Nehemiah 5

Nehemiah Intervenes on behalf of the Oppressed

1Then there was a great outcry from the people and their wives against their fellow Jews.
Heb “their brothers the Jews.”
2There were those who said, “With our sons and daughters, we are many. We must obtain
Heb “take” (so also in v. 3).
grain in order to eat and stay alive.”
3There were others who said, “We are putting up our fields, our vineyards, and our houses as collateral in order to obtain grain during the famine.” 4Then there were those who said, “We have borrowed money to pay our taxes to the king
Heb “for the tax of the king.”
on our fields and our vineyards.
5And now, though we share the same flesh and blood as our fellow countrymen,
Heb “according to the flesh of our brothers is our flesh.”
and our children are just like their children,
Heb “like their children, our children.”
still we have found it necessary to subject our sons and daughters to slavery.
Heb “to become slaves” (also later in this verse).
Some of our daughters have been subjected to slavery, while we are powerless to help,
Heb “there is not power for our hand.” The Hebrew expression used here is rather difficult.
since our fields and vineyards now belong to other people.”
The poor among the returned exiles were being exploited by their rich countrymen. Moneylenders were loaning large amounts of money, and not only collecting interest on loans which was illegal (Lev 25:36–37; Deut 23:19–20), but also seizing pledges as collateral (Neh 5:3) which was allowed (Deut 24:10). When the debtors missed a payment, the moneylenders would seize their collateral: their fields, vineyards and homes. With no other means of income, the debtors were forced to sell their children into slavery, a common practice at this time (Neh 5:5). Nehemiah himself was one of the moneylenders (Neh 5:10), but he insisted that seizure of collateral from fellow Jewish countrymen was ethically wrong (Neh 5:9).

6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints.
Heb “words.”
7I considered these things carefully
Heb “my heart was advised upon me.”
and then registered a complaint with the wealthy
Heb “nobles.”
and the officials. I said to them, “Each one of you is seizing the collateral
Heb “taking a creditor’s debt.” The Hebrew noun מַשָּׁא (masha’) means “interest; debt” and probably refers to the collateral (pledge) collected by a creditor (HALOT 641-42 s.v.). This particular noun form appears only in Nehemiah (5:7, 10; 10:32); however, it is related to מַשָּׁאָה (mashaah, “contractual loan; debt; collateral”) which appears elsewhere (Deut 24:10; Prov 22:26; cf. Neh 5:11). See the note on the word “people” at the end of v. 5. The BHS editors suggest emending the MT to מָשָׂא (masa’, “burden”), following several medieval Hebrew MSS; however, the result is not entirely clear: “you are bearing a burden, a man with his brothers.”
from your own countrymen!”
Heb “his brothers.”
Because of them I called for
Heb “I gave.”
a great public assembly.
8I said to them, “To the extent possible we have bought back our fellow Jews
Heb “our brothers, the Jews.”
who had been sold to the Gentiles. But now you yourselves want to sell your own countrymen,
Heb “your brothers.”
so that we can then buy them back!” They were utterly silent, and could find nothing to say.

9 Then I
The translation reads with the Qere and the ancient versions וָאוֹמַר (vaomar, “and I said”) rather than the MT Kethib, וַיֹּאמֶר (vayyomer, “and he said”).
said, “The thing that you are doing is wrong!
Heb “not good.” The statement “The thing…is not good” is an example of tapeinosis, a figurative expression which emphasizes the intended point (“The thing…is wrong!”) by negating its opposite.
Should you not conduct yourselves
Heb “[should you not] walk.”
in the fear of our God in order to avoid the reproach of the Gentiles who are our enemies?
10Even I and my relatives
Heb “brothers.”
and my associates
Heb “lads.”
are lending them money and grain. But let us abandon this practice of seizing collateral!
Heb “this debt.” This expression is a metonymy of association: “debt” refers to the seizure of the collateral of the debt.
11This very day return to them their fields, their vineyards, their olive trees, and their houses, along with the interest
The MT reads וּמְאַת (umeat, “and the hundredth”) which is somewhat enigmatic. The BHS editors suggest emending to וּמַשַּׁאת (umashat, “and the debt”) which refers to the interest or collateral (pledge) seized by a creditor (Deut 24:10; Prov 22:26; see HALOT 641-42 s.v. מַשָּׁא). The term מַשַּׁאת (mashat) is related to the noun מָשָּׁא (masha’, “debt”) in 5:7, 10.
that you are exacting from them on the money, the grain, the new wine, and the olive oil.”

12 They replied, “We will return these things,
The words “these things” are not included in the Hebrew text, but have been supplied in the translation for clarity.
and we will no longer demand anything from them. We will do just as you say.” Then I called the priests and made the wealthy and the officials
Heb “took an oath from them”; the referents (the wealthy and the officials, cf. v. 7) have been specified in the translation for clarity.
swear to do what had been promised.
Heb “according to this word.”
13I also shook out my garment,
Heb “my bosom.”
and I said, “In this way may God shake out from his house and his property every person who does not carry out
Heb “cause to stand.”
this matter. In this way may he be shaken out and emptied!” All the assembly replied, “So be it!” and they praised the LORD. Then the people did as they had promised.
Heb “according to this word.”

14 From the day that I was appointed
The BHS editors suggest reading צֻוֵּאתִי (tsuvveti, “and I was appointed”) rather than the reading of the MT, אֹתִי צִוָּה (tsivvah oti, “he appointed me”).
The translation reads with one medieval Hebrew MS פֶּחָה (pekhah, “governor”) rather than פֶּחָם (pekham, “their governor”) of the MT. One would expect the form with pronominal suffix to have a tav (ת) before the suffix.
in the land of Judah, that is, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes – twelve years in all – neither I nor my relatives
Heb “brothers.”
ate the food allotted to the governor.
Heb “the food of the governor.” Cf. v. 18.
15But the former governors who preceded me had burdened the people and had taken food and wine from them, in addition to
The Hebrew term אַחַר (’akhar) is difficult here. It normally means “after,” but that makes no sense here. Some scholars emend it to אַחַד (’akhad) and supply the word “day,” which yields the sense “daily.” Cf. TEV “40 silver coins a day for food and wine.”
forty shekels of silver. Their associates were also domineering over the people. But I did not behave in this way, due to my fear of God.
16I gave myself to the work on this wall, without even purchasing
Heb “we did not purchase.”
a field. All my associates were gathered there for the work.

17 There were 150 Jews and officials who dined with me routinely,
Heb “who were gathered around us at my table.”
in addition to those who came to us from the nations
Or “from the Gentiles.” The same Hebrew word can refer to “the Gentiles” or “the nations.” Cf. the phrase in 6:16.
all around us.
18Every day one ox, six select sheep, and some birds were prepared for me, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Despite all this I did not require the food allotted to the governor, for the work was demanding on this people.

19 Please remember me for good, O my God, for all that I have done for this people.

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