Nehemiah lived at the time of the Babylonian Captivity. Earlier, the Babylonian Empire had conquered the Jewish people and carried them away from the promised land to Babylon. Enslaving conquered people and carrying them away was a common practice for conquering armies in that time and place. However, after some time, a new Babylonian king ascended to power, and he allowed a remnant of Jewish exiles to return to their land.
At the beginning of the Book of Nehemiah, the Babylonian king appointed Nehemiah governor of the then-province of Judah. The Book of Nehemiah chronicles some of the activities during Nehemiah's leadership, including the rebuilding of Jerusalem's defensive walls. In the middle of the Book of Nehemiah, which is mostly about rebuilding Jerusalem, Nehemiah takes the following digression to discuss how he dealt with a protest movement that threatened to derail his rebuilding efforts:
Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 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." There were also those who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine." And there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. 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."Nehemiah 5:1-13 (ESV)
I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. 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 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. 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? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. 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." 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. 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.
Poor people protested that they could not afford to feed their families or to pay their mortgages because times were so hard. The situation was so dire that they had to sell their children into slavery. This development was especially odious because the Jewish people had just been delivered from slavery in Babylon, and now fellow countrymen were doing the same thing.
This situation angered Nehemiah, and he "brought charges" against the rich and powerful nobles who were doing these things. Nehemiah pointed out that he, among others, was loaning the poor money and grain without interest. The nobles agreed to return the interest that they had charged and the collateral that they had seized, and to stop these practices.
The parallels to today are difficult to deny. Occupy Wall Street hardly could be described better than "a great outcry of the people." Some people cannot afford to feed their families. Some people are losing their homes to foreclosure. Some people are suffering under an unfair tax system that coddles the rich and soaks everyone else.
Nehemiah's response is instructive in what he did do, and in what he did not do. He did not tell these people to stop whining because they didn't know how good they had it. He did not arrest them for holding an illegal assembly. He did not tell them to go get a job. Nehemiah did not do any of the things that today's smug hypocrites are doing.
What Nehemiah did was he got angry. Nehemiah got angry with the rich and powerful who were abusing the poor and suffering. Nehemiah took their case as his own. He brought charges against the people doing these things.
Most striking is that legality was not a defense then, and it should not be a defense now. The footnote to Nehemiah 5:5 in the New English Translation (sponsored by the extremely conservative Dallas Theological Seminary) points out that these rich lenders were acting largely within their rights:
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. . . . 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).So, if the Bible should be any kind of guide for us, what should we do today? Should we stand with the rich and powerful who take billions in bail outs but throw widows out of their homes? Or should we stand with Nehemiah?