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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Usury, Interest, Increase

USURY, INTEREST, INCREASE . At the date of our AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘usury’ had not acquired its modern connotation of exorbitant interest; hence it should be replaced in OT by ‘interest,’ as in Amer. RV [Note: Revised Version.] , and as the English Revisers have done in NT (see below). The OT law-codes forbid the taking of interest on loans by one Hebrew from another, see Exodus 22:25 (Book of the Covenant), Deuteronomy 23:19 f., Leviticus 25:35-38 (Law of Holiness). Of the two terms constantly associated and in EV [Note: English Version.] rendered ‘usury’ ( neshek ) and ‘increase’ ( tarbîth ), the former, to judge from Leviticus 25:37 , denotes interest on loans of money, the latter interest on other advances, such as food stuffs, seed-corn, and the like, which was paid in kind. In Deuteronomy 23:20 neshek is applied to both kinds of loan. For the distinction in NT times, see Mishna, Baba mezia , v. 1. Cf. also Strack’s art. ‘Wucher’ in PRE [Note: RE Real-Encykl. für protest. Theol. und Kirche] 3 xxi. A large part of the Babylonian loan-system, which was fully developed before b.c. 2000, consisted of such loans (Johns, Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] and Assyr. [Note: Assyrian.] Laws , ch. xxiii. ‘Loans and Deposits’).

To appreciate the motives of the Hebrew legislators, it must be remembered that, until a late period in their history, the Hebrews were almost entirely devoted to agricultural and pastoral pursuits. The loans here contemplated are therefore not advances required for trading capital, but for the relief of a poor ‘brother’ temporarily in distress, who would otherwise be compelled to sell himself as a slave (Leviticus 25:47 ff.). We have to do with an act of charity, not with a commercial transaction. In similar circumstances loans without interest were made from the Babylonian temple funds and by private individuals, as is still done by the Arabs to-day (Doughty, Arabia Deserta , i. 318).

In NT times conditions had greatly changed, and capital was required for many trading concerns. Our Lord twice introduces with approbation the investment of money with ‘the bankers ,’ so as to yield a proper ‘interest’ ( Matthew 25:27 , Luke 19:23 both RV [Note: Revised Version.] ). The rate of interest in the ancient world was very high. In Babylonia one shekel per mina per month, which Isaiah 20 per cent, per annum, was a usual rate; for advances of grain, for 400 or 300 ka the return was 100 ka, i.e . 25 to 33 per cent, per annum (Meissner, Aus d. altbab. Recht , 15). For short loans for 15 days or thereby the rate might rise as high as 300 per cent. per annuml (Johns, op. cit .). In Egypt 30 per cent. was not unusual. Even in Greece 12 per cent. was considered a low rate of interest. The recently discovered papyri from Elephantine in Egypt show members of the Jewish colony there already engaged ( c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 430) in the characteristically Jewish business of money-lending. See also Debt.

A. R. S. Kennedy.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Usury, Interest, Increase'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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