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Written by Jim Jordal   
Sunday, 05 February 2012

JUBILEE DEALS WITH DEBT

By Jim Jordal

If your brother becomes poor, and sells some of his possessions, then his kinsman who is next to him shall come, and redeem that which his brother has sold. If a man has no one to redeem it, and he becomes prosperous and finds sufficient means to redeem it; then let him reckon the years since the sale of it, and restore the surplus to the man to whom he sold it; and he shall return to his property. But if he isn't able to get it back for himself, then what he has sold shall remain in the hand of him who has bought it until the Year of Jubilee: and in the Jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his property.

Leviticus 25:25-28, WEB

If your brother has become poor, and his hand can't support him among you; then you shall uphold him. As a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God; that your brother may live among you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.

Leviticus 25:35-38, WEB

After the recent congressional struggles over the debt ceiling and the seeming willingness of many politicians to sink the entire economy rather than increase the national debt, it seems to me that it’s time for a bit of new thinking on debt and its consequences.

Some Christians ridicule biblical Jubilee with the comment that it was designed for a strictly agrarian economy and will in no way be usable in a modern industrial commercial system. But if we consider, not the specifics of Jubilee, but the basic principles, then the applicability of these Scriptures changes.

Farming and herding on their own land was the basic way people in ancient Israel earned a living. However, crop failures or droughts were not unknown. Should that happen, small farmers often were forced to borrow money from richer people for seed and sustenance, using their land as collateral. If they couldn’t pay they could lose control of the source of their livelihood. But under Jubilee the loss was only temporary, lasting only until the next Jubilee when all agricultural land, if not redeemed earlier, reverted to its original owners.

The purpose of this was to prevent the rise of a permanent debtor class unable to earn a living and existing in poverty because they had lost access to the major productive resource, agricultural land. Jubilee makes it clear that God owned all land and natural resources, and that his intent was for all citizens to have personal access to some productive land or other natural resource so as to provide for their families.

If used today, this Jubilee principle would provide for distribution of some productive factor or resource to all citizens to allow them to earn their sustenance without resort to charity or government safety net. Jubilee principles were the economic safety net. If this became too unwieldy, then citizens could share in some small part the productive resources used and developed by others having more skill or entrepreneurial ability. The principle remains the same: God owns it all and desires that everyone have access to his plentiful resources.

Regarding debt and usury, or interest, Jubilee forbade creditors from charging interest on loans to their neighbors. They could, however, charge interest to non-Israelites and even to their neighbors should there be no poor among them at the time. This provision makes clear the intent of Jubilee to make poverty only a temporary phenomenon capable of being ended by redemption or reversion of land to original owners. Intergenerational, long-term poverty was thus practically impossible.

Today, interest on the national debt makes up a sizable fraction of the federal budget each year. The problem is even greater at the state and local levels of government with almost all states and many municipalities faced with severe budgetary shortfalls or serious cutbacks in service.

Interest is a major source of oppression according to the Bible, mostly because it compounds and becomes increasingly more burdensome to debtors as it transfers wealth from working class masses to the few in control of the system. Unfortunately we are so indoctrinated with the values of mammon that we cannot even consider a system where interest is not the driving force in business and economic decisions.

But increasing budget shortfalls and debt crises will force us to seriously consider God’s way to permanent national and personal prosperity. How much will we have to suffer before we learn? Time will tell!