I’ve been doing family history, so I’m lost in different centuries and different nations today … nations that were refugees, nations that were victims of genocide, nations that fought battles of rebellion against their colonial governments.
So you’ll have to forgive me if my Sunday takeout on Nehemiah’s leadership of Israel takes me through some of that global political history.
Nehemiah the colonial governor
Nehemiah was one of Israel’s colonial governors under King Artaxerxes of Babylon. Fortunately for Israel, he was well-respected by the king and given freedom to govern as he saw fit. He was also the first decent guy to hold the post in a good while.
So instead of enforcing Babylonian taxes to support the governor’s manse, he began enforcing Jewish law. He got into it with the former governors and their local officials, who had not only charged the Babylonian taxes but 40 extra shekels of silver that many Israelite families couldn’t pay without taking a loan … at interest rates that Israel considered usurious, 1 percent of the amount loaned (Neh. 5:11).
We haven’t been under colonial rule for so long that we can’t remember anything except our rebellion against it. Here’s a brief analogy to Israel’s relationship with Babylon.
Imagine: a re-colonized USA
Try to imagine that we, as Americans, have been overthrown by the drug lords and thugs of Colombia. Some of us are allowed to continue living here and some of us are forced to move to Colombia. There we work in their fields and kitchens, drive vehicles that we pretend not to know carry drugs and guns, and weep daily as we remember the freedoms we once knew.
Those who live in the former USA pay high taxes imposed by the drug lords who have taken over government here. The “smart” ones earn the trust of the colonial governors and are given local offices. They collect the taxes the government requires, and some extra to take care of themselves.
Nehemiah of colonial Colombia
There’s one guy working in Colombia who manages to be both loyal to its president and constantly reminding him how much he loves the principles on which the USA was founded. He allows the president of Colombia to see him weeping over the decay of the USA – especially the collapse of the East and West wings of the White House, which he has seen on cable news.
He has been such a good assistant to Colombia’s president that he’s sent back to the USA as colonial governor of DC. There, he organizes the residents to begin rebuilding the White House. And he refuses to collect the taxes he could receive as colonial governor. He lives on his family money, the way he did before he was exiled.
That guy is living like Nehemiah did. He lived according to his American principles of honor, fairness, and justice as best he could while serving in Colombia and continued to live out his principles once returned to his homeland, still serving Colombia, as a colonial governor.
Takeaway: No taxes for colonial rulers
What I take away is this: Nehemiah isn’t an argument for “no taxes.” He didn’t consider himself a ruler of Israel and so he wouldn’t accept taxes or tribute paid by Israel. King Solomon was a ruler of Israel. He had a treasury full of resources that had been provided by the people of Israel. This was right and appropriate. It made it clear to surrounding kingdoms that Solomon and his people were powerful and wealthy and wise.
Takeaway: No interest on loans
What Nehemiah does provide is a strong reminder of how seriously God once took the command not to charge interest to our brothers in the faith. When Nehemiah returned to Israel and found Israelites charging other Israelites as much as 1 percent he was appalled. How much are you being charged on your mortgage? What about your credit card? Interest-free loans are part of what make Habitat homes affordable. They’re part of what the organization’s founder considered to be the Christian way to run that kind of ministry.
History is a wonderful lens through which to view Scripture.