The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Forgiveness of Debts

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

In my two previous posts I discussed how the laws in the book of Deuteronomy seek to address many of the social issues that confronted Israelite society in the seventh century B.C.  These concerns came out of the religious reforms instituted by Josiah and reform-minded Israelites who were concerned for the plight of the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners who lived among the affluent in Israelite society.

Many of the laws in the book of Deuteronomy are revised laws found in the Book of the Covenant. The Book of the Covenant is a name given to a collection of laws found in Exodus 20:22-23:33.  The name for this collection of laws is taken from Exodus 24:7. Moshe Weinfeld has argued that the laws in  Deuteronomy present a “humanitarian vision” for community life in Israel [1].

The humanitarian laws of Deuteronomy include laws dealing with the value of human life and human dignity, laws designed to help the poor, orphans, widows, and the aliens, and even laws dealing with the humane treatment of animals.

In my previous post I dealt with the law of the Sabbath (Deut. 5:12-15). In the present post I will deal with the law dealing with the forgiveness of debts (Deut. 15:1-6).

The Forgiveness of Debts (Deut. 15:1-6)

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.  [2] This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD’S time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.  [3] You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you.  [4] However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,  [5] if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.  [6] For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.  

One of the most important characteristics of the Deuteronomic laws is the preoccupation for the poor and the needy who lived in Israel.  This humanitarian concern comes out of the social condition that produced the liberation of Israel from their slavery in Egypt.  Because Israel had been liberated from their oppression in Egypt, Israel knew the difficult situation of an oppressed person, and for this reason, each Israelite had a responsibility to provide for the poor and needy persons who lived in their cities.

The law about the forgiveness of debts is related to the Sabbatic year of Exodus 23:10-11.  The law in Exodus commands that the land remain fallow in the seventh year, that is, the land lay unplowed and unused for one year.  The law of Deuteronomy, however, speaks of cancellation of debts: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts” (Deut. 15:1).

The expression in the NIV “cancel debts” in Hebrew is semittah, a word that means “to abandon.”  The idea behind this expression is the abandonment or the vacating of the land during the sabbatical year.  But the Deuteronomic law changes the law in Exodus because it emphasizes the remission of debts and not the remission of the land.  In the sabbatical year, the year when the land was abandoned, the debts of the poor people should be abandoned and not be paid.

Once again, the Deuteronomic reformulation of the law found in the book of Exodus demonstrates the humanitarian concern of Deuteronomy.  Each Israelite should have compassion for another Israelite who was needy and poor and unable to pay his debt.  The purpose for the remission of debts was to alleviate the poverty of an Israelite citizen.

The Deuteronomic ideal was that there should be no poor in Israel: “There shall be no poor among you; for the LORD shall greatly bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it” (Deut. 15:4).  In a community united by faith in God, where every person shared in God’s blessings there should not be poverty, but the reality was that there was poverty in Israel, but laws could be written to make the situation of the poor less oppressive.

In addition, Yahweh had promised that the land would produce in  abundance if the people would obey the law.  So great would be the abundance that the people would receive from the Lord that poverty would disappear from Israel.

Posts on the Social Concern in Deuteronomy:

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Deuteronomic Reform

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Law of the Sabbath

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Forgiveness of Debts

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: Lending Money to the Poor

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: Widows and the Law of Pledges

The Deuteronomic Concern for Women

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Law of the Hebrew Slave

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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[1]  Moshe Weinfeld, “The Origin of Humanism in Deuteronomy,” JBL 80 (1961): 241-47; idemDeuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 282-297.

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2 Responses to The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Forgiveness of Debts

  1. Diarra Tiowa says:

    Thanks for your article. I am preparing my Thesis on the subject of Ethics and Hermeneutics of poverty related to Deut 15.1-11. In my point of view, the purpose of the institution is not to alleviate poverty, but envision to cut the gap between rich and poor. Scholars did not much relate remission of debts and prohibition of interest(Deut 23….)


    • Diarra,

      You are correct. Even the writers of Deuteronomy recognized that “the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deut 15:11).

      I hope your work on the thesis is going well. Writing a thesis is hard work. I hope you publish your work; I would like to read it.

      Claude Mariottini


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