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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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The Mosaic laws which relate to the subject of borrowing, lending, and repaying, are in substance as follows:—If an Israelite became poor, what he desired to borrow was to be freely lent to him, and no interest, either of money or produce, could be exacted from him; interest might be taken of a foreigner, but not of an Israelite by another Israelite (;;; ). At the end of every seven years a remission of debts was ordained: every creditor was to remit what he had lent: of a foreigner the loan might be exacted, but not of a brother. If an Israelite wished to borrow, he was not to be refused because the year of remission was at hand (). Pledges might be taken, but not as such the mill or the upper millstone, for that would be to take a man's life in pledge. If the pledge was raiment, it was to be given back before sunset, as being needful for a covering at night. The widow's garment could not be taken in pledge (;; ).

These laws relating to loans may wear a strange aspect to the mere modern reader, and cannot be understood, either in their bearing or their sanctions, unless considered from the Biblical point of view. The land of Canaan (as the entire world) belonged to its Creator, but was given of God to the descendants of Abraham under certain conditions, of which this liberality to the needy was one. The power of getting loans therefore was a part of the poor man's inheritance. It was a lien on the land (the source of all property with agricultural people), which was as valid as the tenure of any given portion by the tribe or family to whose lot it had fallen. This is the light in which the Mosaic polity represents the matter, and in this light, so long as that polity retained its force, would it, as a matter of course, be regarded by the owners of property. Thus the execution of this particular law was secured by the entire force with which the constitution itself was recommended and sustained. But as human selfishness might in time endanger this particular set of laws, so Moses applied special support to the possibly weak part. Hence the emphasis with which he enjoins the duty of lending to the needy. Of this emphasis the very essence is the sanction supplied by that special providence which lay at the very basis of the Mosaic commonwealth; so that lending to the destitute came to be enforced with all the power derivable from the express will of God.

That the system of law regarding loans was carried into effect there is no reason to doubt. It formed an essential part of the general constitution, and therefore came recommended with the entire sanction which that system had on its own behalf; nor were there any predominant antagonist principles at work which would prevent this from proceeding step by step, in its proper place and time, with the residue of the Mosaic legislation. Nor do the passages of Scripture (;;;;;; ), which give us reason to think that usury was practiced and the poor debtor oppressed, show anything but those breaches to which laws are always liable, especially in a period when morals grow corrupt and institutions in consequence decline.

While, however, the benign tendency of the laws in question is admitted, may it not be questioned whether they were strictly just? Such a doubt could arise only in a mind which viewed the subject from the position of our actual society. A modern might plead that he had a right to do what he pleased with his own; that his property of every kind—land, food, money—was his own; and that he was justified to turn all and each part to account for his own benefit. Apart from religious considerations this position is impregnable. But such a view of property finds no support in the Mosaic institutions. In them property has a divine origin, and its use is entrusted to man on certain conditions, which conditions are as valid as is the tenure of property itself. In one sense, indeed, the entire land—all property—was a great loan, a loan lent of God to the people of Israel, who might well therefore acquiesce in any arrangement which required a portion—a small portion—of this loan to be under certain circumstances accessible to the destitute. This view receives confirmation from the fact that interest might be taken of persons who were not Hebrews, and therefore lay beyond the sphere embraced by this special arrangement.

Had the Hebrews enjoyed a free intercourse with other nations, the permission to take usury of foreigners might have had the effect of impoverishing Palestine by affording a strong inducement for employing capital abroad; but, under the actual restrictions of the Mosaic law, this evil was impossible. Some not inconsiderable advantages must have ensued from the observance of these laws. The entire alienation and loss of the lent property were prevented by that peculiar institution which restored to every man his property at the great year of release. In the interval between the jubilees the system under consideration would tend to prevent those inequalities of social condition which always arise rapidly, and which have not seldom brought disaster and ruin on states. The affluent were required to part with a portion of their affluence to supply the wants of the needy, without exacting that recompense which would only make the rich richer and the poor more needy; thus superinducing a state of things scarcely more injurious to the one than to the other of these two parties. There was also in this system a strongly conservative influence. Agriculture was the foundation of the constitution. Had money-lending been a trade, money-making would also have been eagerly pursued. Capital would be withdrawn from the land; the agriculturist would pass into the usurer; huge inequalities would arise; commerce would assume predominance, and the entire commonwealth be overturned—changes and evils which were prevented, or, if not so, certainly retarded and abated by the code of laws regarding loans. As it was, the gradually increasing wealth of the country was in the main laid out on the soil, so as to augment its productiveness and distribute its bounties.

These views may prepare the reader for considering the doctrine of 'the Great Teacher' on the subject of loans. It is found forcibly expressed in Luke's Gospel (): 'If ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again: but love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest; for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.' The meaning of the passage is distinct and full, unmistakable, and not to be evaded. He commands men to lend, not as Jews to Jews, but even to enemies, without asking or receiving any return, after the manner of the Great Benefactor of the Universe, who sends down his rains, and bids his sun to shine on the fields of the unjust as well as of the just. To attempt to view this command in the light of reason and experience would require space which cannot here be given; but we must add, that any attempt to explain the injunction away is most unworthy on the part of professed disciples of Christ; and that, not impossibly at least, fidelity to the behests of Him whom we call Lord and Master would of itself answer all doubts and remove all misgivings, by practically showing that this, as every other doctrine that fell from His lips, is indeed of God ().





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Loan'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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