At the end of every seven years you shall make a release.…
One of the things that strikes a reader of Deuteronomy, and indeed of the Old Testament in general, is the way in which all kinds of subjects are brought under the scope of religion. The modern mind is ready with distinctions, and classifies subjects as religious, moral, political, scientific, economical, and so forth; but the Israelitish lawgivers, men with the prophetic spirit in them, subordinate politics, economics, and morals alike to religion. Laws, to whatever department of life they are applicable, are to be made and administered in the Spirit of God; they are not an end in themselves; their one end is to enable people so to live as that the purposes may be fulfilled for which God has called them into being and constituted them into societies. This high point of view must always be retained. If we know better than the Israelites the life which God intends human beings to live, we shall have a higher standard for our legislation than they; we shall be more bound than they to remember that law is an instrument of religion, a means to a spiritual end, and that it rests with us who make our own laws to adapt them, over the whole area of national life, to the ends which God sets before us.
1. In the first place, there is legislation regarding land. It proceeds upon the idea that the land belongs to God, and has been given by Him to the nation that on it as a foundation it may live that life of labour, of health, and of natural piety to which He has called it. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as unrestricted private property in land. An individual does not have the power of alienating any part of it forever. One result, and no doubt one purpose of this was, to prevent a single worthless person from ruining his posterity by parting forever with what he really held in trust for them; another, was to prevent the accumulation of great masses of landed property, which was then the only kind of property, in the hands of individuals. Such accumulations, in the circumstances, and in most circumstances, could only lead to the practical enslavement of those who tilled the land to those who owned it. These aims of the land laws in Israel will very generally be acknowledged as worthy of approval. I suppose there is not a statesman in Europe who would not give a great deal to resettle on the land hundreds of thousands of those who have been driven or drawn into the towns. There is not one but sees that private property in land must, if the moral ends for which society exists are to be attained, be limited somehow. Similarly, legislation is justifiable — that is, it is in the line of a Divine intention — which aims at making it hard to beggar the poor, and hard to heap up wealth without limit. It is not a morally healthy situation in which one man of enormous wealth has thousands practically at his mercy. It is not good for him — I mean for his soul; it is not good for their souls either; and the law may properly aim, by just methods, at making it hard to create such a situation and impossible to perpetuate it. Unhappily, in most new countries the need of bribing settlers and capital has proved a temptation too strong to be resisted; and land has been parted with in masses, to individuals, on terms which have simply sown for future generations the seed of all the trouble under which older countries labour. The instinct for gain has proved stronger titan the devotion to ideal moral ends. The future has been sacrificed to the present, the moral interests of the community to the material interests of a few.
2. Besides the land, the Book of Deuteronomy contains a variety of laws regarding money, and particularly the lending of money. To begin with, the lending of money for interest was absolutely forbidden. The Israelites were not a commercial, but a farming people, and when a man borrowed, it was not to float a venture too great for his own means, but because he had got into difficulties, and wanted relief. To assist a brother in difficulty was regarded as a case of charity; he was to be relieved readily and freely; it were inhuman to take advantage of his distress to get him into one's power, as a money lender does his victim. It may be said, of course, that the effect of this law would be to discourage lending altogether; people would not be too ready to part with their money without some hope of profit. Probably this might be so, and to some extent with good effect. There are some people who borrow, and who ought not to do so. They ought not to have money lent to them. It is a mercy not to lend him money: it is a special mercy to protect him, as this law does, against the money lenders. But I am not sure that the law which prohibits lending money for interest has not another moral idea at the heart of it. As distinguished from agriculture, commerce, which depends so much more upon credit, i.e. upon money lent for interest, has a much larger element of speculation in it; and speculation is always to be discouraged, on moral grounds. Everyone knows that there are persons with little money of their own who contrive to make a livelihood by watching the ups and downs in the price of shares. This is a vocation which depends for its very existence on the lending of money for interest, and no one will say that it is morally wholesome, or that, whatever sensitiveness it may develop in certain of the intellectual faculties, it is elevating for the whole man. It would be far better for him to be doing field labour. But there is more still in this law. As it stands, I do not believe it is applicable to the vastly different conditions of modern life, especially in a trading community; here, to lend a trustworthy person money to carry on or extend his business may be what the law intended all lending to be, an act of charity. But the lender must consider his own position — I mean his moral position. His whole income may come — in many cases it does come — from investments. He lives on the interest of money he has lent. He takes no care of it, except to see at first that the investments are sound. He does no work in connection with it. He is largely ignorant of the use made of the power which it bestows. I am not going to say that no one should live on such terms: for many, life would be impossible otherwise. For many it is the proper reward of a life of labour: they are only reaping the fruit of their toils in earlier years. To such it is not likely to do any harm. But those who have inherited such a situation are undoubtedly exposed to moral perils of which they may easily become unconscious. They can live without needing to make their living; and there are very few people in a generation good enough to stand such a trial. Those who labour with the money are conscripts; let those who lend it be volunteers in all the higher services which society requires from its members. Let them be leaders in all philanthropies and charities, in all laborious duties which have it as their object to raise the moral and spiritual status of men.
3. A third class of economical laws which bulks largely in the Book of Deuteronomy, and to which special attention is due, is occupied with the care of the poor. This fifteenth chapter has a number of enactments bearing on this subject. The first is rather obscure, "At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release." In the Book of Exodus (Exodus 23:10) this law refers to the land, and its meaning is that every seventh year it is not to be cropped. Here, there is a year of release established for debts, though it is not clear whether it means that a debt due seven years was to be irrecoverable by legal process, or that every seventh year there should be a period of grace, during which no debt should be recoverable by law. Then, in the laws about lending, the duty of charity is strongly enforced. The forgotten sheaf in the field, or the gleanings of the vineyard and the olive are not to be too carefully gathered in; they are to be left for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, "that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the works of thine hand." God is interested in humanity; He sees such consideration and rewards it, just as He sees inhumanity and judges it. But the most striking thing in these ancient poor laws is the way in which they realise the actual conditions of the life of the poor, and consider them. The lender is allowed to take a pledge, but if he takes the upper garment of the borrower he must not keep it all night. It is not only the poor man's cloak, but his blanket; he has nothing else to cover himself with, and God is angry with the man who inhumanly leaves his poor brother to shiver in the cold night air. So, too, no one may take the hand mill or the upper millstone as a pledge; that is to rob the poor of the means of grinding the handful of corn with which he keeps the breath in his body. We see from laws like these how excessively poor they were, yet the lawgiver who has the Spirit of God in him enters into this deep poverty, realises the conditions of life under it, and insists on due consideration for them. Business is business, of course; but humanity is also humanity, and it is an interest which no consideration of business will ever displace before God. And to refer in this connection to only one point more, what could be more beautiful than the law we find in verses 10 and 11 of Deuteronomy 24? It is a mean and inhuman temper, which is here reproved by God. The poor man is not to be insulted because he is in distress; he is to be treated by the lender as courteously and respectfully as if he were — what he is — his equal. The sacredness of his home is to be respected; he is not to be needlessly affronted before his children by having an unfeeling or insolent stranger walk into the house and carry off what he pleases. Laws like these move us to reflection on the provision which we ourselves make for the poor. On what a large scale poverty exists in the great cities! The practical difficulties of relieving distress without doing moral injury are undeniably very great, but I do not believe they will be overcome by men whom habitual contact with dishonesty and incapacity has rendered hard and inhuman. Those who have the care of the poor should care for them with humanity. They should care for their feelings too, and respect the common nature which is in them. If they do not, they suffer for it themselves, and one can hardly find a more odious type of human being than the man who has been hardened and brutalised by the administration of charity. There is one kind of criticism which has often been passed, and will no doubt continue to be passed, on such laws as these. It is this: they have never been kept. There is no evidence, for instance, that the law of the jubilee year, when all property returned to its original owners, was ever observed in Israel: as a means for preventing the dissipation of family property, or its accumulation in a few hands, it was a failure. So have all laws been which attempted to regulate the business of lending money, either by prohibiting interest altogether, or by fixing a maximum rate of interest. No law written in a book can ever compete with the living intellect of man, with his cunning and greed on the one hand, with his distress, his passions, or his stupidity on the other. There is a certain quantity of truth in this; but taken without qualification it is only a plea for anarchy — an invitation to give up the whole of the economical side of social existence to the conflict of ability, selfishness, and capital with incompetence, need, and passion. Surely there is a moral ideal for this side of existence; and surely if there is, it must find some expression, however inadequate, some assistance, however feeble, from the laws. We cannot by law protect people against the consequences of their vices or their follies; but we can provide in the law a safeguard for those interests which are higher than private gain or loss. We can make it impossible for anyone in the pursuit of private gain to trample humanity under foot.
(James Denney, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release.