Debt cancellation: a historical perspective (part 2)

Debt cancellation in the land of Canaan in the first millennium BC

26 November 2012 by Isabelle Ponet

Social justice, in particular in regard to the cancellation of debts that keep the poor enslaved to the rich, is a leitmotif in the history of ancient Israel. [1]

The Deuteronomic Code [2] states that ’at the end of every seven years you must cancel debts’, free any Hebrews who had sold themselves into service to pay off a debt, and furthermore ’when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your wine press’ (Deuteronomy 15).

As the law was not sufficiently respected, Leviticus reaffirmed the principle: ’And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family’ (Leviticus 25:10). And to ensure compliance, the codes described in detail how purchases and sales among individuals should take into account the number of years since the previous jubilee (in other words, the number of years remaining until the property would revert to its previous owner).

If we add to these passages the many verses that prohibit the practice of charging interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. on loans or lending money on pledged property, we can get a clear picture of how the Israelites in the land of Canaan sought to maintain a degree of social balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. .

Since the 2000s, archaeological research in the Middle East, written histories of the Egyptians and Assyro-Babylonians, as well as the analysis of of anachronisms in biblical texts have shed new light on our perception of the origins of the Hebrew people. [3]

Neither the many and detailed archives of the Middle East nor excavated ruins corroborate the arrival and the departure of the Hebrews from Egyptian territory in The XII century BC. The tales of this odyssey were in fact written at the request of King Josiah at the tme of the Deuteronomic reform that he launched in the VII century BC. In 721, the princes and priests of the Kingdom of Israel, to the north, were led into exile by Assyrian invaders. Josiah, who ruled over the southern kingdom, dreamed of uniting the two lands and the two peoples who shared a similar religion. To that end, he called on scribes to write the stories of David and Salomon, using famous heroes as inspiration. In the tales, the legendary kings rule with great ceremony over a united land, and worship a single god in one true temple. He also commissioned a preamble with the story of Abraham, his sons, and the avatars of their people in the land of Egypt.

In reality, Egyptian archives, which record border activities in detail, bear no trace of the massive arrival or exodus of Hebrews in the mid or late II century BC. However, the biblical epic could have been inspired by the Canaanites’ generational memories of the invasion of the Nile Delta by the Hyskos, followed by their brutal expulsion. The story of this exodus illustrates the stormy relationship between Josiah himself and the Egyptian empire of the VII century BC.

As for Jerusalem in the time of David and Salomon, around 1000 BC, it was a tiny village, with no intellectual or economic influence, incapable of raising an army, building a temple or producing religious texts. David and Salomon were, at best, chieftains of mountain clans. But around the year 640, the Kingdom of Judah benefited from the decline of the northern kingdom and the diminished role of the Assyrians, and began to develop.

The prophets as advocates for debt abolition

The young king Josiah decided to breathe new life into his people through an exceptional origins myth, and by setting a strong moral and spiritual compass. This was the context for the commission of the Deuteronomic texts, which are characterised by the spirit of the prophets who risked their lives to confront the mighty and demand social justice for all, respect for the poor and weak, rejection of interest-bearing loans, and the cancellation of debts that kept many of the most humble citizens in chains and deprived them of their lands. [4] The economic development of the southern kingdom was associated with social upheaval and destabilisation. The ties binding peasants to their land and the ancient clans to their territories were severed. By 740 BC, the prophet Isaiah lamented, ’Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land’ (Isaiah 5:8). This is why Deuteronomy calls for the regular release of Hebrew slaves, that they might return to their fields and farms.

Josiah’s dream was shattered when he was assassinated by the Egyptians in 609. The social and political situation worsened in the following years, despite the exhortations of a new generation of prophets, in particular Jeremiah and Ezekiel:
’Thus saith the Lord God: Let it suffice you, O princes of Israel: remove violence and spoil, and execute judgement and justice, take away your exactions from my people, saith the Lord God.
Ye shall have just balances, and honest dry and liquid measures’ (Ezekiel 45: 9-10).

A passage in Jeremiah sheds another light on the extent of the law on debt acquittal. Faced with the advance of enemy armies on Jerusalem, in 587 BC, Jeremiah invoked God in support of Judean King Sedeclas who demanded that the powerful men of the kingdom immediately release all indentured slaves (Jeremiah 34:8-17). The passages refer to the ancient obligation to free slaves; indeed the king needed free men to join together, social class notwithstanding, to fight his battles! This text was written one century after the fact, after the exile, and thus is not an illustration of a prophesy so much as a demonstration of the growing influence of Assyro-Babylonian traditions on Judaic culture, especially in regard to monarchs ordering debt forgiveness. In 587, Nebuchadnezzar conquered the kingdom of Judah and carried its leaders off to Babylon. Cyrus, in 538, gave them permission to return home. In 445, one of his successors, Artaxerxes, gave his cup-bearer, Nehemiah, authorisation to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was an active participant in the political and spiritual renewal taking place in the capital, while turning to the tradition established by Josiah: the temple had its importance, but social justice was an essential virtue.

A passage from the Book of Nehemiah shows why he sought to revive the ancient tradition of debt acquittal practised in Mesopotamia between 500 and 1500 BC [5]

The social situation of Judea was terrible: “Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, ’We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.’ Others were saying, ’We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.’ Still others were saying, ’We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’”(Nehemiah 5:1-5)

The fact that great landowners had taken over so much of the peasants’ land and monopolised their labour resulted in a crisis so severe that it threatened the very stability of society. Leaders of Mesopotamian regimes in the Bronze Age had instigated regular debt acquittal and emancipation of indentured servants as a form of relief as early as 2500 BC. The tradition disappeared in Mesopotamia after 1500 BC, but many written documents existed in Babylon in the VI century BC, at the time when Jews were captive in that city [6]

Nehemiah would use the same method to return cohesion to the Kingdom of Judah, a mix of the notables, returned from exile, and the common people who had remained on the land. Convinced that the country would be weaker in terms of its military, economy and spirituality if its governors no longer served as guarantors of social justice, he inscribed the debt acquittal law within a religious framework: the alliance with Yahweh. From then on it was God himself who ordered debts to be written off and slaves and their land, which was the property of God and none other, to be liberated. “When I heard their complaints, I grew angry (…), I denounced the leaders and officials. (…) Cancel all the debts they owe you - money or grain or wine or olive oil. And give them back their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and houses right now. (…)This is how God will shake any of you who don’t keep your promise,“I said.”God will take away your houses and everything you own”” (No. 5: 6-13)

In this way, Nehemiah sided resolutely with the landless peasants when confronting a class rooted in power by way of its financial clout. However, what is also of interest in this passage is how popular revolt is channelled against the arrogant violence of the rich, and that the peasants demand that the old Israeli debt acquittal law be used in their favour.

But where, then, did this law to free those enslaved by debt and return them to their land, their clan, their house and their flocks come from? In order to answer this question, we also need to deal with another:

Where did the Israelites come from?

Contrary to popular belief, the Israelites did not invade Canaan after having spent 40 years in the Sinai desert. There is nothing to suggest that this is true. According to the little we now know; the Israelites appear to be Bedouins, nomadic shepherds from the Canaan region, who used to follow their flocks to the outskirts of the great Canaan city-states, where they would trade their livestock for grain. When, during the XIII and XII centuries BC, these cities gradually began to break up for various reasons, these nomadic shepherds partially settled in the Samarian highlands at Jerusalem, in order to be able to grow the essential foods, which they could no longer acquire in the cities, for themselves. The villages of which ruins have been found are still considered to be small-scale livestock camps. They developed more quickly in the north (Kingdom of Israel), where olive yards and vineyards bore fruit in abundance, allowing them to easily align themselves with international trade. But to the south, Judah, which was much more arid and isolated from the main routes for communication, went through a sustained period of stagnation.

However, these two kingdoms seemed to share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. common legends and heroes, similar languages and alphabets, and the same religion; the most striking material feature of which being that pork was forbidden. No evidence of pork being consumed or reared has been found on their lands, setting them apart from other Canaan tribes. Nor has any trace of alters or shrines been discovered.

These numerous communities (up to 250 in total) led a very simple life. No luxury items or jewellery have been discovered in their tombs or houses. These were all roughly of the same dimensions; “proof of a fairly even distribution of wealth between families” [7] .

From the XII century onwards, the Israelites from the highlands developed processes to prevent their first surpluses in production being monopolised by owners whom the distribution of land, livestock and human strength had benefited the most. In this way, rules were gradually established which periodically “wiped the slate clean” in order to maintain the balance between communities without any dignitaries, and to prevent some having to sell what they could to pay off debts to others.

It was these living memories from the first village communities, therefore, which constituted the foundations upon which the prophets, first Deuteronomy and then later Leviticus, established the periodic liberation of slaves as an obligation. But the situation had changed. By the VI century BC, princes and nobles monopolising surpluses had become a long-standing practice. From then on, with the passage of time, the law applied increasingly to interpersonal relations and no longer purely and simply to the interests of governors. It had lost its political weight. At the end of the first millennium, it would often have no more than a spiritual value: the absolution of sins.

Furthermore, Leviticus was very clear that the law only applied to Hebrew slaves of the same religion as their master. Masters were not required to liberate slaves acquired abroad through conquest. It is only in later texts in the Book of Isaiah that the law is considered more universally (Is. 61: 1-2).

In summary, the law on debt acquittal and the liberation of those enslaved because of debts, amongst the Israelites from the country of Canaan, greatly changes in nature depending on the era, and especially on whether it was being used by princes to manage the political situation in the country or being reclaimed by prophets and oppressed peoples.

Whatever the case, in the first century of our era, the practice of debt acquittal and the liberation of indebted slaves had been erased from all cultures in the Near-East, including in Judaea. The social situation had declined to such an extent that Rabbi Hillel [8] was able to enact a decree stipulating that, from then on, all debtors had to sign to relinquish their right to debt acquittal [9].

Debt acquittal in the New Testament

What did debt acquittal become in the New Testament between the I and III century AD?

The Acts of the Apostles, which supposedly retrace the lives of the first Christians, paint an idyllic picture: “All the believers (…) shared everything they had; from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:32-35)

The second letter from Paul in Corinthians is similar in nature: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.” (II Co. 8:13-14)

This communitarianism did not seek to alter the social system in place: the Roman Empire. It simply protected the community from its worst excesses. Paul’s stance on authority and masters is testament to this: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Romans 13:1-2). “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5).

Aside from this, Jesus’ position on debt acquittal, as it is often referred to, perhaps most fervently in Luke chapter 4, appears to be marked by a revolutionary prophetic undertone. Luke places the passage at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. He therefore makes it a key for reading everything that follows. According to Luke, Jesus attended a synagogue on a Sabbath day and chose to read the passage from Isaiah 61 mentioned above. He did not read it word for word, but rather insisted on the concrete, non-spiritual aspect of the liberation work that he was doing at the time. Like Isaiah, he was clearly implying universal relevance. We should remember that the year of the Lord’s favour (the jubilee year), as he proclaimed it, required that the land not be worked, that debts be written off and that slaves be freed. “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (…) He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”” (Luke 4: 16-21)

In the thick of the pro-slavery Roman Empire, which ferociously rejected the notion of debt acquittal, Jesus’ declaration can only be perceived as a declaration of war on the Judeo-Roman system in place. It is, therefore, of little surprise that a few verses further on, Luke is already noting a first attempt on his life. Before being arrested, however, Jesus would still have time to make a highly symbolic material gesture: forcefully overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple in Jerusalem. Neither the Jewish high priests, nor the Roman authorities would be able to tolerate it.

Part 1

The CADTM publishes a series of articles on debt abolition, activism for abolition, the role of debt in political, social and geostrategic conficts throughout history. Several authors have contributed to the series. The first article, by Eric Toussaint, The Long tradition of debt abolition in Mesopetamia and Egypt from 3000 to 1000 BC, was published September 2 2012,

Isabelle Ponet: has a degree in religious studies and she is an activist working for the rights of the undocumented, author of Un Tiers Monde à domicile. Mondialisation, migrations, expulsions et travail clandestin, cahier POS nr10, FLL Bruxelles 2000, which illustrates the links between today’s oppression of people from the countries of the South, in particular through the debt mechanism, and the exploitation of clandestine workers in countries of the North.

Translated from French by Grace Coston and Matt Jenkins.


[1Canaan was an ancient land in what is now Palestine/Israel where many peoples lived, inlcuding Israelites. The Israelites were divided into two nations: the Kingdom of Isreal to the north, with its capital in Samaria, and the the Kingdom of Judah to the south, with its captial in Jerusalem. But the terms Isreal and Isrealite are also used to refer to both tribes, as is the term Hebrew.

[2Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Exodus are part of the five first books of the Old Testament as well as Genesis and Numbers. Together they form the Torah, the Jewish Law or for Christians the Pentateuch. They have not been redacted in the same order as we know them today.

[3These discoveries have been studied and analysed in detail by Israël Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in a defintive book: La Bible dévoilée. Les nouvelles révélations de l’archéologie, Paris, Bayard, 2002.

[4The early prophets seem to have preached in the northern kingdom, where opulence and social injustice were prevalent from early days. Upon the fall of Samaria, they fled to the south and participated in Josiah’s reforms.

[5See Eric Toussaint, The Long tradition of debt abolition in Mesopetamia and Egypt from 3000 to 1000 BC, [[

[6See Michael Hudson, The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations, 1993,

[7Finkelstein and N. A. Silberman, La Bible dévoilée, op. cit., p. 132. See also p. 134.

[8Hillel was a renowned interpreter of the Torah (Jewish religious law) who lived in the 1st century AD in Babylon and later in Jerusalem. He played a political role as he was the President of the Sanhedrin (Jewish governing parliament) for around twenty years.

[9Cf. M. Hudson, The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations, op. cit., p. 39.

Isabelle Ponet

Isabelle Ponet : licenciée en sciences religieuses, militante pour la défense des droits des sans papiers, auteure de Un Tiers Monde à domicile. Mondialisation, migrations, expulsions et travail clandestin, cahier POS nr10, FLL Bruxelles 2000 qui fait le lien entre l’oppression actuelle des populations du Sud, notamment à travers le mécanisme de la dette, et l’exploitation des travailleurs clandestins dans le Nord.



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