by Michael Hudson
This paper is based on research done as a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in Babylonian economic history, and was originally published by the Henry George School of Social Science (New York City). ©1993 Michael Hudson, Ph.D.
Mesopotamian Debt Cancellations, 2400-1600 BC
Debt Cancellations in Canaan/Israel/Judah
Debt Crises in Classical Antiquity
Biblical Passages Dealing with the Usury Problem and Debt Forgiveness
Mesopotamian Debt Cancellations, 2400-1600 BC
The third millennium Mesopotamian city of Lagash, in southeastern Sumer, is the best documented. Its ruler Enmetena (2404-2375)achieved suzerainty over southern Mesopotamia by defeating neighboring Umma and its allies. After his victory he inscribed the earliest known amargilaw (c. 2400) cancelling agrarian debts and obligations.
A half-century later Uruinimgina (formerly read Urukagina, 2351-42) reformed economic relations. Upon becoming war-leader (lugal) in his second year to defend Lagash against Umma, his “reform text” cancelled agrarian debts (2350).
During his reign Lagash and the rest of Sumer was conquered first by Lugalzagesi of Umma and Uruk (2351-2327), and then by the northerner Sargon of Kish, who ruled Mesopotamia as a military overlord from the new capital he built at Akkad.
In the revival after the collapse of the Akkadian dynasty, the Lagash ruler Gudea restored broad trade relations between Sumer and Egypt, Ethiopia, Anatolia and the Taurus range, Dilmun ( Bahrain) and Elam. He has left many inscribed statues, and one of his cylinders contains the longest surviving Sumerian poem (1400 lines)commemorating his rebuilding of the city-temple and how he restored order by cancelling the land’s debts at the New Year festival celebrating this occasion c. 2130.
The neo-Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004 BC) was founded by Ur-Nammu (2112-2095). After defeating Lagash and killing its ruler Namhani (Gudea’s brother-in-law) in battle in 2112, Ur-Nammu led a great extension of trade and installed provisional governors in Elam ( Susa), Ashur and Mari. He drew up an extensive body of legal rulings and cancelled debts with a nig.šiša act.
His son Shulgi (2094-2047) consolidated Sumerian domination over Mesopotamia. He inscribed the laws of his father and seems to have proclaimed his own debt cancellation.
In the city of Isinthe ruler Ishbi-Irra (2017-1985) founded a dynasty comprising fifteen rulers in 223 years. Ishbi-Irra was an Amorite subordinate of Ur’s last ruler, breaking away when related Amorite tribesmen and Elamites invaded the land. Many debt cancellations of the Isin rulers survive, starting with the nig.šiša acts of Iddin-Dagan (1974-1954) and his successor Ishme-Dagan (1953-1935).
Lipit-Ishtar (1934-1924) left a body of legal rulings which, like those of Ur-Nammu, led off with a nig.šiša debt cancellation. During his rule an Amorite dynasty in Larsa established itself with Elamite backing. Its first ruler was the Amorite chieftain Naplanum (2025-2005). The city became a dominant power a century later under Gungunum (1932-1906), who defeated Lipit-Ishtar of Isin. Larsa reached the peak of its influence a century later under two Elamite brothers, Warad-Sin (1834-1823) and Rim-Sin (1822-1763). Rim-Sin reasserted palace authority over the private sector which had been growing steadily since the demise of Ur III’s centralized economy. He “purified the foreheads” of the land’s debt-servants. After six decades of rule, in 1763, he was defeated by Hammurapi of Babylon.
The Amorite dynasty of Babylon comprised eleven rulers in three hundred years (1894-1595). Benefiting from the city’s upstream position, its dynasty was founded by Sumaubum (1894-1881). His successor Sumulael (1880-1845) cancelled debts with a misharum act. The dynasty’s fifth ruler, Sin-Muballit (1812-1793) oversaw the first great assertion of Babylonian power. He declared misharum debt cancellations in 1812, 1803 and 1797. His son Hammurapi (1792-1750) headed an alliance which carried Babylon to the height of its power. He declared misharum acts in the year of his accession (1792) and in 1780, 1771 and 1762.
Hammurapi’s son Samsuiluna (1749-1712) declared misharum to restore order upon taking the throne, and again in 1741. Abi-Eshuh (1711-1684) likewise declared misharum upon taking the throne. Ammiditana (1683-1647) likewise cancelled agrarian debts upon his succession, and again in 1662 and 1647. Ammisaduqa (1646-1626) declared misharum upon his accession, and again in 1636. His misharum act is the longest and most detailed of all such proclamations. It also is the last Babylonian act on record, for in 1595 the city was raided by the Hittites, and then occupied for 370 years by the Kassites, a tribe from the Iranian highlands.
The Old Babylonian period ( 2000-1600) rulers of many other cities also proclaimed misharum acts. In Hana (near Mari on the Euphrates) the rulers Kastiliiash, Ammirabih and Sunuh-Rammu cancelled debts. In Eshnunna, Abi-Madar, Naram-Sin and Ipalpiel (or Dadusha) proclaimedmisharum. In Der, Nidnusha appears to be the first Mesopotamian ruler to use the term misharum to signify a debt cancellation, replacing nig.šišaand the Assyrian term andurarum, used by Ilushuma and Erishum in the nineteenth century BC, and by contemporary rulers in Asia Minor with which Ashur had established trade relations. This term andurarumevolved into the Hebrew deror to underlie the Old Testament debt cancellations and Jubilee Years called for in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Debt Cancellations in Canaan/Israel/Judah
c. 1400 BC: The Amarna Age. Abdi-Ashirta leads hapiru attacks on Canaan’s mountainous area, bidding for local support against the large landowners who have reached an accommodation with Egyptian puppet rulers. Many hapiru are uprooted fugitives from debt pressures in their native lands.
1200: End of the Bronze Age, beginning of the Dark Age through a combination of folk-wanderings and natural disasters, including a little Ice Age. The “Sea Peoples” settle the coast of Palestine. Drought in the Hittite kingdom.
1250-1150: Reported time of the Exodus from Egypt.
926: Following the death of Solomon, the northern kingdom of Israel (926-722) withdraws from the southern kingdom of Judah ruled by Rehoboam.
845-817: The cult of Baal is suppressed and the followers of Omri and his son Ahab (who married the Phoenician, Jezebel) are eliminated. Leading the Jehovah counter-movement, the prophet Elijah is followed by Amos and Hosea who identify the Jehovah religion with the ideal of protecting the poor from the increasingly powerful landed aristocracy. Israel’s destruction is predicted if it fails to maintain social equity. Tribute-levying Assyria is represented as the Lord’s tool of vengeance against the resented oligarchy.
722: Sargon defeats Israel and incorporates it as an Assyrian province, resettling many of its citizens in Mesopotamia and Media.
740-700: (possibly later): Isaiah preaches social justice. (However, the Biblical book of Isaiah took its present form only after the exile ended in 537.)
639-609: Josiah ascends the throne at age eight. In 610, in the process of renovating the temple at Jerusalem, the Deuteronomy scroll is found and becomes the basis for Josiah’s reforms. These are made in conjunction with the preachings of Jeremiah.
626-604: The prophet Jeremiah denounces usury, much as did his contemporary Greek “tyrant”-leaders in Corinth, Megara, and Sicyon.
597: When the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar prepares to attack Judah, Zedekiah frees the Jewish slaves cancelling the debts which bind them in servitude. (See Jeremiah 34:8-19, 2 Chronicles 32 and 2 Kings 25.) First deportations to Babylonia occur.
587: Jerusalem is captured by Nebuchadnezzar.
586-516: The “Babylonian captivity.” Judah’s inhabitants are resettled in Babylonia, much as Sargon resettled Israel’s inhabitants after 722.
516: Rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, marking the end of the “Babylonian captivity.”
539: The Median-Persian Cyrus (559-529) defeats Babylonia. Persia permits the Jews to resettle their homeland. (In 538 Judah becomes a province of the Persian empire.)
458: In the seventh year of Artaxerxes’ reign (465-425), some exiles returned with Ezra.
444: Nehemiah, cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, makes his first visit to Jerusalem to become the first great reformer of the post-exile school.
432: After his second visit Nehemiah leads the second “return from exile,” resettling the Babylonian Jews in their homeland. The land is returned to its families, freeing them from the debts owed to local creditors and landlords. Ezra the scribe and others compose the Torah (Pentateuch) in their modern form.
350: The Jews once again are carried away to Babylonia, probably because of a renewed revolt against the Persians.
131: The Hasmonians liberate Israel from the yoke of debts and taxation. Under Simon the high priest this marks the beginning of a new era. (See I Maccab. 13-14.)
Debt Crises in Classical Antiquity
663-609: Bocchoris/Psammeticus cancels consumer debts, freeing the debt-servants.
Greece and Rome:
650-580: Popular reformers (“tyrants”) come to power in Corinth, Megara, Sicyon (under Cleisthenes) and other Greek cities, overthrowing landed aristocracies (often including their own relatives), redistributing their lands and cancelling the debts.
594: When Athens succumbs to a similar debt-polarization crisis, Solon is given powers to act as archon (“premier”). He cancels the debts, bans personal debt-servitude for Athenians and alien landownership (thereby preventing foreign creditors from foreclosing), but avoids the more drastic land redistributions carried out in other cities.
500-450: Rome’s secessions of the plebs over the debt issue. Indebted Romans refuse to fight until their debts are cancelled and economic polarization mitigated.
450 (443?): Rome’s XII Tables set interest rates at 8 ¹ /³ % per annum, but this tradition and its fourfold penalty is repeatedly violated by creditors and must be reiterated (e.g. in 357). Meanwhile, the law permits debt-servitude (the nexum institution).
367: After an impoverished thirty years, plebeian legislation permits debtors to deduct interest payments from the principal, and to pay off the balance in three years instead of all at once.
357: A public commission is appointed to lend Roman funds to save bankrupt debtors from slavery and loss of their lands (revived in the 217 Punic War emergency).
347: Rome’s legal interest rate is cut in half, to 4 ¹/ 6%, and a moratorium is declared on existing debts, which are to be paid off in four equal installments. (To ameliorate matters further, the war tax and levy are lifted.)
342: The plebeian tribune Lucius Genucius moves to ban outright the charging of interest.
326: After popular riots, Rome’s Poetillian-Papirian laws ban nexum debt-servitude.
264-241: First Punic War with Carthage, followed by a second war in 218-201.
220-200: Sparta’s kings Agis, Cleomenes and Nabis cancel the debts, seeking to return to the legendary Lycurgan golden age with its egalitarian ethic. The objective is to restore a freely land-tenured peasant-army.
Sparta is defeated when oligarchic cities call in Roman aid. Greece passes into the Roman sphere of influence after the Peace of Apamia in 188.
204: After Rome levies huge reparations on Carthage, wealthy contributors to the war effort in 216 demand repayment, representing that their pledges actually were loans. The money is to be paid in three installments.
200: With its treasury bare after paying two installments, Rome has only the public land to turn over, above all the rich Campagnia. Instead of being settled by war veterans as had been customary, this land is turned over to wealthy war-contributors in lieu of reimbursement. It is to be taxed at only a nominal rate. Beginning in 198, foreign slaves are imported en masse to cultivate the resulting latifundia.
193: The Sempronian law extends the XII Tables’ 8¹/ 3% interest-rate ceiling to cover non-Romans within the expanding Republic as Greece and other regions are absorbed.
133: Attalos III of Pergamum bequeaths his kingdom to the Romans. In 129 it becomes a Roman province. Aristonicus, the local claimant, mobilizes the population against Rome, promising to cancel their debts and establish a “Kingdom of the Sun” ( Heliopolis), a political ideal probably influenced by the Stoic philosopher Blossius. Rome defeats local armies by poisoning the water supply. After looting local temples, it burdens Asia Minor with huge reparations debts, paving the way for over half a century of warfare. Regular tribute starts in 126.
133-30: Rome’s domestic Social War is fought largely over the debt issue. In 133 the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus sponsor land reform (in particular to limit the extent of large estates) on the public domain. They also sponsor a general financial reform, creating a class of publicani“knights” to act as creditors and financiers, so that senators will not perform this function. Tiberius Gracchus is murdered by oligarchic senators in 133, the first tribune to be killed. A decade later, in 123, his brother Gaius and his supporters are defeated when they occupy the Aventine, and Gaius has a slave kill him in 121.
111: The oligarchic Agrarian Law declares all occupied public domain to be the property of existing holders, thereby defeating plebeian hopes for land reform.
100: The tribune L. Apuleius, supported by the Consul Marius, sponsors a land-settlement reform, but the Optimates oppose it, and repress a popular revolt.
89: The praetor Asellio is murdered for sponsoring restoration of the XII Tables law punishing creditors fourfold for charging excessive interest (over 8¹/ 3%). In the ensuing riots, debtors agitate for “new account books,” that is, a Clean Slate debt cancellation.
88: The Vespers of Ephesus: As many as 80,000 Romans are killed in Asia Minor in retaliation against Roman tax farming and moneylending. During 88-84 Mithradates of Pontus turns what had begun as a local war in 92 into a regionwide by Asia Minor against Rome.
86: The Valerian Law remits three-quarters of the debts of all Romans. Publican financiers and senators join forces in the face of their common fear that demagogues might bid for popular support by endorsing a general debt cancellation and land redistribution.
86-85: The Roman general Sulla sacks Asia Minor and imposes a huge tribute, forcing many cities and much of the population into debt to Italian bankers. This helps make Sulla the richest man in Rome in 83. His army takes over the city and he kills many of his opponents during his dictatorship of 82-79.
73-71: Slave revolt led by the Thracian war-captive Spartacus.
70: Rome declares a moratorium on Asia Minor’s war tribute, which had multiplied sixfold from the 20,000 talents imposed by Sulla in 84 to 120,000 talents, despite the fact that 40,000 talents already had been paid out (not including the looted treasure of Asia Minor’s temples). The local Roman general, Lucullus, sets a 12% interest rate and decrees that where interest payments have exceeded the original principal, the debt is to be considered paid. Debt service is limited to a quarter of the debtor’s income.
63-62: Catiline and some three thousand supporters are killed in battle. A major plank of their program (which Cicero called a “conspiracy”) is a cancellation of debts.
60: In the ensuing civil war, Pompey, Crassus and Caesar form the First Triumvirate. The next year, in 59 BC, Julius Caesar becomes Consul.
49: Caesar marches on Rome and defeats Pompey and his supporters. In the turmoil he allows debtors to deduct interest payments from their principal, and introduces Rome’s first bankruptcy law, but it alleviates debt pressures only on the wealthy. His cessio bonorum saves them from having to sell off their property under distress conditions by letting them turn over real estate at pre-Civil War prices. To support collapsing land prices, Caesar also directs that two-thirds of all capital assets must be held in the form of Italian real estate.
This is not much help to the landless and smallholding population at large. Demagogues such as Caelius (Rufus) and Milo are killed after leading a popular insurrection. In 47, Cneius Cornelius Dolabella likewise advocates cancellation of debts, and is killed for leading riots in the Forum. This is the final defeat for Rome’s indebted poor. Henceforth, lending is concentrated mainly among the wealthy.
45: Caesar becomes dictator, but is killed the following year by members of the Senate.
31 BC – AD 235: The Roman Principate: Twelve emperors in 266 years. In 27, Octavian is crowned as Emperor Augustus, inaugurating the Roman Empire.
AD 33: A financial crisis results from emperors hoarding coinage in the imperial treasury, aggravated by private hoarding and a drain of bullion to the East (largely to purchase luxuries). Tiberius reimposes the traditional 8 ¹/ 3 % interest-rate ceiling, and Caesar’s decree that two-thirds of all personal capital be invested in Italian real estate. This leads to widespread foreclosure on mortgages as lenders convert their financial claims into land. Tiberius decrees that debtors are obligated only to pay twothirds of debts that are called due, but his measures nonetheless aggravate the general financial crisis.
AD 325: The council of Nicea bans the practice of usury by members of the Christian priesthood.
AD 425: Charging interest is banned for the lay population generally.
Biblical Passages Dealing with the Usury Problem and Debt Forgiveness
Revised Standard Version
I. The Biblical Law Codes
The Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21-23. The Lord becomes king and protector of Israel, whose people make a covenant, a sacred compact with the Lord to protect the economically weak– significantly (but anachronistically) without the intermediary of kings.
21:1-11: The Lord instructs Moses that “These are the rulings you are to set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year he shall go free without paying anything.
“If he came in alone, he shall go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master has given him a wife and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
“But if the servant declares, `I love my master, my wife, and my children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.
“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please her master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.”
22:22-27: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.
“If you lend money to one of my people among you that is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear; for I am compassionate.”
23:9-13: “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.
“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year you let the land rest unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.
“Six days you shalt work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed.
“Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.”
The Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26 (esp. 25 for debt). (Numbers 36 refers to it. See also Num. 29 with regard to blowing the horn at the world’s creation/New Year recreation.)
25:8-43: “Count off seven sabbaths of years — seven times seven years — so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; each of you is to return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. The fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee for you: do not sow, nor reap that which grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a Jubilee and is to be holy for you. Eat only what is taken directly from the fields.
“In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property.
“If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not oppress one another. You are to buy from your countrymen on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear thy God, for I am – the Lord your God.
“Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. You may ask, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?’ I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat yet from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest from the ninth year comes in.
“The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession you must provide for the redemption of the land.
“If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. If, however, a man has no one to redeem it for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to redeem it, he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it; he can then go back to his own property. But if he does not acquire the means to repay him what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and he can then go back to his property.
“If a man sells a house in a walled city, he retains the right of redemption a full year after its sale. During that time he may he redeem it. If it is not redeemed before a full year has passed, the house in the walled city shall belong permanently to the buyer and his descendants. It is not to be returned in the Jubilee. But houses in villages without walls around them are to be considered as open country. They can be redeemed, and they are to be returned in the Jubilee.
“The Levites always have the right to redeem the houses they possess in the Levitical towns. So the property of the Levites is redeemable – that is, a house sold in any town they hold – and is to be returned in the Jubilee, because the houses of the town of the Levites are their property among the Israelites. But the pastureland belonging to their towns must not be sold, for it is their permanent possession.
“If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
“If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the year of the Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear thy God.”
The Priestly Code occurs in Deuteronomy, esp. 15 with regard to the shemitta, the septennial release of debt-servants from their servitude and the obligations that caused it.
Deut.15:1-18: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the Lord’s time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. However, there should be no poor 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. For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord thy God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then cry unto the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart: then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land.
Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
Deut. 23:19-20: “Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess”
Deut. 24:6: “Do not take a pair of millstones –not even the upper one — as security for a debt, because that would be taking a man’s livelihood as security.”
Deut. 24:I0-I3: “When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. If the man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it. Then he will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the Lord thy God”
Deut. 24:I7-I8: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.”
Biblical scholars have noted that there are no traces of Deuteronomy’s ideas in the preachings of Amos, Hosea and Isaiah, yet their influence is manifest in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. This indicates the recomposition of Deuteronomy following its discovery c. 610 BC. The original text must have been shorter than its ultimate version, for in the reign of Josiah it took only an evening to be read aloud.
II.Historical Books of the Bible
Nehemiah 5: Upon returning from Babylonia to Israel, Nehemiah relates how he found many of the land’s poor inhabitants “saying, `We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.’ Still others were saying, `We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’
“When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, `You are exacting usury from your own country men!’ So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: `As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!’ They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.
“So I continued, `What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them – the percentage of their money, grain, new wine and oil.’
“`We will give it back,’ they said. `And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.
“Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised.”
III. Wisdom literature
Psalm 15: “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous … who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.”
Proverbs 22:7: “The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”
IV. The Social Prophets
Prophetic statements with regard to justice and righteousness, specifically concerning land tenure and its debts, were retrojected throughout the Biblical narrative. I Samuel 8:10ff., for instance, warns (anachronistically) about the danger of kings hurting the people.
Around the time of the Lycurgan reforms in Sparta, Isaiah (c. 700 BC), the greatest and most influential of all Old Testament prophets, preached against economic injustice, and especially against usury.
Isaiah 1:2 , 7, 10, 16-17, 21-23: O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the Lord has spoken:
“Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you …
“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! …
“Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!
“Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow . . .
“See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her – but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”
Isaiah 3:14-15: “The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: `It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
“What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?”‘
Isaiah 5:8-9: “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.
“The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants. A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine; a homer of seed only an ephah of grain…
“So man will be brought low and mankind humbled, the eyes of the arrogant humbled.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
“Woe to those … who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.”
Isaiah 10:1-3: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and rob my oppressed people of justice, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?”
Isaiah 11:1-2, 4-6: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him — the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding … with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them.”
Isaiah 13:11: “I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.”
Isaiah 42:21-24: “It pleased the Lord for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious. But this is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made loot, with no one to say, `Send them back.’
* See above, my criticism of the Revised Standard Version’s anachronistic translation of usury as meaning excessive interest.
“Which of you will listen to this or pay dose attention in time to come? Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law.”
Isaiah 46:6-7: “Some pour out gold from their bags and weigh out silver on the scales; they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god, and they bow down and worship it. They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Though one cries out to it, it does not answer; it cannot save him from his troubles.”
Isaiah 61:1-2, 5, 8: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has annointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom (deror) for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the Year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God …
“Aliens will shepherd your flocks, foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. . `For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.”
Isaiah 62:4-6: “For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year of my redemption has come. I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; … I trampled the nations in my anger.”
Around the time of Solon (594 BC), Jeremiah (c. 626-586), the last pre-exilic prophet, picked up the theme of social justice. Jeremiah 7:6-7, 11 proclaims; “If you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place … then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever … Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? I have been watching! declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah 34:8-22 describes Zedekiah making a covenant in the face of Nebuchadnezzar’s attack. (Note Rome’s parallel legend of Coriolanus and the secession of the plebs c. 500 BC.) “The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom (deror) for the slaves. Everyone was to free his Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Jew in bondage. So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your forefathers when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, `Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrew who has sold himself to you. After he has served you six years, you must let him go free.’ Your fathers, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to his countrymen. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again.
“Therefore, this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen. So I now proclaim `freedom’ for you, declares the Lord –‘freedom to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. . . I will hand Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials over to their enemies who seek their lives, to the army of the king of Babylon, which has withdrawn from you. I am going to give the order, declares the Lord, and I will bring them back to this city. And I will fight against it, take it and burn it down. And I will lay waste the towns of Judah so that no one can live there.”
Biblical scholars have found that the writings of Ezekiel bear the closest kinship to the Holiness Code of Leviticus, suggesting that the book was rewritten in his period (early sixth century BC, around the time of the early Babylonian captivity).
Ezekiel 7:1-3, 10-14: The word of the Lord came to me: `Son of man, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to the land of Israel: The end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. The end is now upon you and I will unleash my anger against you. I will judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices….’
“`The day is here! It has come! Doom has burst forth, the rod has budded, arrogance has blossomed! Violence has grown into a rod to punish wickedness; none of the people will be left, none of that crowd — no wealth, nothing of value…. Let not the buyer rejoice nor the seller grieve, for wrath is upon the whole crowd. The seller will not recover the land he has sold as long as both of them live, for the vision concerning the whole crowd will not be reversed. Because of their sins, not one of them will preserve his life. Though they blow the trumpet and get everything ready, no one will go into battle, for my wrath is upon the whole crowd.”
Ezekiel 16:1-3, 15, 44-51: “The word of the Lord came to me: `Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices and say, `This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite…’
“`You trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his. . .’
“`Like mother, like daughter.’ . . . Your mother was a Hittite and your father was an Amorite. Your older sister was Samaria, who lived to the north of you with her daughters; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you with her daughters, was Sodom. You not only walked in their ways and copied their detestable practices, but in all your ways you soon became more depraved than they. . . .
“`Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her, daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen’.”
Ezekiel 18:5-8, 13-18: “`Suppose there is a righteous man who does what is just and right…. He does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. He does not lend at usury or take … interest. . . . ‘*
“`Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things … He lends at usury and takes . . . interest. Will such a man live? He will not!’
“`But suppose this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things…. He does not oppress anyone or require a pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. He withholds his hand from sin [Heb.”from the poor”] and takes no usury. . .He keeps my laws and follows my decrees.”
“`He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people…. The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, not will the father share the guilt of the son.”
Ezekiel 33:1, 12-16: “The word of the Lord came to me:…`Son of man, say to your countrymen, `The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness.’ If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but he trusts in. his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done. And if I say to the wicked man, `You will surely die,’ but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right — if he gives back what he took in pledge for a loan, returns what he has stolen, follows the decrees that give life, and does no evil, he will surely live.”
Ezekiel 34.2-4: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”
Ezekiel 45:9-12: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You have gone far enough, O princes of Israel! Give up your violence and oppression and do what is just and right. Stop dispossessing my people…”
Ezekiel 46.16-18: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: If the prince makes a gift from his inheritance . . . to one of his servants, the servant may keep it until the year of freedom; then it will revert to the prince. His inheritance belongs to his sons only; it is theirs. The prince must not take any of the inheritance of the people, driving them off their property. He is to give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that none of my people will be separated from his property.
Hosea 4.1-6, 10, 16: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.
“By swearing, lying and killing, stealing and committing adultery, they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.”
Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying….
“You stumble day and night, and the prophets stumble with you. So I will destroy your mother — my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.
“Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests, because you have ignored the law of your God …
“They will eat but not have enough; they will engage in prostitution but not increase, because they have deserted the Lord … They consult a wooden idol and are answered by a stick of wood. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God. The Israelites are stubborn, like a stubborn heifer.”
Hosea 12:7: “The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud.”
Amos 2:6-8: “This is what the Lord says: For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.
“They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines.”
Amos 5:12-16: “I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes, and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.
“Seek good, not evil, that ye may live; . . .
“Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.”
Micah 2:1-2: Woe to those that devise iniquity… they covet fields and houses, and take them by force. They defraud a man of his home and his inheritance”.
Malachi 3:1-6: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me … He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver . . . `So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widow, and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
Malachi 4:1-3: “`Surely the day is coming: it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. `Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,’ says the Lord Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel … or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
The Old Testament thus ends with a call for reform. Looking backward, theyobel trumpets provide a linkage to Bronze Age New Year festivals; looking forward, they call for a messenger to redeem Israel leading to the Christian New Testament whose closing book of Revelation (8:11) returns to the sabbatical theme with seven yobel trum pets played by seven angels.
V. Testament Acts, Epistles and Revelation
The Church Fathers discussed usury in the context of wealth in general, taking their lead from Christ’s contrast between worldly riches and the treasures in heaven, as described e.g. in Matthew 7:19-24: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…
“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
Acts 4:32-35 reflects the shift from the Old Testament’s call for periodic debt cancellation to the Christian idea of charity, that is, charity in the context of existing status quo property and debt relations. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had… There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
The subsequent epistles continue in the same vein, reflecting the victory of oligarchic creditor power throughout the Roman Empire.
1. Timothy 6:6-12, 17 -19 exhorts that “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into the temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs…
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses…
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
2 Timothy 3:1-5: “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.”
James 5:1-5: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” This denunciation recalls the cries of Sodom. (See Ezekiel 16:49.)
1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”
Revelation reports John’s vision of the Lord speaking with a voice like a trumpet to announce the Day of Judgment. This is the occasion for re-creating the world, much as archaic rulers restored order out of chaos at the New Year celebrations over which they presided in the names of their sun-gods of justice.
The Lord sits on the throne in heaven. On his right is a scroll sealed with seven seals. One by one they are opened, unleashing tribulations upon the earth. After the seventh seal is opened, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then seven trumpets were given to the seven angels standing before God.
Blowing the first trumpet brought a hail of fire, burning up much of the earth. The second trumpet brought a huge blazing mountain thrown into the sea. The third trumpet turned the earth’s fresh water bitter. At the sounding of the fourth trumpet, a third of the sun, moon and stars turned dark.
The fifth angel’s trumpet opened the shaft of the Abyss, darkening the sky with a host of scorpion-like locusts. The sixth trumpet released four avenging angels to destroy a third of mankind by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur.
The seventh angel prepared to sound his trumpet, announcing that the mystery of God was about to be accomplished. The visionary John was given “a reed like a measuring rod,” recalling how archaic rulers ruled by proclaiming just measures.
More wondrous signs appear. Babylon is destroyed, the source of export trade from which “merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” These merchants bewailed her doom, for “no one buys their cargoes any more — cargoes of gold, silver and precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men….
The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment … and cry out…In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!”‘ But the multitude in heaven would shout “Amen, Hallelujah!” The New Jerusalem would appear on earth — the millennium restoring equity and righteousness, the Year of the Lord which Christ had prophesized in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets.
Debt servitude comes full circle
The New Testament’s idea of righteousness changed from the concrete legal restorations of order found in Mesopotamian New Year celebrations to something more abstract. The words were the same — righteousness, equity and justice — but their significance was altered to reflect the changing conditions on earth as the Roman Empire sank into economic and monetary decay. Instead of uprooting the sources of worldly economic inequity and dependency by cancelling the debts and returning forfeited lands and debt-servants to their former families, the Christian spirit of moral righteousness is grounded on the idea of sharing wealth through charity. The focus of the new morality is no longer the worldly economic system but the personal souls of the wealthy and poor.
What henceforth is asked of creditors is charity, not social restructuring. There is no longer thought of anything like administering on earth the Levitical laws designed to promote economic and financial equity here and now. The Church Fathers played little role in Rome’s banning of usury in the fourth and fifth centuries of our era. By that time the world seemed hopelessly lost, and all that one could do was to await the Millennium. The more gloomy hopes for worldly reform became, the more the temptation grew for all eyes to turn to the Hereafter.
So much has this turning inward occurred that it is now possible even for liberation theologists to speak abstractly of social justice without reference to freedom from debt or free access to the means of self-support. Not only individual families but entire nations are losing their economic self-dependency, their ability to provide themselves with food, housing and related basic needs. Isaiah’s prophesy has come true:
Lands have been taken over by foreigners, in many cases to grow export crops (viz. the olive oil and wine of Revelation ) rather than to feed local populations. National economies have fallen into debt-servitude, often to their own wealthy classes operating out of offshore banking enclaves.
This state of affairs recalls that in which the Old Testament prophets foretold national destruction for having fallen away from the commandments to preserve economic freedom and self-dependency, on pain of the entire country losing its political freedom, having lost its soul.