Three main Old Testament (OT) passages in the Torah or Pentateuch address the topic of lending and interest:Exod. 22:25: “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor ... you shall not exact interest from him” (ESV). Lev. 25:35, 37: “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him ... You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit,” and Deut. 23:19-20:“You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother ... You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest.” Although the first two passages clearly state the focus of the ban on interest only for loans to the poor, the third passage does not specifically mention the term, “poor.” This omission of a reference to the “poor” in Deut. 23-19-20 prompted the understanding that the OT teaches a complete ban on interest or usury for any loans among Israelites.Note that the term “usury” meant any interest for most of history, until about the 1800s, when “usury” started to indicate excessive interest, as it does today. From earliest times in church history to about the 1700s, pastors and theologians applied that teaching to all Christians, of a complete ban on usury--any interest--on loans, whether for the poor or for other purposes, including commercial loans.

After reviewing some background information in Part 1, Part 2 offered an orientation to the key factors regarding these three Torah passages and the four main interpretive issues regarding how the Deut. 23:19-20 “distinction” (between “brother” and “foreigner”) might be understood. As a result three possible interpretations of Deut. 23:19-20 were identified:

A. Ethnic status distinction implying a total usury ban,

B. Ethnic status distinction implying a two-tiered ethic, or

C. Economic status distinction implying a contrast between the poor and the merchant.

Part 3 reviewed the first two interpretive options and provided some reasons that argued against these as the best interpretation. In this fourth blog, I briefly state the evidence supporting the third Option C, that Deut. 23:19-20 makes most sense as teaching the same points as already taught in the other Torah passages.

The third “Economic Status” interpretation regards the intended contrast as between the unfortunate poor person (i.e., ban on interest-taking from the poor, v. 19) and the business merchant (i.e., permission of interest-taking for commercial purposes, v.20). Biddle summarizes this perspective, “In fact, since most traders in the ancient Near East did business internationally, the permission to charge interest of ‘foreigners’ may be understood less as a form of ethnocentricity and more as drawing a distinction between lending to the needy in one’s community and credit as a component of commercial transactions.”[1] Four main points, considered cumulatively, help support this point.

1. The use of the OT term for “interest” (nešek; sounds like ne-shek) has a predominant contextual focus of protection for the poor. It occurs twelve times in the OT, appearing three times in Deuteronomy 23:19. Of the nine other uses outside of Deuteronomy 23:19, seven occurrences have a clear contextual focus on protecting the poor: Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36, 37 (two times); Proverbs 28:8; and Ezekiel 18: 8, 13, 17. For example, OT scholar Bruce Waltke notes, “The parallel, ‘poor,’ in Prov. 28:8 and the context (see vv. 3, 6, 11) strongly favors restricting its meaning to charging interest from the needy.” [2] Thus, by inference from these seven occurrences, this same protective emphasis on the poor applies in the three uses of nešek in Deuteronomy 23:19.

2. The term usually translated in the OT as “foreigner” (nokrî; sounds like nah-kree) conveys a distinctly economic association, designating a foreign merchant or trader in Deuteronomy 23:20, according to a scholarly consensus. For example, Jewish commentator Jeffrey Tigay explains, “The foreigner is normally a businessman visiting the country for purposes of trade, and he borrows in order to invest in merchandise and make a profit, not to survive poverty. There is no moral imperative to remit loans made for such purposes [Deut. 15:3] or forgo interest on them [Deut. 23:20].”[3] This economic meaning (“merchant”) for a general term (“foreigner”) is not unique in the OT. A similar secondary association for “trader” exists for the general term “Canaanite”(kĕnaʿănî; sounds like kuh-naw-uh-nee), which is translated as “trader” in ten OT cases (Job 41:6; Prov. 31:24; Isa 23:8; Ezek. 16:29, 17:4, Hos. 12:7, Zeph. 1:11, and Zech. 11:7, 11, 14:21). Thus, nokrî is best rendered as “(foreign) merchant or trader” in Deuteronomy 23:20.

3. A conceptual “Explicit-Implicit Parallel“ regarding the restriction and the permission of interest-taking is evident in three OT Torah usury passages. OT scholar Walter Kaiser clarifies this explicit-implicit interpretive guideline for the OT law, “When an evil is forbidden in one of the commandments, its opposite good must be understood as being encouraged.” [4] Both Exodus 22:25 and Leviticus 25:35-37 explicitly teach a ban against taking interest on loans with the poor. That also implies that when making loans for other purposes---not for subsistence loans to the poor--then it is morally legitimate to take interest. This second point is explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 23:20, Israelites may take interest from a nokrî, a foreign merchant or trader--was implicit in Exodus 22:25 and Leviticus 25:35-37. Additionally, Exodus 22:25 includes a similar sort of contrast, as translated in the NIV: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.”

4. Finally, an earlier section in Deuteronomy treats the subject of lending in which there is an explicit reference of concern for the poor, in wording very similar to the usury passage in Leviticus 25:35: “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother (Deut 15:7). It seems appropriate to regard Deuteronomy 23:19-20, then, as a follow up discussion to this earlier section (Deut 15:7-11), in which the focus was concern for the poor brother.

OT scholar Peter Craigie affirms an understanding that all three Torah usury passages convey the same ban on loans to the poor, “Loans were normally made in an attempt to alleviate poverty [Deut. 23:19], as is made clear by the parallel legislation to these verses [Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:35--36].” [5] Thus, Deuteronomy 23:19-20 could be paraphrased as: “Do not charge interest on basic subsistence loans to the poor and needy, but you may charge interest on loans for other purposes, including for commerce.”

In a final Part 5, I offer a few practical implications from this OT teaching.


1. Mark E. Biddle, Deuteronomy (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2003), 252--53; also see Biddle, “The Biblical Prohibition Against Usury,” Interpretation 65 (2011): 117-21.

2. Bruce Waltke The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15--31, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 413.

3. Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 218. A similar economic sense can apply also to Deut. 14:21 and 15:3.

4. Walter Kaiser, “Exodus” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 2., ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 421.

5. Peter Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 302.

(For further details see my article, “Lending and Interest in the OT: Examining Three Interpretations to Explain the Deuteronomy 23:19-20 Distinction in Light of the Historical Usury Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 59, 2016, 761-89.)