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

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

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.