Instructions for Economic Life

Most Christians hate the law. They see it as the opposite of grace, so they oppose it. Jesus had a different view.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-19).

If Jesus intends us to practice these commands, we need to know more about them. The Psalmist agreed with Jesus.

Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts (Psalm 119:97-100).

If loving the law can make a person wise, we need to know more about it.

The Hebrew name for the law is Torah. It is broader than law. The word Torah means teaching. The Torah contains the teaching of God on a broad range of topics.

The last four were fulfilled in Jesus

The law does not have that much about personal holiness, except for offerings to deal with sin. There are no laws against pride, hatred, jealousy, anger, selfishness, or envy. The reason is that law cannot change human hearts. God knew that and did not expect the law to do it. The fruit of the Spirit are not really mentioned in the law, because the Holy Spirit would not be sent until Jesus ministry was complete. Without the Holy Spirit, the fruit are unattainable for humans.

Guidance for Communities

The law was primarily given to allow human families and communities to live together in peace. God provided a system of law that prohibited crimes like theft and assault, which would disrupt society. He also provided a system of local judges to implement these laws and apply the specified penalties for these crimes.

The law provides a system of defence that relies on local militias and temporary military leaders. This protects society from external attack. Some rules about sexual immorality provided protection from spiritual attack.

In addition to a legal system, the Torah provides some Instructions for Economic Life. These are not laws with penalties to enforce them, so they are voluntary. Yet they are really important for the smooth functioning of society. I will discuss these in detail in the next series of posts.

Living Together in Peace

The Mosaic covenant provided a way for people to live together in peace in a community. The Children of Israel lived in a decentralised society, where households and families live close to each other, within tribal groupings.

Justice and law were administered in local communities, so there was no central government. God had proved his laws, so there was no need for a parliament or king to make laws. Local communities defended themselves, or came together with other communities to defend themselves from eternal invaders, so there was no need for a king with a large standing army.

Most of the interaction between households and communities was economic. The Torah contained Instructions for Economic life to guide and support this interaction. They were not laws, because there were no penalties or sanctions to enforce. They were voluntary guidelines to strengthen community interaction. The Instruction for Economic Life made it possible for diverse people to live together in peace in a decentralised society.

God gave his system of justice and economic blessing in the Torah. His is a radically different approach, with no central government, where leaders and judges emerge out of local communities, where problems of poverty and inequality are dealt with in local communities, where defence is controlled by local communities no a centralised standing army.

Christians seemed to have missed this, because they cannot see the trees for the dead leaves of legalism. They are so scared of slipping from grace into legalism that they prefer to stay away from the Torah. They are forced instead to either look in vain in the gospels, or go back to nature for teaching about political and economic systems.

Christians who are interested in politics and government only go to the Torah to find scriptures that support modern systems of government, such as democracy or monarchy. This distortion prevents them from seeing the magnificent system of justice and law, and the wonderful economic system that God gave to his people.

Love the Law

The verses I have referenced in this article were not cherry-picked or pulled out randomly. Several years ago, I grasped the implications of Psalm 119:97-100. I had never loved the law. I simply did not care about it. I knew that Jesus was very clear that it had not been set aside, but it did not seem to be relevant to the economic and political issues that I was studying. When I discovered that love of the law is the key to wisdom, I realised that I needed to study the law in detail.

Since I gained that understanding, I have studied the Torah quite seriously. I did a course in the Hebrew language to assist. I would not say that I love it yet, but I have found it to be a rich treasure of wisdom, particularly on economic and political issues.

To assist my detailed study of the law, I copied all the laws and commands in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy into a spreadsheet. I left out those that referred to the sacrifices and the priesthood, because I assumed that they had been fulfilled in Jesus and no longer needed to be obeyed. This left me with about 250 commands that I grouped together into about twenty-five categories. One of my categories was Economic Life. More than thirty command fell into this category. I will cover them all systematically in this article.

Love your Neighbour

A fundamental instruction underpins all the others.

Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD (Lev 19:18).

This principle was not a radical innovation by Jesus. It was right there in the heart of the Torah. It was given in Leviticus, a book that most Christians choose to ignore. This command is the basis for all the Instructions for Economic Life. The key to strong communities is people who love their neighbour as themselves.


Loving your neighbour means that you care about your neighbour' safety. Every member of the community was required to keep their building safe, so that people who entered their property would not come to harm.

When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof (Deut 22:8).

This principle can be generalised to a variety of situations. Any activity that people undertake, whether personal or business must be safe for neighbours. Businesses must design their businesses and factories, so they do not do harm to their neighbours. Retailers must design their stores, so that people who visit to shop are kept safe. Businesses cannot ignore the consequences of their actions. They are responsible for their neighbour's blessing.

Special care was required for people who are disabled in some way.

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD (Lev 19:14).

Every member of the community has an obligation to ensure that they do not come to harm.


Every member of the community is required to look out for their neighbour's property and take care of it. If a person sees something belonging to a neighbour at risk, they must take action to protect it.

If you see someone's ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it. If you see a donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help the owner get it to its feet (Deut 22:1-3).

This requirement applies to some who dislike you.

If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it (Ex 23:4-5).

It is easy to be kind to friends. The Torah requires people to care for the property of their enemies.

When Jesus challenged his listeners to love their enemies, he was not introducing a new concept. He was confirming that the command to love your neighbour applied to neighbours who hated you, not just those who you like.

Care for Nature

God's people are required to take care of the natural world.

If you come across a bird's nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life (Deut 22:6-7).

It is permissible to take a young bird or eggs for food, but the mother must be protected. This ensures that breeding and hatching will continue.

This principle can be generalised. God gave humans dominion over the earth. That does not mean that we are able to exploit it as we choose. We can use the product of the earth, including birds, animals and fruit. But we must ensure that enough breeding stock remains to preserve each specifies for future generations.

This passage is future looking. When we consume the product of the earth we must think about the future. We tend to think only about our current generation. For example, if oil is discovered, we assume that it can all be used by our generation. That is not the way that God wants us to think. He wants us to think about those who will follow us.

My father fulfilled his dream of being a farmer when he bought a farm that had been cropped so excessively that the soil was depleted. He taught us that a farmer should aim to leave the land better than it was when he found it. That is good practice.

There are no direct penalties for failing to obey this command. However, there is a warning that if it is ignored, life on the land will not go well.

Conservation of nature is not a new idea. God put it the Torah when he gave it to Moses.

Animal Welfare

Humans are allowed to use animals to assist with their work.

Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain (Deut 25:4).

In Moses time, oxen were an important part of the harvest. When the wheat what cut it was laid on an area of hard ground called the threshing floor. Oxen would be made to walk in a circle on the threshing floor, and the pressure of the hooves would break the grain off the stalks to which it was attached. The next step took place on a windy day. The farm would toss the trampled wheat into the air with a winnowing fork. The wind would blow the chaff away while the grain would fall to the ground.

The message of Deuteronomy is that it is legitimate to use animals to provide mechanical power. However, the owner has a duty to care for the working animal really well. For example, a team of horses pulling a plough needed to be fed three times a day.


People employed to do work are to be treated well.

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise, they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin (Deut 24:14-15).

A person who needs to work for wages must be treated well. This applies to people living in the neighbourhood and foreigners who are there temporarily. When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he was illustrating this principle. Neighbours are not just those who live around you. The foreigner that is encountered is also a neighbour.

A critical part of being a good neighbour is to pay generous wages. God's people should not be satisfied with paying the minimum wage. God expects more than that. They should pay the person enough for them to live on.

The employer should not just think about their convenience. They must do what is best for the employee. If the person were really poor, they would not be able to wait until the end of the week for their money, because they would be without food. Even though it is inconvenient for the employer, the poor person should be paid each day. They have done the work, so they are entitled to the pay. In the modern world, weekly or fortnightly pay has become the standard, but that makes life really hard for some people.

Do not defraud or rob your neighbour. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight (Lev 19:13).

God's guidance for economic life says that holding back the wages of a hired worker overnight is the same as defrauding them.

The requirement of this command is more general, as it is an aspect of loving neighbours. An employer must treat their employees in the same way as they would treat someone they love. They cannot just pay the minimum they can get away with and leave their employees to fend for themselves. They must treat their employees the same way as they would treat their family members. Employees should be paid promptly and generously.

Employees are not disconnected people. They are neighbours that employers must love and care for

Honest Trade

All buying and selling must be done honestly.

Do not have two differing weights in your bag-one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house-one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly (Deut 25:13-16).

This command was given in a context where coins were not available for trade. Payments for purchases and sales were made by weighing out gold or silver. A clever way to defraud people was to use scales that weighed light when making payments and a different set of scales that weighed heavy when getting paid.

The command applies to everyone who is selling goods or services. They must represent the stuff that they are selling. Selling flawed goods as if they are good quality is wrong, because "God detests anyone who deals dishonestly". There should be no "rip-offs" among God's people. They should be known as honest traders.

We are not entitled to take whatever price we can get, even if it is greater than we think that the goods are worth. Nor are we entitled to pay the lowest price possible, if less than we think the good is worth. We cannot buy goods from China and just ignore the fact that the people who made them were paid a pittance.

Two comments are common in business:

  1. Let the buyer beware.
  2. What the market will bear.

They have no place amongst God's people.

This command has a broader application. It means that bank policies that inflate the currency are immoral. In biblical times, kings devalued their coins by mixing silver into gold coins and other cheaper metals into silver coins. The coin appears to have the same value, so people still use it, but the king has stolen some of their gold or silver. This is immoral. In modern times, currencies are deflated by central bank policy, but the consequences are the same. People holding the currency are robbed of some of their wealth. Inflation is always immoral, regardless of means used.

The person with the scales has the power. Most people dealing with them would have to trust their honesty, because they would not be able to afford their own scales. God gets really upset when people with power use it dishonestly.

Kings and central banks have power. God detests counterfeiting coins and he detests central bank money creation because they are the same economic transaction in a different form.

No Coveting

For a community to be strong, people must be satisfied with what they have got, even if others have more.

You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour (Ex 20:17).

You shall not covet your neighbour's wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour's house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour (Deut 5:21).

This command has no penalties, because coveting is something that takes place in a person's heart, so there are no witnesses who can testify against it. However, it is a really important command, because coveting can tear a community apart. We must not look at any of the things that a person in our neighbourhood owns, and wish that it were ours. Adultery is often rooted in coveting other men's wives.

Modern television advertising is based on persuading people to covet the things that the person in the advert who looks like their neighbour is flaunting.

Widows and Orphans

Some people get into bad situations through no fault of their own.

Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless (Ex 22:22-24)

Women whose husbands die young while their children are still dependent are left in a vulnerable situation. They will have to earn enough to support their family, while not neglecting their children. Children who lose their parents while they are young are left in a helpless position. God expects the people in a neighbourhood to voluntarily care for the widows and orphans living among them.

God is very serious about this obligation. He warned that a community that does not care for their orphans and widows bring judgment on themselves. This judgment will come in attacks of with violent weapons.

Duty to the Poor

In every community, some people do well and others do badly. God's instructions for economic life provide safeguards for the poor.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God (Lev 19:9-10).

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow (Deut 24:19-21).

The people in a neighbourhood are to leave some of their crops for the poor to harvest. This is not a handout, because the poor have to work to get the produce.

This assistance is not just for immediate neighbours. It must be offered to foreigners who have chosen to live in the neighbourhood. Ruth was a Moabite (Moab was an enemy of Israel) yet Boaz allowed her to glean on his fields.

Gleaning only works in agricultural societies, but the principle applies everywhere. God expects his people to find ways to give some of what they have produced to the poor. Giving to relief organisations is not enough. God prefers that we find ways to emulate gleaning by blessing the poor living in our neighbourhoods. Likewise, people in business have an obligation to assist the people in their neighbourhood. Much is expected from those who have been given more. This is what loving our neighbour means.

The command about gleaning does not mean that everyone has a free hand to reap other people's crops. A duty of care remains.

If you enter your neighbour's vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbour's grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain (Deut 23:24-25).

A hungry person walking past a vineyard can take a few grapes, but they are not to use a container. A person walking through a wheat field can take a few grains in their hands to calm their hunger, but they must not use a sickle to cut the grain. Jesus and his disciples were acting this command when they were challenged by the Pharisees for working on the sabbath.

He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath" (Mark 2:23-24)?

The Pharisees were wrong, because the disciples were not harvesting. The command that permitted them to eat grains explicitly forbade the use of sickles, so it was not harvesting.

Loans to the Poor

The level of help given to the poor depends on the seriousness of the situation. If the situation of the poor person is not too serious, then someone in their neighbourhood should lend them money to enable them to get back on their feet again. Loans to the poor have to critical conditions.

  1. A poor person must not be charged interest.

    If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest (Ex 22:25).

    Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess (Deut 23:19-20).

    Interest is a killer for poor people, because if they fail to pay to pay it, the interest is added to the principle with penalties. A small loan can turn into a huge debt in no time. Interest changes a loan from a blessing to a curse.

    An interest-free loan may be enough to get some poor people going again. It gives them a strong incentive to work, so they can repay the loan. The ban on interest prevents their debt from growing unnecessarily, if life continues to be tough.

  2. Any loan to a poor person that has not been repaid must be cancelled after seven years.

    At the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts. 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 cancelling debts has been proclaimed (Deut 15:1-2).

    The aim of the loan is to help a poor person get back on their feet. If they fail to repay the loan, it must be wiped out after seven years. This means that the loan does not increase the burden being carried by the poor person, if they are unable to get on top of their problems.

    The reason for the seven-year limit is that we do not know the future. We should make commitments that we cannot meet. Any commitment beyond seven years is too risky, because we cannot know what our situation will be.

These loans are really a gift that must be repaid, if the person's situation recovers. This is why Jesus told his followers to make loans without expecting to be repaid.

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you (Matt 5:42).

Jesus principle of generosity was a restatement of a command in Deuteronomy.

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your poor brother. Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: "The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land (Deut 15:7-11).

If someone gets into financial difficulty, another person in their neighbourhood who is better off should give them a loan to help them through a difficult time. No particular person was responsible for making the loan, but those who were closest to the person in trouble would be expected to come forward. Given that the loan might not be repaid, it would not be surprising if people were reluctant to make a loan to a person in trouble, but this is not acceptable to God. He expects people to be generous. He says that generosity to neighbours is a condition for receiving God's economic blessing. This makes sense. A community in which everybody is contributing will be stronger than one in which many of the people are struggling with poverty. Making a loan to someone who is poor, knowing that it might not be repaid back is an example of loving our neighbours.

Lenders have power over borrowers. This power can be used to intimidate the weaker person, but it divides the community undermining its strength. The Torah requires a lender to treat a vulnerable person with respect.

When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbour, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you (Deut 24:10-13).

The person with power must not enter the poor person's house to create fear among his family or looking for valuables that could be claimed.

Efforts to help poor people must not harm them. This is why the loan were interest-free and cancelled at the end of seven years, if the person was still poor. This is the opposite of the world's way. Poor people have no security so they have to go to loan sharks, who charge very high-interest rates, often up to fifty percent. The poor person usually fails to pay the interest, so it is added to the loan. In a very short time, the loan gets huge. The lender seizes all of the property of the poor person to cover the debt and they are left destitute. God's way is different. Poor people must not be forced deeper into debt. If they cannot repay the loan, they are left no worse off than before they received it.

Security for Debt

Some people might need a loan to get a business started or to expand an existing business. This should be rare, because debt is dangerous. Business should operate on equity. However, if a loan is necessary, interest is permissible, but the term should be limited to seven years. The lender was entitled to take some security for their loan, but they must not take anything that is needed for the borrower's livelihood or safety.

Do not take a pair of millstones-not even the upper one-as security for a debt, because that would be taking a man's livelihood as security (Deut 24:6).

Business equipment must not be taken as security, because it would prevent the person from operating their business.

If you take your neighbour's cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate (Ex 22:26-27).

If the man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it. Then he will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God (Deut 24:12-13).

If personal effects are taken, they must be returned at the time they are needed.

Land and Capital

Christians who dislike Leviticus miss out on one of the most important economic principles in the scriptures.

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold. If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property. Houses in villages without walls around them are to be considered as belonging to the open country. They can be redeemed, and they are to be returned in the Jubilee (Lev 25:23-28,31).

When Israel entered the Promised Land, land was the main form of capital. The land was divided up evenly between tribes and family groupings, so that every family had a piece of land. God organised the situation so that capital was evenly distributed. This is an important principle. God wants to see capital evenly distributed. In Micah's vision of the kingdom, every man has his own vine and his own fig tree (Mic 4:4). This is the same principle.

In an agricultural society, land was the main form of capital. Distributing the land evenly ensured that every family had access to capital. It was distributed evenly, so that every family had an equal opportunity.

In reality, some people use their capital productively and do well. Others misuse their capital and get into financial difficulty. If a family gets into serious financial trouble, they might not need to sell their land to settle their debts. However, the land could not be sold in perpetuity, because it belongs to God. All that could be sold was the crops that would be produced between the present day and the next jubilee. The jubilee occurred every fifty years.

If a debtor family has sold their land to a creditor to settle their debts, three things could happen.

  1. A relative or neighbour to come to the aid of the debtor family and buy back the land from the creditor to whom it had been sold. The redeemer will pay the full price that was paid by the purchaser. This was a sacrifice as the relative or neighbour would receive very little. They might get some crops while they were getting the debtor family prepared to look after it again, but they will never own the land they have bought. This was essentially a gift from one person to another. It is generous giving at its best. The only benefit he gets is the benefit of living in a strong community.

    The Good Samaritan helped a man who was in a hole, perhaps due to his stupidity, by going to places that he should not have gone to alone. The parable extended the scope of who is our neighbour to everyone that we encounter. It does not limit the scope of assistance to caring for sick people. The Torah teaches that being a Good Samaritan means recovering the property of a neighbour who has been forced into selling it to pay the debt.

  2. If no one redeems the land sold by a person in debt and he returns to prosperity again, he can buy his family property back at any time. The price will be set at the value of the crops that will be received between the sale day and the jubilee. He does not have to repay the full amount, because the buyer has received crops from the land.

  3. If there is no redeemer and the person in trouble never recovers sufficiently to buy it back, the buyer can hold the land until the jubilee. This will affect the price paid for the land. The buyer is not really buying the land. He cannot because it belongs to God. He is actually buying the harvests that will occur between the purchase date and the jubilee. If he pays more than that is worth, he might be reluctant to return the land when the Jubilee comes. The benefit the buyer gets is the confidence that comes from being part of a strong community.

There were no penalties attached to this instruction, so it could not be enforced. It does not justify compulsory land re-distribution as some have claimed. This was a voluntary instruction to ensure that wealth and capital did not become too unevenly distributed. If one generation got into trouble and lost their capital, the next generation would get it back, and have a fresh start.

The prophets spoke against those who accumulated land and houses.

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land (Is 5:8).

These people were breaching God's principle that all capital land should be evenly distributed. They would not have been able to do this, if they understood and applied the principle of the Jubilee.

This was not an individualistic concept of property. Land was assigned to the family group. It is held in trust for the benefit of future generations of the family. Losing the land was a failure of trust that cursed later generations. God protected the family line be providing a way to remedy a mistake that could affect future generations.

The classical economists like Adam Smith were concerned about economic rent. They saw it as a problem, because the aristocratic families whose ancestors had fought on the winning side in ancient battles controlled large blocks of land. They collected rent from their tenants with no need to give anything in return. The classical economists wanted to tax economic rent away. If God owns the land, the basis for economic rent disappears.

This instruction and the jubilee ensured that capital continued to be equally distributed, but this it only works in an agricultural society. In the modern world, most capital is plant machinery and equipment and other assets. Jesus put a twist on the jubilee laws that ensure that these will be relatively equally distributed too, but is covered in Jesus and Economic Life.

The owner of a house in a walled city only has a year to redeem it. Once the year is up, it is gone forever.

Anyone who sells a house in a walled city retains the right of redemption a full year after its sale. During that time, the seller may redeem it. If it is not redeemed before a full year has passed, the house in the walled city shall belong permanently to the buyer and the buyer's descendants. It is not to be returned in the Jubilee (Lev 25:28-30).

Extreme Poverty

If a person got into poverty, they would find someone to employ them for a season, so they could support their family. If they got even deeper into debt, they might need to bond themselves to a more prosperous person in return for that person paying off all their debts.

If any of your people-Hebrew men or women-sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today (Deut 15:12-15).

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything (Ex 21:2).

The prosperous person must settle all the debts. In return for that, the poor person would agree to work for them for seven years. They would hope to learn from working with someone who has managed better than they have. The bond is limited to seven years. God's people must not give up their freedom permanently.

When the person is set free, the person who paid the debts must be generous towards the person they have helped. They should send the person away with some working capital, so they can get going again.

Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do (Deut 15:19).

People who are perpetual mis-managers may decide they would be better to stay as a bondservant.

But if your servant says to you, "I do not want to leave you," because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant (Deut 15:16-17).

Some people who are hopeless incompetent may need someone to manage for them. They could choose someone who will take care of them and their family and bond themselves to them.

This bond service is voluntary. It is for the benefit of the bondservant, not for the person holding the bond. The servant freely decides to be a servant. Since they voluntarily became a servant bondservant for life, they are free to leave at any time, provided someone pays the debt for them

The bondservant concept sounds odd in modern ears, but it is no more a loss of freedom than taking on a thirty-year mortgage.

Chattel slavery was not permitted.

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them (Deut 23:15-16).

If a slave escaped from a different jurisdiction and sought shelter in a community, they must not be returned to their owner. They are to be set free to live in the community. God's people are called to set people free, not to enslave them.

They did not have the ability or authority to use force to set slaves free. That was the American mistake, which enslaved more people.


By the time of Jeremiah, the instructions dealing with the jubilee and the seven-year release of bondservants and redemption of lands were being ignored in Judah. Jeremiah described the situation.

This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, 'Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.' Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me (Jer 34:13-14).

God's instructions had been ignored. King Zedekiah and the leaders of the people must have realised this was a problem, because they decided to free all bondservants, but because they were under threat, rather than because it was the seventh year.

King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for all bondservants. Everyone was to free their Hebrew bondservants, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female bondservants and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free (Jer 34:8-10).

This was a wonderful event, but unfortunately, the people quickly changed their minds and put those who had been set free back in bondage.

But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again (Jer 34:11).

The word "enslaved" is a strong word (kabash). It means to "conquer, subjugate, or violate". These people had bonded themselves, because they needed help to get out of debt. They had been set free (Kophshim). They were now being enslaved by force, so their situation was made worse. Jeremiah brought a strong word from the Lord.

Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. But now you have turned around and profaned my name. You have forced them to become your slaves. Therefore this is what the LORD says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim 'freedom' for you, declares the LORD-'freedom' to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth (Jer 38:15-17)

Jeremiah explained that their failure to give people freedom as the instructions for economic life require would be the direct cause of their loss of freedom; in a fairly nasty way, by sword, plague and famine. They would become abhorrent to the kings of the earth, whereas if they had applied God's instructions, they would have been held in awe by the nations.

Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. What other nation is so great" (Deut 4:6-7).


The instructions for economic life provided economic security for everyone in society, without the need for a government or king. Economic strength was based in local communities.

The Torah promising great blessings for people who honour and obey these instructions. This blessing is not something magical/spiritual. The blessing comes because communities are stronger and more productive.

Modern politicians love to lecture the poor and tell them what to do. Most of the instructions for economic life are directed to people who are more prosperous. It is their response to God's guidance that transforms a community and liberates the poor and weak.

The motivations for acting on these instructions must be love: love of God and love of neighbour. If it is just a list of rules, the instructions will become a burden. We should see them as an illustration of how life will change, if we get serious about loving one another and loving our neighbour.

This material is developed further in a book called Gods Economy

Jesus' application of the Instructions for Economic Life is described in Jesus and Economic Life.