Theology 101

Usury & The Israelites: Leviticus & Deuteronomy

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In my previous blog, I provided context on usury from the book of Exodus. To continue examining my theory that the Old Testament universally condemns usury on money or property loaned out to fellow Israelites, today we will explore a passage from Leviticus and another from Deuteronomy. 

Usury in Leviticus

Leviticus is an expansion on and a series of additions to the briefer giving of the law in Exodus. In the section on laws of land use (Lev. 25) is a statement on usury. It is similar to the statement in Exodus but adds some new information: 

Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or sojourner, that he may live with you. Do not take usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain” (Lev. 25:35-37, NASB). 

Mark F. Rooker explained in his commentary that verse 35 seems to depict a case where a poor man is destitute and in need of assistance. He is to be helped by his neighbors or family either with money or food, and they are not to charge interest on such assistance. That person and his family are to be “sustained” since they are brethren in the covenant. According to the Expositor’s Bible commentary, verse 36 then is a “conclusion” to the previous verse, and the man in question is not to be treated as a foreigner living outside Israel. 

Verse 37 reinforces the command not to charge interest on anything loaned, whether silver or food. Two separate words are used in verse 37. The first is the word already examined, nesek; the second is marbit and means “gain.” Lend not silver for interest (nesek) nor food for gain (marbit). As Martin Noth distincts, the Israelites were not to profit from the misfortune of other Israelites.

This command is followed by a solemn statement analogous to the final comment in the Exodus text: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God” (Lev. 25:38, NASB). It serves as a reminder of the fact that God takes these matters seriously, as seen in the Exodus text; but it also reinforces the truth that God truly brought them from Egypt and would take them to Canaan so that they, all of them, “poor” and “rich” alike, would enjoy the fruits of the land of promise. In other words, the usury legislation examined so far is directly connected to the land promise made to Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 15:7, 18-21). It is an extension of the promises of the Abrahamic covenant into the Mosaic covenant. Ideally, none should be disenfranchised, but all should be blessed, even the poor. 

Usury in Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy consists mostly of a series of three addresses given by Moses on the plains of Moab (1:5). In the second address (Deut. 4:44–28:68), Moses turns attention to family and neighborhood relationships (23:1–25:19) and briefly speaks yet again to the issue of interest on loans. The text reads, 

You shall not charge interest to your countrymen: interest on money, food, or anything that may be loaned at interest. You may charge interest to a foreigner, but to your countrymen you shall not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land which you are about to enter to possess” (Deut. 23:19-20, NASB). 

While most of the ideas here are not new to this essay’s exposition, note that in addition to “money” and “food,” Moses adds “anything.” Israelites are not to be charged any kind of interest on the borrowing of any kind of commodity. Joseph Reider’s commentary mentions that verse 20 adds something new, though it might be inferred from the Leviticus text: Israelites are allowed to charge interest if they loan money to “foreigners,” even as foreign lenders would have charged interest on loans made to Israelites. Foreigners would have been used to paying interest on loans, but that is not the main reason that this exception to usury is allowed. They are not “brothers” (the literal meaning of “countrymen”). They are not part of the covenant; and, as already noted, they were used to charging and paying interest on loans.

Further, they are not part of the community that has been promised the blessings to be found in Canaan. The provision of charging interest to Gentiles may be due to the fact that in business dealings with them, Israelites might find themselves needing credit from such merchants. Earl Kalland explains that since the foreign merchants would charge interest on such credit, it was justifiable to charge interest back to them. The last part of verse 20 repeats that the prohibition of interest of any kind to fellow Israelites has to do with the prosperity of the people once they enter the land, a significant concern all throughout the book of Deuteronomy (see especially chapter 28). 

The New American Commentary: Deuteronomy explains, “Proper treatment of a brother in such matters would ensure the blessing of God in the land of promise (v. 20). God himself gives freely and graciously, so why should people profit from the misfortune of one another?” If Israel wishes to receive the blessings promised to Abraham, they will not give loans to other Israelites with any provision for interest payments

Usury & Collateral

In Deuteronomy 24:6, Moses speaks briefly to the issue of taking some kind of collateral for a loan. Similar to the “coat” of Exodus 22, here he instructs the people that they are not to take as a “pledge” a “handmill” or a “millstone,” since that would be “taking a life in pledge.” The concept is unusual to today’s readers, since few people in modern culture grind their own grain or meal; but the Word Biblical Commentary explains that in the Ancient Near East these items would have been “necessary kitchen utensils in every house.” Since millstones were used for grinding grain for the family’s sustenance, to take one of these items was to remove from a family its means of livelihood. Not even the upper millstone, a part that was easily picked up and moved“, was to be taken. Even poor people must be allowed the wherewithal to work and to provide for themselves. 

How are these matters treated outside the books of Moses? In my next blog, we’ll look at texts in Psalms and Ezekial before examining a final Old Testament passage in Nehemiah. Then, we will consider the context of usury in the New Testament.

Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, Usury in Scripture, by Dr. Chad Brand. Read the full paper here.

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