How Stealing Relates to Lending and Interest – Perspectives from the Book of Deuteronomy

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Perhaps, the most memorable section in the book of Deuteronomy is the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not … ” (Deut 5:6-8a). These ancient inspired words, which continue until v. 21, contain general absolute prohibitions for the people of God to follow in order to demonstrate their faithfulness to the covenant that the LORD has invited them to participate. Following the Ten Commandments, the ancient writer has included many specific statutes and case laws (Deut 6-26), to explain how the ancient person of God was to obey the ten general commandments in Deut 5:6-21. In terms of space, these explanatory statutes and case laws take up close to sixty percent of the book of Deuteronomy.

Recently, I have been researching the economic connections between the eighth commandment, “and you shall not steal” (Deut 5:19), and the seven statutes and case laws (Deut 23:19-24:7) that elucidate the eighth commandment. These seven specific laws discuss interest on loans to the poor (23:19-20), vows and pledges made to God (23:21-23), taking food, namely grapes and grain, to satisfy hunger (23:24-25), marriage and divorce (24:1-4), newly married and military service (24:5), millstone pledges (24:6), and kidnapping and human slavery (24:7). Several laws pertain to money and stealing and the framework of this section of laws is built upon a bracketing of laws pertaining to slavery and stealing the freedom of a human being. Each of the seven laws contain economic implications for a certain type of prohibited stealing. The three case laws with the most economic (property) overtones are the following 1) interest on loans to fellow Israelites, 2) taking food (namely grapes and grain) to satisfy hunger, and 3) millstone pledges.

If you are interested in how the sacred writer connects “stealing” with “everyday” economics and business, let us examine the first one of these seven case laws: “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess” (Deut 23:19-20). This case seeks to curb off profit sought at the expense of a poor Israelite. The ancient Near Eastern interest laws differed sharply from the Israelite interest laws. Interest rates were set at 33 1/3% for grain investments and 20% for money loans in both the Laws of Eshnunna and Hammurabi, whereas the Assyrian rates were 50% for grain and 25% for money.

In the ancient Near East, only Israelite law condemned lending with interest to one’s own kinsmen. The relationship “brother/fellow Israelite” (or sister/lady Israelite) carries within it a certain moral imperative and special responsibility that affected both parties. Within the covenant community of God’s people, loans were made only to the poor who would be in need of economic assistance. These loans were extended for the benefit of the recipient, not the lender (cf. Deut 24:10-13; Exod 22:25). Support of a needy Israelite was an Israelite concern, and thus loans were expected but could not be a means of taking advantage of the debtor. To help us understand this concept, the noun translated “interest” could easily be rendered as “bite” and refers to interest collected by the creditor before the borrower received his money, victuals, or anything else that could be loaned. The medieval Jewish interpreter Rashi refers to this “interest” as a snake bite. Money is the primary object intended by the prohibition as noted by its first place in the list.

On the other hand, an Israelite could without impunity lend to someone outside the community and seek to make a profit. The foreigner did not have a reciprocal obligation with the Israelite because foreigners were not part of the covenant community and thus not subject to the same law. In international trade, Israelites were allowed to charge and pay interest. In large measure, the vocation of a foreigner would be merchant or mercenary and thus someone had the financial means to not be reduced into debt-slavery.

Thus, lending with interest to a fellow or lady Israelite is considered a form of stealing, but lending to the foreigner is not viewed as such. From these passages in Deuteronomy and many other ones in the book, prohibiting stealing more concerns those who have greater possessions and are controlled by economic greed. We would do well to ask ourselves: How might the eighth commandment, “and you shall not steal,” and the statutes and case laws that explain it shape the economic thinking and practices of contemporary Christians whose primary economic and political system is capitalistic? In essence, the law speaks a radical word against those who seek to engage in “get rich quick” schemes. This statute greatly reduces speculative or profiteering loans often used to finance new sections of an economy. Moreover, adhering to the theological principles in the law would minimize in-group class divisions.

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Michael D. Matlock is a Professor of Inductive Biblical Studies, Old Testament, and Early Judaism at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of Discovering the Traditions of Prose Prayers in Early Jewish Literature (T&T Clark) and is currently writing commentaries for 1 & 2 Chronicles and the Prayer of Manasseh (E. J. Brill) as well as a book that invites Christians to rethink why it is a devastating proposition to try to live a Christian life while devaluing the First Testament or the portions of it that are not liked.

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