Many recent respected studies have shown that the average American family is only three weeks away from
personal bankruptcy. With credit problems so widespread, it is helpful to look at the Bible and see how it treats the concept
Leviticus 25:39 makes it clear that people are generally expected to pay their just debts. However, this moral and legal obligation to pay
just debts must be balanced by such considerations as the need for compassion and the call to cancel debts at periodic intervals,
found in Deuteronomy 15:1.
Within the areas of economic justice and stability, the Old Testament is filled with examples of compassionate
treatment of the poor, and with preservation of the family unit. Deuteronomy 15:7-10 is particularly forceful by stating " If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in
thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:"
The cancellation of debt in the Old Testament was accomplished at legislated intervals. Deuteronomy 15:1 clearly provides for such legislative release with the following language: “At the end of every seven years you shall
grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor, his
brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed”. The debtor's payment or non-payment of debts was not
in question, and liability didn't matter at all—it was a strict statement without any wiggle room, must like the clear
statement in Deuteronomy 5:17 that "Thou shall not kill.."
The Old Testament called for the cancellation of debt every seven years whether a lender was happy about
it or not—it didn't give a choice, it merely commanded. The belief behind this mandate is that debt can be canceled
to achieve some higher purpose—such as the preservation of the family unit.
The Bible on Interest
The Biblical use of the term “usury” corresponds to our modern word “interest”
rather than to the notion of “excessive interest” to which we generally apply the term usury today. Only a small
number of us would seriously question the morality of profiting from a loan at normal interest rates, though the Talmud prohibits the lending of money with interest.
Exodus 22:25 states "If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt
thou lay upon him usury." Leviticus 25:35 says, "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a
stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee." Deuteronomy 23:19 says, "Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent
Psalm 15:5 characterizes a righteous man as one who, among other things, “lends his money without
usury.” Both Ezekiel 22:12 and Nehemiah 5:0-11 condemn lending money with interest, especially to the poor. And Ezekiel
18:13 list the taking of interest among sins worthy of death.
The prohibition on interest is based on God’s covenant with Israel and upon the compassionate treatment
of various oppressed groups: the resident alien; the widow; the orphans; and the poor. Exodus 22:25-27 states the law in explicit
terms: “If you lend to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like the money lender; charge him no interest.
If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he
has for his body. What else will he sleep on? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am companionate.” Leviticus
25:35-37 provides that “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him
as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so that he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind
from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest
or sell him food at profit.” Finally, Deuteronomy 23:19-20 provides: “Do not charge your brother interest, whether
on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.”
Jesus clearly had these Biblical principles in mind when he admonished the “money changers”
and removed them from God’s house, the sacred Temple. In John 2:14 Jesus “poured out the changers of money and
overthrew the tables”. Jesus, in fact, was always true to the principles underlying the prohibition of usury and required
debt forgiveness and the notion of the importance of placing love and compassion above greed and wealth. In Luke 6:34-35 Jesus
said: “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners,
to receive as much again. But love your enemies and, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will
be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.” The followers of
Jesus were to be concerned with the welfare of others, even when met with hatred and abuse.
The consistent teaching of both the Old and New Testaments is that compassion, mercy and justice are to
override purely economic concerns, such as loans. Religious people are to be gracious to all, even debtors. Jesus said that
God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike, and in Mark 10:25 he said that “[i]t is easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter in to the kingdom of God”. And in Luke 16:9 he said:
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal
dwellings”, and to “forgive and ye shall be forgiven” Luke 6:37.
The compassion of the Scriptures, including the setting aside of legitimate rights of lenders, was typical
of economic relationships in the economy of early Judeo-Christian societies. The central theme is one of stability—a
stable society with a guarantee of economic security to each family. Wealth was viewed as a blessing from God (Deuteronomy
8:11-18, 28). This blessing resulted from obedience and was based on God’s compassion. The tithing for the poor, the
gleaning laws, the year of the Jubilee, were all tangible ways that Israelites could show compassion for each other and honor
God by following His law. Beyond income-maintenance programs, the Biblical Law provided a permanent mechanism—such as
the Sabbatical year and Jubilee—to ensure that temporary misfortune barred no family from full participation in economic
So the next time someone tells you that bankruptcy is immoral, pick up a copy of The Bible and tell them
to do some reading because they are wrong!