Interest on Loans in the Old Testament, Part 2

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By Klaus Issler; part one of a series. Reprinted from the Oikonomia Network.

As we saw in part one of this series, for most of the history of the church, church leaders understood that the Old Testament taught a complete ban on any interest on money loans. The subject of this study is the matter of loans to fellow Israelites who had the potential for paying the loan back, as distinct from charity to the poor, where generous giving is more appropriate than loans. Three important passages in the Pentateuch or Torah guide the main teaching on loans and interest in the Old Testament.

Below, I underline some phrases to highlight key factors, and note the different Hebrew terms. In the discussion below I will be building on the discussion in part one about the problematic verb “to charge interest” [nāšakroot II]; the noun “interest” [nešek] shares the same root, and also appears in these passages.

Exodus 22:25 [EVS]: “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender [nōŝe’, participle] to him, and you shall not exact interest [nešek, noun] from him.”

Leviticus 25:35-37: “[35] If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. [36] Take no interest [nešek] from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. [37] You shall not lend him your money at interest [nešek], nor give him your food for profit.”

Deuteronomy 23:19-20: “[19] You shall not charge interest on loans [nāšakII, verb] to your brother, interest [nešek, noun] on money, interest [nešek] on food, interest [nešek] on anything that is lent for interest [nāšak II, verb]. [20] You may charge a foreigner [nokrî] interest [nāšak II, verb], but you may not charge your brother interest [nāšak II, verb], that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”

The source of the long controversy in church history is the difference between Exodus 22:25 and Leviticus 25:35, which focus the ban on interest to loans for the “poor,” and Deuteronomy 23:19-20, excludes interest on loans to “your brother.”

Based on a study of the passage, the main question can be stated as follows, with three possible interpretations of Deuteronomy 23:19-20 as answers:

What is the intended scope of the interest ban in Deuteronomy 23:19-20?

View A: A total interest ban for all loans? (the traditional view held during the Patristic period and the Middle Ages of church history)

View B: An interest ban only for loans to fellow Israelites, but not to foreigners? (as explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 23:20)

View C: An interest ban only for loans to the working Israelite poor? (as explicitly stated in Exodus 22:25 and Leviticus 25:35-37)

The table below provides a summary of the three views. The labels suggested for each view are intended to capture the key difference of understanding.

Type of CONTRAST in Deut 23:19-20? Three Interpretative Options SCOPE of Ban on Interest? RELATION of 3 Torah Passages? MORALITY of Interest?
A. Ethnic Status/Total Interest Ban: Israelites vs. the foreigner as Israel’s enemy Total ban Dissimilar: Deut. 23:19-20 overrides Exod. 22:25 & Lev. 25:35-37 Essentially immoral
B. Ethnic Status/Two-Tiered Ethic: No interest among Israelites, but interest is legitimate with non-Israelites Ban for loans among Israelites Dissimilar: Deut. 23:19-20 overrides Exod. 22:25 & Lev. 25:35-37 Morally legitimate within certain economic contexts
C. Economic Status/Poor-Merchant Contrast: No interest with Poor, but interest is legitimate for other loans (e.g., commercial loans) Ban for loans to poor only Similar: Deut. 23 affirms Exod. 22 & Lev. 25 Morally legitimate within certain economic contexts


View A: Ethnic status distinction (Israelites v. foreigners as enemies), implying a total ban

Deuteronomy 23:19 is viewed as offering the last word on the matter, different from the other two Torah passages. Within the covenant of the Israelite “brotherhood” community, charging any interest on a loan is always banned – and that is the ideal, normative for us today. Passages in the rest of the Old Testament are viewed as confirming this blanket prohibition (e.g. Psalm 15: “who does not put his money out at interest”; Ezekiel 18:8: “does not lend at interest”).

Bruce Ballard states: “The Old Testament clearly condemns lending money or anything else at any interest at all….If my exposition of the doctrine of usury is correct, then interest-taking is as much a sin as ever” (“On the Sin of Usury: A Biblical Economic Ethic,” p. 227).

Bibliography for View A:

  • Ambrose, De Tobia [Tobit] 15.51.
  • Bruce Ballard, “On the Sin of Usury: A Biblical Economic Ethic,” Christian Scholar’s Review 24:2 (1994), p. 210-228; p. 214 and 218.
  • Daniel M. Bell, Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012), p. 163, 187 and 191.
  • Roland Boer, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Westminster/John Knox, 2015), p. 157, 161 and n36.
  • Paul Mills and Michael Schluter, After Capitalism: Rethinking Economic Relationships (Jubilee Centre, 2012), p. 18-19.

 

View B: Ethnic status distinction (Israelites v. foreigners as strangers), implying a two-tiered ethic

This view agrees with View A that the ethnic distinction in v.19 identifies the main teaching on the matter, but takes the two-tiered ethic of v. 20 at face value. Those within the Israelite community must hold to a higher ethic and not charge interest on loans to each other. Yet v. 20 does state that charging interest on loans to non-Israelites is legitimate, since one cannot expect foreigners to live by this higher ethic. In such a case, Israelites can comply the with usual business practice of that day.

Michael Guttman states: “If an equal basis for trading between Israelites and foreigners was to be established it could be attained only in this way; that the restrictions of the release year and the law of interest, which were not binding on the stranger a priori, were also void for the Israelite in so far as trade with foreigners was concerned” (“The Term ‘Foreigner’ (נכרי) Historically Considered,” p. 7).

Bibliography for View B:

  • Michael Guttman, “The Term ‘Foreigner’ (נכרי) Historically Considered,” Hebrew Union College Aannual 3 (1926), p. 1-20.
  • Barry Gordon, “Lending at Interest: Some Jewish, Greek, and Christian Approaches 800 B.C. – 100 A.D,” History of Political Economy 14:3 (1982), p. 406-426; p. 409-12 and 424.
  • Robert Maloney, “The Background for the Early Christian Teaching on Usury,” S.T.D. Dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 1969, p. 68.
  • Edward Neufeld, “The Prohibitions Against Loans at Interest in Ancient Hebrew Laws,” Hebrew Union College Aannual 26 (1955), p. 355-412; p. 366 and 407.
  • Michael J. Williams, “Taking Interest in Taking Interest,” in MIshneh Todah: Studies in Deuteronomy and Its Cultural Environment in Honor of Jeffrey H. Tigay, ed. N . S. Fox, A. Glatt-Gilad and Michael J. Williams (Eisenbrauns, 2009), p. 129 and 131.
  • Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (InterVarsity, 2004), p. 165.

 

View C: Economic status distinction (poor v. merchants), implying restrictions on interest for poor

This third view understands the contrast between “brother” and “foreigner” not as referring to an ethnic group, but one of a contrast between two situations: between the implied, poor “brother” and the “foreigner” (v. 20) as trader or merchant. When the topic of lending is first mentioned in Deuteronomy 15:7, the focus is loans to the poor (the passage starts off very similarly to Leviticus 25:35): “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor….” Thus, when the topic of lending is picked up again in Deuteronomy 23:19-20, a focus on the poor brother is viewed as implied. And most commentators understand the term “foreigner” [nokrî] in Deuteronomy 23:20 as that of a foreign trader or merchant.

Mark Biddle states: “In fact, since most traders in the ancient Near East did business internationally, the permission to charge interest of ‘foreigners’ may be understood less as a form of ethnocentricity and more as drawing a distinction between lending to the needy in one’s community and credit as a component of commercial transactions” (Deuteronomy, p. 252-53).

Bibliography for View C:

  • David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in the Old Testament Law (Eerdmans, 2009), p. 265 and 263.
  • Mark E. Biddle, Deuteronomy (Smyth and Helwys, 2003), p. 252-53.
  • B.J. Meislin and Morris L. Cohen, “Backgrounds of the Biblical Law against Usury,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 6:3 (1964), p. 250-267; p. 264.
  • S. Stein, “The Laws on Interest in the Old Testament” Journal of Theological Studies, 4:2 (1953), p. 161-170; p. 162 and 166.

In the following installments of this series, I will offer evaluations of these three views.

Note: This series is adapted from posts that originally ran on Biola’s Good Book Blog. For a more technical analysis, see the author’s academic journal article.

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