In the post-exilic period, a Jew serving as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia heard of the plight of his Jewish brethren in Jerusalem. They had begun their return from exile in 538 BC; but now, almost a century later (445 BC) the walls of the city, torn down by the Babylonians in the conquest of the early sixth century, have not been repaired. There were also many other problems with Samaritans and other foreigners, moral problems, intermarriages with idolaters, and a variety of issues related to worship and political stability.
The People Complain
The relevant part of this story comes up in chapter 5 of the Book of Nehemiah, a story that is somewhat complex. Up to this point in the narrative, Nehemiah had laid a heavy burden on the people of Judah to rebuild the walls of the city, a necessity in their politically turbulent situation with enemies all around them. The rebuilding was moving along quite well. But then the people came to Nehemiah with a series of complaints (Neh. 5:1-5).
They were very poor, partly because they had been cut off from commercial activity with their Gentile neighbors due to strained relations (see chapter 4) and also because Nehemiah’s demands for their labor had prevented them from working their fields and vineyards sufficiently to provide for their needs (Neh. 5:1-3). Some of them had to mortgage their property to other Jews in order to bear up under the financial strain (Neh. 5:10-11). Further, they were suffering under heavy taxation from Persia on their fields and vineyards (Neh. 5:4). In order to remedy this situation, they had sold many of their children into servitude, presumably to Gentiles who had taken some of the daughters as second wives. Some of those children had been redeemed by wealthy Jews in the area who had bound them over as servants, taking advantage of the economic situation (Neh. 5:5).
Hearing this, and undoubtedly being informed in greater detail, Nehemiah responded (Neh. 5:6-13). He knew this placed the people in great danger, since a healthy economic infrastructure (as it would be phrased today) was crucial to the Jewish recovery. Although he was angry, Nehemiah responded carefully and respectfully (“I consulted with myself”) and with specificity and firmness.
Demanding Interest on the Investment
The chief problem lay with the “nobles and rulers” (reminiscent of the Ezekiel text), and Nehemiah gathered them together for a public consultation, a “great assembly” (Neh. 5:7). He queried 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?” The narrative goes on, “Then they were silent and could not find a word to say” (Neh. 5:8).
The act of redeeming the Jewish young people from the Gentiles was a commendable act, as was the loaning of money for mortgages; but that was not the end of the story. It appears that these “nobles and rulers” were now demanding interest on their investment of redemption. “Please, let us leave off this usury” (Neh. 5:10).
Nehemiah then gave them specific instructions: “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” (Neh. 5:11). From verses 10 and 11, it seems clear that the wealthy Jews were charging interest on property, money, and grain, in direct violation of the covenant commandments given by God through Moses.
Biblical scholar F. Charles Fensham explains that the “hundredth part” likely means usury to the tune of a hundredth percent interest per month, or twelve percent per year. Commentator H. G. M. Williamson also notes that is considerably less than what was being charged back in Persia, Nehemiah’s birthplace, where the interest rate was twenty percent. The nobles and rulers responded, promising, “We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say” (Neh. 5:12). Nehemiah then had them take oaths before the priests that they would do so; and he himself, reminiscent of certain “prophetic acts” found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, shook his garments out before the people as a warning. “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” (Neh. 5:13).
In “Covenant and Law in Chronicles–Nehemiah” in Catholic Biblical Quarterly issue 44, D.J. McCarthy explains that the action ought not to be seen as a covenant-renewal ceremony, but it does demonstrate a willingness on the part of the people to be led to honor the law given by Moses, even at personal expense. What of that personal expense? This is the most remarkable aspect of the text. Nehemiah instructed the nobles to “give back” to the people all that had been mortgaged or held as a pledge.
Repayments and Cancellation of Debts
Nehemiah’s instruction went far beyond the dictates of the law, as this study so far has shown. All that the law required was that they return the pledged possessions upon the repayment of the original loan. The most probable reason for this cancellation of debt was the depth of the poverty of the average debtor. There was no way in the foreseeable future that they would be able to pay the debt, and the community need to move forward with its great task without the distraction of who owed what to whom. In the words of commentator Derek Kidner, the depth of their poverty caused Nehemiah to call for “gifts, not loans.”
The net effect was spiritual renewal: “And all the assembly said ‘Amen!’ And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise” (Neh. 5:13). When people praise the Lord after giving away great wealth, good things cannot be far away!
Now that we’ve examined the key Old Testament texts that deal with interest or usury, let’s turn our attention in the next blog to the few New Testament texts that seem to address this issue.