Debt, Debtor

See also Debt


The OT, particularly in Exodus and Leviticus, records detailed stipulations and limitations regarding debts, loans, interest and contracts. Abuse of the Biblical regulations brought forth repeated admonition and condemnation from the prophets. Interesting word pictures regarding contracts and debts arose among the Israelites. The Mosaic legislation attempts to protect both lender and borrower through a system of pledges and guarantees. The ideas carry over into the NT, although the NT ethic is not so restricted and lacks detail.

It is to be expected that the OT ethic centers much on interest and usury since these were the source of both profit and abuse. In Israel lending and borrowing was not for big commercial enterprises, but to help private individuals who lacked everyday needs. Not the rich, but the poor were in debt. When greed replaced concern in loans the common people considered it unfortunate and a disgrace to be in debt because it placed the debtor at the mercy of the creditor. Jehovah, the God of mercy, would protect by manifold regulations the poor and downtrodden from the wicked oppressor. The OT legislation deals with interest and usury in such a way that both mercy and justice be done. Poverty was common in Israel, caused by over-population, high taxes, poor resources and war. The payment of interest made lending and borrowing both difficult and burdensome for both parties of a transaction in that one party had the power to charge exorbitant interest and the other could choose to default. After the Exile a whole system of guarantees and limitations was developed to protect both debtor and creditor from each other. Later the rabbis worked out ways and means by which profit might be made from capital—not interest, but usury was forbidden.

The Pentateuch indicates that a first principle of lending and assuming debts is that such a transaction was pleasing to both God and man, since it gave the lender an opportunity to help a fellow man in need as an act of love. The Heb. words used indicate the lender lifted a burden from the borrower by helping him through a crisis. Lending to the poor was considered a good deed (Ps 37:21). Since the borrower would pay back what he owed he could receive help with thanks and respect. This is why Moses forbade an Israelite to take interest from a fellow Israelite. The idea was that in a brotherhood help should be given free and not for profit. The motive should be that without Jehovah’s intervention in Egypt all Israelites would be slaves: “If your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and sojourner he shall live with you. Take no interest (neshek) from him or increase (tarbith), but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest nor give him your food for profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God” (Lev 25:35-38; Exod 22:25). This doctrine of brotherhood, however, allowed the Israelite to lend on interest to non-Israelites: “You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest. To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest” (Deut 23:19, 20).


In spite of all the legislation, however, Israel did not follow the Word of the Lord. The preaching of the prophets reveals that the abuse of all guarantees and pledges became a scourge of the people in later Judaism. During the days of Nehemiah, some Israelites were compelled to give up their sons to regain their vineyards (Neh 5:1-13). Rates of interest became exorbitant, a social plague, and the poor debtor became helpless. All of Israel’s neighbors oppressed the poor. Lending money at interest was described vividly by the word nashak, to “bite like a serpent.” The word for interest and usury (neshek) really meant “bite,” indicating the attitude toward loans, debts and interest among the people. The lender would take his “bite” even before the borrower received a loaf of borrowed bread but expected a full loaf in return. The term for interest also took on the meaning of “oppress” (Hab 2:7). The Arab. parallel is the word “to gnaw.” The man who borrowed on interest is pictured as being gradually gnawed away by the interest. The attitude of greed is described by a statement in the Talmud: “If Moses had known how much might be made by lending money at interest, he would never have thought of forbidding it.”

The borrower gave his right hand in the transaction because it represented the power and honor to repay, as we in our culture raise our right hands when giving an oath. Ezekiel describes the sins of Israel as if they had broken all the statutes of the law regarding debts and interest (Prov 28:8; Ezek 18:8, 13, 17; 22:12). They abused the laws wholesale (2 Kings 4:1-7). Hundreds of people were reduced to actual slavery (Isa 50:1). Whereas the purpose of loans was really to help a person in need, naked commercialism killed all love and mercy, and both debtor and creditor cursed each other. Greece and Rome, too, were hard on people who defaulted on loans. Rome allowed a creditor to seize the debtor and place him in jail where he could never pay (cf. Jesus’ Parable of the Debtor).



Bibliography H. B. Tristan, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands (1894), 245-262; E. Day, The Social Life of the Hebrews (1901), 175-195; C. Kent, Social Teachings of the Prophets and Jesus (1921), 96-106; A. Rehwinkel, New Testament World (1950), 244-246; J. D. Derrett, Fresh Light on St. Luke, 16:1, NTS (Apr, 1961), 198-219; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 172, 173; S. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (1962), I, 161, 195, 261; H. Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ (1962), 246-248; L. E. Toombs, Love and Justice in Deuteronomy (INT, 1965), 399-411; T. B. Maston, Biblical Ethics (1967), 62-85.