The remission of
debts is one of the laws spoken by Moses found in Deut 15:1-19. The
preface of the law is that on every seventh year, one has to remit
all debts that he imposed on any member of the community. This law
was given to the Israelites in order to govern themselves after they
cross the Jordan and reach the promised lands. The speech, given by
Moses at top of Mount Sinai, is not just about one of the many laws
that he gave to his people, but also a way of living that adheres to
Other pivotal parts
in the passage are about how the people are instructed to help those
in need, found in Deut 15:4-11. Notably, there are statements that
confuse scholars even today: for example, a contradictory statement
about helping people can be found in the sentence “There will,
however, be no one in need among you” (Deut 15:4 NRSV) and the
sentence “If there is among you anyone in need” (Deut 15:7). At a
first glance, the two sentences are saying about the opposite of each
other, and yet it is possible that the latter sentence would imply
“in case of”, but this would also imply that God’s words are not
one does not need a perfect interpretation in order to give his point
of view on the passage; after all, just a quick view can tell anyone
how the passage is mostly about money, helping the poor and indented
servitude. However, only a truly dedicated study of the passage can
understand that the
remission of debts is not just about material possessions, but it
also relates to how God’s mercy causes Him to forgive His people who
did not listen to Him.
THE REMISSION OF
a complete understanding of the passage, one has to start from the
beginning. The first verse is straightforward: “Every seventh year
you shall grant a remission of debts” (Deut 15:1). It is a plain
commandment that is simple to understand, yet if a modern day
business tries to adhere to such law, chances are that it will become
bankrupt can collapse soon. For this reason, one must understand that
the context during the Ancient Near East times were different from
today’s view. Israelites were mostly farmers, as agriculture was
their primary concern since food was needed to survive, and creditors
would still remain standing even if they did not receive debt payment
from their neighbors
– emphasis on the word neighbors, because after all, they were all
still of the same brethren, creditors and farmers. They were still
all of God’s people.
is also a good reason to explain the law: “The year in which crops
were not planted would post a hardship on those who were dependent on
gleanings left in the harvest and thus the poor would not be in a
position to repay debts at that time”1.
It is also worth mentioning that the remission does not apply to
foreigners in Deut 15:3 since the foreigners “were normally present
in a country for purposes of trade, goods or money given to them on
credit were usually investments or advance payments on goods, not
loans because of poverty”2;
in the context of the passage, foreigners are “most likely a
merchant. The relationship would be commercial, not familial or
one must also remember that God is the one who decreed the remission.
Thus, scholars, considering about what follows the remission, are
quick to point out that the meaning of the remission is deeper than
it looks on the surface. Examples would explain how by remitting
claims one would learn and practice forgiveness and therefore earn
God’s trust, making the law being more personal rather than
concerning itself about finances. Scholar Gerhard argues that “This
custom was determined not primarily by social, still less by economic
considerations, but was a definitely sacral agreement”4.
The number “seven” also plays a key part in distinguishing the
law being holy, while also recalling that God made Earth in seven
days in Genesis.
debt remissions were also practiced by other civilizations in
Mesopotamia during the times; while not every ruler who grant debt
remission in seven years, the practice was not something unheard. The
primary reason for the remission was always about helping those in
need, since “loans to individuals in such circumstances were acts
of charity rather than commercial ventures, and the forgiving of such
loans was an extension of the charity”5;
this concept is more evident as the subsequent verses display such
acts of charity. The verse “you should rather open your hand,
willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be”
(Deut 15:8) is a perfect example of such. “Give liberally and be
ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will
bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake” (Deut
15:10) is another giveaway telling about being charitable.
passage comes with a punishment: people are called to treat their
neighbors with kindness as Deut 15:9 warns about the consequences of
becoming hostile to the neighbor just before the seventh year. If
ancient creditors were to be compared with modern businesses,
especially those with debt collector agencies and little to no regard
about customers in debt, one can understand that modern businesses
would become more hostile and threaten the “neighbor” to court
rather than cancel all the debts. Therefore, historical context is
important in order to understand what is going on in the passage.
parts of the remission of debts bear significance with other books of
the Bible – Leviticus being the one in specific. Lev 25, talking
about the Jubilee, has its share of comparisons with Deut 15: first,
the Jubilee was after seven sabbath years, sold land is returned to
the owners, which could equal to giving them “financial standing”
back in the same how how forgiving debts keeps one’s financial
standing. Lastly, slaves are to be released in a similar way found in
Deut 15:12-19. After all, “The theological undergirding of this
law Lev 25 is that people of Israel are the servants of Yahweh who
redeemed them from Egypt”6;
it is not just a coincidence when both passages speak about God
freeing the Israelites from Egypt, but rather an acknowledgement of
God’s mercy. Leviticus is just one of the many books where the reader
might be able to find passages that are similar or deal with the same
Now that the reason
behind the remission has been explained, an overlook of Deut 15:4-11
will explain why and how God will listen to His people. Before it has
been discussed about the contradiction with Deut 15:4, 15:7, and
15:11. However, one must remember to not take everything from the
Bible literally. In verse 4, the words “among you” clearly
explain that God is talking about His people, whereas in verse 11,
Moses is talking about everyone in general, foreigners included. Such
draws comparisons to verse 3, where foreigners are exempt from the
remission. There are many interpretations about this contrast, and
mostly emphasize about obedience: one of them states that “The law
here is an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the poor. If Israel
obeys God’s law, it will be so prosperous that ‘many nations’ will
turn to Israel
loans in time to come”7.
The last sentence may also be related to verse 11 – people in need
will probably come from the same “many nations” that are
borrowing “loans”, and Moses commands the Israelites to be open
in giving them the loans, especially to the needy.
such as the Jewish society, point out that “if Israel will obey
God’s laws, the present law will be unnecessary”8.
However, knowing how Israelites acted and questioned Moses’ validity
in Exodus, chances are that they will not obey God instead; in fact,
“since Israel will ultimately break faith with God, it will violate
the conditions required for the elimination of poverty”9,
therefore prompting Moses to personally add his commandment in verse
Based on such, God
demands obedience, as He has always done with His people; only by
obeying God Israel will receive all the boons in Deut 15:4-6. Also,
there would be no need of a law about the remission of debts, or any
law, if the Israelites would have obeyed God in the first place; the
very presence of such laws in the Bible asserts that God’s people
where not keen in listening or believing Him. Still, Moses being a
vassal between God and people, is more appropriate in relaying God’s
message to the people, and he does so, by adding words that seemed
contradictory at first, but he knew better than God how his people
would behave and likely predicted about someone, if not all, are not
listening to Him.
on, there is also the possibility that being poor refers to spiritual
poverty rather than material poverty, and people are called to lend
generosity rather than material needs. With this line of thought, the
passage may make more sense, since by obeying God everyone would
fulfill their spiritual needs and Moses knows that there will always
be someone in need of God, even if everyone is financially and
physically stable. Furthermore, “the poor will never cease in the
land, even the land that is richly blessed, because poverty is not
only the penalty of sin, but is ordained by God for punishment and
Based on such, one may also speculate that
spirituality after being punished and become “poor”. Such would
make a sound follow up to the consequences of Deut 15:9.
the verses in the comparison might have been written by different
authors or acknowledging different periods or instances; especially
with “Verses 4-6 portray the world as it should be, while v. 11
admit to how things really are”11.
This theory would further emphasize on how Moses knows about the
current situation during his time.
the end, the contrast between the two verses serves as a start point
for Deut 15:7-10. The passage’s context ” is a summons to meet the
poor at all times with an open hand and an open heart”12;
the passage possesses plenty of pointers that instruct the reader on
how to act. First, in verse 7 it prohibits to be hard-hearted or
tight-fisted; the former instance clearly recalls to when God sent
the plagues and hardened pharaoh’s heart in order to establish His
reputation; verse 8 and 10 explain what one needs to do and the
reward is receiving God’s blessings, which probably equals to not
being in need anymore; and verse 9 is a warning, which is peculiar in
the context of Deuteronomy, since most of the laws do not follow up
with punishments. However, laws are usually enforced because
something happened, and it is reasonable enough that the law takes in
consideration instances of people taking advantage of and hating
commandment to “open your hand”, found in Deut 15:8 while
generally seen as a sign of generosity and acceptance, may also have
multiple meanings: for example, Duane states that “the term ‘hand’
is used here for those who have the capacity to shape society”13,
further emphasizing the meaning of forgiveness and charity. The
gesture is so important that by itself can fullfill something that
material possessions could not; in addition, the last part of the
verse specifies to meet whatever the need might be, and such includes
spiritual needs. In the context of the passage, the act of opening
the hand equates to opening a relationship with the person in need,
acknowledging that they are in need, and helping to fulfill their
is clear that in the message given in the remission of debts, “the
motive for lending is not economic advantage, but the plight of one’s
After all, if one obeys God, he would be blessed, both with material
and spiritual wealth, and therefore be able to lend and rule over
many as stated in Deut 15:6; and the passage makes it clear what
needs to be done in order to get blessed: obedience (Deut 15:5), and
giving unconditionally (Deut 15:10). The remission is also here to
help everyone remember the importance of God in the Israelite’s
lives, especially about the correlation with freeing slaves and God
freeing His people from Egypt in Deut 15:12-19.
The remission of
debts, being paramount to the passage, serves to start a line of
thought that will ultimately lead to God calling for forgiveness and
through the remission He commands His people to help others, just
like how He forgave them instead of killing them. It is also about
establishing a sense of generosity in the community, as the remission
applies mostly to the Israelite brethren. Deut 15:7 and 15:11 both
emphasize about people among the community, which is a sign of God
providing to His people first and foremost.
remission of debts starts as a special kind of financial aid, which
was practiced by other people during that period as well, yet by
digging deeper in the passage, analyzing every detail, and comparing
and contrasting, one will find out how the tone of the passage shifts
with the mentioning of God, and how its true meaning of the passage
is about a call to show generosity for those in need, while reminding
the people that they were in the same shoes of the needy when God
came, showed mercy, and blessed His people.
Before in the
passage I mentioned about how the remission of debts would cause
bankruptcy in today’s businesses. It is clear that the seven year
remission would not work in modern circumstances. Still, the main
topic of the passage – forgiveness and charity – easily applies
to today. The passage invites reader to help the ones in need, and no
matter what time period, there will always be someone in need, just
as Moses said. It could be a homeless person, needing some money, or
a close relative that has gone through depression and needs
counseling. The warning about abusing the needy neighbor is also
something that unfortunately is prevalent today and needs to be
Readers would most
likely question how one can integrate Deut 15:4-6 with the present:
for example, does obeying God by observing the commandments include
introducing and adhering to the remission of debts? Answer is
probably no; one must think outside the box and find other solutions,
such as lowering debt by a percentage instead or rather not trying to
apply everything in the text to the present, since the main gist of
the passage is not about erasing debts.
In addition, the
passage itself points out to only help those in one’s personal
community or land. Back in ancient times, it was harder to
communicate and reach others, and civilizations in the Ancient Near
East were also ready and eager for wars. However, the situation today
changed, and the
entire population on the world can be considered a community now; one
should indeed help foreigners coming regularly inside the borders,
and people on his social media.
Lastly, the passage
delivers a simple and clear message that every church community could
easily employ in their sermons. All it takes is about explaining that
the remission of debts is a symbolic gesture that was done in the
past in order to show generosity to each other.
Desmond. & Baker, David. “Pentateuch”. IVP. Illinois: Downers
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Rad, Gerhald. Deuteronomy.
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L. Christensen, Deuteronomy
(Tennessee: Nashville, 1991), 308.
D. Nelson, Deuteronomy,
WJK (Kentucky: Louisville, 2002), 195.
Von Rad, Deuteronomy,
WJK (Pennsylvaina: Philadelphia, 1966), 105.
H. Tigay, Deuteronomy,
JPS (Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, 1996), 145.
Baker, T. Desmond Alexander, “Pentateuch”, IVP (Illinois:
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Keil, The Pentateuch,
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