Does the Bible say we shouldn’t pay or charge interest? (Part 1)

Q. In Ezekiel there are several mentions in the NIV of “usury or excessive interest.” Is there any linguistic reason to translate it that way, or is it just to accommodate modern readers’ comfort with charging interest? I had heard that usury originally meant charging any interest at all.

There’s not currently a study guide to Ezekiel in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series (one may be published in the future), but I’m very glad to answer your question. It deals with an issue that comes up in other books such as Proverbs, Psalms, and Deuteronomy, for which there are guides in print or in preparation. It’s an important question for those who want to live by the Bible’s teaching.  Should we not deposit our money in banks that will lend it out at interest? Should we not use credit cards so that we won’t be complicit in others charging (us) interest?

The challenge in translating the passages you’re referring to in Ezekiel is how to render two separate but related terms, nešek and tarbit.  Why does Ezekiel use both terms when he says, for example, that the righteous person “does not lend with nešek or take tarbit“?  Is this a poetic parallelism, the juxtaposition of terms that are synonyms?

The 1984 version of the NIV takes it this way, translating the terms as “usury” and “excessive interest,” respectively.  The two words also appear together in Proverbs, where this version combines them into a single term:  “He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest [nešek and tarbit] amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.”

But translating nešek alone as “excessive interest” is, as you observe, inconsistent with the way the 1984 NIV usually translates this term elsewhere. It does render nešek in Psalm 15 as “usury,” but in other passages the word has the sense of ordinary 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” (Exodus); , “Do not take interest of any kind” from a fellow Israelite” (Leviticus); “Do not charge your brother interest” (Deuteronomy).

So which is it?  Does the Bible say that we shouldn’t charge or pay any interest at all, or just exorbitant interest?

I’ll share some thoughts about this tomorrow . . .

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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