Israel’s Responsibility for Its Predicament (Ezekiel 18)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The exiled Jews' question, "What did we do to deserve this?" comes out of the mistaken belief that they were being punished for their ancestors' actions rather than their own. We see this in the false proverb they quote: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge" (Ezek. 18:2). God rejects this accusation. The issue at stake is the exiles' refusal to take responsibility for their predicament, blaming it on the sins of previous generations.[1] God makes it clear, however, that each individual will be evaluated according to his own actions, whether righteous or wicked. The metaphor involving a righteous man (Ezek. 18:5-9), his sinful son (Ezek. 18:10-13), and his righteous grandson (Ezek. 18:14-17) illustrates that people are not held accountable for the morality of their ancestors. God holds each individual "soul" accountable.[2] Yet scholars are right to note that Ezekiel is still communal in focus.[3]

Righteousness is required individual-by-individual, but God's restoration will not occur until the entire nation of individuals adopts righteous living. In this way, God required righteous living and accountability from the exiles as a whole, independent of previous generations.

Ezekiel 18:5-9 notes a range of cultic and moral actions, both righteous and wicked. These actions become the principles by which a person is said to "live" or "die." Four of these actions are related to work: restoring a debtor’s pledge, providing for the poor, not charging excessive interest, and working justly. Failure to uphold just and righteous standards — or even worse, shedding the blood of another person indiscriminately — will incur the "death penalty" (Ezek. 18:13).

Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, "Proverb Performance and Transgenerational Retribution in Ezekiel 18," in Tiered Reality, 209, nt. 63, 509-510.

See nephesh < in 18:4, 20, 27.

Joel Kaminsky, Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 177-78.

Ezekiel 18:5, 7 - The Righteous Man Does Not Oppress, But Restores to the Debtor His Pledge

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This principle combines the general sin of oppression (Heb. daka) with the specific sin of not returning something taken in pledge (ḥăbōl) for a loan. To understand and apply this principle, we begin with the Israelite law regarding lending, summarized in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary  this way:

The necessity for loans is recognized openly in the Hebrew Bible, where an attempt is made to prevent the practice of requiring interest from debtors. Interest on loans in the Ancient Near East could be exorbitant by modern standards (and might be required in advance, from the very principal of the loan). The attempt to convince creditors to forego potential profit was grounded in care for the community, which God had liberated from slavery. A brother might become poor and need a loan , but interest was not to be exacted, in the name of the same LORD “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:35-38). The desire for interest is seen as posing the danger that Israel might exchange one form of slavery for another—economic—form of oppression. It is notable that the whole of Leviticus 25 concerns precisely the issue of maintaining the integrity of what God had redeemed, in respect of the release which was to occur during sabbath and jubilee years (Lev. 25:1-34), in respect of loans (Lev. 25:35-38), and in respect of hired service (Lev. 25:39-55). The right of a creditor to receive a pledge against his loan is implicitly acknowledged within the pristine requirement not to expect interest, and abusive liberties with pledges received is forbidden (cf. Exodus 22:25–27; Deuteronomy 24:10–13). But certain pledges, correctly handled, might yield their own profits, and foreigners in any case might be charged interest (cf. Deuteronomy 23:19–20); even on a strict interpretation of the Torah, a creditor might make a living.[1]

According to the Mosaic Law, it was generally not legal for a lender to take permanent possession of an item pledged in surety for a loan. Modern banking laws generally do permit lenders to retain (as in pawn shops) or repossess (as in auto loans and home mortgages) items given in surety. Whether the entire modern surety system is anti-biblical is beyond the scope of this article.[2]

Modern laws also place limits or regulate the process under which a lender can take possession of surety. It is generally illegal, for example, for a lender to occupy a mortgaged house and force the borrower out while the borrower is under court protection during bankruptcy proceedings. For a lender to do so anyway would be a form of oppression. It could occur only if the lender has the power and impunity to operate outside the law.

At the most basic level, in Ezekiel 18:7 God is saying, "Don't break the law in pursuit of what might seem rightfully yours, even if you have the power to get away with it." In real-life commercial practices, most lenders (loan sharks aside) don't forcibly repossess sureties outside the law. So perhaps Ezek. 18:7 has nothing challenging for modern readers in legitimate enterprises.

But not so fast. Underlying the whole Old Testament law on lending is the presumption that loans are made primarily for the good of the borrower, not the lender. The reason you lend people money on the surety of their cloak, even though you can keep the cloak only until sunset, is that you have extra money and the borrower is in need. As a lender, you have the right to an assurance that you will get your money back, but only if it has benefitted the borrower sufficiently so that he or she can pay you back. You shouldn’t make a loan that you know the borrower is unlikely to be able to repay, because you can't keep the collateral indefinitely.

This has obvious applications in the mortgage crisis of 2008-2009. Subprime lenders made home loans that they knew millions of borrowers would be likely to fail to repay. To recoup their investment, the lenders relied on rising home prices plus the their ability to force a sale or repossess the property in the likelihood of the borrower's default. The loans were made without regard to the borrower's benefit, so long as they benefitted the lenders. That at least was the intent. In reality, the sudden appearance of hundreds of thousands of foreclosed properties on the market depressed property values so low that lenders lost money even after repossessing the properties. God's declaration circa 580 B.C. that the oppressor's "blood will be on his head" (Ezek. 18:13) turned out to be true for the banking system circa 2000 A.D.

God's denunciation of arrangements that provide no benefit for buyers doesn't have to be limited to securitized debt obligations. Ezekiel 18:7 is about loans, but the same principle applies to products of all kinds. Withholding information about product flaws and risks, selling more expensive products than the buyer needs, mismatching the product's benefits to the buyer's needs — all of these practices are similar to the oppression depicted in Ezek. 18:7. They can creep into even well-intentioned businesses, unless the seller makes the buyer's well-being an inviolable goal of the sales transaction. To care for the buyer is to "live," in the terminology of Ezekiel.

David Noel Freedman, vol. 2, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 114.

This issue is addressed in Key Topic #11, "Financial Arrangements" of the Theology of Work Project at www.theologyofwork.org.

Ezekiel 18:7b - The Righteous Man Does Not Steal, But Instead Feeds the Hungry and Clothes the Naked

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This may seem like an odd pairing. Who could argue with the prohibition against robbery? But how is robbery connected with the obligation to give food to the hungry and provide clothing for the naked? As with Ezekiel 18:7a, the connection is the requirement to care about the economic wellbeing of the other. In this case, however, the "other" is not the counterparty to a commercial transaction, but simply another person encountered in the course of daily life. If you meet people with an item they need but you desire, you are not permitted to rob them of it. If you meet people who lack an item they need but you possess in excess, you are required to give it to them, or at least meet needs as basic as food and clothing.

Behind this somewhat jarring admonition lies God's economic law: we are stewards, not owners, of all that we have. We are to see wealth as common-wealth because all that we have is God's gift for the purpose that there not be any poor among us (Deuteronomy 6:10-15; 15:1-18). This is clear in the laws requiring the canceling of debts every seven years and the redistribution of accumulated wealth in the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). Once every fifty years, God's people were to rebalance wealth in the land as a remedy to the evils that are endemic in human society. In the intervening years, they were to live as stewards of all they possessed:

  • "You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God. You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely" (Leviticus 25:17-18).
  • "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants" (Leviticus 25:23).
  • "If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God" (Leviticus 25:35-38).

Ezekiel's decree in Ezekiel 18:7b is not directly related to the theology of work because it has little to do with the actual production of things of value. Instead, it is a part of the theology of wealth, the stewardship and disposition of things of value. But there can be a connection. What if you were to work for the purpose of meeting someone else's needs rather than your own? While that precludes robbery, it would also motivate you to work in such a way that provided food, clothing and other necessities for people in need. An example would be a pharmaceutical company that puts a compassionate-use policy into the planning of a new drug. So would a retail company that makes affordability a key element of its business model.  Conversely, this principle seems to rule out a business that can succeed only by charging high prices for products that do not meet real needs, such as a pharmaceutical company that produces trivial reformulations in order to extend the terms of its patents.

Ezekiel 18:8a - The Righteous Man Does Not Take Advance or Accrued Interest

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Biblical scholars have given much time to researching and speculating about whether charging interest is absolutely forbidden by Old Testament law. The most natural translation of Ezek. 18:8a may be the NASB: "He does not lend money on interest or take increase." Until well after the Reformation, Christians universally understood the Bible to prohibit charging interest on loans. Of course, this would severely hamper the productive deployment of capital, both in modern and ancient times, and contemporary interpreters seem disposed to soften the prohibition to excessive interest, as the NRSV does. To justify this further softening, some have argued that origination discounts (what we now call "zero-coupon bonds") were permitted in ancient Israel, and that only additional interest was forbidden, even if the loan was not repaid in a timely manner.[1]As with the topic of surety above, it is beyond the scope of this article to assess the legitimacy of the entire modern system of interest.[2] Instead, let us look at the outcome in either case.

If the stricter interpretation holds, then people with money will face the choice of whether or not to lend money at all. If they are not allowed to take interest, and not allowed to repossess surety, then they may prefer not to lend to anyone. But that answer is forbidden by God: "You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be" (Deuteronomy 15:8). Jesus repeats and even expands this command in Luke 6:35: "Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return." The loan is primarily for the benefit of the borrower, not the lender. The lender's fear that it may not be repaid must remain a minor concern. The potential lender has the capital, and the potential borrower needs it.

On the other hand, if we accept that the modern system of interest is legitimate, this principle still applies. Capital must be invested productively; it cannot be hoarded because of fear. This is the literal meaning of Jesus' parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). God has promised Israel, his treasured possession,  that he will provide for their needs. If individuals find themselves with capital to spare, they owe it to the God of provision to employ it — whether by just investment or by donation — for the provision of those who are in need. Economic development is not forbidden — just the opposite: it is required. But it must be of productive benefit for those who need capital, and not merely for the self-interest of those who possess capital.

Oriental and Biblical Studies, Collected Writings of E. A. Speiser, ed. by Finkelstein and Greenberg, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1967), 131-133, 140-141.

See Theology of Work Project Key Topic #11 – Financial Arrangements at www.theologyofwork.org

Ezekiel 18:8b - The Righteous Man Does No Wrong, But Judges Fairly Between Parties

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As he did earlier in the book, here Ezekiel presents his readers with a general rule (not doing wrong) connected to a specific rule (judging fairly between individuals). Once again, the unifying principle is that the person with more power must care about the need of the person with less power. In this case, the power involved is the power to judge between people. Every day most of us face moments when we have the power to judge between one person and another. It could be as small as deciding whose voice prevails in choosing where to have lunch. It could be as large as deciding whom to believe in an accusation of improper conduct. Seldom do we realize that each time we make a decision like this, we exercise the power to judge.

Many serious problems at work arise because people feel that they are consistently judged to be less important than others around them. That may stem from formal or official judgments, such as performance reviews, project decisions, employee awards, or promotions.  Or it may stem from informal judgments, such as who pays attention to their ideas or how often they are the butt of jokes. In either case, God's people have an obligation to be aware of these kinds of judgments and to be fair in how they participate in them. It could be interesting to keep a record of how many judgments (large or small) we participate in during a single day, then ask how the righteous person in Ezek. 18:8b would act in each one.

Ezekiel 18 is more than a set of rules for living in exile; it is an answer to the despair the exiles feel, expressed in the Ezek. 18:2 proverb, "The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge."[1] The argument of chapter 18 refutes the proverb, not by eliminating transgenerational retribution altogether. Instead, the lesson of personal moral responsibility replies to exilic despair (see Psalm 137) and to questions of theodicy seen in the refrain, "The way of the Lord is unfair" (Ezek. 18:25, 29). In response to the exiles' question — "If we are God's people, why are we in exile?" "Why are we suffering?" "Does God care?" — the Lord rebuts not with an answer, but with a call to live justly.

In the time between past transgression and future restoration, between promise and fulfillment, between question and answer, the exiles are to live justly.[2]It is here that meaning, purpose and ultimate pay-off can be found. God is not simply repeating laws of good and bad behavior for individuals to follow. Instead, he is calling for a national life of righteousness, when Israel will finally be "my people" (Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:23, 27). [3]

The marks of righteousness in Ezekiel 18 provide a representative sample of life in the new covenant when the community is characterized by "lawful" ethics (Ezek.18:5, 19, 21, 27). The reader is challenged to live the new covenant life now as a means to secure hope for the future. In our day, Christians are members of the new covenant with the same call in Matthew 5:17-20; 22:37-40. In this way, Ezekiel 18 is surprisingly instructional and transferable to our own lives in the workplace, no matter the venue.[4] Living out this personal righteousness in our professional pursuits adds life and meaning to our present circumstances because it assumes a better tomorrow, ushers the future kingdom of God into the present, and provides a glimpse of what God anticipates from his people as a whole. God rewards such behavior, the type of which is possible only by means of new hearts and spirits (Ezek. 18:31-32; 2 Corinthians 3:2-6).

One could argue that the problem was not with the proverb itself, but rather with the inappropriate application of it to the circumstances in exile. See Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 74.

On this and the integration of theodicy and ethics, see Gordon H. Matties, Ezekiel 18 and the Rhetoric of Moral Discourse (SBL Dissertation Series 126; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 223-24.

The false proverb of 18:2 is repeated in Jeremiah 31:29-31 where God explicitly contradicts it with the promise of "a new covenant" with Israel in the future. When Israel stops trying to shift the blame to her ancestors, then "the days are surely coming," says the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel." This covenant will accomplish the fulfillment of God's promises and the forgiveness of Israel's sins (Jeremiah 31:34).

Matties, Ezekiel 18, 222; Darr, "Transgenerational Retribution," 223.