By Michael Hudson, PhD:
The once-glowing core body of law within the Judeo-Christian Bible has become all but ignored – indeed, rejected – by the colder temper of our times. This core provided for periodic restoration of economic order by rituals of social renewal based on freedom from debt-servitude and from the loss of one’s access to self-support on the land. So central to Israelite moral values was this tradition that it framed the composition of both the Old and New Testaments.
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Radical as the idea of cancelling debts and restoring the population’s means of subsistence seems to modern eyes, it had been a conservative tradition in Bronze Age Mesopotamia for some two millennia. 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 freedom for the wealthy to deprive the peasantry of their lands and personal liberty.
So far has the modern idea of market efficiency and progress gone that today, although the Bible remains our civilization’s defining book, it is perceived largely as a composite of stories, myth and wisdom literature best epitomized perhaps in spirituals and hymns, not economic laws. The Ten Commandments and the 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 if looking backward nostalgically, or radical if adopting there as a guide for current activism. Yet these laws formed the take-off point for Christ upon his return to Nazareth’s synagogue, and for his denunciation of the money-changers who had taken over Jerusalem’s temple. As late as medieval Spain the tradition of the Jubilee Year was kept alive by Maimonides and Ibn Adret. To dismiss these laws is thus to remove much of the Bible from the context of its times, above all from its Bronze Age Near Eastern matrix.
This paper accordingly traces the evolution of the Biblical debt and property laws as recorded in clay records that only recently have been deciphered and placed in their historic context. These laws which periodically cancelled debts, freed Israelite debt-servants and returned lands to their traditional holders have confused Biblical students for many centuries. They have long been virtually ignored by historians on the ground that, to modern eyes, they would seem to wreak economic havoc.
CHART: Bronze Age Mesopotamian Debt Cancellations
I. BRONZE AGE SETTING FOR THE BIBLICAL LAWS
II. THE SEVENTH- AND SIXTH-CENTURY DEBT CRISES, AND THE BIBLICAL RESPONSE
III.CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES IN THE MODERN AGE
Mesopotamian Debt Cancellations, 2400-1600 BC
Debt Cancellations in Canaan/Israel/Judah
Debt Crises in Classical Antiquity
Biblical Passages Dealing with the Usury Problem
and Debt Forgiveness
About Michael Hudson
Michael Hudson is President of The Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), a Wall Street Financial Analyst, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. ISLET engages in research regarding domestic and international finance, national income and balance-sheet accounting with regard to real estate, and the economic history of the ancient Near East. Michael acts as an economic advisor to governments worldwide including Iceland, Latvia and China on finance and tax law.