In nothing, perhaps, do the Israelitish laws deviate so far from our own, as in regard to matters of debt. Imprisonment was unknown among the Hebrews, who were equally free from those long and expensive modes of procedure with which we are acquainted, for the recovery of debts. Their laws in this respect were simple, but efficient. Where pledges were lodged with a creditor for the payment of a debt, which was not discharged, the creditor was allowed to appropriate the pledge to his own benefit, without any interposition of a magistrate, and to keep it as rightfully as if it had been bought with the sum which had been lent for it. But, beside the pledge, every Israelite had various pieces of property, on which execution for debt might readily be made; as
(1.) His hereditary land, the produce of which might be attached till the year of Jubilee:
(2.) His houses, which, with the sole exception of those of the Levites, might be sold in perpetuity, Leviticus 25:29-30 :
(3.) His cattle, household furniture, and ornaments, appear also liable to be taken in execution. See Job 24:3; Proverbs 22:27 . From
Deuteronomy 15:1-11 , we see that no debt could be exacted from a poor man in the seventh year; because the land lying fallow, he had no income whence to pay it:
(4.) The person of the debtor, who might be sold, along with his wife and children, if he had any. See Leviticus 25:39; Job 24:9; Job 2
Kings Job 4:1; Isaiah 50:1; Nehemiah 5.
We have no intimation, in the writings of Moses, that suretyship was practised among the Hebrews in cases of debt. In the Proverbs of Solomon, however, there are many admonitions respecting it. Where this warranty was given, the surety was treated with the same severity as if he had been the actual debtor; and if he could not pay, his very bed might be taken from under him, Proverbs 22:27 . There is a reference to the custom observed in contracting this obligation in Proverbs 17:18 : "A man void of understanding striketh hands," &c; and also in Proverbs 22:26 : "Be not thou one of them that strike hands," &c. It is to be observed that the hand was given, not to the creditor, but to the debtor, in the creditor's presence. By this act the surety intimated that he became in a legal sense one with the debtor, and rendered himself liable to pay the debt.
2. We have above noticed the practice of lending on pledge; but as this was liable to considerable abuse, the following judicial regulations were adopted:
(1.) The creditor was not allowed to enter the house of the debtor to fetch the pledge, but was obliged to stand without the door, and wait till it was brought to him, Deuteronomy 24:10-11 . This law was wisely designed to restrain avaricious and unprincipled persons from taking advantage of their poor brethren in choosing their own pledges.
(2.) The upper garment, which served by night for a blanket,
Exodus 22:25-26; Deuteronomy 24:12-13 , and mills and millstones, if taken in pledge, were to be restored to the owner before sunset.
The reason of this law was, that these articles were indispensable to the comfortable subsistence of the poor; and for the same reason, it is likely that it extended to all necessary utensils. Such a restoration was no loss to the creditor; for he had it in his power at last, by the aid of summary justice, to lay hold of the whole property of the debtor; and if he had none, of his person: and, in the event of non-payment, as before stated, to take him for a bond slave.