The Sixteenth in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
If you cannot thwart your enemy’s efforts by mockery or by threats of invasion, you hope that internal strife will do him in. If that does not work, then you can kill him–or at least you can threaten to kill him so that your enemy becomes so intimidated by the threat, he simply gives up and those under his leadership become lost sheep without a shepherd. If threats like this do not work, you can take the less radical but equally desperate step of inventing falsehoods and then threatening to reveal these falsehood publicly. You might even trick your enemy into doing something foolish which might even cost him his own life, if not his reputation. The Book of Nehemiah has been full of twists and turns already, but things ratchet up greatly when death threats and blackmail become part of our story.
We are continuing our study of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and as we saw last time, the people of Israel faced a serious dilemma. The walls of their city are in ruins. They live under constant threat of invasion–a real and pressing danger. No one is safe and everyone lives in constant fear of attack. Under the capable leadership of Nehemiah, the entire population in and around Jerusalem, devoted themselves to the massive effort of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, gates, and fortifications so that the city is once again secure and the people safe from attack. While everyone in the Jerusalem area benefits from this rebuilding effort, the price was very high. The work which was required to rebuild the walls, took people away from their daily tasks of providing food and shelter and the necessities of life. The longer this daily work was neglected, the greater was the crisis facing the people.
As we saw last time, Nehemiah chapter 5 recounts a troubling incident during the rebuilding process in which the people of Israel cried out to God because of growing and serious hardships. The daily work required to provide food, water, clothing, and shelter was not being done because the men were working hard to rebuild the walls. But they were not paid for this work, nor taking care of crops and fields. Shortages were growing severe and many of the people began doing desperate things in order to survive. Some were taking out loans on their small plots of land to secure enough money to buy the necessities of life. Some were forced to become indentured-servants, or even worse, forced to deliver their children into service as laborers (in the case of girls, as concubines). Just as they had done in their time in Egypt, when they labored under the cruel hand of the Pharaoh, the people of Israel cried out to YHWH for deliverance. He heard their cries in Egypt. He hears them in Jerusalem a thousand years later.
It was not just the shortages, but cruel injustice inflicted upon the poor and needy which lay at the heart of the crisis. Those making loans to desperate people and forcing them into debt-slavery were their fellow Jews. Some (like Nehemiah) made loans to struggling people with the intention of helping them endure the present crisis. But such help wasn’t really help. Once someone took out a debt they could not possibly repay, they would lose everything. Jewish law required that all debts be repaid, forcing those borrowers who defaulted to become debt-slaves who then lost everything.
This was a time of national emergency and it was out of desperation that people mortgaged their property, an especially difficult circumstance since the reason people could not repay their loans was because they were off working on the walls, labor for which they were not reimbursed. But some of the wealthy among them loaned money, knowing in advance that the borrower could not repay the loans, and did so as a way to acquire the person’s property when they inevitably defaulted. Some even stooped so low as to indenture those who defaulted, and were in turn selling these indentured servants to fellow Jews or even Gentiles.
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