Nehemiah 5- 2020-07-08
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5:1–5 […] Nehemiah 5:2–5 appears to report separate complaints, but the increasing specificity of their presentation contributes to the cumulative rhetorical effect on the reader. Thus the articulation of the basic problem, an existential need for food for families (5:2), gives way to complaints regarding the consequent need to mortgage family holdings in order to meet the twin demands of feeding the family (5:3) and paying the crown (5:4). […] the final complaint that, having lost financial control of their land, members of the community had to resort to the still more desperate (and certainly more emotive) measure of indenturing their children (5:5) without having the means of eventually freeing them. If Pentateuchal traditions contain provisions for the transfer of land and indeed for debt servitude as a means of staving off the extinction of families (e.g., Lev 25; Deut 15:1–18, esp. 15:12), it is clear that at this crucial juncture, the prospering of some at the expense of others by means of such practices was seen to pose a credible threat to the sense of community cohesion required by Nehemiah’s project.
5:6–13 […] Nehemiah’s accusation against the nobles and officials concentrates not on the lending itself but on the charging of interest on what was being lent. […]
Yet, if Nehemiah does have particular or indeed even general legal traditions in mind, he begins instead by explaining how the abuse of the debt-servitude system is undermining the efforts of the community as a whole, not least because the community had been redeeming (cf. Lev 25) those indentured to Gentiles. […] His condemnation of the offenders in no uncertain terms (“what you are doing is not right”), his invocation of “the fear of our God,” […]
Nehemiah records not only the nobles’ and officials’ agreement to his orders in Neh 5:12, but also his efforts to ensure that these practices are not repeated. First, cultic sanction is invoked by the witnessing of the leaders’ oath by the priests, summoned for the purpose and perhaps included themselves, but Nehemiah also goes on to insist that noncompliance will be met with excommunication (5:13), much as Ezra does in response to the intermarriage crisis (Ezra 10:8). Whatever the origins of Nehemiah’s “coat-shaking” exercise, its resemblance to the object lessons of prophets such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah suggests a general familiarity with such practices. Whether Nehemiah’s final words in Neh 5:13 indicate that the congregation literally followed his symbolic lead or simply followed through on what they had agreed (“amen”), his mention of the praise of the people affirms a happy ending to his intervention, much as it marks such moments elsewhere in Ezra-Nehemiah (Ezra 3:10–11; Neh 12:24). […]
5:14–19 […] Nehemiah’s mention of the food allowance to which he and his coterie were entitled (5:14) clearly facilitates his identification—in principle at least, if not in actual practice (5:18)—with those who have less food than they might have had (5:2). That Nehemiah has already presented his abstaining from usury as exemplary fits well with his favorable comparison here of his own personal restraint with what we are left to assume was the typically exploitative behavior of those who preceded him in his post (5:15). This personal restraint is motivated by the same “fear of God” (5:15) that Nehemiah exhorted the community’s leaders to display in abandoning their ignoble pursuit of interest (5:9), suggesting the importance (to Nehemiah and his intended readers) of presenting this reform as theologically motivated. […] 
 Sherpherd, David J. and Christopher J.H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018) 41-43.
Bible Text: Nehemiah 5:1-19
1 Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2 For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.” 3 There were also those who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.” 4 And 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 as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.”
6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. 7 I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them 8 and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say. 9 So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? 10 Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. 11 Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” 12 Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. 13 I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
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 Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. 15 The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. 16 I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. 17 Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. 18 Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. 19 Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.
Questions to help us go deeper
- What can I learn about Nehemiah’s character and values from how he calls a great assembly with the nobles and officials to deal with their injustice to the poor among them?
- What can I learn about human nature from Nehemiah summoning the priests and making the nobles “swear to do as they had promised” and then adding a curse on top of everything else?
- Reflect on the rightness of the words: “the people did as they had promised.”
- What can I learn from Nehemiah, who did not insist on his new rights as governor but “persevered in the work on this wall”? What enabled him to do so?