4th and 7th for the 2nd Time
A second text regarding poverty and loans in ancient Israel comes to us in Leviticus 25, supporting and clarifying what I wrote earlier in “4th and 7th” (July 5). To begin, if someone in the community faces a financial crisis, others are to step up and help this family: “as you would an immigrant or foreign guest so they can survive among you” (25:35; may these words sink deep into our present political debates). Even more, any loan to such a community member must be interest-free. (I ask my students, “Why?”) Because the very idea that I would take advantage of you and make money off your misfortune is opposite the heart of the God who freed Israel (25:36-28).
Now we come to even more serious situations, not a mere financial crisis but a financial collapse; a situation so severe that smaller interest free-loans are not going to solve the problem. Instead, most likely after already “selling” (in reality, leasing their land, see Lev. 25:23-34), they must also sell themselves to survive, to repay a debt, and to provide for their family. In this case, Leviticus 25 provides some order. First, no Israelite is ever to treat another Israelite as a slave, but regard them as a hired worker (25:29-40a). Second, the legislation of Leviticus and Deuteronomy move in same direction (freedom), but at radically different speeds. In Leviticus, an Israelite debt servant must be freed or offered freedom during the Jubilee Year (25:40b-41): the year after a week of 7th year debt releases—7 x 7 = 49, the year after is the 50th year (25:8-10). Frankly, when we consider the typical life-span for men (40 years) and women (30 years) of this place and time, odds are strong that debt-slaves will remain in their position until they die.
Perhaps this length of time accounts for the difference in Deuteronomy (not merely a repetition of the law, but a renewed covenant for a new situation in the land—as the situation changed, the principles stayed the same, but specific laws were adapted). In Deuteronomy, Israelite debt-servants must serve for six years and be freed at the beginning of their seventh year (Deut. 15:12). For Deuteronomy, debt-service ran according to its own clock, not in harmony with the seventh-year of debt forgiveness or even the Year of Jubilee. AND when completed—‘masters’ did not just shake the servant’s hand, thank them for their work, and wish them well. Debt-servants must not be sent away empty-handed, but be loaded down with food, wine, stock animals, and more—with whatever the Lord has blessed the ‘master’ (15:12-14). I’ve asked students for fifteen years, “Why? Why does the ‘master’ have to give these things to the person who just worked off a debt?” And I’ve heard a lot of good answers over the years, but only one gets to the heart of the matter: (summarized) So they will have what they need to restart the family farm and have something to live on while they do. Because if they don’t help them, odds are high that within a few months they will be a debt-servant again. In other words: Those who hold the wealth were held responsible for breaking the cycle of poverty in their communities. Pardon me again, while I hum a few bars of “God Bless America” as we pause again to think about what it means to be Christian nation, or a nation that asks for God’s blessing.
We’ve still not exhausted all that these texts have to say about poverty, debt-slavery, and sojourners from other nations—and I promise to return to all of these matters soon (perhaps not immediately). For now, however, we’ve found another place to pause and establish the questions raised by these texts, the answers from a place long ago and far away, and the difficult work of imagination we must do to understand these principles and how we can clothe them within our time and place.