has the moral authority to upbraid the Jews for their charging of interest in selling people into slavery. If the top man in the country, the governor, does it this way then why can’t you?

Social Justice

We might ask how we ever got so far away from this conception.

Modern Influences

A complete discussion of this issue would take several volumes. But I will submit to the reader that there are three major influences which have completely altered our point of view.

·         The first is Marxism. The thought that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” dominates the modern philosophy of dealing with poverty. There is now an implied guilt in being rich, no matter how you got the money. Therefore, we take from the rich as much as possible. Since this is an act of taxation, not charity, the rich resist this. Since this is given to the poor, we remove their motivation to make the kind of loan that allows their fellow man to become like them. The money is going to come from the rich; the question is whether or not they get the privilege of charity. The money is going to go to the poor; the question is whether or not it is a loan (which impels responsibility) or a gift (which implies consumption.)

·         The second is the rise of the corporation. Liberal thought regards the corporation somewhat like the goose that lays the golden egg. It produces the money but we have a strong urge to open the bird up and see how that works; surely we can make it work better. But the corporation cannot, as a rule, make its prime purpose charity. Banks are corporations. They’re in it for the money.

·         The third is the rise of the state, particularly as enabled by our technology. When I was a child, people would often say, “Somebody ought to do something about that.” Now people often say, “The government ought to do something about that.” The power of the computer allows the government to perform things in detail which would be the envy of a Roman Emperor.

Christian Thought

Nehemiah lived about 500 years before the time of Christ. The church in the intervening years has developed two schools of thought on the subject of how we should handle poverty.

The first is the Roman Catholic view. It was first clearly enunciated by Saint Augustine, and remains the view of the Catholic Church today.

·         We begin with the idea that the state is the “handmaiden of the church.” In other words, the state should take moral direction from the church and act accordingly. This includes not only welfare to deal with poverty, but also enforcing various forms of morality.

·         One such form of morality to be enforced is this: if you are rich but not charitable you are morally in the wrong. You are greedy. Therefore, it is reasonable for the state to take away your money and give it to those who are poor — since you won’t perform the charity yourself.

·         The state, therefore, should take responsibility for dealing with poverty — since they have both the means and the moral imperative. This is referred to as “social justice.”

This view has been greatly influenced by Marxist “liberation theology.” But it dates well before Karl Marx and represents a view which most Americans find somewhat strange.

The second is the Protestant point of view, particularly in the United States. This view is based on the idea that government should be limited and restrained.

·         The primary restraint on government is that it should be separate from the church. The separation of church and state is a cherished American principle. It is logical to conclude from this, therefore, that the government has no business doing what the church should do. One of the things the church should do is provide charitable relief to poverty — and therefore the government should not. The sounds very appealing; but remember that the government does in fact legislate morality (for example, laws about bank robbery.)

·         The Protestant view of poverty is rather different also. In the Catholic view, poverty is something which is just given to you. It’s your lot in life. In the Protestant view, it’s usually because you failed to work hard; it’s a moral failure. Welfare, therefore, is rewarding moral failure. It is not charity but counterproductive.

·         It is therefore obvious that sympathy (and thus charity) are reserved for the truly deserving. This of course imposes on the Protestant the task of deciding who are the truly deserving. This is not always as easy as it appears.

As a practical matter of fact, our current legal system is a hybrid of these two points of view as modified by the practical realities of politics. Anyone expecting it to make logical sense is going to be disappointed.

An Unresolved Problem

We might bring up two aspects of Nehemiah’s example which are challenge to those of us who live in the twenty-first century.

·         What is the purpose of lending? Is there such a thing as charitable lending? We seem to have divided provision for the poor into outright gifts (or welfare) and loans strictly for the purpose of making money. Nehemiah suggests that there may be a middle ground.

·         Our emphasis on making sure that corporations maintain our privacy may have in fact interfered with our ability to be our “brother’s keeper.” It is common in the church today that we have people in need who are embarrassed to ask for help. It may well be worth asking what were doing wrong that such a situation should occur.

[1] Exodus 22:26-27

[2] Deuteronomy 24:6

[3] Deuteronomy 24:17

[4] Deuteronomy 24:10-11

[5] Deuteronomy 15:12-18

[6] Leviticus 25:39-43

[7] Exodus 22:25

[8] Deuteronomy 23:20

[9] Matthew 25:27

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