In Deuteronomy 24:6, Moses gives Israel the following command, “No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge.” (English Standard Version). In what way is “taking a person’s life in pledge” connected to taking their “millstones”? The New International Version uses the phrase “taking a person’s livelihood as security.” A lender is strictly forbidden from taking his means of making a living from the borrower.
This law’s intent is similar to a previous one in Deuteronomy in which Israelites are “forbidden to lend on interest to a fellow Israelite” (Deut 23:19). Though not explicit in Deuteronomy 23, here in Deuteronomy 24:6 it is assumed that the person receiving the loan would provide some collateral to the lender, signifying thereby his intention of repaying the loan. Failing to repay the loan would result in the collateral being forfeited. Sometimes as a last resort, poor or indebted families sold family members into slavery to pay off debts. The goal of lending to a poor Israelite who is suffering financial hardship is to help him get back on his feet, not to break or take advantage of him.
Israelites making loans were forbidden from taking the millstones of fellow Israelites who were already experiencing a financial crisis. Many Israelite families possessed a small milling machine which was a basic and essential part of culinary equipment. It was used to prepare flour in order to provide the family with its daily bread. To take the millstones as collateral would cause real hardship to the borrowing family, thus defeating the purpose and contradicting the spirit of generosity which should characterize the lender. Not to mention that it would hinder the lender from paying off the debt, consequently worsening the lender’s life rather than improving it.
The principle underlying this ancient law is universal. Its moral force is still relevant and speaks to the need for legislative controls on forms of lending motivated by greed. Many nations have legislation prohibiting predatory forms of lending practices that impose unfair and abusive loan terms on borrowers. Some aspects of predatory lending include high-interest rates and unfair terms that strip the borrower of equity and benefit only the lender in the long run. Like the law restricting a richer Israelite from lending with interest to a poorer Israelite (Deut 23:19), this law is a paradigm case of God’s concern to defend the weak against the strong. Jesus summarized the whole Law (Hebrew Scriptures) in these words, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12, English Standard Version).