Israel’s ‘constitution’—Deuteronomy (to play with language in the spirit of July 4th), includes what at first appears to be a great idea and then, on closer inspection of the text and our lives—is radical, dangerous, and as un-American as High Tea and Scones. In Deuteronomy, the provision is simply called the “Seventh Year” or the “Year of Debt Cancellation” (Deut. 15:9). In fact, the provision appears to have had some distant influence on our own legislation for bankruptcy: the idea of seven years, mandatory debt forgiveness that stops creditors from demanding repayment or release from whatever repayment arrangements may have been made (e.g., working off the debt).
I hate to burst your balloon, but before we get too excited about seeing our debts float down river. I must point out that Israel’s system of loans and debts is a world away from our own. In our world, we take out loans for most everything: car loans, the mortgage on our house, our second mortgage, vacations, weddings, and student loans for going to college. But in Israel, the only people who took out loans were destitute and desperate. They needed the loan to feed or take care of their families and their most basic needs. Perhaps their crops failed, maybe they were not paid at the end of the day, injustice swept away their work, or possibly a catastrophic event occurred (e.g., illness or death; side note: Deuteronomy does not address laziness as a cause.) Whatever may have happened, a family has been wiped out and is in such great need that they turn to others for help.
I hope you see that we could drive an armored truck carrying ten million dollars between our system of loans and Israel’s practice. The only points or places at which our culture meets Israel is at personal loan stores and other places where the desperately poor can go for immediate help (I’ll have more to say about this later). By now, I expect that the bankers and financial gurus have had enough time to imagine how a 7th year would wreck our financial system. And by now, I expect that our own enthusiasm for the 7th year has begun to fade. After all, what happens if a desperate Israelite comes to us for help? Hopefully, our response will be god-like: “don’t be hard-hearted or tight-fisted… Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need” (15:7-8). But what if the thought pops into our mind (and how could we not think about it?): the 7th year forgiveness of debts is only six months or a year away. This person will never be able to pay back my loan before the 7th year comes and I will be required to forgive this loan. So, what do I do? Deuteronomy is ahead of our concern: Open your heart and your pocket book and give (or loan) generously. We are to operate on the basis of what they need, not on the basis of what we will get back (15:9). Even more to the point, “No, give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at” (15:10 CEB).
For fifteen years I tried to help my students understand that specific practices in the Old Testament are most often cultural clothing that they wore over important principles. In other words, a 7th year of debt cancellation may not work in our culture; but even if this is true, it does not get us off the hook. If the specifics do not work, then what are the principles beneath the specifics—and how might we cover these principles with our own cultural clothing? We have not covered all Deuteronomy has to say about the 7th year, but we pause here to sit with these questions, to reflect, and to do the hard work of theological imagination: within our own place and time what does this text and its principles mean for us? What “clothing” do we need to sew and wear? What practices do we need to embrace? To help one another, please post your ideas.
-To be Continued-
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.