The old testament anti-usury laws reconsidered: The myth of tribal brotherhood

Abstract

While there was in general no negative attitude towards interest on loans in the ancient Near Eastern civilizations it was the moral commands of the Hebrew Bible that viewed the concept of interest taking on loans - at least to any member of the community of Israel -- as a morally questionable practice. All of the three legal codes of the Old Testament, the "Code of the Covenant," the "Law of Holiness," and the "Deuteronomic Code," contain a law prohibiting the lending on interest whereby the prohibition in the "Code of the Covenant" in the book of Exodus is generally agreed to be the oldest. This thrice repeated prohibition against lending for interest in the Pentateuch is therefore often regarded as the result of a primitive economic standard and the specific "kinship morality of a tribal society." A closer look at the subject seems to prove this general opinion of most scholars to be a historical myth. In the light of recent historical research the Hebrew condemnation of lending at interest is neither in striking contrast with the traditions of Israel's ancient neighbors nor rested on very different grounds to the ideas of Plato. The Biblical prohibition against lending at interest was formulated by the "Deuteronomic school" as part of an ideal law for a new post-exile "Israel." It was the utopian response to the ethical demands of the prophetic thematization of justice after Israel's economy had entered the stage of early capitalism. Therefore it was not the authors of Deuteronomy, who formulated the prohibition in a stricter way than the traditional "Covenant." It was the authors of Deuteronomy, who were the first to formulate the prohibition, and it was the "Deuteronomistic school," which extended the other codes with a prohibition against lending at interest based on the Deuteronomic Code. The Old Testament anti usury laws are but one of the many utopian ethical demands that had a profound influence on the life and thought of the Western World.

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