Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Debt Release

Jesus announced, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-21)

The reforms of Urukagina cancelled the obligations of indentured families.

Alice C. Linsley

As early as 3000 B.C., kings in the Ancient Near East sometimes issued edicts that canceled specified debts and tax claims and ordered the release of debt slaves. Some of these edicts also decreed that landholdings lost on account of financial distress were to be returned to their prior owners at no charge. The nature of the tradition is not well understood because there are few preserved examples.

Urukagina, ruler of the city of Lagash around 2400 B.C., decreed a debt amnesty, releasing debt prisoners and allowing them to return to their families.  

The Edict of Ammi-saduqa of Babylon (r. 1646- 1626 B.C.) is another example. Ammi-saduqa was a direct descendant of Hammurabi. His edict provided for the cancellation of debts and the release of persons sold into debt slavery.

Another example is the ancient bilingual Hittite-Hurrian text entitled the "Song of Debt Release" (c. 1400 BC) in which devotees of the High God are told to release the people of Ebla from their debt.

"If you take a debt release in Ebla, I will exalt your weapons. Your weapons will begin to conquer your enemies. Your plowed land will prosper in glory. But if you do not make a debt release for Ebla, the city of the throne, in the space of seven days, I will come upon you. I will destroy Ebla, the city of the throne. I will make it like a city that never existed. I will break the surrounding wall of Ebla's city like a cup. I will knock flat the surrounding wall of the upper city like a garbage dump..."

In 720 B.C., Vizier Bakenranef canceled various debts in the Egyptian delta. 

In the 6th century B.C., the Athenian lawmaker Solon (c. 638 BC–558 B.C.) instituted a set of laws called "seisachtheia". The term is composed of seio (shake) and achthos (burden, debt). It meant "to shake off the burden/debt". This canceled the debts of private citizens that had reduced them to slavery and serfdom. This was to rectify a widespread problem in Athens. The law also required that Athenians who had been sold abroad were returned to the city. Solon's reforms did not abolish slavery. In fact, they allowed the guardian of an unmarried woman who had lost her virginity to sell her into slavery.

Leviticus 25:10 speaks of a jubilee year (Hebrew: יובל yūḇāl) every 50th year during which slaves and prisoners would be freed, and debts would be forgiven. The Deuteronomic Code called for the nullification of debts every 7th year but there is slim evidence that this was enacted. The rabbis argue that the debt release pertains only to the time when all 12 tribes were living in ancient Israel. Talmud, Erchin 32b states that this law was cancelled about 130 years before the destruction of the First Temple. Because it is likely that lower-status members of each tribe remained in the Land, some argue that the Jubilee remained in force and would have been in effect during the Second Temple period as well.

While the priestly code holds the cyclical release of debts as an ideal, it seems that the Israelites did not enforce the program which initially would have destabilized their society. The Israelites (Jacob's clan) were only one group of Hebrew. Other Hebrew ruler-priests were already living in the land of Canaan when they arrived. Restoring land to the original owners was not going to benefit the Israelites who were late arrivals.

Human nature being what it is, it is likely that rulers and landlords found ways around the debt release laws. As the Lord noted, “you tithe mint and dill and cumin and neglect the weightier matters of the Law…” (Matthew 23:23). By the Middle Ages, debt release was extremely rare among the Jews who had found ways around the law. Indeed, the law itself was being used to exploit people.

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