Nehemiah 5 Human Capital

Why is slavery wrong? Why did God sometimes allow it? What is our responsibility for how we use our money? What do we owe the poor? Are we our brother’s keepers? “Read More” to pursue answers in Nehemiah.

Lord, speak to me through your Spirit and your Word, your Body and your Blood;
that I might know you as you are, and manifest the image of Christ in this world,
and the world to come. Amen.

Nehemiah 5:1-19

And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.

Having overcome the opposition of external enemies, Nehemiah faces what is arguably a greater challenge: internal dissension. There appear to be three related complaints:

1. We must get grain to eat
2. We must mortgage our land to get grain, because of the famine
3. With no land, we must enslave our children for money to pay taxes

It doesn’t get much uglier than this. Nehemiah is certainly ticked:

And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.

However, the situation isn’t nearly so black and white as it may appear to us. Though I hesitate to say it, slavery was condoned in Scripture at that time. While much of that was surely cultural, there was a germ of economic realism behind it. In a time of universal property ownership, it was a way for a man incapable of managing his own farm to “apprentice” himself to someone more competent. Their concept of slavery — since it was within the same culture — was closer to adoption (or even marriage) than our modern idea of property.

Not close enough, to be sure — I’m sure slavery even back then was often abusive and degrading; then again, so was parenting and husbandry. “Is”, for that matter, though I would argue that slavery is naturally destructive, and we have better institutions for addressing that economic “failure mode.” Or at least we should.

Regardless, I’m sure Nehemiah is even more cognizant of this context (including the famine) than I am, which is why he thinks:

Then I consulted with myself

before acting against the rich,

and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother.

and does so in concert with the entire community:

And I set a great assembly against them.

What I find most impressive, though, is that he does not blast them with Bible verses, but rather speaks out of his own authentic response:

And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us?

It reminds me of something I’m learning about shame: there is a difference between being shamed by the cruel things people say versus being shamed by the good things people do. In the former case, I feel shamed by you; in the latter, I am ashamed of myself. That seems to be what happens here:

Then held they their peace, and found nothing [to answer].

Having validated his moral authority, he only now proceeds to exhort them:

It [is] not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?

— and offer redemption, based on what he himself is willing to do:

likewise, [and] my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury. Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses

So far, this seems severe, but perfectly reasonable. Go Nehemiah! But then, this next verse is a shocker:

also the hundredth [part] of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.

1% interest? THAT is his definition of usury? Today, we use the term to mean excessive interest, but clearly Nehemiah is following a higher standard (though, to be fair, that may’ve been more than 1% annually). I have to be honest: I’m far from Libertarian, but I am Capitalist enough to feel uncomfortable with this prohibition. What to make of it?

Well, I am somewhat comforted by Tony Campolo’s clarification: usury is charging interest to the poor; i.e., there’s nothing wrong with getting a “piece of the action” by charging the rich for money. 🙂 But, even if that’s true, it doesn’t really address the deeper question: what is our obligation to the poor? For that matter, how do we create a viable, self-sustaining system of investing in the poor without such incentives?

Nehemiah’s solution is an affront to libertarian conservatives, secular liberals, and even socialistic evangelicals:

Then said they, We will restore [them], and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise

It is “voluntary submission to community in the presence of God and authentic leadership.” Let that sink in for a minute. Socialists hate the idea of “voluntary“, Libertarians the idea of “submission“, and secularists “God.” For that matter, the whole thing makes me squirm. 🙂 Yet, I suspect all three are actually necessary for the system to work. Which in this case, it clearly does:

Then said they, We will restore [them], and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise

Yet, we in our shame prefer to deny one or the other aspect, not realizing that we need all three legs to build a stable system. That, in essence, is the challenge of authentic leadership — to invite compliance on the basis of superior virtue, not enforce it on the basis of superior strength. Alas, few leaders are as powerful as Nehemiah, yet still willing to use their power to demonstrate virtue:

Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, [that is], twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.

Not only does he not claim his rights, he devotes his resources to the work:

Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my servants [were] gathered thither unto the work.

and the people:

Moreover [there were] at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, beside those that came unto us from among the heathen that [are] about us

In a sense, Nehemiah discovered — and demonstrated — a better solution to the problem that slavery was invented to address. He became a father to the fatherless and poor, providing them sustenance and direction in a redemptive — not exploitive — fashion. His example is a challenge — and rebuke — to us all:

Think upon me, my God, for good, [according] to all that I have done for this people

Surely something we all should think upon.

Leading by virtue
Means loving our enemies enough
To sacrifice ourselves for their redemption;
All else is tyranny — or surrender


God, I’ll be honest with you. As much as I admire Nehemiah, and enjoy this passage, I’m not sure how far I’m willing to embrace this teaching. I don’t really love the poor that much. I am not so strong and self-sacrificing a man as he. I have a hard time trusting that you’ll remember me if I give myself away so freely. Heck, I have a hard time merely trusting that I know You well enough to justly take such risks, and invite others to submit to your presence. Especially on the basis of my example.

Yet, if I dare not dream so grand as Nehemiah, let me at least be faithful in what I can see. Teach me to exercise authentic leadership in the domains I do recognize: my home, my church, my work, my community. Help me neither to close my eyes nor harden my heart against either the poor or their oppressors; but rather to manifest your grace and virtue to all of them — inviting them to submit to Your authority, not mine. Make me an instrument of your peace, which is the only peace that truly endures. For it was bought with the one price stronger than any yoke of slavery, the blood of your Son Jesus Christ. In whose name I pray, Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title is an economic term pioneered by Gary Becker, with connotations both positive (viewing people as an asset, rather than a cost) and negative (viewing people as assets, rather than intrinsically valuable human beings).