Releasing Debts: Deuteronomy 15
I’m deviating from the typical format for this edition. I’ll regret that later.
Coming to Deuteronomy 15 brings us to the instructions for the Sabbath Year. This idea cuts against the grain of nearly every principle of business growth that we modern people can imagine. What is it?
Put simply, it’s the principle of the Sabbath for each week applied on an annual scale. The weekly Sabbath was simple: work six days, take a day to focus on worship and rest. Keep that day holy, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath Year expanded this to the command to work six years and then take the seventh off.
Yet the Sabbath Year was not just about the Sabbath for the land. In fact, this chapter focuses on another aspect. In the Sabbath Year, the Israelites were to cancel the debts of their countrymen. Those in slavery to satisfy debt were to be released, and sent out with gifts from their former masters.
It was an important reminder for Israel. A reminder that all the people belonged to God. The people belonged to one another as part of the community, bearing responsibility and privilege among the nation, but permanent ownership was reserved to God. This also cut against developing exploitative business deals, since there was no way in which a long-term debt could be carried over. After seven years, at the most, it was over. (By the way, ever wondered why the general standard for your credit report, and sometimes driving record, is seven years? Some situations have shortened it to three, but many debt items are…seven. Tell me again that the Bible hasn’t informed our culture.)
What do we learn from this?
People are not placed in community, side-by-side with us, for us to exploit. It is appropriate that hard work is rewarded. It is appropriate that legitimate work is rewarded. Those who have worked and found success should not be punished for it.
But those who have fallen on hard times should not be locked into a permanent crisis because of ill fortune. Laziness and sloth? That will return on their heads rather quickly, but over the course of time there is no right to block someone’s efforts to return to productive work. Note that the Israelites were never commanded to support free-loading: those heavily indebted found themselves working for their creditors. In due time, their debt was satisfied and they returned to working for themselves—at no time did they luff about and do nothing.
We need to find a way back to an economy that develops this idea. It needs to value work. Work is valuable to society, it is valuable to those who work, and it should produce for our needs. It needs to allow for the negative consequences of inactivity to happen and to provide a safety net for unwarranted misfortune. (It is, after all, different for a farm to fail because you didn’t work it and for it to fail because of a hail storm.) It also needs to provide for opportunities to try again. And again—after enough time to figure out what went wrong.
In short, a system that is based on the assumption that all people have value. This requires recognizing that, well, all people have value. Then allowing for actions to have consequences, even if those are unpleasant. Six years of work just to satisfy debt is pretty unpleasant, after all. Why would anyone do this? Because they see that all people have value before the Creator of the Universe, and that our goal is to glorify God, not enrich ourselves.
There is a pattern here for economic consideration that allows hard work to build wealth without exploitation. There is a pattern here for misfortune to be mitigated. If we would recognize that the Creator God is also viable as an economist, we would no well for ourselves.
Nerd Note: Deuteronomy 15:4 and 15:11. Read both. Conflict? Yes and no. There should be no poor, if there is obedience. That’s the first verse. The second one? Points out that there will be poor. When there is disobedience, there are hardships. In Israel at the time, there were poor because of two sets of disobedience. The first was the ones who refused to work: they were poor due to laziness and ignoring God’s commands. The second was the ones who faced misfortune: they were poor due to the sin of their countrymen with means who would not help.
Part of our national woe is that we treat, depending on philosophy, all poor as belonging in the same group and apply the same remedy. That wasn’t the case then. It’s not the case now. It won’t work any better for us than it did in Israel, and so we always have the poor. Not because people have to be poor, but because we disobey God.