As of the writing of this lesson the
mortgage foreclosure crisis seems to be winding down in America. But for the
last few years we have been treated to any number of news stories showing
someone being thrown out of their home because they can’t pay the mortgage. It
is an interesting thought that Americans accept the stories as being sad
instances of what must absolutely be done. Good liberals will ask what the
government should do about this crisis; good conservatives will shrug their
shoulders and say it’s the individual’s fault for purchasing a house he or she
couldn’t afford but no one seems to blame the bank. That’s a change in American
attitudes from the Great Depression. We’ll take the history of that attitude
back about 2500 years in today’s lesson.
We must begin with a review of how the ancient Law of Moses
dealt with the concept of loans and mortgages.
Loan with Collateral
The process of obtaining a loan in the ancient Jewish world
is rather different than it is today. The closest modern parallel would be
taking something to a pawn shop. You bring something to the shop; they loan you
the money and keep the item until you either redeem the loan or abandon it, in
which case they sell the item. In those days you would bring forward a pledge.
This is some item of value which acted as security to the one who is making you
the loan. There were several regulations concerning what could be pledged and
how it was pledged.
One of the most common items to be pledged was a cloak.
Practically everyone had one; it was probably the most valuable garment that
the average poor man had. But the law is quite strict that this pledge had to
be returned to the poor man every night — so he can roll himself in it like a
blanket and not freeze in his sleep.
The lender was warned that God would hear the poor man’s complaint if you did
elsewise, “because I am gracious.” It’s a common theme in the Law of Moses; God
is the one who cares for the poor, the widow and the orphan.
Under no circumstances could you take a millstone in pledge. You were
taking the man’s livelihood; it seems to make little sense unless you were
taking vengeance. The Scripture says this would be like “taking a life in
Nor could you take any garment which belongs to a widow. Widows,
orphans and the poor are under the special protection of God.
Perhaps most interesting of all is this: when you took a
pledge, you were not allowed to go into the debtor’s house to get it. You had
to wait outside while he went in and got it and brought it out to you. It seems that
God was interested in the dignity of his people, so that the borrower would not
feel ashamed or invaded.
Sold into Slavery
The reader must understand that slavery in ancient times was
usually the result of one of two things: either you were captured in battle, or
you became so indebted that you were sold to pay your debts. It was also very
common for your children to be sold to pay your debts. So the racial aspect of
slavery that we understand in American history played little part in their
thinking; in this week’s reading it plays not at all. Slavery was a financial
Jewish law was particularly strict concerning someone who
was Jewish and was enslaved. The law required that he be a slave for no more
than six years, at the end of which time you released him. You didn’t just send
them away; you sent him away with great liberality. You provided him with
animals from your flock, wine and grain so that he might be established and
thus avoid becoming a slave again.
If the individual wanted to, he could become your slave permanently — but that
was the slave’s choice. This choice was often made because the slave may have
acquired a wife while a slave and she might still be a slave. By the standards
of the time, these rules were incredibly merciful.
Nor will you allowed to treat your slave like you would a
slave from another community (non-Jewish). A Jewish slave was to be treated as
if he were a hired hand.
The argument in all of this was that the Jews were slaves in Egypt; they are to
remember what a lousy deal it was. Therefore, why would you inflict it on your
Interest and Usury
We may begin with a note concerning the English language.
“Usury” in the King James Version is what we today would call “interest.” The
idea that it is excessive interest is a change in the language. One of the
stereotypes that is common in the English language is that of the Jewish
moneylender; Shakespeare established this well in the character of Shylock in The
Merchant of Venice. It is therefore interesting to find that the collection
of interest by one Jew from another was forbidden by the Law of Moses. A Jew was
allowed to charge interest to a foreigner, however.
The most common interest rate found in antiquity is 1% — per
month. It is not entirely clear that this is what’s going on in today’s
readings, but it is most likely the case. This was a standard during the Roman
Empire which defined excessive interest is being greater than that. But for the
Jew lending to the Jew, interest was not only forbidden but carried with it the
reprobation of God:
Proverbs 28:8 NASB
He who increases his wealth by interest and usury Gathers it for him who is
gracious to the poor.
The reader will note the repetition “interest and usury”;
the distinction in the original is whether you take it in money or in kind.
Despite all the warnings, by the time of Christ the taking
of interest was a commonplace in Jewish society. Readers will of course
remember the parable of the talents in which the returning master demanded that
at least he should have his money back with interest. Apparently,
the temptation to make a buck has been around for quite some time.
It is also evident from the Law of Moses that the purpose of
a loan from one Jew to another was not to make money, but to assist your Jewish
brother in getting back on his feet. That’s a very different view than we take
today. Interestingly, the modern socialist view is that the money cannot be
loaned but only given. We may wonder aloud what effect this has on the
psychology of the recipient.
Example of Nehemiah
Nehemiah 5:1-19 NASB
Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their
Jewish brothers. (2) For there were those who
said, "We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain
that we may eat and live." (3) There
were others who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our
houses that we might get grain because of the famine." (4) Also there were those who said, "We have
borrowed money for the king's tax on our
fields and our vineyards. (5) "Now our
flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet
behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our
daughters are forced into bondage already,
and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others." (6) Then I was very angry when I had heard their
outcry and these words. (7) I consulted with
myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, "You
are exacting usury, each from his brother!" Therefore, I held a great
assembly against them. (8) I said to 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?" Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. (9)
Again I said, "The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not
walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our
enemies? (10) "And likewise I, my
brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave
off this usury. (11) "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." (12) Then they said, "We
will give it back and will require
nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say." So I called the priests
and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise. (13) I also shook out the front of my garment and
said, "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." And all the assembly said, "Amen!" And they
praised the LORD. Then the people did according to this promise. (14) Moreover, from the day that I was appointed to
be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the
thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for
twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor's food allowance. (15)
But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took
from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants
domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God. (16) I also applied myself to the work on this wall;
we did not buy any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.
(17) Moreover, there
were at my table one hundred and fifty Jews and officials, besides
those who came to us from the nations that were around us. (18) Now that which was prepared for each day was
one ox and six choice sheep, also birds
were prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I
did not demand the governor's food allowance,
because the servitude was heavy on this people. (19)
Remember me, O my God, for good, according to
all that I have done for this people.
Plight of the People
We can see at once that the loans being made are not the
kind of business transaction that would be expected today. In fact, the average
bank’s view these people as a very poor risk. We may look at their complaint:
The first complaint is that they are starving. They run out of
money and they can afford to buy food; the farm is been mortgaged to somebody
else so they can’t grow it. Their next step is to sell their children into
The second complaint is one that’s familiar to us: taxes. Most
kingdoms had some variation of what we would call property tax. People in
California experienced this one passed proposition 13; the real estate value of
their homes went up so fast that their income could not possibly keep pace with
it. When the tax collector throws you out of your home for nonpayment, things
These people have done what they can; they borrowed money,
they mortgage the house in the fields and eventually sold their sons and
daughters as slaves. Now they’re broke, starving and still in debt. One wonders
how much sympathy and practical help they would get from social conservatives
There are four things I would point out to you about
Nehemiah’s response to this situation.
The first is that he rightly accuses the richer part of the
population of exacting interest, which is forbidden by the Law of Moses. In
this place and time, that makes it not only a sin but a crime. This is plain
and simple, dead to rights.
He then points out that he and his fellow workers have
industriously been buying Jewish people out of slavery, presumably enslaved to
the surrounding population, only to find that his fellow Jews are creating more
Jewish slaves for him to buy. He is righteously outraged.
He then does something which strikes the modern mind as extremely
strange: he tells them to give back (note the verb) what they have taken as
pledge. To understand this we shall have to dig a little deeper.
Finally, he admits he is embarrassed by their conduct. He is
ashamed to be their governor.
To understand this, we must recall that the Jew regarded the
land as something which was given to his family when the nation of Israel came
out of slavery in Egypt. He was not permitted to transfer it from one tribe to
another, and at the year of Jubilee the land reverted to its original owners.
This is very different in our use of land, which makes it practically a
commodity. So they would not have seen Nehemiah’s orders in quite the same
light that we might.
There is more to it. We look at a loan as being something
which enables the recipient to buy something, paying over time — and also makes
money for the person making the loan. Nehemiah would’ve viewed a loan as a way
of getting your brother Jew back on his feet. Understanding the financial
transaction that way shows us the different light they had on it.
There is no sense in trying to straighten people out morally
if your own life is crooked. We need to look at Nehemiah’s example as well.
As we mentioned above, he’s been in the business of buying back
Jewish slaves. He’s trying to reestablish the nation of Israel in the land
which it was given, and one of the things he’s doing is returning a Jewish
slave to the Jewish land by buying him back from a non-Jewish owner.
His conduct as governor is also exemplary. He doesn’t live it up;
he doesn’t lord it over the Jews but rather acts in a modest fashion.
As we saw last week, he has been the man in charge of building
the wall. That has great advantages to a city in this time; Nehemiah is a
On top of all that, he fed hundred and fifty people a day at his
table. This is a practical example of both politics and charity.
With this kind of conduct, he has the moral authority to
upbraid the Jews for their charging of interest in selling people into slavery.
If the top man in the country, the governor, does it this way then why can’t
We might ask how we ever got so far away from this conception.
A complete discussion of this issue would take several
volumes. But I will submit to the reader that there are three major influences
which have completely altered our point of view.
The first is Marxism. The thought that “from each according to
his ability, to each according to his need” dominates the modern philosophy of
dealing with poverty. There is now an implied guilt in being rich, no matter
how you got the money. Therefore, we take from the rich as much as possible.
Since this is an act of taxation, not charity, the rich resist this. Since this
is given to the poor, we remove their motivation to make the kind of loan that
allows their fellow man to become like them. The money is going to come from
the rich; the question is whether or not they get the privilege of charity. The
money is going to go to the poor; the question is whether or not it is a loan
(which impels responsibility) or a gift (which implies consumption.)
The second is the rise of the corporation. Liberal thought regards
the corporation somewhat like the goose that lays the golden egg. It produces
the money but we have a strong urge to open the bird up and see how that works;
surely we can make it work better. But the corporation cannot, as a rule, make
its prime purpose charity. Banks are corporations. They’re in it for the money.
The third is the rise of the state, particularly as enabled by
our technology. When I was a child, people would often say, “Somebody ought to
do something about that.” Now people often say, “The government ought to do
something about that.” The power of the computer allows the government to
perform things in detail which would be the envy of a Roman Emperor.
Nehemiah lived about 500 years before the time of Christ.
The church in the intervening years has developed two schools of thought on the
subject of how we should handle poverty.
The first is the Roman Catholic view. It was first clearly
enunciated by Saint Augustine, and remains the view of the Catholic Church
We begin with the idea that the state is the “handmaiden of the
church.” In other words, the state should take moral direction from the church
and act accordingly. This includes not only welfare to deal with poverty, but
also enforcing various forms of morality.
One such form of morality to be enforced is this: if you are rich
but not charitable you are morally in the wrong. You are greedy. Therefore, it
is reasonable for the state to take away your money and give it to those who
are poor — since you won’t perform the charity yourself.
The state, therefore, should take responsibility for dealing with
poverty — since they have both the means and the moral imperative. This is
referred to as “social justice.”
This view has been greatly influenced by Marxist “liberation
theology.” But it dates well before Karl Marx and represents a view which most
Americans find somewhat strange.
The second is the Protestant point of view, particularly in
the United States. This view is based on the idea that government should be
limited and restrained.
The primary restraint on government is that it should be separate
from the church. The separation of church and state is a cherished American
principle. It is logical to conclude from this, therefore, that the government
has no business doing what the church should do. One of the things the church
should do is provide charitable relief to poverty — and therefore the
government should not. The sounds very appealing; but remember that the
government does in fact legislate morality (for example, laws about bank
The Protestant view of poverty is rather different also. In the
Catholic view, poverty is something which is just given to you. It’s your lot
in life. In the Protestant view, it’s usually because you failed to work hard;
it’s a moral failure. Welfare, therefore, is rewarding moral failure. It is not
charity but counterproductive.
It is therefore obvious that sympathy (and thus charity) are
reserved for the truly deserving. This of course imposes on the Protestant the
task of deciding who are the truly deserving. This is not always as easy as it
As a practical matter of fact, our current legal system is a
hybrid of these two points of view as modified by the practical realities of
politics. Anyone expecting it to make logical sense is going to be
An Unresolved Problem
We might bring up two aspects of Nehemiah’s example which
are challenge to those of us who live in the twenty-first century.
What is the purpose of lending? Is there such a thing as charitable
lending? We seem to have divided provision for the poor into outright gifts (or
welfare) and loans strictly for the purpose of making money. Nehemiah suggests
that there may be a middle ground.
Our emphasis on making sure that corporations maintain our
privacy may have in fact interfered with our ability to be our “brother’s
keeper.” It is common in the church today that we have people in need who are
embarrassed to ask for help. It may well be worth asking what were doing wrong
that such a situation should occur.