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Bible Encyclopedias

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Debt; Debtor

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det , det´ẽr : It is difficult nowadays to think of debt without associating with it the idea of interest, and even usury. Certain it is that this idea is associated with the Old Testament idea of the word, at least in the later period of Old Testament history. This is true of the New Testament entire. The Hebrew word (נשׁי , neshı̄ ) always carries with it the idea of "biting interest" (compare 2 Kings 4:7 ). The Greek words δάνειον , dáneion (Matthew 18:27 ), and ὀφειλή , opheilḗ (Matthew 18:32 ), may point only to the fact of indebtedness; the idea of interest, however, is clearly taught in the New Testament (compare Matthew 25:27 ).

Quite extensive legislation is provided in the Old Testament governing the matter of debt and debtors. Indebtedness and loaning had not, however, the commercial aspect among the Jews so characteristic of the nations surrounding Palestine. Indeed the Mosaic legislation was seemingly intended to guard against just such commercialism. It was looked upon as a misfortune to be in debt; it indicated poverty brought on probably by blighted harvests; consequently those in debt were to be looked upon with pity and dealt with in leniency. There must be no oppression of the poor under such circumstances (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19 , Deuteronomy 23:20; Ezekiel 18:18 ). Even where a pledge is given and received, certain restrictions are thrown around it, e.g. the creditor must not take a mill, nor a necessary garment, nor a widow's ox, etc., in pledge (Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:6 , Deuteronomy 24:10-13; Job 22:6; Amos 2:8 ). And further, the pledge is to be restored in some instances "before the sun goeth down" (Exodus 22:26 , Exodus 22:27 ), and in all cases full redemption in the seventh and jubilee years (Nehemiah 10:31 , etc.). The Jews were strictly exhorted to take no interest at all from their own nation (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19 , Deuteronomy 23:20 ). Strangers, however, might be charged interest (ibid.). A devout Jew would not lend money to another Jew on interest.

It would seem that as Israel came into contact with the surrounding nations, debt became increasingly a commercial matter. The Mosaic laws regarding clemency toward the poor who were compelled for the time being to become debtors were utterly disregarded, and the poor were oppressed by the rich. An illustration of the severity with which debtors came to be dealt with is to be found in 2 Kings 4:1-7 , in which, because of the inability of a widow to pay a small debt contracted by her dead husband, the woman complains to the prophet that the creditors have come to sell her two children in order that the debt might be paid. Strangely the prophet, while helping the widow by miraculously multiplying the oil in order that the debt might be paid, says nothing by way of condemnation of such conduct on the part of the creditors. Are we to understand by this that commercialism had already so powerful a grip upon Israel that even to a prophet the practice had come to seem proper, or at least expected? The debtor himself or his family might be sold for debt, or the debtor might become a slave for a certain length of time until the debt was paid (Leviticus 25:39 , Leviticus 25:47; Isaiah 50:1 ). So oppressive had the commercial system in Israel become that the debtor cursed the creditor and the creditor the debtor (Jeremiah 15:10 ). Sometimes debtors were outlawed, as in the case of the men who came to David in the cave of Adullam (1 Samuel 22:2 ). That the matter of borrowing and lending had assumed very grievous proportions is evident from the very sharp warnings concerning the matter in the Book of Prov (2 Kings 6:1; 2 Kings 11:15; 2 Kings 20:16 , etc.).

The teaching of the New Testament on this subject is confined very largely to the parables of our Lord. Some think that the expression, "Owe no man anything" (Romans 13:8 ), is an absolute warning against indebtedness. Quite a noticeable advance in the matter of debts and debtors is noticed as we enter the time of the New Testament. We read of bankers, exchangers, moneychangers, interest, investments, usury (Matthew 25:16-27; John 2:13-17 ). The taking of interest does not seem to be explicitly condemned in the New Testament. The person of the debtor, as well as his family and lands, could be seized for non-payment of debt (Matthew 18:21-26 ). Indeed, the debtor was often cast into prison and tormented because of non-payment (Matthew 18:30 , Matthew 18:34 ). That compassion and leniency should be exercised toward those in debt is the clear teaching of Christ in the parables of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35 ) and the Two Debtors (Luke 7:41-43 ).

Figurative: Debt and debtor are used in a moral sense also as indicating the obligation of a righteous life which we owe to God. To fall short in righteous living is to become a debtor. For this reason we pray, "Forgive us our debts" ( Matthew 6:12 ). Those who are ministered to in spiritual things are said to be debtors to those who minister to them (Romans 15:27 ). To make a vow to God is to put one's self in debt in a moral sense (Matthew 23:16-18; the Revised Version, margin "bound by his oath"). In a deeply spiritual sense the apostle Paul professed to be in debt to all men in that he owed them the opportunity to do them good (Romans 1:14 ).

The parables of Jesus as above named are rich with comforting truth. How beautiful is the willingness of God, the great and Divine Creditor, to release us from our indebtedness! Just so ought we to be imitators of the Father in heaven who is merciful.

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Debt; Debtor'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.

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