As election season heats up, candidates tend to turn to God, and specifically his favorite book, The Bible. Bernie Sanders put it this way Tuesday on the campaign trail: “In my view, it is unacceptable that Americans are paying a $4 or $5 fee each time they go to the ATM. It is unacceptable that millions of Americans are paying credit card interest rates of 20 to 30 percent. The Bible has a term for this practice. It’s called usury.”
It does? Many Bible readers may not encounter “usury.” The word “usury” appears nowhere in the New International Version, often the Bible of choice among evangelical Christians, who represent roughly a quarter of American voters. Sanders did not name the translation, but alert Bible readers know that the word “usury” is the translation choice of The King James Bible, which uses the word 17 times, of which only two mentions are in the New Testament. Any voters out there still paging through the Latin Vulgate will encounter the word usura, which was Jerome’s translation choice.
Other popular Bibles fall somewhere in the middle of these two poles: The New American Standard Bible has four mentions of the word “usury” — three in Nehemiah and one in Proverbs. (For those who want to play “find the Bible word” at home, BibleGateway.com is invaluable, though it tends to skimp on Jewish translations.)
Hebrew readers may be even more surprised by the word “usury.” The Hebrew word, neshech, shares the same three-letter root with the verb linshoch, or to bite. Certainly high interest rates do take a bite out of a budget, not to mention one’s sanity. The Talmud, in Baba Metziah 5a, spells out the connection: “neshech … mipnei sh’hu noshech.” Literally: neshech…because it bites.
Jewish translations, like the widely used Jewish Publication Society, translate neshech as “interest.” Unpleasant, perhaps, but not usury. And sadly, the word “interest” doesn’t have the bite of Biblical Hebrew’s magnificent word play of neshech (interest) and neshichah (bite).
In the Bible, the word neshech often appears with another term, marbit. That term, which comes from the root reish,vet,hey, which indicates increase, is used not only for money but also for other types of loans, like food. (Vayikrah/ Leviticus 25:37.) The Jewish Publication Society translates marbit as interest, too. Interestingly enough, the modern Hebrew term for interest is ribit, based on this second and less-biting root for increasing borrowing costs in the Bible. Perhaps ribit reflects a more positive view of commerce, which relies on borrowing.
But let’s get back to English. For centuries, “usury” and “interest” meant the same thing, but in today’s usage, there is a big difference. Today, “usury” means exorbitant borrowing costs. The Bible is against all interest — low and high, which may resonate with Sanders supporters. But quoting the Bible on this issue is a little misleading; Jewish law has elaborate workarounds to make a lending system possible despite this prohibition, but it is probably too much information for primary voters who don’t get high on ancient law. (For those who are fascinated, the sage Hillel’s actions probably laid the foundation for a modern lending system.)
In any case, the King James certainly makes the more dramatic choice, even if it’s less correct than plain old interest. By using the word “usury,” Sanders may have been hoping for the spirit of the Hebrew — going for a word with teeth.
Aviya Kushner is the author of “The Grammar of God” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015).