Agrarian life is full of risks: drought, flooding, infestation, and other natural disasters, capped throughout antiquity by wars. Farmers must often borrow to get themselves through the lean months, while hoping that nothing prevents them from bringing in crops that will allow them to repay their debts. In ancient times, failure to repay loans could cost farmers their land, possessions, enslavement of family members, or their own freedom. For millennia, the problem confronting rulers was how to prevent the destabilization that occurs when large portions of the population are forced off the land or into debtor's prison for failure to repay loans.
And so there developed throughout the ancient Near East a tradition of clean-slate edicts, which “proclaimed justice” or decreed “economic order” and “righteousness” by canceling debts and restoring forfeited land to farmers. Clean-slate proclamations date from almost as early as the first interest-bearing debt, starting in Sumer around 2400 years BCE. Eventually, the tradition became known as the Jubilee Year, but by that time it was taken out of the hands of kings and placed at the core of Mosaic law.
Radical as the idea of the Jubilee seems to modern eyes, these “restorations of order” were a conservative tradition in Bronze Age Mesopotamia for 2,000 years. What was conserved was self-sufficiency for the rural family-heads who made up the infantry as well as the productive base of Near Eastern economies. Conversely, what was radically disturbing in archaic times was the idea of unrestrained wealth-seeking. It took thousands of years for the idea of progress to become inverted, to connote irreversible freedom for the wealthy to deprive the peasantry of their lands and personal liberty.
The clean-slate tradition was so central to Israelite moral values that it framed the composition of both the Old and New Testaments. Yet so far has the modern idea of market efficiency and progress gone that today, although the Bible remains our civilization's defining book, its economic laws are rarely taken seriously. The Ten Commandments and Golden Rule have become so dissociated from the economic legislation of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy that whoever takes these laws in earnest is considered utopian and anachronistic. Yet these laws formed the take-off point for Jesus upon his return to Nazareth's synagogue and for his denunciation of the money-changers who had taken over Jerusalem's temple. As recently as medieval Spain, the tradition of the Jubilee Year was kept alive by the Jewish sages Maimonides and Ibn Adret. To dismiss these laws is thus to remove much of the Bible from the context of its times.
Laws that periodically canceled debts, freed Israelite debt-servants, and returned lands to their traditional holders have confused Biblical students for centuries. They have long been virtually ignored by historians on the ground that, to modern eyes, they would seem to wreak economic havoc.
Recent discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations dating from 2400 to 1600 BCE leave no doubt that these edicts were implemented. During the Babylonian period they grew more elaborate and detailed, capped by Ammisaduqa's Edict of 1646 BCE. Now that these edicts are understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or other-worldly ideals; they take their place in a 2,000-year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal based on freedom from debt-servitude and from the loss of access to self-support on the land.
The revolutionary Israelite contribution to the tradition was its removal from the hands of rulers to become a sacred popular compact, to be preserved by the Israelites in memory of the fact that they had once been enslaved and must never again permit economic oppression to develop. The Israelites are portrayed as having made a covenant to protect the economically weak by holding the land as the Lord's gift to support a free rural population: “Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me, and you are only strangers and guests. You will allow a right of redemption on all your landed property,” and restore it to its customary cultivators every 50 years (Lev. 25:23-28). Israelite debt-slaves likewise were to go free periodically in the Jubilee Year, for they belonged ultimately to the Lord, not to any person (Lev. 25:54).
The Bible is a unique composite, embedding ritual traditions and laws of social behavior in a dramatic context of stories and legends intended to appeal to the widest possible audience. This popularization was greatly aided by the spread of alphabetic writing, which made documents accessible to the population at large, in contrast to cumbersome syllabic cuneiforms prevalent prior to the first millennium BCE. But the great innovation was to democratize liturgical texts that earlier Near Eastern societies had restricted to temple priesthoods. Deut. 31:10 directs that the laws be read aloud publicly every seven years, in the year of canceling debts (shemitta), so that all the population would know they were to be freed from bondage.
Jesus later sought to restore the archaic ethic by overturning the banking tables in Jerusalem's temple and preaching anew the promise of Jeremiah to proclaim equity and liberty (deror) throughout the land. Indeed, it was specifically on this principle of restoring freedom to debt-slaves and unburdening the land that Christianity elaborated its ideas of redemption. In addition to redeeming souls, early Christians redeemed their co-religionists from worldly bondage. When Handel staged the first performance of his Messiah in Dublin in 1742, it was no coincidence that the proceeds were used to free debtors from prison. For thousands of years, redeeming people and land from debt was the primary and most concrete form of redemption. Indeed, when Christians pronounce “Hallelujah,” they repeat the ritual term alulu, chanted upon the freeing of Babylonian debt-slaves.
Echoes of the
doctrine can also be heard in American tradition. The Liberty Bell in
Philadelphia is inscribed with a quotation from Leviticus 25:10:
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and to all the inhabitants
thereof.” The Hebrew word translated as “liberty” is deror, cognate to
the older Akkadian andurarum—to move freely as running water, as freely
as debt-slaves liberated to rejoin their families. The full verse in
Leviticus speaks of freeing debt bondsmen and freeing the land from
“Hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land and to all inhabitants thereof; it shall be a Jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his family.”
Rome was the first society not to cancel its debts. And we all know what happened to it. Classical historians such as Plutarch, Livy, and Diodorus attributed Rome's decline and fall to the fact that creditors got the entire economy in their debt, expropriated the land and public domain, and strangled the economy.
Michael Hudson is distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and author of Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire(new edition forthcoming November 2002). This article is based on “Reconstructing the Origins of Interest-Bearing Debt and the Logic of Clean Slates,” in Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East, by Michael Hudson and Marc Van De Mieroop.