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The Land Belongs to God

By Michael Hudson. [I’ve deleted the lengthy comments by several members of the faculty – just

noting their names.]

Speech to the Union Theological Seminary, Columbia.
[Edited version for clarification, January 23, 2017]

The focus of my talk today will be Jesus’ first sermon and the long background behind it that helps
explain what he was talking about and what he sought to bring about. I’ve been associated with
Harvard University’s Peabody Museum for over thirty years in Babylonian economic archeology. And
for more than twenty years I’ve headed a group out of Harvard, the International Scholars Conference
on Ancient Near Eastern Economies (ISCANEE), writing a new economic history of the ancient Near
East.

The five colloquia volumes that we’ve published began in 1994. We decided we have to re-write the
history to free it from the modern ideological preconceptions that have distorted much popular
understanding.

When I began to study Sumer and Babylonia in the 1980s, there wasn’t any economic history of the
ancient Near East. There were histories of the ancient Near East, but I had to go through every volume
with general history, look in the index, and sometimes I would find debt, but more often there wasn’t. I
had to go through the whole literature, and I realized that assyriologists didn’t want anything to do with
economists. There was a very good reason for that. Since the 1920s there was an idea of what was
called “Babylonianism”: The idea that everything came from Babylon. In practice this meant that
everybody would project their own belief about how civilization began in the ancient Near East and the
Neolithic.It was like a Rorschach test. The Vatican, who had Sumerian translators, thought that it was a
temple state and temples ruled everything. Socialists thought that it was all communal. The free
enterprise boys – the Austrians and other liberals –just ignored the palaces and the temples, and
thought that markets and individuals traded, and that was that.
From the actual people who study cuneiform records, 90% of which are economic, what we have
surviving from Sumer and Babylonia, from about 2500 BC to the time of Jesus, are mainly marriage
contracts, dowries, legal contracts, economic contracts, and loan contracts. Above all, loans.

We decided at Harvard to do three volumes of colloquia. The first was on privatization in the ancient
Near East: how did private property emerge. The second was on land tenure. And from the very
beginning the main focus was going to be on the third volume. That was on debt and economic
renewal, that is, debt cancellation.I didn’t read Babylonian or Sumerian. My degree is in Germanic
philology, not in ancient languages. So I had to read all these royal proclamations of debt cancellations
in translation. And that turned out to be a great benefit. Because the translations of the Sumerian and
the Babylonian, in every language are completely different.

In America, it’s a tax reduction. Samuel Kramer, who wrote the most popular book on Sumer, wrote a
letter in 1981 to The New York Times urging newly elected President Reagan to do what Urukagina
did in Lagash in 2350 BC and lower taxes. That’s not what happened. The esteemed professor was
projecting his own right-wing economic beliefs onto the ancient past.

The English thought – how English can you get – that these were free trade agreements. The Germans
got much closer to the reality, and said they were debt cancellations. Finally came the French
translations. They got it right: Dominique Charpin translated the Sumerian term as a restoration of
order. The word for the clean slate in Sumerian was “amargi” and the root is “ma”: The “mother” of all
situations.

The rulers had what we would call an economic model. They realized that every economy tended to
become unstable as a result of compound interest. We have the training tablets that they trained scribal
students with, around 1800 or 1900 BC. They had to calculate: How long does it take debt to double its
size, at what we’d call 20% interest? The answer is 5 years. How does long it take to multiply four-
fold? The answer is 10 years. How much to multiply 64 times? The answer is 30 years. Well you can
imagine how fast the debts grew.

So they knew how the tendency of every society was that people would run up debts. Now when they
ran up debts in Sumer and Babylonia, and even in in Judea in Jesus’ time, they didn’t borrow money
from money lenders. People owed debts because they were in arrears: They couldn’t pay the fees owed
to the palace. We might call them taxes, but they actually were fees for public services. And for beer,
for instance. The palace would supply beer and you would run up a tab over the year, to be paid at
harvest time on the threshing floor. You also would pay for the boatmen, if you needed to get your
harvest delivered by boat. You would pay for draught cattle if you needed them. You’d pay for water.
Cornelia Wunsch did one study and found that 75% of the debts, even in neo-Babylonian times around
the 5th or 4th century BC, were arrears.

Sometimes the harvest failed. And when the harvest failed, obviously they couldn’t pay their fees and
other debts. Hammurabi canceled debts four or five times during his reign. He did this because either
the harvest failed or there was a war and people couldn’t pay.

What do you do if you’re a ruler and people can’t pay? One reason they would cancel debts is that
most debts were owed to the palace or to the temples, which were under the control of the palace. So
you’re canceling debts that are owed to yourself.

Rulers had a good reason for doing this. If they didn’t cancel the debts, then people who owed money
would become bondservants to the tax collector or the wealthy creditors, or whoever they owed money
to. If they were bondservants, they couldn’t serve in the army. They couldn’t provide the corvée labor
duties – the kind of tax that people had to pay in the form of labor. Or they would defect. If you wanted
to win a war you had to have a citizenry that had its own land, its own means of support.

Basically what you had in the Bronze Age and every ancient society was a different concept of time
than you have today. You had the concept of time as circular. That meant economic renewal. The idea
was that every new ruler, every new reign, began time all over again. It wasn’t really time, it was really
the economy had to start from a new position of equilibrium. This equilibrium – basically freedom
from debt, the ability to support yourself – had to start afresh.

Economists look at ancient Near Eastern history and think: “You couldn’t have had Clean Slates, you
couldn’t have canceled the debts, because then you would have had anarchy.” The fact is that
proclaiming a Clean Slate was the way to avoid anarchy. It was the way to restore people to self-
sufficiency. So in Sumer and in Babylon, every major ruler would proclaim a Clean Slate. We have the
records to detail this century after century.

People know Hammurabi’s Laws, that’s in all the textbooks. But those laws were never official: They
are more a literary document. What actually had legal binding force – and we know this from the
cuneiform court records – were the debt cancellations that Hammurabi proclaimed in the second year
of his rule, and later when he went to war with Larsa, and proclaimed it on other occasions.

The word that they used was andurarum, a word that has the sense of “a river flowing.” You sort of
restore the flow. It really meant that bond servants were free to go back to their families.

These Clean Slates had three elements: Number one, they would cancel the personal debts – not the
business debts, not the debts denominated in silver among merchants and other rich people. These
debts were business contracts, and they remained in place. It was the petty debts, the consumer debts,
that were canceled. Number two, lands that had been forfeited were restored: the crop rights, if they’d
been pledged to creditors. And three, all the human beings who had been pledged as bondservants
would be free to return to their families.

This word andurarum reappears in the Bible as the word deror. The Hebrew word is deror, which is
obviously a direct cognate. And the jubilee year that appears in Leviticus 25 is a direct translation of
Babylonian practice.

There’s a question: What happened between writing the Bible, including the laws about deror, and
Jesus? There are hardly any documents, there aren’t any that have come down to us. We don’t know
about if there were any jubilee years in Judea.

We don’t know really what happened up until the time of Jesus, except that there was at that time the
same war between creditors and debtors that there was in Rome. Every Roman historian of the time –
Livy, Plutarch, Diodorus – they all blamed the fall of the Roman republic on the creditors behavior of
assassinating the debtors’ leaders, the rule by violence and the takeover of the economy by creditors
after centuries of debt war. We know that this was going on throughout the whole ancient world,
including in the Near East.

We know that in the very first sermon that Jesus gave when he returned to Nazareth, he went out on the
Sabbath to the synagogue, and unrolled the scroll to Isaiah 61 and read that Isaiah, had been sent to
preach the good news to the poor. “Good news” translates literally to “Gospel.” And he said it was to
proclaim freedom for the captives, and release for the prisoners, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s
favor, deror, which meant, basically, a Clean Slate.

What does this mean? There have been a lot of translations. As the time the King James Bible is
translated, and at the time it was translated to other languages, people just thought the year of our Lord
meant: “Obey God.” They’re not quite sure what it means. An even greater argument occurs over the
Lord’s Prayer. What does it mean: Is he saying forgive us our sins, or forgive us the debts? Well, most
of religion’s leaders, certainly the vested interests, say: “He’s talking about sins,” that religion and
Christianity is all about sin, it’s not about debt.

Actually, the word for sin and debt is the same in almost every language. Schuld, in German, means
the debt as well as the offense or the sin. It’s devoir in French. Basically you had exactly the same
duality in meaning Akkadian, the Babylonian language. The reason goes back to an idea, called
wergeld in parts of Europe, which is universal – we have it in Babylonia too. If you injure somebody:
if you hurt him or you kill him, either you have to go into exile in the city of refuge, or the family gets
to kill you, or you settle matters by paying. And the payment – the Schuld or the obligation – expiates
you of the sin. So the word for the payment of the offense is the same as the offense, and you’d expect
this similarity to occur in every language.

Some of the Qumran [Dead Sea] scrolls really proved that what was at issue was debt. The most
important scroll is 11q melchizedek. “Q” is for the Qumran cave where they were found, cave number
11. And in this scroll collects everywhere in the Bible that talks about debt cancellation: deror.

Leviticus 25 is about the year of the jubilee: “Each of you will return to his possession.” In
Deuteronomy 15: “Let every creditor release that which he’s lent to his neighbor.” In Isaiah 61:
“Release the captives, release the bond servants.” In Psalm 82, the Psalms of David: “God stands in the
divine assembly, he’s going to give his judgment. God will judge his people and punish the wicked.”
There’s a whole collection and there’s no question that this is what is meant by the idea of debt and sin
and obligation.Well, you can imagine how upset most religions were when they found these scrolls.
They said they must be by this sectarian group, the Essenes. They must be a radical group, sort of like
the Trotskyists. We can just sort of ignore them. But it turns out now that biblical scholars have found
that the Qumran caves seem to be the library of the Temple of Jerusalem. During the wars with Rome
they moved the library to the caves of Qumran in order to keep them from being destroyed when the
Temple was sacked and burned down. So these scrolls were the very core of Judaic religion.The fight
of Jesus against the Pharisees was about this. At first Jesus said: “Good to be back in Nazareth, let me
read to you about Isaiah.” In Luke 4 says it that this was all very good, and they liked him. But then he
began talking about debt cancellation, and they tried to push him off a cliff.So basically you have the
whole origin of Christianity was a last gasp, a last fight, to try to reimpose this idea of the economic
renewal – of a Clean Slate – that goes back at least to the 3rd millennium BC and probably all the way
to the Neolithic.

So you have this last attempt to try to get a Clean Slate, and we know what happened to Jesus. His
followers were not able to bring it about. So by the 1st and 2nd centuries of our era, what could the
Christians do? You’re never going to get the Roman Empire to announce a Clean Slate. As a matter of
fact, when the kings of Sparta, at the end of the 3rd millennium BC, tried to cancel the debts, the
oligarchs of Greece called in Rome. Rome went to war against Agis, Cleomenes and then Nabis and
destroyed Sparta. They were going to fight against anyone who wanted to cancel the debts. Mithridates
in Asia Minor in the 1st millennium fought against Rome, canceled the debts, and also killed about
30,000 Romans in the ancient Near East. It was a long bloody fight, and they all lost.

So all the Christians could do was have charity. Well, the problem with charity is that you have to be
rich in order to lend to somebody. It’s like what David Graeber did with Strike Debt. You can buy the
debt and pay somebody else’s debt and give money away, but that doesn’t really fix the system. The
result was, it really was the end times. The choice was: either you’re going to have economic renewal
and restore people’s ability to support themselves; or you’re going to have feudalism.
That basically is how the Roman historians described Rome as falling. The debtors were enslaved, not
only the debtors but just about everybody was enslaved, put in barracks on the land. Finally, you
needed to have a population, so you let people marry and you gave them land rights – and you had
slavery develop into serfdom. Well we’re going into a similar situation today, where I think we’re
going into a kind of neo-feudalism. The strain of today’s society is as much a debt strain as it was back
then.

It’s very funny: If you go into Congress – I was the economic advisor to Dennis Kucinich – you go into
Congress and there’s a big mural with Moses in the center and Hammurabi on his right. Well, you
know what Moses did? He gave the law. Leviticus, right in the center of Mosaic law, canceled the debt.
What did Hammurabi do? Debt cancellation as well. You’re not going to see Congress canceling the
debts like that.
If you look at the Liberty Bell, it is inscribed with a quotation from Leviticus 25: “Proclaim liberty
throughout all the land.” Well now we have translation problems again. The word really isn’t liberty:
The real word means Clean Slate. It means freeing society from debt, letting everybody have their own
basic housing and means of self-support. And by striking coincidence, what does the Statue of Liberty
do? She’s holding aloft a flame. And in the Babylonian historical records, when Hammurabi would
cancel the debts they would say: “The ruler raised the sacred torch.” So here you have a wonderful
parallelism.It’s been written out of history today, It’s not what you’re taught in Bible school, or in
ancient studies, or in economic history. So you have this almost revolution that’s been occurring in
Assyriology, in Biblical studies and Hebrew studies, and it’s all kept up among us specialists. It hasn’t
become popular at all, because almost everything about the Bronze Age and about the origins of
Christianity is abhorrent to the vested interests today.

Dr. Brigitte Kahl: ……..

Dr. Michael Hudson:

You bring up Deuteronomy, the seventh year. Unlike the case in Babylonia, where we have all of the
records that they kept on cuneiform and clay records, the records in the Mediterranean lands haven’t
survived. So we don’t know what happened. We just don’t know any details. We don’t know how
much of this was actually applied. We do know how widely it was applied in the Near East because we
have the lawsuits over it.Regarding what you said about communities at those stages and on: Yes,
absolutely, you have to band together. That’s the only way you can survive And yes, you need
communalism at a point where everybody is ground down to near poverty, because if you don’t have
mutual support, you’re going to succumb.

Rev. Claudia de la Cruz: ……..

Dr. Michael Hudson:

Many people who oppose debt cancellation try to pooh-pooh the Babylonian and Sumerian
cancellation. Samuel Kramer, the right-wing Sumerologist, said they were all failures because once
they canceled the debts, they all grew back again. You have to realize that every society is going to run
up debts, every society is going to run up bills, every society is going to polarize. So it has to be a
permanent, ongoing revolution. You have to continually keep restoring it. Obviously, today, you’re not
going to begin with a debt cancellation.

What has caused this basic shift away from debt cancellation is the privatization of credit. In Sumer
and Babylonia the temples and the palace were the source of credit. In medieval Japan it also was the
temples that were the creditors. Most people ran up debts, in Japan, to the temples for sake – the
temples were also sake-makers. There were revolts against the sake-makers to cancel the debts, and
they were successful.

The problem is the privatization of credit. The government today could cancel the student debts that
are owed to the government. But they can’t cancel the debts that are owed, say, to David Rockefeller or
to other banks – to somebody else.

The banks should be a public option, just like health care should be a public option. Even the
University of Chicago right-wingers, in the 1930s, proposed a 100% reserve. The idea is that banks
should not be able to create credit, meaning create debt. When you create credit, you’re creating
somebody’s debt. That should be a government function, because the government can relieve the debts.

The bankruptcy law was re-written in 2005. It made it almost impossible to declare bankruptcy. It used
to be you could declare bankruptcy and have a clean slate, on an individual basis, not a social basis, but
now even that has been closed here. And for student loans you can’t have bankruptcy at all.

Obviously this has to be a big fight. Dennis Kucinich tried to fight for it and immediately the
Democrats redesigned his district, gerrymandered the voting districts to get him out of Congress so that
he wouldn’t talk about it anymore. So it’s obviously going to be a very hard fight.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis:

Dr. Michael Hudson:
Well you’re right, that’s the problem: How do you popularize it all? What do you do today? The first
thing is I think you have to frame it in the big picture.

The way you get to people is to say: We’re at a turning point in history. If we don’t solve the problem
of economic polarization, which is caused mainly by debt, we’re going to go into another dark age.
We’re going to have neo-feudalism. We’re going to have neo-serfdom, except that you’re not going to
be tied to the land like serfs were. You can live wherever you want, but wherever you are, you’re going
to have to pay about 40% of your income just for housing. And you’re going to have to pay for water,
and you’re going to have to pay for the other needs. This is the new kind of serfdom. You have to re-
frame what the economy is about in a way that people can understand.

And you need a multi-pronged approach to fight on four or five fronts. You need academics so that
nobody can say you don’t know what you’re talking about. You need an organ, a periodical; you need
books; you need to make use of the Internet; you need films; and you need a political group. You need
to institutionalize this idea and give it a critical mass of coherence, and I think that’s what you folks are
doing.