The Sabbath Year and Debts

In the United States, personal debt has become a major issue that plagues the lives of many Americans. The total personal debt in the U.S. is $14.9 trillion. This includes mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, and student loans. The average household credit card debt is $5,315. 41 percent of working-age Americans—or 72 million people—have medical bill problems or are paying off medical debt. These large debts lead to consequences that negatively impact the lives of many Americans. Total bankruptcy filings in 2020 were 544,463. The number of homes that went into foreclosure from 2016 through 2020 was 1.8 million.

What should a Christian make of this large scale national indebtedness? Does the Bible have anything to say which addresses this most modern of issues in our society? We can find answers in the Sabbath. When we look back at ancient Israel, we see that God took his weekly Sabbath and extended it, and weaved it throughout the national calendar of Israel in annual festivals and in a cycle of seventh year Sabbaths. These additional holy times took the themes present in the seventh day Sabbath and expanded them in new ways. By reviewing the seventh year Sabbath we can learn how God addressed debt among his people in his holy nation.

“At the end of every seventh year you must cancel the debts of everyone who owes you money. This is how it must be done. Everyone must cancel the loans they have made to their fellow Israelites. They must not demand payment from their neighbors or relatives, for the Lord’s time of release has arrived. This release from debt, however, applies only to your fellow Israelites—not to the foreigners living among you.

“There should be no poor among you, for the Lord your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession. You will receive this blessing if you are careful to obey all the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today. The Lord your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you.

“But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin. Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. Deuteronomy 15:1-11

Every seven years all debts were forgiven in Israel. All those who fell into debts they could not pay and went into indentured servitude were to be liberated. In this way, God ensured that in his nation of Israel, “there should be no poor among you”, in contrast to the neighboring nations. 

In a fallen world God knew misfortune would befall his people. The male head of the household could die, leaving a widow and orphans unable to tend to the land and the livestock, in a time before tractors and harvesters. Locusts would come and destroy crops. Diseases would come and kill flocks. Drought and storms would come and wipe out crops and herds. Raiding parties from the desert would come on camels and steal all their provisions. There would even be cases of foolish mismanagement of the land, leading to debts. 

Whatever the case, whatever the reason, good or bad, all debts were to be forgiven every seven years. By this God ensured that among his people, there would not be those living in perpetual debt and poverty, and there would not be those who maintained their wealth through the debts of the poor. In this way, a level and egalitarian society would be maintained among all Israelites. 

So, what is there for us to learn from the seventh year Sabbath? We don’t live in Israel where all debts were to be forgiven every seven years, so how does this apply to us. If we are those who find ourselves under the bondage of personal debt, then we should do everything we can to escape this debt. We, unfortunately, live under man’s exploitative rule, not under God’s just rule. Therefore, when we find ourselves in debt, we open ourselves up to financial bondage and exploitation by our debtors. They can garnish your wages, charge exorbitant interest rates, and ensnare you with fees. See for example the pawnshops, rent-to-own businesses, and payday loan schemes that dot the landscape of America’s poorest neighborhoods. Most of whom have a business model to exploit, ensnare, and exploit the hard up and desperately poor.

What if we, fortunately, count ourselves among the more financially secure and privileged? In this case, what does the seventh year Sabbath teach us? First and foremost, to not exploit the poor, the less privileged, those who turn to you in need, and those we find ourselves in positions of power over. If someone comes to us for a loan during a time of hardship, we should see it as an opportunity to help them, not an opportunity to profit from their misfortune. If we are an employer, we should pay our employees a fair wage and treat them with love and dignity. We should not see our fellow man simply as means to an end, but as fellow image bears whom Jesus died on the cross to save. If we count ourselves followers of God, we should mirror the same priorities as God and value what God values. To God, every person has unmeasurable worth. It was not God’s will that any should be poor in Israel, and it should not be the Christian’s will that any should suffer and be trapped in poverty. We should value our brother’s wellbeing over valuing profits. - Michael Humphrey 

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