Debt and Servitude


Exodus 21:1-10


Proverbs 22:7 says, “The borrower is a slave to the lender.” According to CBS News Moneywatch, as of a year ago, China owns $1.6 trillion of our federal debt. (Japan owns the next largest amount: $882 billion.) “The borrower is a slave to the lender.” If we borrow $300,000 on a house, we’re going to be working for the lender for the next 30 years unless we earn a lot more. It’s not hard to see the connection between debt and servitude. The Hebrew word in question can mean either slave or servant, but there’s little question as to who owns us or whom we’re working for.

Today, we’re going to talk about God’s word on slavery in the ancient Near East, and the connection between servitude and economic issues, and see what God has to say both to people long ago, and to us, about debt and slavery. We’ll start with slavery.

Hammurabi’s law puts its laws on slavery near the end. Moses’ law puts them right up front at the beginning, which is surprising, considering that this is a nation who has just been set free from slavery in Egypt. How could a nation of former slaves be enslaving one another? Did God bring Israel out of Egypt, so that they could enslave each other? We need to understand that we’re talking about a different kind of slavery than the kind from which the Hebrews had been set free. Here we’re talking about debt slavery or indentured servanthood, a solution for cases when people go bankrupt.

The other kind of slavery is the permanent kind where the slave is treated as subhuman. Lev 25:44-46 says that Israel can permanently enslave people acquired from other nations, but they must not enslave fellow Israelites this way. (This was the standard passage used to defend slavery in the American South.) It says an Israelite must not be treated with “harshness,” the same word used for how the Egyptians treated Israel.

Lev 25:39 says that if a man becomes poor, he may sell himself to serve as a “hired servant” until the year of jubilee. A parent could also sell his/her children. One could also be sold as a slave for theft, as we see in Exodus 22. The Hebrew debt slave serves no more than 6 years, and the debt is paid in full. In Hammurabi’s law, debt slaves only had to serve 3 years, but we have no idea how much debt was involved.

If a master gives a slave a wife here in Exodus 21, the master gets to keep the wife and children. The only helpful rationale here might be that the wife is considered part of the boss’ family, therefore you can’t purchase her freedom, but you can become part of her family by voluntarily signing yourself into lifetime servitude.

Compared to the surrounding nations of its day, Israel’s laws on debt slavery were unprecedented in the humane treatment they required, perhaps because the Hebrews themselves had once been slaves in Egypt. Israel is the only nation that forbids sending runaway slaves back to their masters (Deut 23:15–16). They’re the only nation that sets slaves free simply because they lost an eye or a tooth when hit by their master (Exod 21:26–27). Kidnapping to sell someone into slavery is a capital crime in Israel (and elsewhere). The Law of Moses punishes masters who beat their slaves to death, except “if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished, for the slave is his money” (Exod 21:20-21). Now, often that’s read to mean that the slave is only a piece of property, but the point may be that the economic loss to the master is punishment enough if the slave does not die immediately. In such a case, it may prove that the master never intended to kill the slave. Similarly, the fact that 30 shekels of silver is paid to the owner of a slave who has been gored to death does not mean that the slave is less valuable than a free person; usually, nobody gets any money if a free person is gored to death.

Daughters who are sold for debt do not go free. Instead, they are guaranteed permanent status as a member of the family through marriage, although the girl is still called a maidservant. While other Near Eastern laws also provide for such an arrangement, Shalom Paul points out that the Bible’s laws are different in the following ways: 1.The girl is no longer considered a type of property that can be passed on from one husband to the next. 2. If the purchaser refuses to marry her, he is guilty of a breach of contract and must let her be redeemed. 3. She must never be sold outside that one nuclear family. 4. If she is designated for her master’s son, she is then treated like any other free maiden. 5. If the master should later take another wife, he must not fail to provide his first wife with 3 basic necessities: food, clothing, and conjugal rights. 6. If he doesn’t give her all 3 of these, she must be set free without payment of any kind. To renege on the marriage is called “treachery” or “faithlessness”. To treat the woman like a “daughter” is to treat her as a free maiden, not as a slave or harlot.

See how in a culture that automatically accepted slavery, instead of banning it, God gently undermines it. God forbids Israelites from enslaving one another in the way that Egypt enslaved them, and even for foreign slaves (who were treated by a different standard), slavery was seen as a merciful alternative to death. And God provides debt slavery or indentured servanthood as a solution to the problem of debt.

God's word on debt is a word we need to hear today. In the Law of Moses, God expects compassion from lenders, and responsibility from borrowers. Lenders were forbidden to make profit off loans to people who have no food or necessities. They were not forbidden to charge interest on commercial loans (that’s why they were free to charge interest to foreigners). Even Jesus (in the parable of the talents) approves of banks charging interest. (By the way, the biggest lender in ancient Babylon was the temple of the sun god; they provided loans at discount interest rates to the poor.) Lenders were also commanded to forgive all loans every 7 years, and were urged not to close their hearts to their neighbor in need because the seventh year was right around the corner.

Lenders were also restricted by God in their use of collateral. Deut 24:6: “Do not take a pair of millstones – not even the upper one – as security for a debt, for that would be taking a person’s livelihood as security.” So, no deals are allowed to take a person’s necessary tools for producing income. A widow’s garment is forbidden as collateral. A man’s coat or bed could be taken as collateral, but it had to be returned to him each night so he could sleep in it, and you could not go into a person’s house to take collateral; they had to bring it out to you. It is theorized that many of these kinds of collateralized loans were made by employers to employees, as advances on their pay.

But collateral is a 2-way street. Throughout the ancient Near East, the use of collateral put a strict limit on the amount of how much could be borrowed. There was no such thing as an unsecured loan in Israel or elsewhere; those were called “gifts.” And the 6-year limit on enslavement for debt also puts a virtual limit on the amount that a borrower can borrow. Loans in the Biblical economy were short-term loans that were limited to the amount for which they could be secured. T. M. Moore writes on the Colson Center website, “The idea that one could accumulate debt far in excess of the combined value of all of his personal property is foreign to the economy set forth in the Law of God.” So today’s idea of walking away from an “underwater” mortgage would have been unthinkable on 2 counts: first, the breaking of a promise to pay, and second, the thought of ever borrowing (or loaning) more than one could pay or secure.

Not all debts are due to choices we have made, such as when a tornado flattens our home, or when a medical crisis piles up hundreds of thousands in costs. The problem comes when we choose to spend what we don’t have on what we don’t need, believing that it’s somebody else’s job to pick up the tab, which is what is fueling our insane market prices, insurance costs, and government spending.

“The borrower is a slave to the lender.” R. J. Rushdoony insists that “every kind of debt by believers, whether as charity or for business reasons, must be a short term debt.” He writes, “No godly man has the right to mortgage his future indefinitely; his life belongs to God and cannot be forfeited to men.” He believes that “Long-term debts are a violation of the sabbath”. God never intended us to carry such a burden longer than 6 years. Both lenders who try to lend too much, and borrowers who try to buy more than they can afford, have been bitten by the same bug: covetousness, the desire for more.

How do we apply God’s law for Israel in the areas of debt and slavery? Here I must confess that I am outside my area of expertise. I have neither banking nor borrowing experience nor training. From my own area of expertise, I can say that Israel’s laws are not God’s direct law to us. They are not law, they are wisdom.

Romans 15:4 says, “What was written in former days was written for our instruction.” As we listen in on what God commanded Israel to do, we can prayerfully consider what God may have to say to us. Debt is slavery. No one should be forced to mortgage their future or their livelihood indefinitely. No one should profit off another person’s poverty, where that person lacks the basic necessities of life. Debt should be short-term, and never for more than we can repay or work off. Easy credit fuels our desire for more than we can pay for, and drives up the market price for items we have no business trying to buy. All of this is not law; it is wisdom.

God wants us to be free from slavery. I don’t want anyone to go home today and say, “The pastor wants us to feel guilty because we’re in debt.” If you are in debt, you’ve got enough of a burden; you don’t need me to add to it. hears the groans of his people in bondage. wants to set us free from those burdens. But to be set free, we have to be willing to let go of what got us where we are right now.

God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” That’s God’s trademark. That’s God’s claim on our lives: “I own you! I’m the one who set you free!” And God has set us free from an even greater form of bondage: the bondage of sin. Whether we’re a borrower, a lender, or none of the above, all of us are in equal need of God’s mercy. We’ve all blown it too badly to ever dream that we could save ourselves. That’s why Jesus came. Jesus came to wash sin completely off of our account books, to give us a permanent clean slate with God.

David writes in Psalm 32:1-2 (Paul says it again in Romans 4:7-8), “How happy is the person whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How happy is the person against whom the Lord will not reckon sin on the account books!” How does God do it? We might call it creative accounting: God-in-the-flesh takes our sin, we get his righteousness. We are talking inexplicable mercy – to be put right with God, to be justified, to be counted on the books as if we have never sinned! If you’ve never done so before, let Jesus set you free from a debt we can never pay, both now and forever.