When Nehemiah hears the people complain about the difficult financial situation he coerces the aristocrats to forgive all outstanding loans. Nehemiah then portrays himself as a selfless governor who goes beyond the letter of the law.
Nehemiah shakes out his garment to get his message across: “I also shook out the bosom of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake free of his household and property any man who fails to keep this promise; may he be thus shaken out and stripped.’”
III. Important Verses
v. 1: There was a great outcry by the common folk and their wives against their brother Jews.
vv. 4-5: Yet others said, “We have borrowed money against our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax. Now we are as good as our brothers, and our children as good as theirs; yet here we are subjecting our sons and daughters to slavery — some of our daughters are already subjected — and we are powerless, while our fields and vineyards belong to others.”
vv. 11-13: [Nehemiah demanded:] “Give back at once their fields, their vineyards, their olive trees, and their homes, and [abandon] the claims for the hundred pieces of silver, the grain, the wine, and the oil that you have been pressing against them!” They replied, “We shall give them back, and not demand anything of them; we shall do just as you say.” Summoning the priests, I put them under oath to keep this promise. I also shook out the bosom of my garment and said, “So may God shake free of his household and property any man who fails to keep this promise; may he be thus shaken out and stripped.” All the assembled answered, “Amen,” and praised the LORD. The people kept this promise.
vv. 17-19: Although there were at my table, between Jews and prefects, one hundred and fifty men in all, beside those who came to us from surrounding nations; and although what was prepared for each day came to one ox, six select sheep, and fowl, all prepared for me, and at ten-day intervals all sorts of wine in abundance — yet I did not resort to the governor’s food allowance, for the [king’s] service lay heavily on the people. O my God, remember to my credit all that I have done for this people!
1-5. The people complain
6-13. Nehemiah coerces the nobles to forgive the peasants’ loans
14-19. Nehemiah proclaims his selflessness.
Chapter 5 begins with a description of economic turmoil: “There was a great outcry by the common folk and their wives against their brother Jews… Yet others said, ‘We have borrowed money against our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax. Now we are as good as our brothers, and our children as good as theirs; yet here we are subjecting our sons and daughters to slavery — some of our daughters are already subjected — and we are powerless, while our fields and vineyards belong to others.’” (vv. 1-5) Collins describes the financial situation as it relates to the laws of interest, payment, slavery, and the remission of debt in the laws of the Pentateuch. He writes: “In addition to political problems, Nehemiah also had to deal with a severe economic crisis, because of a famine. According to Nehemiah 5, there was a great outcry, because people had to pledge their fields and houses to get grain. Some were forced to sell sons and daughters as slaves, and some daughters were ravished. The root of the problem (apart from drought, which probably precipitated the crisis) was ‘the king’s tax’ (5:4). We do not have much specific information about Persian taxation in Judah, but it was evidently oppressive.
“Nehemiah was not about to challenge the king’s tax, since his own authority derived from the king. He did, however, challenge the practices of Jews who took pledges from their brethren. Already the Book of the Covenant (Exod 22:25-27) forbade taking interest from the poor or holding their belongings. (‘If you take your neighbor’s coat in pawn you shall restore it before the sun goes down.. In what else shall that person sleep?’) There is a similar provision in Deut 24:10-13. Nonetheless, debt was an endemic problem in ancient Israel and Judah, in both the monarchic and the postexilic periods, sometimes leading to the loss of ancestral property and sometimes to slavery (cf. Amos 8:6; Isa 5:8).” (439-440)
Collins continues: “Leviticus 25:47-55 provides for the redemption of slaves, and stipulates that any slaves who had not been redeemed should go free in the Jubilee Year. Nehemiah claims that he, or the Jewish community, had redeemed Jews who had been sold to other nations. It is not clear to what this claim refers. It may have been a practice either in Babylon or Judah. Moreover, Nehemiah admits that his own family and servants had been lending at interest. This confession reduces the antagonism of his proposal and makes it easier to win the sympathy of the offenders. Nehemiah’s proposal amounts to a remission of debt and restoration of property, such as was envisioned in the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25. Such remissions were granted periodically in the ancient Near East, often at the beginning of the reign of a new king. There is a famous example in the case of King Ammisaduqa of Babylon in the seventeenth century B.C.E. (ANET, 526-28), During the Babylonian crisis, Zedekiah made a covenant with the people so that they should set free their Hebrew slaves, but subsequently they took them back again (Jer 34:8-11). The problem was that such reforms tended to be short-lived. We do not know how long Nehemiah’s reforms remained in effect, It is unlikely that they outlived his governorship.” (440).
Collins quoted Ammi-Sidaqu’s remission of debt. The edict, which was written between the years 1646 and 1626 B.C.E., reads as follows:
(2) The “board of trade” of Babylon, the boards of trade of the land, (and) the compensator who are assigned to the tax-collector in the end-of-the-year tablet — their arrears which [date] from the year (called) “By king Ammi-ditana the debts of the land which they had repeatedly incurred were remitted” to the month Nisannu of <the year> (called) “King Ammi-saduqa, whose princeship the divine Enlil had magnified, dawned truly like the Sungod over his nation (and) set its numerous people on the right path” are remitted because the king established equity for the land; the tax-collector may not dun their property.
(3) Whoever has given barley or silver to an Akkadian or an Amorite either [as a loan at in]terest or as demand-loan […] and has had a (legal) document drawn up (about it) — because the king has established equity for the land, his tablet will be voided; he may not collect barley or silver according to the wording of the tablet. (Context of Scripture 2.134)
VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
Hallo, William H. “The Edicts of Samsu-Iluna and his Succesors” in Context of Scripture 2.124 edited by William W. Hallo (New York: Brill, 1997).