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Usury and Cosmic Personalism

By R. J. Rushdoony
December 15, 2009

The modern system of commercial credit has been traced back to Babylon, the great source of modern financial enterprise. As against this system and history, another concept early made its appearance in man's records, the biblical law. The biblical concept was subverted steadily after the Babylonian Captivity, revived by the Christian Church, and is now again in eclipse.

There was a developed system of commercial credit in Babylon, but no such system in ancient Israel.[1] In normative biblical culture, it was always the poor who borrowed.[2] These were then debts of emergency and hence speedily repaid[3] when the emergency ended. The "emergency" might be, as with Judah, not a valid one, but only a temporary exigency normally led to debt. More usually, debts in Israel were the products of failures of crops and heavy foreign tribute.[4] Borrower and lender were cited by Isaiah as types in the nation,[5] but it is significant that the Hebrew had no clear-cut word for debtor, which fact appears in I Samuel 22:2. The reading here for debtor is "everyone that was in debt," or, as the marginal reading gives it, "every one that had a creditor." This would indicate that a debtor class did not exist, no word existing for it. Emergency situations, famines, wars, such things led to debt, and tragedy as well,[6] but normal times were relatively debt-free times.

To borrow meant tragedy, and hence the necessity of graciousness on the part of the lender.[7] The blessing of God meant a debt-free economy.[8] Mercy toward the needy was to be exercised even when the jubilee year was nigh, loans being made despite the nearness of cancellation time.[9]

Debts were limited by the sabbatical year and jubilee. Debts of money, if not repaid, were cancelled on the seventh year, not of issue but in cycles of forty-nine. The fiftieth year, the jubilee, led to a restoration of foreclosed lands, so that foreclosures were valid to the middle and end of each century (when this law was observed). The land was to rest, to lie fallow, on each seventh year, this being the release of the land as well as of debts.[10] The Babylonian Captivity lasted seventy years because seventy sabbath years were due to the land,[11] the captivity coming "To fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept the sabbath, to fulfil three-score and ten years."[12] The release of debts every seventh year[13] did not apply to foreigners, nor did the jubilee, foreigners here meaning unbelieving foreigners.

At this point, the biblical law is often severely criticized as being partial. The criticism is unjust. The law required justice to all men, Leviticus 19 making clear that our neighbor is every foreigner. To all such, the second table of the law is strictly applied. We must expect all men to keep it, and we must abide by it ourselves. To love our neighbor or enemy means to keep the second table of the law.[14] To love in the biblical sense here used is not an emotional attitude but a keeping of the law in relation to our neighbor. This means respecting his right to life (Thou shalt not kill), the sanctity of his home (Thou shalt not commit adultery), and of his property (Thou shalt not steal), and of his reputation (Thou shalt not bear false witness), and finally, respecting these things in thought (Thou shalt not covet) as well as in deed.

This is the general law of justice. Beyond that, our conduct is to be regulated by relationship. We must render honor and justice to all men wherever due, but we have a particular responsibility to care for our own. This means first of all our families, for the man who fails to care for his own is worse than an infidel.[15] No special gift could be dedicated to God and accounted acceptable if a man meanwhile failed to provide for his parents.[16] Next in order of concern are fellow believers, true believers. Here, however, no false charity was allowed to prevail.[17] The biblical laws forbad false charity. But, to the deserving, in addition to gleaning permission, and emergency relief, non-interest loans were made. There was a duty of lending and of paying.[18] Pledges or security could be required to protect the lender, but the law restricted the type of security which could be exacted.[19] The creditor could not enter the home to remove the security but had to wait outside.[20] Some pious men required no pledge[21] or else would promptly restore it.[22]

Biblical conduct is regulated by relationship, and to subvert this is to lead directly into welfare economics and socialism. If a man must exercise towards all men the same care, oversight, and charity he does towards his own family, then an impossible burden is placed on him. Statist foreign policy places this burden on men, a form of enslavement. Biblical ethics, by calling for justice to all men, brotherly love among believers, and full care for one's own, is an ethics of freedom and responsibility. Every system of "universal" ethics is at one and the same time a system of universal slavery. A man's relationship to his wife is ethically different from his relationship to all other women, and the same applies to his children, parents, and relatives. To universalize the relationship is to communize man and the family and to destroy the church. And today the family is weak, and the church very fragile, because of this unbiblical universalism.

Usury to the believer is forbidden,[23] first, because this poor man belongs to the people of God and has lost a measure of freedom through troubles and needs help, and second, usury adds to his burden. The believer is to avoid debt, because, as God's servant, he cannot be men's servant

. Leviticus 25:36, 37 held to no interest on loans to a believer, and no limitation on interest to an unbeliever. This is restated in Deuteronomy 23:19,20 with reference to foreigners, i.e., unbelievers.

Thus, years 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and 50 of each fifty-year cycle called for sabbaths of the land and of debts. Two very important principles are clearly apparent here:

  1. The believer cannot mortgage his future. His life belongs to God, and he cannot sell out his tomorrows to men, nor bind his family's or country's future. This means that long-term personal loans, deficit financing, and national debts involve paganism. What we cannot do to ourselves we cannot permit either our families or our fellow believers to do to themselves. A country which is Christian is similarly to be governed. But we cannot expect unbelievers to live by our faith or by God's law; and to allow them the liberty of their way is no sin, providing we deal justly with them.
  2. The land also belongs to God. As Scripture repeatedly affirms, "The earth is the Lord's." The land therefore must be used in conformity to His law.

The believer lives in a world of unbelievers, and commercial credit is the order of the day. Interest is not condemned in the New Testament,[24] but debt on the part of believers is to be avoided.[25] However, the intrusion of Babylonian practices into the temple met with Christ's whip.[26] The believer must be in the world but not of the world.[27]

The modern system of commercial credit is, like the Babylonian, a form of slavery. The Civil War saw the abolition of limited private slavery, involving three million people, and the imposition of slavery to the state and the furtherance of slavery to financial interests. Some people are by nature slaves, demanding total security of a master, employer, or of the state. But to impose slavery on our children is no less a sin.[28]

The Sabbath and Jubilee Years again are central. These were types, as was the weekly Sabbath, of the restoration of paradise and the work of Christ. Man ceases from working because he knows it is God's work of grace that saves him. All days of rest in other religions are imitations of biblical faith. No day of rest existed otherwise. Other religions, Babylonian and Pharisaic, are in essence and practice works religions. Christianity, as was true Old Testament faith, is not; hence, it rests in worship to indicate that salvation is not man's work. The rest of the land involved confidence that God's bounty would more than replenish what was lost by man's inactivity. DeTocqueville commented on the importance of the Christian Sabbath in the American republic. The decline of that day of rest has gone hand in hand with the rise of a works religion and a credit economy which mortgages man's future. The deeper significance of this external parallel is that civil slavery is the analogue of spiritual blindness and bondage. But, "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek may face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."[29]

The difference between the Babylonian and biblical outlooks has been cited; it remains now to develop it briefly. Economic man had high authority in Babylonian culture. War was seen in essentially economic terms and as a means to economic power. To the Babylonians of Nebuchadnezzar's day, "What mattered to them, so far as the king's victories were concerned, was not the glory of battle so much as the fact that it was a means of consolidating their economic supremacy."[30]

The roots, however, lie deeper, back into the Old Babylonian period of Hammurabi and earlier. There was a class known as tamkaru (singular tamkarum). The word tamkarum can be translated as merchant, broker, merchant banker, money-lender, and government agent.[31] Fulfilling all these functions, he was an able instrument of imperial power, in that, long before any armies marched, he had bound foreign powers to himself both hand and foot. This same policy characterized Assyria, and Nahum cited as a central sin of Assyria before God that it had "multiplied merchants above the stars of heaven,"[32] i.e., exercised economic slavery in one area after another. The Babylonians were money-lenders not only out of dedicated policy but with fervor, zest, and relish. One of their proverbs expresses this outlook clearly: "The giving of a loan is like making love; the returning of a loan is like having a son born."[33] They were thus a breed of proud and happy Shylocks. Their whole world of business moved in terms of credit financing, and their whole concept of social control and of imperialism rested on usury. It is not surprising that Babylon the Great, the harlot, is the type in Revelation of the one-world order which shall seduce all nations.

For biblical economy, loans are not the basis of normal operation as with Babylon, but of abnormal circumstances. As such, and definitely as such, they have their place, but they operate in terms of implicit as well as explicit restrictions. Two kinds of loans were recognized: to the believer without usury but with security, and to the unbeliever, with usury and security. But in both instances the presupposition is that something real, in goods or in money, is transferred, a tangible asset involving only the two parties to the contract. Modern banking, however, is radically different. Banks "create" money by fiat and by the unilateral action of simply recording a loan and a deposit on their books. The consequence is, not the personal and limited action of a biblical loan, but inflation, the dilution of the prior relationship of money units to total goods and services. As a result, there is a dilution of all money, and such "loans" mean an element of robbery in that they reduce the value of all other money units previously in existence. Fractional reserves and modern central banking (i.e., the Federal Reserve System) are modern applications of the old Babylonian principles and are equally conducive to the dream of empire.

Prior to the introduction of central banking, the ability to create fiat money was relatively limited, and it depended in large measure on the confidence of individuals in the local bank. Today, the instrument of control has passed to the larger units, and the Federal Reserve System, its directors and stockholders, the Treasury Department, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and other agencies are engaged in manipulating the money supply. In 1959, "Federal Reserve notes comprised 90% of paper money in circulation and 84% of total money in circulation."[34]

Biblical law is hostile to this pyramiding of credit. It is premised on immediate responsibility, whereas the Babylonian and modern systems evade immediate responsibility. Today, the law penalizes the individual with almost unlimited liabilities, so that every kind of insurance is necessary for the individual as homeowner, driver, and parent (in the event that his child blackens a bully's eyes). On the other hand, corporate irresponsibility is fostered by limited liability laws which, over a period of time, separate property from control, ownership from management, and management from responsibility. Social irresponsibility is thus furthered, and the responsible man hamstrung. Biblical faith declares that a personal God created every fact in the universe, so that every fact is a personal fact. Impersonality is thus ruled out of the universe. As we deal with ourselves and everything under the sun, we deal also with our very personal Creator. Any attempt to introduce impersonality into the universe is to that degree an attempt to separate the universe from the government of God.[35] The impersonal economics of Babylon and of today are thus anti-biblical and are attempts to substitute fiat "creations" of man for the absolute government of God. As such, they incur the wrath of God, whose advance judgment Scripture proclaims: "Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen... And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her..."[36] In terms of this comes the summons, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues."[37]

In conclusion, in Scripture interest was legal for loans which were not charity loans. Debt was not to be a normal thing or a way of life. Debt was an emergency, or "need," matter, not normally a consumption loan, and only a severely conservative production loan.

 

  1. See W. H. Bennett, "Debt," in James Hastings, ed., A Dictionary of the Bible, vol. I (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919), 579f.
  2. Exodus 22:25.
  3. Genesis 38:18.
  4. Nehemiah 5:3, 4.
  5. Isaiah 24:2.
  6. II Kings 4:1-7.
  7. Deut. 15:7-11.
  8. Deut. 15:6; 28:12,44.
  9. Ps. 37:26; 112:5; Prov. 19:17; Ex. 22:25; Deut. 23:19,20; Lev. 25:36,37; Ps. 15:5; Prov. 28:8; Ezek. 18:8-17; 22:12; Neh. 5.
  10. See Ex. 23:10ff; Lev. 25:lff.
  11. Jer. 25:9,12; 26:6,7.
  12. II Chron. 36:21.
  13. Deut. 15:1-6.
  14. Matt. 19:18,19; Rom. 13:8, 9.
  15. I Timothy 5:8.
  16. Matt. 15:4, 5, 6; Mark 7:11,12.
  17. II Thess. 3:10, 11.
  18. Luke 6:34,35; Rom. 13:8; cf. Matt. 6:12.
  19. Deut. 24:17; 24:6; Job 24:3.
  20. Deut. 24:10-13.
  21. Job 22:6; 24:9.
  22. Ezek. 18:7-16; 33:15.
  23. Ex. 22:25.
  24. Luke 7:41,42; 19:11-27; Matt. 18:23-35; 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-13.
  25. Rom. 13:8,9.
  26. Matt. 21:12f; Mark. 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:12-17.
  27. John 17:14, 15.
  28. Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7.
  29. II Chron. 7:14.
  30. Albert Champdor:Babylon, (New York: J. P. Putnam's Sons, 1958), 114.
  31. H. W. F. Saggs: The Greatness that Was Babylon, p. 287f. New York: Hawthorn, 1962.
  32. Nahum 3:16.
  33. Saggs, p. 290.
  34. Thomas C. Cochrane, Wayne Andrews, eds.: Concise Dictionary of American History. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962), 711.
  35. In 1664, Thomas Mun, in England's Treasureby Forraign Trade, espoused usury in terms of its purely impersonal values to England. This scientism and impersonalism were commended without any attempt to deal systematically with the Christian issues involved. Mun was republished in 1949 by Basil Blackwell, Oxford, and is an excellent example of good, non-theistic economic thought.
  36. Rev. 18:2, 11.
  37. Rev. 18:4.

 


Topics: Economics, World History

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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