About 2,000 years ago, a young rabbi walked around the fertile Galilee in the north of Israel, offering his takes on morality and human life. He reportedly had some odd thoughts about personal finances: “If you lend to people from whom you expect to receive, is that any kindness/grace (Greek χάρις; charis) of yours? …But do what is morally right, and lend without expectation of return” (Lk 6:34-35). Not exactly “sound financial advice”! And why would it be “morally right” (Greek ἀγαθός; agathos) – as opposed to just foolish – to lend money and not expect it to be paid back? So, when is a Loan Not a Loan?

Like most sayings of first-century Jewish teachers, these mad-sounding ideas can be traced back directly to the ancient Hebrew Torah. The arrangements described there were markedly different from today’s economic system. The main feature of the global financial system today is “credit” (i.e., debt). At the moment, for example, the United States government owes about 22 trillion dollars. Private citizens and businesses in the U.S. owe another 30 trillion or so. The government of Japan owes around 10 trillion dollars. Public and private debt in China is estimated – some say underestimated – at 34 trillion dollars. All this debt creates vast economic activity, huge profits for some lenders, and also massive dangers.

By contrast, the ancient Torah prescribed a locally oriented system that could never be based on cycles of debt. For a start, it was forbidden to charge a citizen interest (Exod 22:24/25; Lev 25:35-38; Deut 23:19-20/20-21). Moreover, every seven years all debts of citizens had to be cancelled (Deut 15:1-3)! This meant that lending money would usually bring financial loss, not profit. But what if someone truly needed to borrow money due to difficult circumstances? The Torah’s solution did not involve banks or other corporations. Rather, it relied on the willing assistance of individuals, given freely and directly to their “brothers.” Members of Israel were expected to “open their hands” and loan as much as genuinely needed to people in their own local communities who had fallen on hard times — even if it was right before the date when all debts would be cancelled (Deut 15:7-9).

A “loan” in this sense was very much like a gift, with no expectation of return. Creditors received no interest and might easily lose the entire principal as well. Yet to refuse to give such a “loan” was called “sin” (Hebrew חטא; chet’); even to be unhappy about “lending” in this way was regarded as “base” (Hebrew בליעל; beliya‘al, literally “destructive of benefit”). The Galilean rabbi was obviously reminding his listeners of this commandment. His statement continued by mentioning favor from God for those who gladly helped their fellows in this way (Lk 6:35) – in precise parallel with the text of Torah, which had specified divine blessing as the reward (Deut 15:10).

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51 COMMENTS

  1. This week’s Torah reading, Exo 25:2, a verse that can mis-lead depending on translation to English. “Speak to the children of Yisra’el, that they take an offering for me. From everyone whose heart makes him willing you shall take my offering.” (HNV).
    Point, children were to “take”, not “give”. All, we children, have in our possession, in fact all that exists, is own by its Creator and loaned out to us. We do not own it, so we cannot give it. We can only “take” from what we are given. We follow this economic device, 1Co 2:12, Mat 10:8.
    J.

        • Interestingly, the account of the ensuing donations (Exod 35) also doesn’t use the verb usually translated as “to give” (נתן), but rather “to bring” (הביא).

        • Carrying this ownership thought through, the Creator owns the atmosphere, the very air we breath in and out hundreds of times per day, unaware. Imagine if it were taken back… where would our boasting be? This is the lesson of Job, humility.
          P.S. please also excuse the sermon in the box reply.
          J.

    • a very interesting point. the NAS has ” for every man whose heart moves him you shall raise My contribution “. So that really puts a twist on words there.

    • Thanks for commenting, Steve. It does sound like a related principle (as Jerry also suggested above), though the textual contexts are somewhat different. The passage in Luke is more clearly connected to the statements in the Hebrew Torah, in my opinion.

  2. Interesting analysis which shows the Torah as very Local and temporarily limited and absolutely not “adaptative” matter, and rather obsolete? Despite its general universal Values….!
    And Then?

    • Jankel, thanks for commenting. Opinions on that point will obviously vary widely. If one wants to “adapt” or “apply” these principles today (as some do), there are in fact many options for doing so. For example, some people might choose to push for changes to the current economic system. Others might opt to lend money without interest as a form of assistance and to cancel the debt within seven years. Etc.

    • God’s instructions (Torah) are not obsolete! Nor are they as rigid as you think. There are cases where we should follow the higher mitzvah (instruction) when 2 or more mitzvoth clash. Furthermore, while His Torah is immutable, the Oral Tradition lays down halacha, instructions on how we walk with God. According to Abraham Cohen in his book Everyman’s Talmud, these instructions were and should be flexible. I always give the illustration of starting the Sabbath on Friday at sundown. In Israel this is not a problem. But if someone living at one of the poles were to convert, he has only 1 day and 1 night. He’d be given a clock and a calendar and told to figure it out! Another illustration is if his fire went out on Shabbat, the higher mitzvah is preservation of life- restart the fire!

      • I’ve read that the Fire part was because or rebuilding the Temple The workers were so eager to build every day thus the edict no fires for work. Did not include warmth or food. I’m sure if not true t someone will offer alternates. God Bless ALL this Sabbath

      • My understanding this fire was not used to cook or heat etc but to work. They were rebuilding the Temple And were very jealous to get it up they wanted to work every day. Including the Sabbath. They had to be reminded What should be a priority. God and self

  3. Thank you for this refreshing insight. It shows that those that have and have more, should give and give more. It teaches of value thy neighbor as thy self. By loving your self and God above all, you would be willing to help others.
    Now a days, I only see that rich become richer and the poor help each other.
    As nations we have distanced ourselves from the will of God.

  4. Nice. But: Why do you avoid the original of “loan” – I’m too lazy for looking into my Bibles… And: “charis” could be physically nice (“charites” in Greek mythology) and theologically grace (e.g. Hail Mary: “chaire, kecharitomene …”). “agathos” is simply good, in the broadest sense – nothing special “morally”.

    By the way: The seven-years.story: Have you any proof it ever existed and ever worked?
    A “loan” without expecting to get it back = alms. Look also at Mt 25,27 and Lukas too…

    • Thanks for the comments, Guenther! I don’t know what you mean about “avoiding the original” — the article mentions “lending” several times (starting with the title). Regarding specific terms: I attempt to give the best concise translation according to the Jewish-Greek usage of each term in context (and to include the original if I hit on something a bit unusual, so that people can check it). Usually the Jewish-Greek usage has overlap but not identity with the Koine (Common) Greek usage. Later Christian Greek interpretations are often quite different. Neither of your suggestions for χάρις seems to fit this particular Jewish-Greek context very well. As for ἀγαθός, it certainly can have the meaning “morally good,” among others (see the LSJ lexicon)….

    • [cont.] As for debt forgiveness every seven years, it is not a “story” but rather an instruction in the Torah. The degree to which Israel has implemented such instructions has varied throughout history. “Proof” is a strong term for anything having to do with ancient history! However, there is reason to believe that this system was in fact operative. E.g.: Hillel (fl. 1st c. BCE) issued a decree regarding carrying debts past the 7 years, justifying it on the basis that many people were violating the Biblical command in Deut. 15:9-10. This obviously implies that debts were actually being cancelled….

    • [cont.] Re your last two points (“alms”; Mt. 25:27) — these points are equally answerable. Much could be said, but I’ve already been not-lazy enough for this setting. 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment. In neither case (Deut or Luke) does the text make any mention of shared belief (in the modern sense). In the first instance, recipients are to include any poor members of the nation of Israel (presumably those located near the lender). In the second instance, the context strongly suggests that the recipients should include one’s “enemies,” as well as “ungrateful and evil people” (Lk 6:35). (And even if the texts were talking only about like-minded souls or members of one’s own group — how many would be willing to do this even then?)

  5. You focus your thoughts to lending among Israelites. But Deuteronomy 23:20 states very clearly: “You may charge a foreigner interest..” This has been interpreted by Jews (who own much of the wealth in the world) to mean that it’s ok to get rich at foreigners’ expense. Is Jesus condoning that?

    • Thank you for commenting, C.P. One of the disadvantages of reading a text in translation is that very many key differences — present in the Hebrew text — get lost entirely. The word translated as “foreigner” here is נכרי (nokhri), which is used to refer to a temporary resident, such as a merchant passing through the country for a short time. (Remember that these laws were intended for the nation of Israel living in the Land of Israel.) Another Biblical Hebrew word, גר (ger), is also often translated as “foreigner”; however, it has a very different meaning: a long-term resident of the country, someone who is not a native-born citizen but has joined the community. In our terms: an “immigrant.”…

    • …Not only is the ger not mentioned in this passage, but other passages make it clear that ordinary (native-born) Hebrews/Jews must actually donate some of their income to such foreign residents! This type of welfare support formed part of what is today called the “tithe” (see, for example, Deut. 26:12). Much else could be said about the topic; and the prophets also bring up these same themes. You can learn more about original Biblical meanings by enrolling in our courses!
      https://israelbiblecenter.com/courses

  6. What if someone borrows from you because of “bad choices” THEY made? What if this person is making twice as much money you are making? What if they said they will pay you back, and then when the times comes, start giving you excuses not to?

    • Tanya, thanks for reading and asking questions. The text in Deuteronomy speaks of lending to someone described as אביון (evyon) “poor, indigent, a pauper.” So this would exclude someone who has twice as much as you (because even if they were truly poor, you would be even poorer — and therefore a recipient, not an extender, of such a loan). With regard to the other two questions: the text makes no mention of the cause of the poverty (so evidently it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the commandment); and, as mentioned in the article, the commandment does explicitly include the possibility that the debt will not be repaid. Hence the first-century commentary of Yeshua/Jesus makes perfect sense in light of the original text from Torah: one should do what is “morally right” and give/lend to the needy with no expectation of being paid back, and do so even if the recipient is “ungrateful and evil”!

  7. Jesus’ contemporary Hillel is never called “rabbi” in the Talmud- since the term as formal title did not exist until after the destruction of the Temple. And that is crucial. If Hillel is not designated as rabbi, no one else of that period should be- including Jesus.

  8. Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber
    (earlier editions of this book are available as free PDF)
    Families / friends / neighbors can just exchange goods over time & keep a mental scorecard, no cash-debt required until taxes are introduced, & money minted or printed to use to pay taxes.

  9. I seem to recall a parable where a servant was told’if you had deposited it with the bankers I would at least get mine back with interest. Something like that. when you give, give; when you take, take. The gift of giving comes with the gift of taking (receiving). what goes around comes around; it all comes back. Wisdom is in the balance with yeshua, with Yehovah

      • Professor,

        If charging interest to citizens was forbidden in ancient Israel, how would a bank function in such a society? If per the Torah, there was no need for banks in ancient Israel, how would have Jesus’s statement in Matt. 25:27 been understood by the people he was preaching to?

        • Thanks for the question, Sujit! It’s hard to say for sure, as with so many questions of this type, but I can suggest a few possibilities. But before I get to them: first, one has to keep in mind that in the first century CE the Hebrew Torah was an influence on society in Israel, but the overarching law was actually Roman. And ancient Roman society did have institutions like our “banks” (usually within pagan temples). Second, the Torah does not forbid charging interest to non-citizens (who would often be visiting merchants, etc.)…

        • Hence, there are a number of possibilities that spring to mind with regard to this text in Matthew. a) The word may actually be referring to “moneychangers” (covering currency and other forms of exchange), of whom it seems there were many in ancient Roman Judaea. b) The word may be referring to “investors” who would collect money for business ventures (somewhat like investment banks today). c) It could imply a kind of banking institution that would loan money to foreign merchants (which would not contradict the Torah). d) It might remind people of Roman-style banks. e) Some combination or hybrid version of the above options….

          • Great examples/possibilities!

            I would like to add one: f) Israelites depositing (loaning) money to a Roman bank and getting back interest might have boosted the idea/hope that the Romans were nokrim “merely passing through”. 🙂

            Reminds me of: “May God bless and keep the Tzar … far away from us!”

        • Interestingly, it seems that Roman banks often did not give interest on deposits. So one of the other options (or a combination thereof) seems more likely. But I’m not a specialist in this area and have not done a full study of the issues involved.

  10. Nowadays many Israel are wealthy – it would be nice to help people who are in need, especially developing countries, so that the state of Israel can be richer. because it gets a blessing from God.

    • Thank you, Markus. There are some Israeli programs aimed at helping developing countries. Note also, though, that Israel itself has one of the highest rates of poverty in the developed world.

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