The Biblical Prohibition against Usury

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A full consideration of social and economic justice would involve economics, sociology, political science, and legal theory, In addition to questions related to biblical hermeneutics and biblical ethics. This article will address what must be the fundamental question for any Christian approach: what does the Bible say?

"A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."

-Samuel Johnson1

Recent upheavals in the economy have forcefully raised questions concerning the structure of a vital and just financial system. Specifically, the current economic distress manifests problems in the credit market In the fall of 2008, a series of investment bank failures and near-failures brought the world to the brink of financial collapse. Risky speculation by investors and predatory practices by lenders, all compounded by the effects of a system too complex to be managed or even fully comprehended, moved governments around the wodd to intervene. Meanwhile, the popular perception that me United States government's financial rescue of Wall Street came at the expense (and the continued neglect) of Main Street has taken root throughout society While those responsible for the crisis received multi-million dollar governmental loans at 5% interest rates, average citizens were paying an average of over 13% on credit cards issued by the same banks,2 small businesses could not get loans to operate, and layoffs throughout the economy left neady 10% still unemployed two years later.3

This economic mayhem has also rekindled a controversy over the nature of the gospel. In March, 2010, well over a year into the aftermath of the near-collapse, media personality Glenn Beck sparked a firestorm of commentary on the role of the church in the quest for a just economic system with his claim that "the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' ... are code words" for socialism.4 Reactions to Beck demonstrated the extent of the disagreement in the American church concerning whemer the biblical message includes a call to social and economic justice. For example, Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, responded with a letter to Beck asserting that

Christians can have different views of the role of government but still agree that social justice is crucial. Very few who believe that are "Marxists." And while we all preach empowerment to live out the gospel, we don't think the meaning of social justice should be reduced to just private charity. Biblical justice also involves changing structures, institutions, systems, and policies; as well as changing hearts to be more generous.5

At the other end of the spectrum, in strong support of Beck's position, Jerry Falwefl, Jr. commented that 'Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor's hand and give it to the poor."6

The credit market lies at the core of the current situation. Consequendy, any Christian proposal concerning the propriety and nature of social and economic justice must address the central feature of this market, namely lending/borrowing at interest Of course, a full consideration would involve economics, sociology, political science, and legal theory, in addition to questions related to biblical hermeneutics and biblical ethics. Other contributions to this issue of Interpretation examine many of the former aspects of the topic; this article will address what must be the fundamental question for any Christian approach to social and economic justice: what does the Bible say?

In fact, the HB explicitly prohibits some form of lending at interest in all three major legal codes in the Pentateuch: "Ii you lend (Iwh)1 money to any of my people, the poor among you, you shall not be to him as a creditor (nsh), and you shall not charge him interest (nsk, "a bite")"8 (Exod 22:24[25 Eng] - Covenant Code; see also Lev 25:35-37 - Priestly Code; Deut 23:20-21 [19-20 Eng] - Deuteronomic Code; cf. …