God’s Wisdom Found In Israel’s Usury Laws: Part 1
Even before the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, God gave them the system of laws He wanted their new nation to live by. If you read through the Mosaic Law in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy you notice that most of the laws are about how to worship Yahweh properly, how to treat each other on a personal level, and how to make restitution to victims of crime. There isn’t much law governing their economy, but the idea in the Leviticus passage below shows up several times.
35 Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. 36 Do not take usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. 37 You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain.
This law is about loaning money at interest. The word usury or usurious means simply, interest. God isn’t saying the interest rate needs to be low. He is saying there should be no interest rate. Since this shows up multiple times you know it was important to God. Because it was one of the few laws involving the economy you can infer that God thinks it is a foundational economical concept. These verses describe a situation where a poor person is asking for their immediate needs to be met. They could be asking for money to pay a tax or buy some basic item, or they could be so destitute that they are asking for food. One example is in Nehemiah 5:1-5. Regardless, the command is clear. You can ask them to pay you back what you lend (refusing repayment is also wrong, Psalm 37:21), but you can not ask them to pay back more than you lend. God calls individuals to generosity not exploitation.
That makes sense when talking about a person to person interaction. How often do you ask your buddy to give you $30 when you paid for his $20 restaurant bill last weekend? You most likely heard a choice word in response, if you did.
That is between friends. But what about more impersonal interactions. Today, banks loan money out at interest everyday. We borrowers pursue loans so that we can purchase things important for 21st century life; things like cars, higher education, homes, or starting businesses. No big deal, right? You don’t think banks are rude to charge interest, do you? But how much interest do you think you will pay on a mortgage? For a 30 year loan of $100,000 with a historically low interest rate of 4.25%, you will pay a little over $77,000 in interest. Now how many of you live in a house as inexpensive as $100,000? The fact is you are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest over your lifetime just to own a home! Even if you rent, you are paying someone else’s interest. Now think of the other kinds of loans you have had to pay off. Maybe banks are a little rude?
I hope it is clear from this simple example how big of an effect charging interest can have. That doesn’t mean in every case it is destructive or exploitative, but it is a powerful force. It is powerful enough that when God thought through it, he declared to the nation of Israel that poor people should not be charged interest. You should give to them graciously.
But that isn't the end of the story. More to follow.