Nehemiah 5:1-19 – Economic Difficulties


Nehemiah 5:1-19


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.