Debt has been a reality of economic life since ancient times. The complex laws and traditional practices surrounding debt, loans, surety, and interest are reflected in numerous documents from the ancient Near East and from the Greco-Roman world, as well as in the Bible. Documentary evidence for debt practices, including interest-bearing loans utilizing both persons and property as security, and unpaid debts resulting in enslavement or imprisonment, as well as debt relief measures (such as the reforms of Urukagina), goes back to the Early Dynastic period in Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C.E. Among private contracts from the Ur III period, Raymond Westbrook notes that more than half concern loans (Westbrook, 2003, 1:185). Law codes and documents from the Old Babylonian and Old Assyrian period attest to similar practices during the second millennium B.C.E. The same continues to be true in the first millennium B.C.E. through the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods, where loans continue to constitute the largest group of documents found (Oelsner in Westbrook, 2003, 2:949). Biblical texts of various genres reflect similar practices in Iron Age Israel. Evidence of debt practices in pre-Demotic Egypt is scarce, but later materials from the Hellenistic and Roman periods show many of those practices continuing throughout the Mediterranean world, even as exorbitant interest rates and debt slavery were progressively discouraged.

Terminology.

Even in English, debt terminology is complex and varied, ranging from very common to quite specialized vocabulary: give, take, debt, debtor, borrower, borrow, request, owe, pay, repay, payment, loan, lend, lent, lender, creditor, credit, extend, collect, charge, exact, claim, obligation, principal, interest, profit, return, increase, gain(s), usury (excessive interest), security, collateral, mortgage, equity, token, pawn, pledge (a person, property, or object of value pledged as security or collateral for a loan), surety (third-party guarantor of a loan), default (failure to make repayment as due), foreclosure (seizure of a mortgaged property upon default), forfeit, distrainment (seizure and detainment of a member of a debtor’s household, in order to coerce repayment), possessory pledge (held by the creditor until full repayment is received), antichretic pledge (a possessory or seized pledge that itself pays or offsets interest due by labor or produce), hypothecary pledge (a non-possessory pledge used as collateral but held by the debtor and only seized upon default), redemption (buying back a seized pledge by paying off the loan), debt easement (write-off, cancellation, or reduction of a debt), and so on.

The relevant biblical terminology surrounding debt practices is likewise complex and varied, including very common, general words like those for “give,” “take,” “gain/profit,” or “seek” (to borrow), as well as slightly more specific terms like Hebrew nāšāʾ and nāšâ (meaning “deceive” and “forget,” but also “deprive,” “lend,” and “be in debt”), along with their derivatives like nōšeh (“creditor” in 2 Kgs 4:1 and elsewhere), nĕšî (in 2 Kgs 4:7) and maššāʾâ (“debt” in Deut 24:10 and Prov 22:26), and maššāʾ (“interest” in Neh 5:7, 10); or Greek opheilō (“owe”) and ophellō (“increase”) and their derivatives like opheilēma (“loan”). On a similar level would be Greek daneizō (“lend”), danos or daneion (“loan, debt”), and apodidōmi or antapodidōmi (“restore, pay back”), as well as Hebrew šālēm (Gen 15:16), šillēm (Deut 32:35) and Piel forms of √š-l-m generally (signifying “complete payment, restitution, recompense”). Then there are more ambiguous descriptive words like those for “oppress” (ʿāšaq) or “wring out” (mîṣ/mēṣ as in Isa 16:4), which could refer to extreme usury or extortion, or to other means of extracting “unjust gain” (beṣaʿ). Likewise, the Piel verb ḥimmēš in Genesis 41:34 (“take a fifth part”; i.e., 20 percent) refers to a portion of the harvest owed in a debt situation, though possibly accounted more as a lease fee in a share-cropping arrangement. Greek prassō can refer to collection of an investment with interest as in Luke 19:23, or to collection of taxes as possibly in Luke 3:13.

The more specialized or technical terms appear less frequently, but can provide a somewhat more reliable indicator of the kind of loan activity taking place. Specialized terms for interest or usury include Hebrew nešek (literally a “bite,” probably indicating interest deducted up front from the principal of the loan, with 12 occurrences widely distributed in the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, plus Ezekiel, Psalms, and Proverbs), tarbît and marbît (“increase,” with a combined total of 11 occurrences in Leviticus, Samuel, Ezekiel, Chronicles, and Proverbs), and Greek tokos (in Matt 25:27 and Luke 19:23). Terms for pledges (collateral offered for a loan), or for giving or taking in pledge, include Hebrew ʿăbôṭ (non-possessory pledge probably equivalent in value to the amount of the loan, occurring four times in Deut 24:10–13), plus verbs ʿārab (meaning “lend”) and ḥābal (meaning “seize,” with 15 occurrences distributed widely), and their derivatives ḥăbōl (a non-possessory pledge seized at default, found in Ezek 18:12, 16; 33:15) and ḥăbolâ (Ezek 18:7), ʿărubbâ (as found in Prov 17:18, but also used in a non-loan context in 1 Sam 17:18) and ʿērābôn (Judah’s token given to Tamar in Gen 38:13–20 pending full payment for services rendered), as well as Greek arrabōn (which is a transliteration of the Hebrew, found in 2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; and Eph 1:14). Vocabulary relating to standing as “surety” or “guarantor” for someone, guaranteeing repayment of a loan or other obligation, includes Hebrew verbs ʿārab (used of Judah standing surety for the safe return of Benjamin to his father in Gen 43:9 and 44:32 but in a non-debt context, and elsewhere ambiguous between “surety” and “pledge”) and tāqaʿkap (literally, “strike the palm,” only in Prov 11:15, 17:18, 22:26; and Job 17:3), plus possibly tĕśûmet yād (assigned as security in Lev 5:21 [Eng 6:2]), and ʾissār (binding obligation of ambiguous nature, only in Num 30:2–15). In Greek we have egguē (a security) and egguos (guarantee, as in Heb 7:22).

Mesopotamian Loan Practice.

In ancient Mesopotamia, loans most frequently involved food like grains (barley, wheat, emmer, etc.) and dates. Other commodities such as lead, wood, brick, tiles, and various metals (copper, tin, bronze, and silver) were also common. Animals, slaves, boats, plows, and other tools could also be loaned (or hired) out. Loans could be made either with or without interest. An interest-bearing loan was termed a ḫubullu. A loan given without interest was termed a ḫubuttu or ḫubuttātu (see Westbrook, 2003, 1:173, 213, 403, 498). Debt documents indicate that kings and temples frequently made a variety of business loans for building projects and trading ventures and the like, but private short-term agrarian subsistence loans were also common. Records also indicate that, over the course of time, large segments of the population succumbed to debt slavery, necessitating periodic corrections in the form of mīšarum and andurārum “debt-release” edicts by the king.

Interest.

Grain was usually lent at seed time, with repayment expected at harvest, often “on the threshing floor” (as specified in Laws of Eshnunna [LE] §19) along with an extra one-third portion for interest (33.3 percent; as compared to one-fifth or 20 percent for silver) according to Hammurapi’s standard rate, though in some periods interest could reach as high as 50 percent (see the Laws of X §§m–n; LE §§18a–21; and Laws of Hammurapi [LH] §§88–90/gap t–z; among others, in Roth, 1997; plus the Early Bronze Age ana ittišu school text from Nippur). In the case of severe drought and crop failure, the repayment could be put off until the next year according to LH §48 and the “ana ittišu” school text (with, presumably, a second loan at seed time required). In general, however, it was intended as a high-interest, short-term loan of maybe five months for barley, seven months for wheat.

Pledges.

A pledge of some sort, or a combination of pledges possibly equal in value to the amount of the loan would often be specified. If the borrower could not repay the loan with its interest by the end of the loan period, then the creditor could take control of the pledge(s) or any other property or commodity that he might have, in accordance with LH gap l (Roth, 1997, p. 96). Sin-uballit’s loan contracts from the reign of Nabopolassar (Neo-Babylonian period) in the Ur Excavation Texts, summarized by Robert Maloney (1974, p. 17), demonstrate this practice. It is clear from the repeated pledging of the same person as slave that either the pledge was not actually transferred unless there was a default on the loan or that the period of service was extremely short (or both). It is also clear from these texts that a given pledge (a slave, field, or garden) could only secure a loan up to the amount of his/its value. Thus it was common for a given pledge to secure only a portion of a particular loan, while the remainder might be secured by a different pledge. In some cases it is specified that one portion is secured by a pledge with no interest charged, while another portion bears interest but has no pledge attached.

Since seizure of a loan-equivalent pledge could in effect pay off the loan from the lender’s perspective, at that point the loan could be considered to have been paid off, though possibly without its interest. A modern-day mortgage foreclosure works similarly in that seizing control of the property effectively satisfies payment of the mortgage.

Israelite Loan Practice.

The economy of ancient Israel was more basic than that of Mesopotamia, being predominantly agrarian. So texts concerning loans in the Hebrew Bible are not concerned with commercial or speculative business loans. Rather, the loans referenced would have been small subsistence loans of grain or silver given to poor people just to help them survive, along with some more substantial loans related to agriculture. These would most often have been short-term loans of grain at the time of planting, to be repaid in kind with interest at the threshing floor when the harvest would come in.

Interest could be taken up front out of the principal, collected on an annual basis, or compounded and collected at the end of the term of the loan. Most loans would also have required some kind of security—a pledge or collateral to secure the loan. That pledge could be required up front as security and then returned upon payment (as in Gen 38:17–20), or it could be seized only upon default or failure to make required payments (as threatened in 2 Kgs 4:1–7). In that case, the creditor’s possession of the pledge could be temporary until the loan was paid off—either by the labor of a pledged debt slave or by the produce of a pledged field or vineyard, or by redemption of either. Alternatively, permanent seizure of the pledge could be deemed as satisfying the loan in full. The pledge could be any one of a variety of things—anything of significant value—from a field or ox, to a person (or several persons), to a grinding stone or a garment. Sometimes an oath would be accepted, or possibly a third party could be called in as guarantor of a loan.

The Hebrew Bible includes a wide variety of texts bearing on ancient Israelite debt and loan practices. Debt practices are attested not only in “legal” texts, but also in narrative stories, prophetic critique, and references in wisdom texts. Among these are teachings that exhort generosity in lending to one’s poor brother (Deut 15:7–11; Prov 3:27–28), wisdom literature that characterizes lending as gracious (Psalm 15:5; 37:21, 26; 112:5; Job 17:3), or, conversely, that criticizes abusive lending practices (Job 20:19; 22:6; 24:3) or warns against either lending or borrowing as foolish or morally suspect (Prov 17:18; 22:7; 26—27; 28:8; Psalm 37:21; Sir 18:33; 29:2–5, 14, 18, 28; cf. Jer 15:10). Other texts reflect legal provisions for the cancellation of debts for Israelites (Deut 15:1–3; cf. Neh 10:31) but not for foreigners (Deut 15:3), laws allowing interest (e.g., on loans to foreign merchants in Deut 23:20), laws prohibiting certain kinds of interest (Exod 22:25; Lev 25:36–37; Deut 23:19), laws making restrictions on the taking of pledges (Exod 22:26–27; Deut 24:6, 10–13, 17), laws allowing permanent enslavement of foreigners (Lev 25:44–46) or of Israelites by choice (Exod 21:5–10; Deut 15:16–17), laws governing and limiting debt slavery (Exod 21:2, 11; Deut 15:12, 18) and affirming a right of redemption both for land (Lev 25:24–34) and for people taken in pledge as debt slaves (Lev 25:47–55), laws governing the treatment of debt slaves (Lev 25:39–46), stories reflecting either the direct violation of debt laws or the results of oppressive loan practices generally (1Sam 22:2; 2 Kgs 4:1–7; Neh 5:1–13), prophetic condemnation of such abuses (Amos 2:8; 5:11; 8:6; Mic 2:2; Isa 5:8; Hab 2:9; Ezek 18:5–18; 22:12; 33:15), and many other more indirect references more difficult to interpret (e.g., Prov 20:16 = 27:13; Isa 40:2).

For example, the account in 2 Kings 4:1–7 concerns a widow that Elisha assisted by multiplying her supply of oil when her dead husband’s creditors were threatening to take her two sons as slaves. It is clear from this passage that enslavement was one of the possible consequences of debt. The story also clearly indicates that the creditor only took possession of pledges after some period of time, upon failure to repay the loan, as a means of offsetting his losses from defaults. But various texts also insist that such enslavement was not intended to be a permanent solution. Since the debt slave would generally have been either the borrower or a family member (the main alternative being to give over use of family land that the family needed for its own living), such a solution was hardly acceptable to the borrower as a permanent condition, but only as a temporary measure until the proper repayment could be made or redemption accomplished. So the lender would keep the record of the debt as well as the pledge (taken in lieu of payment) such that when the borrower was able to pay back the amount owed, then he could thereby “redeem” the pledge.

Interest.

Although loans could be given with or without interest, it would appear that high rates of interest were often charged. LE §18a and LH §88/gap t specify annual interest at 20 percent for silver and 33.3 percent for barley, though contemporary documents attest a much wider range in practice. Interest rates in the Greco-Roman world ranged from 30 percent on the high side to a specified maximum of 10 percent under the Romans, though 6 percent was apparently more typical. Israelite law encouraged generosity, foregoing interest on subsistence loans to fellow Israelites (Exod 22:24–25; Deut 23:19–20; Lev 25:35–37; Ezek 18:13) while allowing it for foreigners (Deut 23:19–20). But prophetic critique makes it clear that lending at high interest was common (Isa 24:2; Ezek 22:12). The rate would be particularly exorbitant for short-term loans of grain for planting, when grain was scarce and demand was high.

The use of the word nešek, “bite,” suggests that a percentage was taken up front. The borrower would have to borrow a larger amount than he actually needed in order to cover the nešek, but would only receive the smaller amount (minus the nešek). Then, at the end of the loan period, he would still owe the full principal plus the tarbît, “increase.” If unable to pay, then he would either have to take on a new, larger loan to pay off the earlier loan plus the additional interest, or else he would default on the loan and lose his collateral.

Alternative theories of biblical interest.

At least five other basic theories are espoused, which may be summarized as follows (for more detailed discussion of the issues, see Gamoran, 1971 [p. 131]; Stein, 1953 [p. 163]; Neufeld, 1955 [pp. 355–357]; and Loewenstamm, 1969):

  • 1. nešek indicates interest rates in excess of prevailing norms (what we would call “usury”), and is forbidden in all three biblical legal collections: in Leviticus 25:36–37 (the Holiness Code), in Deuteronomy 23:20 (the Deuteronomic Law), and in Exodus 22:24 (the Book of the Covenant). tarbît indicates normal, accepted interest rates, and is discouraged only in Leviticus 25 as a charity measure for the brother who becomes poor, but is otherwise allowed and expected.
  • 2. nešek was a “long-term yearly recurring form of interest” (not necessarily compounding), while tarbît was a fixed rate of interest (a one-time charge) on a small loan, to be paid off in full with the principal at harvest time (so Ramban [Nachmanides] on Lev 25:36).
  • 3. nešek indicates interest taken on loans of money, first outlawed in the Book of the Covenant. In Leviticus 25, tarbît was added to indicate the prohibition of interest taken on loans of food or grain (in addition to the nešek on monetary loans). In Deuteronomy 23, nešek was used as a catch-all for interest taken on loans of money, food, or anything else that one might lend. This theory is articulated by Hillel Gamoran (1971) who depends on Samuel Loewenstamm (1969).
  • 4. tarbît indicates normal, simple interest that is either paid as it comes due or accrues, being added on until the final payment is completed. nešek indicates interest which is compounding. Compounding interest is added on to the original principal amount of the loan, so that new interest is then charged on that interest. Compounding interest can quickly mount up well beyond the original amount of the loan. There may be some precedent in the ancient Near East for the outlawing of compound interest, even when non-compounding interest is completely accepted and expected. If this is true, then it would not be surprising to find that biblical tradition universally excludes compounding interest, while only Leviticus 25 (in the context of charity for the poverty-stricken brother) excludes normal, simple interest.
  • 5. The terms are essentially synonymous, and have no distinctive meaning (Rava, b. B. Meṣiʿa 60b). A more sophisticated version of this theory holds that although the two terms indicate the same practice, one reflects the point of view of the borrower, for whom the interest is a “bite” (nešek) taken from him, while the other reflects the perspective of the lender, for whom the interest is an “increase,” a benefit being “added” to him (tarbît). In this case the terms may both refer to any normal practice of interest taking, or only to interest rates that were considered “excessive” according to prevailing tradition.

Limits on total interest allowed.

Aside from biblical admonitions to forego certain types of interest in subsistence loans to Israelites, and various provisions specifying standard interest rates, there appears to be a widespread ancient Near Eastern and biblical tradition limiting total allowable interest to 100 percent, that is, doubling the original amount of the loan. LH §93 specifies double restitution of unrecorded interest payments on a loan. Laws of Lipit-Ishtar (LL) §14 provides that a slave may contest his slave status and be freed by proving twofold compensation for his original debt. Similarly, Diodorus Siculus records a law of Bocchoris regarding interest rates in Egypt’s 24th Dynasty (725–709 B.C.E.), limiting the accumulation of interest thus: “And whoever lent money along with a written bond was forbidden to do more than double the principal from the interest” (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica 1.79). Providing some confirmation, a loan document from the 24th year of Darius I (reflecting Egyptian practice in the Saite and Persian periods, 663–401 B.C.E.) provides that “interest may mount no higher than the capital” (Maloney, 1974, pp. 11, 18, 36). Cicero recorded a senate decree in 51 B.C.E. limiting total accrued interest to 100 percent. Along a similar vein, double repayment is attested in Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C.E. as the penalty for default in purchase contracts, and by extension for default on commercial loans. Double repayment is also the standard biblical penalty for theft in Exodus 22:3–9. If double repayment is considered sufficient as a penalty for default in a commercial loan or even for criminal activity, it makes sense that a subsistence loan should be considered as repaid in full once interest payments have reached double the original amount of the loan. Standard annual interest payments of 33.3 percent, paid by virtue of a debt slave’s labor, would accumulate to 200 percent after six years—thus justifying the release at the end of the six years. Biblical references to double repayment such as Deuteronomy 15:18 (where a debt slave’s labor is said to have been “worth double the price of hire,” thus justifying release), Isaiah 40:2 and Jeremiah 16:18 (regarding double repayment for sin), Job 42:12 (where God restores to Job double what had been taken from him), and Luke 6:35 (“receive back as much again [in interest]”) may reflect this tradition (see Phillips, 2002, pp. 251–252).

Security.

In the ancient Near East, generally two types of security were traditionally offered for a loan beyond a solemn oath to repay—surety and pledge—each of which are attested in a couple of distinct guises. The best presentation of all the relevant material for Mesopotamia and Israel (as well as for Egypt, though pre-Demotic sources of relevant information are scarce) is found in Westbrook and Jasnow, 2001.

Surety.

Surety refers generally to a third party who agrees to act as guarantor for a loan, like a parent who cosigns on a loan and thereby becomes liable for repayment of the debt. Alternatively, a group of co-debtors could stand as surety for each other, with the debt contract specifying that whoever is present will pay the total amount of their combined debt in full.

Terminology for standing as “surety” or “guarantor” for someone, guaranteeing repayment of a loan or other obligation, does not appear in biblical legal texts. However, such terms as tĕśûmet (assigned as security), ʾissār (binding obligation), ʿārab and tāqaʿ do show up several times in the book of Proverbs (as warnings against incurring such obligations), as well as in the Joseph story in Genesis (where Judah offers to stand as guarantor for the return of Benjamin).

Pledges.

Alternatively, ancient Near Eastern loan contracts often involved a “pledge” or some sort of collateral to secure the loan. The pledge could take different forms. It could carry a worth equal to the entire value of the loan, or just of the interest due. A pledge could remain in the possession of the borrower and only be seized upon default. Or a pledge could be given “in the hand of the creditor” (i.e., as a token) until such time as full repayment was made. Or a pledge could be antichretic in nature, where, in the hand of the creditor, possession of the pledge paid off the loan or at least its annual interest by virtue of labor (in the case of a human pledge) or usufruct (produce, in the case of agricultural land) or rental value. Usually a borrower would pledge land or livestock or even a family member, who would potentially be bound as a debt slave (Gen 47:13–26; 2 Kgs 4:1; Neh 5:1–5). For smaller loans, a garment or some other item of value could be offered in pledge, though compassion urges against keeping a poor man’s pledged garment overnight (Exod 22:26–27; Deut 24:12–13; Amos 2:8; cf. the Yavneh Yam inscription), and Deuteronomy 24:6 explicitly forbids taking a millstone in pledge, as the millstone might be the family’s only independent means of income.

Debt slaves.

If a family member served as pledge, then that family member would potentially be enslaved for six years to pay off the debt, with the labor standing in place of interest payments. The value of that labor, accounted as yearly wages over the six years, would accrue against the amount owed plus accumulated interest. At the end of the six years of enslavement, seven years after the debt was first incurred, the debt would be considered as paid off in full on the grounds that the value of the six years of labor was worth nearly double the price of a slave (Deut 15:18), and thus double their value as collateral for a loan, and therefore double the original loan for which they had served as collateral. Leviticus 25:50–53 explains the calculation in terms of redemption price, which should be the same as one’s value 1 as a debt slave. This was calculated according to an annual wage multiplied by the number of years until the next Jubilee, specifically addressing the case in which the Jubilee would intervene prior to one’s completion of the expected six-year term of service, such that the redemption price and one’s value as security for a loan would be progressively reduced as the Jubilee year approached.

Mortgaged land.

If the borrower owned land, then he would potentially be borrowing a much larger amount of grain for the purpose of planting, or silver to buy a plow or a plow ox. In this case he would most likely offer some portion of that land (a specific field or vineyard) as security for the loan. Again, Leviticus 25:14–17 calculates the redemption price of a field, which should be equal to the value of the field as security or collateral for a loan, in terms of the anticipated value of the harvests from that field over the number of years until the next Jubilee, at which point the value of those harvests would have paid off the loan, and the land could thus be returned without loss to the creditor. But that would be a rarity. Since the redemption price would drop progressively with the approach of the Jubilee, and since an actual deed of sale would be necessary for someone to take legal possession of the parcel of land, the land normally would not simply revert. Some family member with redemption rights would have to pay the reduced redemption price and obtain a deed to secure title and regain control of the land, as illustrated in Jeremiah 32:6–15.

Normally a good crop would be expected to yield a generous multiple of the grain sown, so repayment at the harvest (even with a substantial interest payment accounting for the risk involved, as well as the higher value of grain at the time of planting given the higher demand and relative scarcity) would be a reasonable expectation (though possibly without enough margin to allow adequate surplus for the farmer to guarantee grain for planting the next season). But if (due to drought or storm or fire or flood or other natural disaster) the harvest was less than expected, the farmer might repay the loan but then be forced to borrow extra the next year not only for planting but also to feed his family. Or he might officially repay the loan by borrowing a larger amount (to cover the interest of the previous year as well as the current year), and so the debt cycle would continue. Once the amount of the loan reached the level of the full value of the field (or the value of its harvests until the next Jubilee), such that the lender was no longer willing to extend any further loans, then the farmer would default on the loan, and, if there was no family member to pay off the loan (and thereby buy the field), the lender could take possession of the field (or claim full control and benefit of the use of the field) until some family member could find the means to pay off the loan and buy the field back, or until the next Jubilee. In this way, the wealthy could “add field to field” as Isaiah 5:8 complains, taking control of the main means of production. The farmer would then become a non-landowning day laborer working in other people’s fields and taking home only a small share. Then, if his wages were not enough to support his family, he might seek subsistence loans to carry them through a rough period. In this case, since he had no land, he would have to offer his children or himself as security for loans rather than have them starve to death. On this basis, he could only borrow up to the amount of their values as debt slaves.

Length of service for debt slaves.

Diachronic investigations of the development of debt law from Hammurapi in the Old Babylonian period, to the Book of the Covenant, to the Deuteronomic and Priestly legislation, and then to Rabbinic and Greco-Roman usage, reveal remarkable continuity in many respects—such as the expectation of interest and some means to secure the loan, as well as a right of redemption for the pledge. However there are also some significant differences and developments. With regard to the length of service for debt slaves, for example, LH §117 specifies the term of enslavement for debt at three years, while biblical law (Exod 21:2–11; Deut 15:12–18) doubles that to six. The apparent extension of that term in Leviticus 25:35–42 to forty-nine years (beyond the reasonable life expectancy of slaves, as asserted by Adrian Schenker [1998]) is more likely to refer only to the case in which a Jubilee year would happen to intervene during the course of the normal six-year term of indentured servitude, in which case the slave would have to be released early in order to be able to take charge of his newly restored land. But since calculations of his value as a debt slave would have taken this shortened term into account, there would be no loss to the creditor—only a progressive tightening of credit at the approach of the release, as Deuteronomy 15:9 forewarns. Along the same lines, Deuteronomy 15:13–14 suggests a problem with newly released debt slaves naturally falling quickly back into debt, while Jeremiah 34:8–16 illustrates well the likely temporary nature of any release. Moreover, in the case of a thief who is unable to pay the required restitution debt owed for this theft, Hammurapi reverts to the death penalty, while Exodus 22:2 prescribes enslavement for the debt. The New Testament (Matt 18:30, 34) suggests a practice of imprisonment for debt.

Debt and Loans in the New Testament.

Debt was clearly an ongoing problem in New Testament times also (Matt 18:21–35; Luke 6:34; 16:1–9). Debt could apparently result in debt slavery (Matt 18:25) or even imprisonment (Matt 18:30, 34), and the taking of pledges as down payment is also attested (Eph 1:14; 2 Cor 5:5). It is likewise clear that interest would normally have been expected on loans (Matt 25:27; Luke 6:34; 19:23), and that both lending and borrowing were frowned upon as suspect to some extent, just as it was in earlier times (cf. Jer 15:10).

First, it is notable that Aramaic usage during New Testament times makes “debt” synonymous with “sin,” as found most famously in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4; cf. Luke 7:39–48) and parables (Matt 18:21–35; Luke 7:41–50) in the New Testament, but also in the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., 1Q22 iii 1–7; 11QMelch ii 1–9) and Syriac documents. Such an equation goes back to older biblical tradition. Isaiah 40:2 uses similar imagery with respect to Israel having repaid double for all her sins. In that passage, the repayment was accomplished by “hard labor” reminiscent of debt slavery (apparently referring to the bondage of captivity in the Babylonian exile, which is intentionally paralleled to the Israelite enslavement in Egypt). In equating debt with sin, the Lord’s Prayer may (inadvertently?) equate debtors or borrowers with sinners. In any event, the Lord’s Prayer clearly implicates lenders who fail to forgive debts (compare the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matt 18:21–35).

Not all lending was condemned. Psalms 37:26 and 112:5 associate lending with being gracious. Likewise, Matthew 5:42 and 6:3 urge the potential lender not to refuse a loan request from the needy, but to give generously without fanfare. Such an exhortation recalls Deuteronomy 15:7–11, which urges the potential lender to lend freely and not to be “closed-fisted” when his brother Israelite is in need. Creditors were likewise exhorted to show compassion by returning the pledged garment at nightfall (Exod 22:26–27; Deut 24:12–13; cf. Amos 2:8), implying that the loan was expected as a work of charity rather than as a means of gaining profit. Matthew 25:40 recalls Proverbs 19:17, which promises that charity toward the poor will be credited as a loan to God.

More often than not, however, the wealthy creditors were despised and criticized, suspected of making their living by exploiting the plight of the poor for profit. Reminiscent of earlier prophetic critique (Amos 5:11; Hab 2:9; Ezek 22:12), the greedy lender is condemned as one who seeks to foreclose on mortgages and thus “add field to field” (see Isa 5:8; Mic 2:2; Job 20:19). Such practices would be akin to those of “loan sharks” who take advantage of the plight of the poor in order to gain profit for themselves. Likewise in the New Testament, the “love of money” is roundly condemned (Luke 16:14; 1 Tim 3:3; 6:10; 2 Tim 3:2; Heb 13:5). Along with the tax collectors and moneychangers, a creditor or “moneylender” (usually a wealthy patron rather than a professional institution at this point in time) would often have been treated with fear and suspicion, assumed to be greedy and corrupt. In the parable of the corrupt steward (or shrewd manager) in Luke 16:1–9, which certainly depicts lending as commonplace, we see the steward commended by his master for reducing the debts of those owing him money. The steward’s ability to discount substantial portions of his master’s loans suggests that the interest rates and previous payments had been high enough to cover enough of the principal amounts that the resulting loss of potential profits on those loans was discretionary. His master would certainly not have commended him otherwise. Thus it is no stretch that the Lord’s Prayer enjoins mutual human debt forgiveness as a precondition for receiving God’s forgiveness of sins.

On the other end of the spectrum, while passages like Matthew 25:27 and Luke 19:23 assume that collecting interest on a loan was normal, Luke 6:34–35 is often interpreted as an exhortation to lend not only interest-free but even without any expectation of receiving the principal back. That would not be “lending” at all, however, but rather “giving.” Such a scenario seems highly unrealistic, even in the context of a family relationship. Moreover, the language that depicts “getting back the same” as normal lending practice between “sinners” makes no sense with such an interpretation. Rather, the phrase can only refer to “getting back the same” in interest—that is, normal lending practice (between “sinners”) would be for the lender to double his money. With that contrast in mind, then the command to lend “without hope of receiving back” refers not to the principal but to receiving back profit in the form of interest. Thus, like Leviticus 25:36–37, Luke 6:35 is exhorting generosity in the form of interest-free loans to one’s brother as a major break from normal lending practice.

Legacy.

Interest-bearing loans and debt secured by some kind of property go back as far as the beginning of historical times and continue to this day all over the world. Even debt slavery, whether in the form of indentured servitude, contractual employee obligations (along the lines of those described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath), or other forms of obligatory unfree labor has continued to modern times. Loan practices similar in nature to those outlined here, and vocal disapproval of the same, are widespread and nearly universal—attested nearly as far back as the invention of writing in Mesopotamia (third millennium B.C.E.), in Egypt by at least the New Kingdom period, and in Greece by the early sixth century B.C.E. (shortly after the invention of coinage). Therefore it is difficult to establish a direct legacy for these practices in the modern world as arising from any one particular source. But that is not to say that biblical treatment of loans had no historical impact.

Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle criticized the taking of interest as unnatural—an opinion later also underscored by Seneca—yet high interest rates remained standard. Interest rates for monetary loans were significantly lowered under the Roman Empire with the ready availability of more capital, and, as noted above, Cicero recorded a senate decree in 51 B.C.E. that limited annual interest to 12 percent, and total interest accrued to 100 percent, along with other restrictions arising out of a long history of Roman antipathy toward oppressive loan practices. Early church fathers such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria shared this attitude and therefore also supported stricter interpretations of biblical proscriptions of interest such as those in Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36–37; Deuteronomy 23:19; and Luke 6:34–35. As a result, biblical censure against usury and lending in general had a profound impact on professions through the Middle Ages and right into the modern era. Rabbinic law imposed hefty fines for usury, but ironically, since Christian interpretations applied biblical prohibition of usury in a more absolute and rigid manner than Jewish tradition did, Jews commonly became the bankers and moneylenders for Christians within Christian-dominated societies. This, in turn, contributed to the kind of deep-seated resentment and jealousy that underlay the Holocaust.

There is strong evidence in rabbinic and early Christian writings that various other provisions of debt relief like the sabbatical and Jubilee years, including most importantly the associated debt release, were taken seriously enough that extreme measures were regularly undertaken to accommodate, exploit, or circumvent them. Josephus records that annual tribute/taxes were remitted for Jews during sabbatical years under Alexander and Caesar in Greco-Roman times (Ant. 9.8.5–6; 14.10.6). Rabbi Hillel most famously issued the prozbul, allowing ways to get around the debt release so that credit wouldn’t completely disappear during sabbatical years. A kind of limited contractual indentured servitude similar to that advocated in Deuteronomy 15 was also known in the Greek paramone. The debt-release provisions of Deuteronomy 15 were even emended in the Greek Septuagint version so as to apply only to private debt, and thus conform to Greek law (post-Solon 594 B.C.E.) and to an ordinance of Ptolemy II in which the state had the exclusive right to sell debtors into slavery (Bickerman, 1988, p. 194).

Biblical treatment of the ancient reality of debt slavery was used on both sides of the slavery/antislavery debate. The proslavery side emphasized biblical acceptance of its necessity and calls for obedience (e.g., Lev 25:44; Deut 28:68; Matt 8:9; Eph 6:5; Col 3:22). The antislavery side emphasized passages advocating against permanent enslavement of Israelites due to debt (e.g., Lev 25:39–43; Deut 15:18) and, in the New Testament, passages asserting equality between slave and freeman (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:28; Phlm 16).

Not surprisingly, lending practices today often continue to include exorbitant interest rates, particularly with compounding interest practices, to the point that a debtor could easily have paid back three times the originally borrowed amount in interest, and yet still be accounted as owing nearly the entire principal (and so still be subject to possible foreclosure and loss of whatever had secured the loan). Thus, although ancient Near Eastern, Roman, and biblical law (reflected though not directly stated) all appear to have observed a cap of 100 percent for total accrued interest on subsistence loans at least (aside from further limits on annual interest rates), this tradition does not seem to have left a lasting mark. No such limit is observed or even contemplated today, with one notable exception.

Possibly the greatest contribution of biblical debt law (built on the Old Babylonian mīšarum-edict tradition) to modern legal and economic thinking would be recent “Jubilee”-inspired debt forgiveness and land-reform advocacy arising out of the Liberation Theology movement (see, e.g., Amit, 1992; Austin, 1991; Barr, 1989; Frey, 1992; Prior, 1995; Ringe, 1985; Robinson, 1978; Soelle, 1991; and Westphal, 1984). In particular, recent moves on the part of the international economic community to forgive long-standing Third World debts come as a major victory for debt-relief and social justice advocates. The economic justification for such a move arises from the fact that, for this kind of long-term debt, the interest payments have probably long since covered the original amount of loans. At that point, a Jubilee-style debt release does not result in a huge loss for the creditors, and can contribute to a major revitalization of the world economy.

[See also AMNESTY AND REFORM TEXTS; ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN LAW; BIBLICAL LAW; BOOK OF THE COVENANT; CALENDAR AND FESTIVALS; CAPITAL PUNISHMENT; CHILDREN; DEAD SEA SCROLLS; DEEDS OF SALE AND TRANSFER; DEPOSIT AND PLEDGE; DEUTERONOMIC LAW; EPIGRAPHIC TEXTS; ETHICS; GREEK LAW; HALAKHA/RABBINIC LAW; HISTORICAL RECORDS; HOLINESS CODE AND WRITINGS; INHERITANCE; JUSTICE; LABOR; LAW IN THE PROPHETS; LAW IN THE WRITINGS; LAWS OF ESHNUNNA; LAWS OF HAMMURAPI; LAWS OF LIPIT-ISHTAR; NEO-BABYLONIAN LAWS; OATHS AND VOWS; PRIESTLY LAW; PROPERTY; RELEASE FROM DEBT; ROMAN LAW; SLAVERY; SOCIOLOGY OF LAW; TAXATION; THEOLOGY OF LAW; and WIDOWS.]

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Robin J. DeWitt Knauth