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D'varim/Deuteronomy 23:20(19) You shall not pay interest to your brother - interest of money, interest of food, interest of any matter that could be lent at interest.
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Five of the twelve words in our text are, more or less obviously, forms of the same root. Starting at the beginning, the verb is the Hif'il 2ms prefix form of the root ; followed by three instances of the noun . The verse ends with another verb, , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the same root. While dictionaries agree that the noun form means interest as charged on a loan, there is disagreement over the meaning of the verb root. One common meaning is "to bite", as seen in "Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse's heels so that his rider falls backward" (B'resheet 49:17, ESV), "And the L-RD said to Moshe, 'Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.' So Moshe made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live" (B'Midbar 21:8-9, ESV) and "in the end, [red wine] bites like a serpent - yes, it strikes like a poisonous snake" (Proverbs 23:32, ESV).
The other meaning for has to do with paying or charging interest on a loan. Davidson says that the Qal stem means "to lend at interest", with the Hif'il stem meaning "to charge interest", while David Clines says that the Qal stem means "to pay interest", with the Hif'il stem meaning "to lend on interest".1 The connection between the two is the ancient custom of deducting the interest charge from the amount being borrowed - a pre-payment of interest, a bite. For example, if you borrowed one hundred pounds sterling at an interest rate of ten percent, you would receive only ninety pounds, but would still have repay the whole sum of one hundred pounds when it was due. Jeffrey Tigay reports that "common interest rates in the ANE were 20-25% for silver, 33-50% for grain; higher rates were known. The lender's 'bite' could be very significant!
All the classic commentators are united in applying this text as a command to the borrower.Rashi comments, "You shall not cause your brother to take interest - this is a negative commandment for the borrower, that he should not give interest to the lender. This comes after the negative commandment to the lender (in Vayikra 25:37): do not give him your money for interest." Ibn Ezra adds that, "It does not mean that your are permitted to take interest, but that you are not permitted to let him pay interest to you. The borrower violates a command when interest changes hands." Covering all the bases, the Ramban summarises, "This is a prohibition against borrowing at interest, rather than lending at interest. This covers direct financial interest as well as interest in kind; it also covers advance or delayed interest."
Given that the principle of not charging interest on loans has already been given twice at Sinai - "If you lend money to any of My people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him" (Shemot 22:25, ESV) and "Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you" (Vayikra 25:36, ESV) - why has Moshe need to repeat it here to the next generation? Didn't they know and perhaps practice this already?Chizkuni suggests that these prohibitions apply "only to one who is poor; this applies as well to those who are rich." This way supporting the poor is to be a key part of the social legislation that sets Israel apart from the surrounding nations, as Richard Elliott Friedman explains: "This law is consistent with other laws that contribute to preventing the development of a small, wealthy upper class and a large poor class ... this law aims to protect an Israelite in financial straits from entering a cycle that will keep him or her from ever recovering and thus permanently locked into a dependent position." This supported by Christopher Wright, who comments: "In Israel, it was among the defining marks of righteousness that a person did not lend at interest; conversely, the charging of interest was morally and socially condemned. The strength of feeling in these texts indicates a high level of ethical priority."2
Ezekiel the prophet is given powerful words of rebuke for Jerusalem in the dying days of the kings. saying, "In you they take bribes to shed blood; you take interest and profit and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; but Me you have forgotten, declares the L-rd G-D" (Ezekiel 22:12, ESV). This equates charging interest with taking bribes to kill people. Loans with interest - when people are already poor and cannot afford to live, is an act of extortion. This is why it is compared to being bitten by a snake: "Just as the serpent's bite initially makes a small, barely felt wound that festers and grows until it becomes unmanageable, so is the initial impact of interest barely felt, yet it grows and grows without end" (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 9). TheBaal HaTurim too makes the same complaint: "The one who pays interest is comparable to one bitten by a serpent, for it increases little by little without the person realising it until it becomes a large sum of money, just the the bite of a serpent."
Returning to the question of why Moshe is bringing this particular piece of legislation up again, Ronald Clements suggests that "it is probable that local kinship-based trading practices of this kind were common." Families and kinship-groups were already do this within their immediate group. "What is new" here, Clements continues, "is the extension of this pattern to cover an entire national, covenant-based community."3 This applies to the whole nation; it extends the borders of the kinship-group from family, cousins, in-laws and so on, to every member of the house of Israel. Only non-Israelites may be charged interest. RabbiHirsch makes the telling point that "this includes any advantage whatsoever that the lender gets from the borrower as a result of the loan." As the original text says, "interest of money, interest of food, any type of interest". Rabbinic sources take that to include favours, introductions, information or influence. The lender is not entitled to ask for, nor the borrower to give, any consideration whatever beyond exact repayment of the original loan amount.
Now let's hear what Yeshua said when He was invited to dine one Shabbat at the house of one of the Pharisees: "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just" (Luke 14:12-14, ESV). This takes the issue to another level. Inviting folk round for dinner creates an obligation, a social obligation - something like a loan, that needs to be repaid. You invite them; they invite you and so on. If you are looking to be generous and show your largesse, then don't invite those who can and will repay you, Yeshua says, invite those who cannot repay you. Then the dinner will indeed be a gift that G-d will repay in the fullness of time.
Given that most 'loans' within the ancient Jewish world were for charitable purposes - helping family, neighbours and kin who had fallen into poverty through illness, crop failure or economic circumstances - we can now re-read the original text. As well as the plain meaning of the text - don't charge or pay interest on loans to any fellow Israelite - we must hear: do not create an obligation or burden on those whom you help or assist. Not only must we break the cycle of debt, but we must also break the cycle of obligation (e.g. excessive and permanent thanks) upon those who have been helped. If you want to contribute to a synagogue building fund, then contribute, but don't insist on buying a brick that will carry your name for perpetuity; that is not a gift, it is a purchase. This is one of the reasons why financial help for the poor is often channelled through a congregation or a charitable organisation: so that the recipient cannot identify and feel an obligation to the donor; so that the donor cannot exercise any control or influence over the needy. As Patrick Miller observes, "the subordination of economic proprieties to the protection of basic needs is indeed deemed to be an explicit indicator or righteousness before G-d on the part of the members of the community".4
When we lend or offer help, be that in financial or other ways, we must not create obligations that, in the end, generate resentment and bitterness; we must not lock people into a dependence relationship from which they can never break free and stand on their own feet before the L-rd. Both as individuals and as a community we must provide help and assistance - either as loans or gifts - where they is needed, but we must protect and respect the feelings of those who are helped. Not to do so is tantamount to charging interest upon a fellow-believers and holding them captive in a web of obligation.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 286.
2. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 251.
3. - Ronald E. Clements, "Deuteronomy" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 1001.
4. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 173.
Further Study: Psalm 15:1-5; Luke 6:34-35; James 5:1-4
Application: How do you manage your giving, whether of money, time or practical help? Do you give without expecting any return, anonymously where appropriate, or do you create obligations that essentially bind the beneficiaries to some form of repayment or acknowledgement? Call in the Master of Heaven's Treasury for an ethical audit and switch to His best practice!
Comment - 08:25 15Aug21 AP: Wonderful explanation. Thank you.
Comment - 12:16 15Aug21 Edward Bishop Sr: Since my early years as an adult I have made it a practice to loan no one money. If you need it, and I have it and the Spirit prompts me to give it, it becomes yours and I will never ask for you to repay it. I am 75 years in this wilderness and have yet to regret this practice.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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