Part 4: Debt Forgiveness in Scripture

In my first article, I outlined several presuppositions that should guide an Evangelical who is interested in applying Scripture to a contemporary situation. In part 2, I explored some of the Bible’s ethical directives regarding hard work and compassion. In Part 3, we looked at the first of two biblical “pillars” as it relates to finances & debt. The first two pillars are (1) the command to be generous in offering loans, and (2) the forbidding of charging interest. In Part 4 (below), we turn our attention to the remaining pillar: (3) the divine command for periodic loan forgiveness.

Pillar #3 – The necessity of Loan Forgiveness

The 7-Year Cycle

The concept of debt forgiveness is most clearly seen in Deuteronomy 15:1-2. That passage says, “At the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.” The passage goes to explain that this was only a rule for Israelite-to-Israelite transactions (they weren’t required to forgive non-Israelite debts). But notice the following points:

  • All Israelite debts were required to be completely forgiven.
  • This had to happen every seven years.
  • Presumably, each of the individuals freely entered into the debt. Nevertheless, God demanded those debts be erased..
  • As there was no nationally-held debt, this dealt solely with private transactions. Individual lenders were required by God to absorb the loss.

This certainly was a far more extensive debt-relief program than anything we’ve seen in the modern era.

The nations around Israel had similar practices, many of which are recorded in surviving Assyrian, Sumerian, and Babylonian records. Sweeping public gestures of goodwill often occurred at the beginning of a king’s reign in order to curry favor with the people. The oldest known example dates back to 2430 B.C., when Entemena, the ruler of Lagash, praised himself in the royal records for “freeing the population from oppressive interest rates.”

The Reforms of Uruinimgina

Later, another king of Lagash named Urukagina engraved his economic reforms in a stone cylinder titled The Reforms of Uruinimgina. When he first assumed the throne, he immediately put a stop to debt collection from the poor and set free those who were imprisoned due to their past debt. A similar practice of granting freedom from oppressive debt was mentioned in the Edict of Ammisaduqa, from the late Old Babylonian period, which begins by declaring “the arrears of the farmer, shepherd, provincial officials, and crown tributaries … are remitted. The collector may not sue for payment.” That same edict ordered the death penalty for any lender who disobeyed it. What is unique about the Old Testament is that these reforms were not king-driven, but rather God-driven. They weren’t done only at the beginning of a king’s reign so that he might be praised by his subjects. Rather, debt relief was an action God expected the common Israelites to practice on a regular basis so that all Israelites could flourish and prosper. The Mosaic Covenant’s commands regarding debt relief were one of the things that made Israel’s ethical code of conduct truly distinct from the surrounding pagan nations.

Sabbath: The Rest Principle

The seven-year cycle was built upon the principle of Sabbath rest, which commanded that Israelites take a break from work every seven days. While the command formally given to Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:8), Exodus 16:23 makes it clear the Israelites already knew about this command and had put it into practice (though to what extent is unknown). It’s possible it was passed down from Abraham, but we have no record of this. However, we do see Sabbath referenced in Genesis 2:2-3, where God is said to have rested on the seventh day and the “blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.”

At the heart of the Sabbath command is the recognition that human flourishing requires regular intervals of rest and renewal. With this rest, the burdens of life with become oppressive. Little as it was, one day a week of “downtime” offered Israelites respite from those burdens. Thus, it is much more than a mere command. More importantly, Sabbath is a life principle; and as a principle, it has far greater implications. We see one of those implications in Deuteronomy 15 where the cycle of debt-forgiveness is built on this Sabbath rest principle. While a weekly “reset” was required for their bodies and minds, God now demanded a similar “reset” be applied to the financial burdens of all Israelites every seven years. Of course, far more than debt-relief was involved. Every seven years slaves also had to be freed (Exodus 21:2) and even fields had to be given a year to recuperate (Exodus 23:10-11).

Jubilee: A Radical Reset

As radical as Deuteronomy 15 seems to us today, it was only a minor player in a much larger debt-forgiveness schema. It points to something much bigger, what we might even call a “super-Sabbath.” As this seven-year cycle repeated over and over, its seventh rotation was the 49th year. In the Bible, this was the year of Jubilee, which is outlined in considerable detail in Leviticus 25-26. Jubilee was a year of celebration and renewal. It was a “super-Sabbath” because the entire year was dedicated to rest, freeing people from debts and servitude, the healing of fields and orchards, and the restoration of property lost or sold to ensure some semblance of equality among the Israelite people. the Old Testament required this action from every single Israel, first every seven years, but then even more radically every 50 years. To disobey this command would be to disobey the very heart of God’s Covenant with his people.

This is the Sabbath writ-large. Every seven days the Israelites must be given a day of rest. Every seven years they must be released from their financial and servitude burdens. Every 49 years (7×7), in addition to financial relief, they must also receive back property sold or lost years ago. Just as their bodies needed a periodic reset, so did their economic life as a society.

God’s Rationale for Debt Relief

Notably, the reason God mandated the seven-year debt relief cycle is given in Debt 15:4-5, “there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. “ In other words, if Israel obeyed God on this matter, then they would be able to solve the poverty problem within their society. God didn’t look at poor people and say, “You’re making a choice to be poor. Make better choices!” He looked at the Israelites as a whole and said, in effect, “If you put this command into practice in your society, you won’t have poor people.” There need be no poor people among you.

Sadly, there is no evidence that Israel ever put this command into practice, at least not consistently or on a large scale. This is one of the chief reasons later prophets (Isaiah, Habakkuk, Micah, etc) excoriated the Jewish people, and especially their leaders. Israel neglected the Sabbath/Jubilee debt-relief principles and in doing so they brought about rampant poverty in their nation for centuries. Even more appealing to the prophets, rich and powerful Israelites even had the audacity to abuse and neglect the very poor people they were responsible for creating in the first place.

Attempts at Reform

Prophets such as Israel and Micah attempted to call Israel back to covenantal faithfulness, though with little success. In Isaiah 5:8-10, the prophet rebukes rich and powerful Israelites who seize the houses and land of those who are unable to pay their debts, and the religious leaders are accused of having “the plunder of the poor in your houses” (Isa 3:14). As a result of these brutal debt burdens, devoid of any possibility for debt relief through a seven-year cycle, caused God to accuse Israel of “crushing my people” and “grinding the face of the poor” (Is 3:15). Notably, God even says these actions “deprive the need of justice and rob the poor of my people of their rights” (Is 10:2). For Isaiah, excessive debt loads were unjust and violated the basic rights all Israelites were expected to have.

The prophet Micah uses even bolder language. Speaking for the Lord, he asks the Jewish leaders, “Should you not embrace justice?” The question is rhetorical, for it’s immediately followed by a figurative description of their treatment of the poor: “you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people’s flesh…and chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot” (Micah 3:2-3).

Others like Nehemiah tried a different tactic. After he discovered that Israelites were charging interest on debts and refusing to periodically forgive debts (Neh 5:7), he assembled leaders of the various Israelite clans to swear an oath that they would once again abide by the Covenant. This is recorded in Nehemiah 10:31-39. This is significant because since it is an abbreviated version of the Covenant, it allows us to understand what Nehemiah considered to be the core priorities. The second line of this pledge says, “Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts” (Neh 10:31). Though the Israelites of the prior centuries had ignored this command, Nehemiah believed it stood among the central ethical requirements God gave to Israel. Still, there is little evidence that the people followed through.

Jesus and Jubilee

As we have seen above, the further we get in the timeline of Old Testament history to more hopeless things seem. Israel and its leaders had seemingly turned their backs on God’s ethical code of conduct. Instead of debt relief, there is economic oppression of the poor. In light of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the Sabbath/Jubliee principles outlined in the Mosaic Covenant, the Old Testament prophets increasingly speak of a coming messianic figure who would faithfully fulfill Jubilee. Look at the Jubilee language in the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….”

Jesus returns us to the principles enshrined in Jubilee and the seven-year debt forgiveness cycle. Not only is Isaiah telling us that the Messiah would fulfill those mandates, he tells us the Messiah will do so much more. The relief that Jesus provides is far more expansive than mere relief of financial debts. Yet, the entire message of salvation is built upon the concept of debt relief and we can only divorce it from Christ’s salvation by doing great violence against the meaning of the biblical text.

Jesus’ commitment to Covenantal debt forgiveness is something he also wanted his disciples to implement in their own lives. In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. Among the contents of that prayer is this well-known line, “and forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those indebted to us.” This is an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:1-2, among other debt relief passages in the Mosaic Covenant. The Greek word for debt is opheilēma, the basic meaning referring to financial debts, but it could be extended to include anything one party owed to another. What is interesting is the comparison that Jesus is making. The prayer is that God would forgive our debts in a way commensurate with our forgiveness of the debts of others. Jesus says, forgive our debts as we have forgiven others. For those who like nerdy Greek grammar, the verb “have forgiven” is an aorist indicative, signifying an action that has already occurred in the past. In other words, there is an operating assumption that these individuals are already obeying the debt forgiveness principle.

While part of the Lord’s Prayer certainly is about salvation, part of it is also a reminder of our basic moral obligations. Jesus is referring his listeners back to the Mosaic covenant that they claim to uphold. As we have seen, the Mosaic covenant required the forgiveness of debts on the part of all Israelites, whether rich or poor. The consequences of such debt forgiveness would certainly have been costly, but it pales in comparison to the cost they were praying that God would absorb. Jesus also refers to this Old Testament Jubilee principle in Luke 6:30, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do no demand it back.” For Jesus, debt forgiveness is the ethical ideal which the Christian community is expected to embrace.

This message struck a chord with the original Christian community. The book of Acts alludes to Deuteronomy 15:4 when it says, “There was not a needy person among them….” (Acts 4:34). This first group of Christians in Jerusalem had embraced and put into practice this Old Testament principle of providing financial relief to everyone in their spiritual community. These principles were lived out even to the point of giving up their own possessions to meet the needs of others. They were simply fulfilling the final command Jesus had given his disciples: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 18:19-20).

Implications for our Study

First, modern America isn’t ancient Israel. Even the modern Church, which presumably would want to follow God’s written instructions, isn’t the exact equivalent of ancient Israel. America has no mandate to follow all the financial stipulations of ancient Israel’s Covenant with God.

Second, any society that desires to honor God and follow biblical principles will need to incorporate, in some fashion, the principles being addressed in the Old Testament’s debt-relief commands. Oddly, some of the strongest voices shouting for a return to “biblical values” seem entirely unaware of these principles. Or perhaps, just like the rebellious ancient Israelites, they simply find it more convenient to ignore them.

Third, even though we can’t follow the precise format of implementation used by the ancient Israelites, these Old Testament practices still clarify the ethical priorities of God. As such, they still apply to us today. As Paul put it, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us” (Romans 15:4).

Fourth, these principles were given to promote human flourishing and to prevent large-scale poverty. The reason poverty existed in ancient Israel was primarily due to their disobedience to these commands. If we are serious about solving the poverty problem today, perhaps we need to rely less on human-created economic theories (Capitalism, Socialism. etc.) and more on the solution God has already given us.

Fifth, God mandated debt relief in ancient Israel. It wasn’t voluntary. Moses didn’t hand out a clipboard asking people to opt in or out. At least in the case of the seven-year debt relief cycle and Jubilee, being unwilling to participate was a blasphemous violation of the Covenant.

Sixth, the cost of debt relief was absorbed by the lender. One argument against contemporary loan relief is that the debt doesn’t just disappear. Rather, it is transferred onto the backs of someone or some group. Yet, it was no different in the Old Testament. Lenders were divinely mandated by God to shoulder the financial burden brought about by releasing the debtor of his obligations.

Seventh, debt relief in the Old Testament wasn’t always based on need. This is especially true for the seven-year debt relief cycle and Jubilee. All debts were forgiven across all sectors of the socio-economic scale, rich and poor alike.

Eight, the debt relief program outlined in the Old Testament would have resulted in massive transfers of wealth every seven years and even more drastically every fifty years. Any contemporary argument that loan forgiveness is a scheme of Socialism will have to explain the occurrence of this same phenomenon in the Old Testament.

Ninth, the coming of the Messiah and the message of salvation is logically linked to and conceptually built upon the idea of debt forgiveness. This doesn’t mean that all lenders must forgive all debts in all circumstances (even Deut 15 and Lev 25 didn’t require that). But it does mean the very idea of debt forgiveness should, at the very least, be valued and cherished by Christ’s people.

Tenth, the early Christian community made adherence to these Old Testament principles a priority for their spiritual community. While they were powerless to bring about societal changes under the Roman Empire, they were able to live according to these principles in their churches and personal lives.

Eleventh, God’s covenant determines what is righteous and just. Since He mandates debt relief, it must therefore be righteous and just. Of course, one may go about it foolishly or with evil intentions, but in principle, debt relief flows from God’s justice and righteousness. To call debt relief unjust (categorically) is to call God unjust.

Twelfth, none of the above means that Biden’s debt forgiveness plan is wise. As we’ve repeatedly noted, we have a very different economic/money system than did ancient Israel. It simply means the concept of debt forgiveness isn’t inherently unbiblical or an act of “theft.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s