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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Debt

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DEBT

1. In OT. Loans in the OT period were not of a commercial nature. They were not granted to enable a man to start or extend his business, but to meet the pressure of poverty. To the borrower they were a misfortune ( Deuteronomy 28:12 ; Deuteronomy 28:44 ); to the lender a form of charity. Hence the tone of legislation on the subject.

Usury is forbidden in all three codes (Exodus 22:25 [JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ], Deuteronomy 23:19 , Leviticus 25:36 [H [Note: Law of Holiness.] ]); it was making a profit out of a brother’s distress. In Dt. it may be taken from a foreigner. Pledges were allowed, but under strict limitations ( Deuteronomy 24:10 , Job 24:3 ). In Deuteronomy 15:1-23 is a remarkable law providing for the ‘letting drop’ of loans every seventh year (see Driver, ad loc. ). Its relation to the law of the Sabbatical year in Exodus 23:10 (JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ), Leviticus 25:1 (H [Note: Law of Holiness.] ) is not clear, but the cessation of agriculture would obviously lead to serious financial difficulties, and debtors might reasonably look for some relief. This consideration makes for the modern view, that the passage implies only the suspension for a year of the creditor’s right to demand payment. It must be admitted, however, that apart from a priori considerations the obvious interpretation is a total remission of debts (so the older, and Jewish commentators). Foreigners do not come under the law. The other codes have no parallel, except where the debt may have led to the bondage of the debtor’s person.

Historically the legislation seems to have been largely ignored. In 2 Kings 4:1-7 a small debt involves the bondage of a widow’s two sons (cf. Isaiah 50:1 , Matthew 18:23 ), and Elisha helps her not by invoking the law, but by a miracle. In Nehemiah 5:1-19 mortgaged lands and interest are restored under the pressure of an economic crisis. Nehemiah himself has been a creditor and taken usury. There is an apparent reference to Deuteronomy 15:1-23 in Nehemiah 10:31 . In later times the strictness of the law was evaded by various legal fictions: Hillel introduced a system of ‘contracting out.’ That loans played a large part in social life is shown by frequent references in the Prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs ( Isaiah 24:2 , Psalms 15:5 ; Psalms 37:21 , Proverbs 19:17 ; Proverbs 28:8 ). Jeremiah 15:10 shows that the relation between debtor and creditor was proverbially an unpleasant one. In Psalms 37:21 it is part of the misfortune of the wicked that he shall be unable to pay his debts; there is no reference to dishonesty. Proverbs 22:7 , Sir 18:33 warn against borrowing, and Sir 29:1-28 has some delightful common-sense advice on the whole subject.

2. In NT. Loans are assumed by our Lord as a normal factor in social life ( Matthew 25:27 , Luke 16:5 ; Luke 19:23 ). Luke 6:34-35 suggests that the Christian will not always stand on his rights in this respect. Debt is used as a synonym for sin in Matthew 6:12 (cf. the two parables Matthew 18:23 , Luke 7:41 ; and Colossians 2:14 ). The context of these passages is a sufficient warning against the external and legalistic view of sin which might be suggested by the word itself. Christ does not imply that it is a debt which can be paid by any amount of good deeds or retributive suffering. The word is chosen to emphasize our duty of forgiveness, and it has a wide meaning, including all we owe to God. The metaphor of the money payment has ceased to be prominent, except where it is implied by the context.

C. W. Emmet.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Debt'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/d/debt.html. 1909.

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