the plan for the future

The lost tradition of Biblical debt cancellations

Author: Michael Hudson

"The rich ruleth over the poor and the borrower is slave to the lender.” Proverbs 22:7

Taken from: - The lost tradition of Biblical debt cancellations


The once-glowing core body of law within the Judeo-Christian Bible has become allbut ignored - indeed, rejected - by the colder temper of our times. This core provided for periodic restoration of economic order by rituals of social renewal based onfreedom from debt-servitude and from the loss of one's access to self-support on the land. So central to Israelite moral values was this tradition that it framed the composition of both the Old and New Testaments.

Radical as the idea of cancelling debts and restoring the population's means of subsistence seems to modern eyes, it had been a conservative tradition in Bronze Age Mesopotamia for some two millennia. What was conserved was self-sufficiency for therural family-heads who made up the infantry as well as the productive base of Near Eastern economies. Conversely, what was radically disturbing in archaic times was the idea of unrestrained wealth-seeking. It took thousands of years for the idea of progress to become inverted, to connote freedom for the wealthy to deprive the peasantry of their lands and personal liberty.

So far has the modern idea of market efficiency and progress gone that today, although the Bible remains our civilization's defining book, it is perceived largely as acomposite of stories, myth and wisdom literature best epitomized perhaps in spiritualsand hymns, not economic laws. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule have become so dissociated from the economic legislation of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy that whoever takes these laws in earnest is considered utopian andanachronistic if looking backward nostalgically, or radical if adopting there as a guidefor current activism. Yet these laws formed the take-off point for Christ upon his return to Nazareth's synagogue, and for his denunciation of the money-changers whohad taken over Jerusalem's temple. As late as medieval Spain the tradition of the Jubilee Year was kept alive by Maimonides and Ibn Adret. To dismiss these laws is thus to remove much of the Bible from the context of its times, above all from its Bronze Age Near Eastern matrix.

This paper accordingly traces the evolution of the Biblical debt and property laws as recorded in clay records that only recently have been deciphered and placed intheir historic context. These laws which periodically cancelled debts, freed Israelite debt-servants and returned lands to their traditional holders have confused Biblical students for many centuries. They have long been virtually ignored by historians on the ground that, to modern eyes, they would seem to wreak economic havoc. Already by the first century of our era no less a theologian than Rabbi Hillel developed the prosbul, by which borrowers signed away their rights under the Biblical laws. Hillel explained that credit would dry up without such a clause.

Recent discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations extendingfrom 2400 to 1600 BC throw a radically new light on these laws. Like their Biblical analogues, Mesopotamian royal edicts cancelled debts, freed debt-servants and restored land to cultivators who had lost it under economic duress. There can be no doubt that these edicts were implemented, for during the Babylonian period they grew into quite elaborate promulgations, capped by Ammisaduqa's Edict of 1646. Now that these edicts have been translated and their consequences understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or other worldly ideals; they take their place in a two-thousand year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal.

There is no record of just how or when Babylonian legal traditions were transmitted to Israel. No doubt there were numerous periods of influence, headed by a Bronze Age inspiration early in the second millennium. One suspects that during the Babylonian captivity (586-539 BC) the Jews rediscovered much of this Bronze Age heritage, continuing a reaction against the economically polarizing impact of usury and landlordism that had gathered momentum under Josiah with the rediscovery of the Deuteronomy scroll by priests renovating the Jerusalem temple in 610.

In a sense it is almost immaterial whether the Biblical debt and land-tenure laws were introduced by Canaanite rulers celebrating New Year Clean Slates, brought by the hapiru or transmitted during the wars with Assyria and Babylonia. What is important is that the Bronze Age precedents provide a living historical context for these laws. The central role played by Mesopotamian Clean Slates - so important that they became synonymous with "royal edict" (simdat) -indicates how equally important they were to the Pentateuch. Modern readers of the Bible may skim over these laws quickly as if theywere the fine print, so to speak, but to the Biblical compilers they formed the very core of righteous lawgiving.

The Mosaic tradition provided a dramatic wrapping to present these laws as being prescribed by the Lord as part of a sacred compact, to be preserved by the Israelites in memory of the fact that they had once been enslaved and must never again permit economic oppression to develop. The Israelites are portrayed as having made a covenant to protect the economically weak by holding the land as the Lord's gift to support a free rural population. "Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me and you are only strangers and guests. You will allow a right of redemption on all your landed property," and restore it to its customary cultivators every fifty years (Lev. 25:23-28). Israelite bond servants likewise were to go free periodically in the Jubilee Year, forthey belonged ultimately to the Lord, not to any person (Lev. 25:54).

Until fairly recently most Biblical historians doubted that these policies really were applied in practice. Advocacy of such laws seemed to be just one more way in which the Israelites emphasized their differences from surrounding societies and gods. However, during the past half-century similar economic reorderings have been found to have been traditional in Sumer, Babylonia and their commercial periphery from about 2400 to 1600 BC. It has become clear that the freedom advocated by the Covenant Code of Exodus, the septennial year of release in Deuteronomy and the Jubilee Year of Leviticus's Holiness Code were not just abstract literary ideas, but concrete legal practices freeing rural populations from debt servitude and the land from appropriation by absentee foreclosers. What made the revival of these releases revolutionary in Israel was their removal from the hands of rulers to become a sacred popular commandment.

The Bible is a unique composite embedding ritual traditions and laws of social behavior in a dramatic context of stories and legends intended to appeal to the widest possible audience. This popularization was greatly aided by the spread of alphabetic writing, which made documents accessible to the population at large, in contrast to the cumbersome syllabic cuneiform prevalent prior to the first millennium BC. But the greatest innovation was to democratize liturgical texts that earlier Near Eastern societies had restricted to temple priesthoods. Deut. 31:10 directs that the laws be read aloud publicly every seven years, in the year of cancelling debts (the shemitta), so that all the population would know they were to be freed from bondage.

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