Public Square & Theology 101

Is Forgiving Debt a Biblical Mandate?

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Last week I began discussing the topic of Jubilee, a biblical practice that has become more prominent in discussions about justice, poverty, and debt relief. Jubilee comes from the biblical text in Leviticus 25, and from this passage, some Christians have made the following assumptions:

  • Jubilee means a forgiveness of debt.
  • Jubilee involves a redistribution of wealth (land).
  • Jubilee shows the relative nature (relativization) of private property.
  • Jubilee leads to income equality.
  • Jubilee is a universally applicable principle (applies to all people).

Are any of these assumptions true or not?

As Christians, we can be sure of two things. First, we are called by God to restore justice and care for the poor. Understanding these issues should matter to us because they matter to God.

Second, we look to the Bible as our guide for all of life. We should understand what this Leviticus passage means in its Old Testament context and what it means for us today.

So, let’s look at the first assumption today, “Does Jubilee mean a forgiveness of debt?”

Jubilee as the Cancellation of a Debt that Has Been Paid

After extensive study of the Leviticus 25 passage and reading many commentators, I do not believe that Jubilee involves forgiveness of debt, at least not in the way we normally use the term. No debt is forgiven; rather it has been paid off.

The key verses that are misunderstood—or not read at all—are Leviticus 25:15-16:

Corresponding to the number of years after the Jubilee you shall buy from your friend; he is to sell to you according to the number of  years of crops. In proportion to the extent of the years you shall increase its price and proportion and in proportion to the fewness of years you shall diminish its price; for it is the number of crops he is selling to you.

Here’s how this worked: If an Israelite family member had a debt, they could go to someone and ask for a lump sum payment priced according to the number of years before the Jubilee. The price would be determined by the projected amount of crops to be yielded prior to the Jubilee.

To put it in modern terms, if you had a debt of $250,000, there are five years until the Jubilee, and each crop is worth $50,000, the lender would give you $250,000 for the rights to farm the land. At the time of Jubilee, you would receive your land back, because the debt had been paid off. The lender does not really own the land but leases it.

At the time of Jubilee, you would, of course, rejoice that your debt has been paid, and your land returned to your full use. But you would likely not thank the leaser for “forgiving” your debt any more than you would thank your bank for “forgiving” your mortgage once you’ve paid it. The debt is not “forgiven” or “canceled” because it is paid.

This understanding of Jubilee as the payoff of a lease is common in Old Testament commentaries:

Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Holy Bible (Genesis to Esther):

Thus it was provided that the lands should not be alienated from their families. They could only be disposed of, as it were, by leases til the year of Jubilee, and were then to return to the seller or his heir.

George Arthur Buttrick, The Interpreter’s Bible:

In the year of Jubilee, all indentured labor, in regard to Hebrews, was to come to an end, all leases were to expire; the Hebrew might not alienate his agricultural land, but he might lease the right to farm it, the sum to be paid being the estimated value of the crops up to the year of Jubilee, when the lease would automatically end.

Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:

Before and after the year of jubilee land would be “bought” or “sold.” Actually, the leaser purchased a specific number of harvests.

Walter Kaiser, Ownership and Property in the Old Testament Economy:

Verses 13-17 of Leviticus 25 go on to spell out the financial implications of this transaction, for what appeared to have been the sale of the land was in fact only the sale of the use of the land.

There is thus significant consensus among biblical scholars that Jubilee entailed the completed payment of debt, not its forgiveness.

Jubilee: Justice or Mercy?

Even though Jubilee is not a “forgiveness of debt,” you could find other biblical grounds for the idea of forgiving debt. In the parable of the unmerciful slave, Jesus commends the voluntary and merciful act of the king (Matt. 18:23-35). He teaches that anyone who is shown such mercy over a very large debt should be merciful to one with a much smaller debt. Forgiving debt is not here a matter of justice but of mercy.

Although the context of this parable is a chapter that wrestles with the importance of forgiving sin, we certainly see that forgiving a debt is a merciful option—though not a mandatory one.

Michael Harbin, in a thorough academic paper entitled Jubilee and Social Justice, concludes that,

Jubilee does not involve forgiveness of debt…since there was no debt, there was nothing to be forgiven…Jubilee is then really a semi-centennial national expiration of land leases.

Certainly, there is a biblical basis for voluntary debt forgiveness. But there is a significant difference between a debt that is paid and the mandatory forgiveness of debt.

Jubilee is clearly an example of the former and not the latter. It is not a celebration of forgiveness of debt, but of freedom from debt now paid.

As we consider economic policy and how to best care for the least of these, we must exhibit both justice and mercy, but debt forgiveness is not a mandatory application of Jubilee.


Editor’s note: This post was adapted from Dr. Lindsley’s chapter in IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty

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  • Nice series on Jubilee! Thanks! A superficial reading of the Torah has produced a lot of ridiculous results. I might add that according to Joseph Lifshitz the courts in Israel did not get involved in religious or moral law. They left religious law to the priests and enforcement of moral law to families and God. Jubilee and the Sabbath debt forgiveness were part of the moral law. He wrote in his book Judaism, Law and the Free Market: an Analysis that giving to the poor was not a legal obligation:

    For this reason, the Sages defined charity foremost as a moral principle, not a juridical one. Thus, they admonished those who would take money from others in order to give it to the poor: ‘Better is he who gives a smaller amount of his own charity than one who steals from others to give a large amount of charity.’

    All the limitations placed by Jewish religious law on property rights are of a moral nature – they have no legal or monetary standing, and there is nothing in them that changes the legal definition of property rights. Hence, any interpretation that claims the existence of distributive justice in Jewish law as separate from the individual’s religious identity, and defines individual obligations in legal terms and not in moral ones, must be merely a reduction of Jewish Law’s theological principles to an anachronistic political position, and in doing so, also distorts the judicial principle.

    Two passages from the ancient Jewish book Ethics of the Fathers quoted in Brad H. Young’s Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus illustrate the limited nature of the Israeli courts:

    (5:11) Seven kinds of punishment enter into the world on account of seven major transgressions. When some people give their tithes and others do not, then famine ensues from drought. Some people suffer hunger while others are full. When they all decide not to give tithes at all, a famine ensues from civil disorder and drought. If they resolve not to give the dough-cake (Numbers 15:20), a deadly famine comes. So a pestilence may come into the world to fulfill those death penalties threatened in the Torah which is not given over to human court systems, and for the breaking of the laws regarding the produce of the seventh year. (Leviticus 25:1-7) [Emphasis not in the original]

    (5:12) During four seasons of time pestilence increases: in the fourth year, in the seventh, at the conclusion of the seventh year, and at the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles in each year. In the fourth year, it increases on account of failure to give the tithe to the poor in the third year (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). In the seventh year, it increases on account of failure to give the tithe to the poor in the sixth year; at the conclusion of the seventh year, on account of the failure of observing the law regarding the fruits of the seventh years, and at the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles in each year, for robbing the poor of the grants that are legally assigned to them.

    The last sentence in the first paragraph is bolded for emphasis. Both passages demonstrate that Moses left the enforcement of the moral laws in the Torah to God, not the courts. God would punish violations with drought, famine and pestilence. God used war with Syria and Babylon to punish idolatry, not the courts. Moses specified what types of cases the courts were to adjudicate:

    · Purchase and sale (Lev. 25:14).

    · Liability of a paid depositary (Ex. 22:9).

    · Loss for which a gratuitous borrower is liable (Ex. 22:13-14) .

    · Inheritances (Num. 27:8-11).

    · Damage caused by an uncovered pit (Ex. 21:33-34) .

    · Injuries caused by beasts (Ex. 21:35-36) .

    · Damage caused by trespass of cattle (Ex. 22:4) .

    · Damage caused by fire (Ex. 22:5) .

    · Damage caused by a gratuitous depositary (Ex. 22:6-7) .

    · Other cases between a plaintiff and a defendant (Ex. 22:8) .

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