Insidious Interest

“How can Moses just make my money disappear?” Penuel pounded the table with his heavy fist. “It’s my money.”

Judge Nethaniel calmly observed old, rotund Penuel. Young Rakar sat on the other side of Penuel, hugging himself and looking at Penuel apprehensively. The three of them were the only ones in Nethaniel’s tent. A line of people with other complaints and arguments waited outside the tent in the Israelite desert encampment.

“That is now the law, Penuel,” Nethaniel answered dryly.

“But how can Moses just suddenly change the law?” Penuel demanded. “We’ve been doing business like this since before we left Egypt. Isn’t that so, Rakar?”

“Yes, sir,” Rakar answered sheepishly.

“There. You see? Even the borrower admits it. Tell the judge again how much you owe me.”

“Fifty silvers, sir.”

“State the whole amount, boy,” Penuel commanded.

“Plus another ten silvers interest,” Rakar mumbled.

“Interest is no longer allowed,” Nethaniel stated matter-of-factly. “Rakar only owes you fifty silvers. The Law of God is clear. No interest. Not for old loans, not for new loans, not with different metals, not even with this shameful obsequiousness Rakar is showing you. Sit up straight man,” Nethaniel spoke to Rakar. “You just owe the principal amount. Nothing more. To show subservience or any other display of bondage is tantamount to interest. You owe him fifty silvers. That is it.”

“What do you mean!?” Penuel roared. His spittle splattered across the tent. Rakar cringed and edged his chair away from Penuel. Nethaniel wiped the spit off his face nonchalantly.

“What don’t you understand, Penuel? I will explain it again if you didn’t comprehend my words the first time.”

“He owes me everything. Everything he has is mine. This ungrateful mutt should grovel even further in my presence.”

“You have it all wrong, Penuel. God does not see lending as a business.”

“Not a business? Then what else is it? Charity?”

“Yes. Lending is a social good. You lend to someone in need and the only thing you can expect in return is the money you gave them and their simple gratitude.”

“This will ruin me,” Penuel cried.

“No, Penuel. This will save you. Look at yourself. Yelling and screaming over money that is not yours, which you did not earn. Lording it over others. Expecting obeisance from your brothers – and even worse, getting it. You have become a social monster. Thanks to you, I now see the wisdom of this law.”

“A monster? I am the biggest beneficiary to my brethren. Without me, where would they be? Rakar here could not have married his beautiful bride. The blacksmiths would not be able to buy metal for their work. The jewelers would not be able to make the bracelets and necklaces that adorn our daughters’ necks. Business and commerce would come to a standstill.”

“That may be true. But that system is now coming to an end. You were enslaving people. You were encouraging people to borrow when you knew it would be difficult for them to repay you. They lived in fear and false homage of you.”

From outside the tent, they heard a commotion. The entrance to the tent opened. A short but lithe woman entered. She was dressed in a long robe of deep purple, with threads of gold running down its length. Two tall, bulky men stood at either side of her.

“Marta!” Penuel threw himself to the floor. He grabbed the hem of her robe and started kissing it. “I’m sorry I’m late with the payment. It’s all these bloodsuckers. I’m about to straighten things out. Just give me a little more time.”

“Get up, you sniveling dog.” Marta kicked Penuel in the face. Penuel backed away as blood dripped from his nose.

“What is the meaning of this interruption?” Nethaniel demanded angrily.

“I see I must take matters into my own hands. What is this nonsense I hear about no more interest? You are joking of course.”

“It is no joke. I take it you are heavily involved in this business.”

“Heavily involved?” Marta laughed. “This bloated pig alone owes me over a thousand silvers. And I intend to collect it all, including interest. The alternative may be unpleasant.”

“You dare make threats in a court of law?” Nethaniel stood up.

“I am my own law, and I have the power to enforce it.” Marta nodded at her two companions.

“Those days are over. We’ve been waiting for you to reveal yourselves.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“You have taken advantage of your poorer brethren for too long. Law is what guides us now; God’s law. And you will abide by it, whether you like it or not.”

“We shall see about that. Guidel, Nickiel,” Marta pointed at Penuel. “Take this buffoon with us and let us settle our own affairs.”

“Not so fast, Marta. You are not the only one with assistance.” Nethaniel put his fingers in his mouth and whistled a sharp, quick note. Within seconds the tent flap opened and six gargantuan men, each bigger than both Guidel and Nickiel, entered and surrounded those in the tent.

“Please escort Marta and her two friends to confinement. We shall then discuss their case with Moses and take appropriate action.”

Guidel and Nickiel did not struggle as men grabbed them from either side. Marta resisted and kicked up dust as she was dragged out of the tent.

“How can you do this?” she shrieked. “You are no different than me. You are also using force to have your way.”

“I am different. My force is sanctioned by God.”

“Wait. I can pay you. Here. Take this.” Marta pulled a golden coin out of her robe and flipped it to Nethaniel. Nethaniel caught the coin and instinctively bit it.

“Good quality. It will do you no good.” He tossed it back to the dust at Marta’s feet. “Take her away,” Nethaniel ordered as she bent down to pick it up.

The six guards and their captives exited the tent.

Penuel got off the floor and wiped his bleeding nose with a kerchief. “They would have beaten me. I heard they’ve done it to others.”

“And you have been complicit in these matters.” Nethaniel sat back down.

“Yes. I have been wrong. I see it now. My greed got me into this business. It was easy money and then I borrowed more to increase my wealth. But what can I do? I owe Marta so much.”

“You only owe her the principal, just as Rakar and anyone else you lent, owe you. When they pay you, you will pay her. In the meantime I suggest you find a better way to spend your time. I believe that covers everything. If that is all, please ask the next on line to come in.”

Penuel was the first to reach the tent flap. He looked at Rakar, stopped and held the flap open for him. Rakar smiled shyly. Nethaniel was pleased to see Rakar standing straight.


* * * * * *


Biblical Sources:


Leviticus Chapter 25:35-37

35 And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee. 36 Take thou no interest of him or increase; but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. 37 Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest, nor give him thy victuals for increase.




Nethaniel is a recurring character, named after the Prince of the tribe of Yissachar and used as a judge in other stories.


Rakar and Penuel are also from previous stories.


Marta is in for her namesake in the Talmud – she was a fantastically wealthy woman.


Guidel and Nickiel are fill-ins for classical mobster henchmen names, Guido and Nicki.


Jewish Law:


Not only is straight interest prohibited, but also a change in the behavior of the relationship as a result of the loan is prohibited.

About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and a candidate for the Knesset for the Zehut party. He is the author of three books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.