The Most Important Command in the Old Testament isn’t what you think

bible-boundWhat’s the most important command in the Old Testament?

C’mon, this is an easy question. Because Jesus was asked the same question so we can pretty easily rely on his answer. It’s the Shema: to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And to love your neighbor as yourself. Asked and Answered!

But no, Jesus was wrong.

At least, if you value grammar over the opinion of God-With-Us.


In my Sunday School class, I’ve been teaching a video series featuring Dr. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament professor and author. In February 2012, Brueggemann gave the three-day Barton Clinton-Gordey Lecture Series at Boston Avenue UMC on the topic of “Scarcity and Abundance in the Bible.”

In the third lecture of the series, Brueggemann points to the following as the most important command in the Old Testament:

In Deuteronomy 15, you get a law about seven years. It’s called the Year of Release. It says that at the end of seven years, if a poor person owes you money, cancel the debt.

Uh, what? That’s the most important? A law about releasing debts? What about the Shema? The 10 Commandments? Whatever. If you break this seven-year-release law, the United Methodist Church won’t even put you on trial.

So c’mon, how on earth is this the most important commandment? Brueggemann continues:

I’ll give you a little Hebrew grammar–I know you’ve been waiting for this. Biblical Hebrew has no adverbs. The way it expresses the intensity of the verb, it repeats the verb. So if it says give and you want to say “really give” it says “give give” right in the sentence–“give give.” This law about the Year of Release there are five absolute infinitives that you can’t spot in English. There are more intense verbs in this law than anywhere else in the Old Testament. This is Moses saying I mean this.

[The law] says to not be hard-hearted (or tight fisted) about granting poor people space to live their lives, because you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord God brought you out into the good place.

So grammatically, the Old Testament scripture with the most emphasis as in “you must must must must must do this” is a passage about forgiving debts.



Is it the greatest command? Clearly not, I completely agree with Jesus on this point.

But the command in the Bible that warrants the most emphasis, the most literary focus, the crescendo that storytellers and givers of oral tradition gave the biggest exhortation to…is a little passage about releasing debts in the seventh year.

To Brueggemann, this emphasis means that for a society composed of God’s people that there should not be a permanent underclass but the economy should be organized so that everyone has a viable chance. So that every seven years, there’s a chance for the people to get a leg up and have past errors forgiven. It’s the original social safety net, and it’s more painful to the rich than any progressive tax code in American history.

To me, it means that we follow a God who knows our sins, who knows our hard-heartedness, who knows our short memory, who knows that we bully those most like us, who knows that the mighty will always try to hide injustice behind fairness. And we are always called to live a life that follows God’s pattern: to strive for six days a week, and relax on the seventh. To build up for six years, and release it to be whatever it ought to be on the seventh. And to trust that our plans, our schemes, and our dreams should always be planned with space for God to work among us in that chaotic, uncontrollable seventh day, year, or moment…because that’s how a life centered on God just is.

To you? Thoughts?

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  1. John says

    Jeremy, you will undoubtedly get under some skin if you preach this message. But doesn’t any preaching on the fullness of life within God’s Kingdom do the same? Because we’ve been erroneously taught that ours is an individualistic faith (a view held by many Progressives and Fundamentalists alike), we’ve learned to take a cafeteria approach to living out that faith–picking and choosing which passages we’ll “spiritualize” and which ones we’ll take at face value. We don’t take seriously Jesus’ description of life within Christian community as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount… we balk at imperfectly executed attempts at fostering confession, forgiveness, and restoration as outlined in Matthew 18… we ignore the Year of Jubilee… we refuse to leave sufficient gleanings in the field… but we also tell Caesar to tend to the poor and the needy and denounce all attempts to recover for ourselves that responsibility.

    I’m curious, however, if when you speak of “organizing the economy” whether you’re specifically speaking to economic relations WITHIN the Christian community or whether you’re proposing that those outside the called-and-gathered Christian community also should be expected to adhere to Christ’s standards?

    • Zzyzx says

      Are the words of Christ meant to transform the world? Or do they merely apply to a fractional and sectarian group?

      • John says

        The words of Christ are meant to transform the world through the gathered community. Just as Israel was called into existence by God for the purpose of drawing the world to him through a chosen people, Jesus calls a people (his church) into existence to be salt and light to the world… a city shining upon a hill… through whom the world will be transformed.

        We seem to still be transfixed on maintaining a Constantinian relationship between church and culture… between church and state… that Jesus never spoke about. In fact, he and Paul spoke quite clearly about not intermingling the two. Thankfully, a post-Constantinian world is emerging, although with painful consequences. The distinctions between the values held by the Christian community and those of the world will become ever clearer… and in the long run that will prove beneficial. So long as we resist the temptation to conform to the world but to increase our conformity to the heavenly kingdom we can truly be salt and light.

    • says

      From the beginning, it wasn’t the priests who cared for the poor: it was everyone. Literally, everyone. And yet we find that as societies evolve and grow, it is a coordinated effort that yields the most help. Would individual churches or even individuals have been able to do Katrina relief or even a fraction of what UMCOR accomplished? We’ll never know but I doubt it–at least on the level of efficiency. So while the movement from corporate responsibility to individual responsibility is an erroneous one, the dividing of society into doers and givers has some wisdom to it.

  2. Patrick says

    I’ve seen Brueggemann speak, and we differ on quite a bit. I don’t doubt his understanding of the grammar, but I am interested in how he seems to think that word placement trumps all other interpretations. Maybe Moses was trying to get this across to certain people… I don’t know ANY preachers who have been guilty of tailoring messages in sermons to individuals who they think need to get the point (a.k.a. trying to play the role of the Holy Spirit.)

    • Patrick says

      Oh, and I do agree with your points, Jeremy. (sorry – left that out of my post!) We need a framework for forgiveness – and some will argue that it needs to be more rigid, and some argue that it needs to be less so.

  3. Julie A. Arms Meeks says

    Actively practicing the Jubilee Year would make a world of difference in all of our lives, whether economic forgiveness or personal (grudges). I’d never heard of it phrased that way but then I took classical Greek rather than Hebrew. I’m going to have to remember that emphasis.

    • says

      Just a note, Julie: the Jubilee year (every 49 years – 7 times 7 years) is different from this year of release (every 7 years). It’s the reset button for everything, not just debts and slaves in this Year of Release. A small but important distinction that is commonly mistaken, so don’t worry about it!

      • John says

        We read in Luke, ch 4:

        [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

        “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
        because he has anointed me
        to proclaim good news to the poor.
        He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
        and recovery of sight for the blind,
        to set the oppressed free,
        to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

        Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

        “The Year of the Lord’s Favor” is the Year of Jubilee. Except that Jesus was declaring release not for another 49 years but for good. He expects us to live it out within Christian community; sadly we don’t. We continue to compartmentalize our lives… convincing ourselves that our Christian life is somehow distinct from our work life, our home life, our hobby life, and our vacation life and not seeing that giving our life to Christ means that we hold back nothing.

  4. Wendy Putka says

    Wow. I believe the Shema is the greatest commandment. The Year of Jubilee/Year of Release fits within the “loving your neighbor as yourself.” I would LOVE to hear this preached and lived out by the church!

  5. says

    I recently preached this concept several weeks ago this as part of a series on Jesus and the Economic World. The following Sunday,our offering was ten times the normal Sunday offering. Yes, ten times higher, all general fund giving. It also seemed to spur other generous releases in various areas from an already generous and gracious congregation. The whole concept of the sevens and the seven-times-seven gave a fresh look on justice and poverty issues. Obviously can’t guarantee that kind of outcome, and it was all part of a larger series, but clearly it was a pivotal message.

  6. KP says

    john’s comment above nails it for me. yes, this command is super important…and then jesus takes it a step further and says, “god sent me to make jubilee happen EVERY DAY ALL THE TIME FOREVER. claiborne and wilson-hartgrove–in “prayer for ordinary radicals”–interpret the debt forgiveness part of the lord’s prayer as referring to this as well. in other words, we should be daily praying to yahweh that the year of jubilee become the ALWAYS of jubilee.

  7. Kirk VanGilder says

    Making it all the time forever can dull the necessary reminder to keep it though. I’ve of the things holidays do for us is create an annual ‘reminder…don’t forget ________’ memo into our liturgical and daily rhythms. One of the things I find lovely about having Jewish friends is the annual messages I get in the fall ask they seek to reconnect and make anything that remains ‘out of balance’ right again. Then, I know its Yom Kippur. And it becomes an incentive to do the same from within my own faith tradition of Christianity. We humans forget easily and ‘always all the time’ easily becomes ‘never because there’s never a special time we’re pushed to do this,’

    • John says

      I understand what you’re saying. But Jesus IS saying it’s “all the time forever,” because even now he is bringing into existence THE special time, which is his everlasting kingdom. He likens our growth in sanctification to passing through the refiner’s fire precisely because it’s uncomfortable and so often incredibly hard. But it’s what Jesus is calling us into, and Jesus never calls us to something that we will not be equipped to do. Bonhoeffer said that true discipleship is costly and that too often we’ve gotten used to seeking cheap grace… we want a grace that showers blessings upon us while we resist the transformation of our lives that the fullness of God’s grace demands of us. It’s become too easy to limit our understanding of faith to assenting to a set of propositional truths so that we can hold back from living into those truths. And so Jesus pushes us… and if we are truly Wesleyan Christians, we seek out small groups of fellow believers who will equip, exhort, and encourage us to grow in discipleship.

  8. says

    It sounds to me like Bruggeman is making a “preachable point” based on grammar. It’s a classic form of rabbinic midrash – of noting significant quirk or singularity about a text and using it to show that it’s significant. It doesn’t necessarily yield a literal, ultimate answer – it’s just a way for a teacher to emphasize a point. For instance, lots of sermons have been preached on the fact that the first commandment that God gives is “be fruitful and multiply,” therefore it is very important. Is it really? Probably not, but it’s drives home a point.

    It sounds like Bruggeman is teaching a sermon on forgiving debt and using this to drive home his message. I’d be surprised if Bruggeman actually is trying to trump Jesus.

    Doubled verbs are common in Hebrew to emphasize an action, and they appear in other commands God gives. (One translation that spells them out so that you can see them Everett Fox’s “Five Books of Moses.”) Exodus 22:21-23 is full of them:
    “Any widow or orphan you are not to afflict. Oh, if you afflict, afflict them . . . ! For (then) they will cry, cry out to me, and I will hearken, hearken to their cry, my anger will flare up and I will kill you with the sword, so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!”

  9. says

    My thoughts:
    1) I’d back Bruggemann’s interpretation on just about anything OT. He’s the real deal.
    2) I wish your blog had “likes” for comments, because some of these comments are great!
    3) The “Year of Release” wasn’t just for the poor to “re-set.” It was meant to “re-set” everyone so that no one fell into the rut of thinking their prosperity was either a) independently achieved or b) permanent.
    4) Reposting on UM Insight.

    • John says

      Cynthia, your third point is terrific. The children of Israel (and we, too) during prosperous times too easily forgot that their good fortunes were because of God’s providence and favor and convinced themselves that they had provided for themselves. This, of course, gave the prophets much gainful employment, and the Israelites would eventually seek God through confession, repentance, be forgiven, and receive again the blessings of God. Do we recognize our own sinfulness in failing to acknowledge that God is both provider and owner of ALL that we possess?

  10. says


    Just to confirm, are you merely stating that from the perspective of the Old Testament, the most important commandment contained therein was that regarding the forgiveness of debts on the seventh year?

    You are not, just to confirm, denying that Jesus said that the most important commandments were to love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself? Because from a Christian perspective, I really hope you’re not denying that. Because if you you are, congratulations, you just invented a new heresy (what will we call it, Antiregulaaureanism?)

    My main polemics campaign is finished, but this might require another treatise or an expansion of my work, if you’re actually saying that Christ was wrong in summarizing the OT commandments into his two commandments.

    Also, fun fact, Christians are actually positively bound to five commandments, agreed between Peter, Paul and James the Just at the Council of Jerusalem around AD 50. We should abstain from “meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication” Although later I believe it was Paul who partially released the injunction against eating meat offered to idols, if the food was taken but the idolatry itself was rejected, but urged the avoidance of such in as many cases as possible, due to the risk of confusing the lesser minded laity.

    By the way, Messianic Rabbi Bernay, I love Messianic Judaism. I would like to see your congregations however refer to Paul as Paul, and not as Sh’aul; that may be the Hebrew root of his original name, but his name was changed as part of his conversion process. However, the pious custom of referring to God as G-d or as Hashem is entirely admirable.

    • says

      First off, please call me Adam. Secondly, while I generally refer to Paul as Paul, and was taught for years that his name was changed at his “conversion to Christianity,” I discovered that the Bible doesn’t actually say that. First off, I would disagree that he “converted to Christianity,” as there was no “Christianity” to “convert to” at the time; it was still a Jewish sect. But also, unless you can show it to me, I have never found anywhere in Scripture that says his name was changed as a result of his Damascus Road experience. When I did a search just now for the name “Paul” on Bible Study, the first instance was in Acts 13, where it reads, “Saul, who was also called Paul…” I believe — and I could be wrong on this — that “Sha’ul” and “Paul” are the exact same name, just one is Hebrew and one Greek, like “Yochanan” and “John” or “Matityahu” and “Matthew”.

      • says

        Hey Adam,

        Let me clarify. By “Converted to Christianity,” i mean to say Paul acquired the faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which was not universally accepted in Judaism. So basically, as I see it, what we now call the Christian church was the result of a three way schism of the Pharisees; the Christians, the Rabinnical Jews, and later, the Karaites (who are horribly discriminated against; I would love to see some Messianic Karaite congregations, by the way). Of the other Jewish sects, the Sadducees most likely vanished due to the collapse of the Jewish upper classes, which were contingent on cooperation with the Roman Empire, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the offices of which they dominated, although some might call Karaitism a form of neo-Sadduceanism (I wouldn’t, since Karaites believe in resurrection, but some would), and the Essenes may have merged into Christianity, particularly into the Ebionites or Nazarenes or other sects considered heretical by what became the Catholic Church, or they might have disappeared altogether; the Samaritans, who are most likely the descendants of the Northern Israelites, and thus part of the nation of Israel, but not Jewish per se, also survived, in very small numbers. I would do anything to convert the 720 remaining Samaritans to Christianity, as this would be remarkable due to their significance in the NT and also the unpleasant fact that they practice animal sacrifice, which a mass conversion to Christianity would obviate.

      • says

        By the way Adam it may interest you to note that your statement of faith by Maimonides appears to be heretical, specifically article 3, appears to be Modalism or Sabellianism, in addition to Pneumatomachianism.

        The real question of faith is, do you affirm the Nicene Creed, or not?

        It seems to me that it would be better to either preserve authentic Judaism, or alternatively, embrace a Hebrew form of Orthodox Christianity, as opposed to just leading Jews with Messianic intentions into a heretical, degenerate form of Christianity in the manner of the Ebionites.

  11. says

    One should point out by the way that this is one aspect of Levitical Code that it would be a disaster if it were still in force; no one could get a mortage, and property ownership would be restricted to only the wealthiest of the wealthy. In Israel this had already become the case to a large degree by the time of Christ’s ministry, but during the Mosaic period it was less of an issue, because there was enough land for all the Israelites.

  12. Corinne Crammer says

    The Shema does not include the second part of the two great commandments, just the first. The focus of the Shema is on God “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Nothing that follows mentions love of neighbor!

    • says

      I would cite the Shema as an example of Judaic liturgy but not as a prototype of the two primary commandments of Jesus Christ. You can hear an echo of the Shema in the Orthodox call to worship: “In peace let us pray to the Lord; Blessed be the father and the son and the holy gohst, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.”

    • says

      Corrine, you are correct. The sentence in the blog post could be read that way. But it could also be read as two separate entities…which was my intent. Thanks for pointing out the confusion.

  13. Michael deCamp says

    Psalm 72:3 “That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,
    And the little hills bring righteousness.”
    The Jubilee (via the little hills?) brings the mountains down to their “right height” bringing justice to all people.

  14. says

    You people do realize though that if we actually did this, no one could buy a house or a car. Our economy depends on the management of debt. What’s needed is responsible lending.

    Israel didn’t need this kind of debt based economy, because the small population and the large amount of arable land in Palestine created a situation where everyone in an agrarian economy could fend for themselves, for the most part, with some exceptions, which Jewish law provided for.

    The Torah was specifically written for Palestine during the Mosaic period; this is one reason why Jesus deprecated portions of it during his ministry (although certainly not the entire thing).

    We should forgive the debts of people wherever possible, but we should not restore a system of enforced debt-forgiveness or jubilee years, because if we do that, everyone will be living in overcrowded apartments. Such a law would turn America into the Soviet Union, which is what I’m sure some of you liberals would want, but if you ask any Russian Orthodox Christian their view on the subject, they’ll say our approach to economics is better.

    I personally feel that each branch of Christianity has contributed something to the whole picture. The Apostolic Church gave us our faith. The Eastern Christians teach us how to pray, and the importance of tradition and repentance. The Catholics teach us the importance of education and charitable service. The Protestants teach us how to run a Christian economy; we can see how in Holland, after the Reformation, an economic miracle began, which spread throughout Protestant Christendom. Protestant Christianity created the theology of responsible capitalism, which has been adopted by the Romans and is filtering into Eastern Christianity now that the Russians have thrown off the yoke of socialism. Though right now, Russian capitalism is marked by Victorian style excesses, within 20 to 100 years i think we’ll see a Russia that looks a lot like American business in the 1950s: economically stable, driven by quality and run with ethics and integrity.

    Here too I think we can learn from Asian thinkers. Confuscianism, which I consider to be a philosophy, and not a religion, and entirely compatible with Christianity (as did the Jesuits), stresses filial piety and devotion to one’s superiors and ones subordinates. Managers must love their employees, and employees must love their managers. Only in such an environment can any system work, most especially capitalism. The current business culture where people constantly change jobs whenever they get a better offer somewhere else, rather than remaining loyal to a company; and likewise where companies seek to terminate the pension plans of their loyal retirees, who spent their lifetime working for said company, is just utterly perverse. We need to go back to the 1950s in this respect.

    In fact, in general, if I could do anything, I’d turn the clock back to the 1950s; aside from the racism, the Cold War, and the lack of personal computers, it was pretty much a Utopian paradise. Its thanks to people like liberal Protestant clergyman, like the demented Episcopal heresiearch James Pike, that that world was destroyed. If we could have held on to the values of the 1950s, while also accepting the message of Martin Luther King of the need to not discriminate on the basis of color (which historically, the Apostolic Church never did, which is why the Ethiopian Orthodox Church represents the only historically literate community in Sub Saharan Africa), we would live in a wonderful world.

    Alas, people would rather be ruled by their uncontrolled passions. All of you are just utterly dominated by your unconstrained desire for sex, for money, for power; its disgusting. Even those of you who claim to be liberal reforms really just want to impose your will on other people, by radically reshaping the Protestant church for literally the pure Hell of it. I myself also lust for these things, but the difference between you lot and myself is that I hate myself for it; I understand these desires to be wicked and evil, and fight to suppress them. I say this without pride, but rather, in the spirit of begging you to do likewise. Look in the mirror, look at the evil that is just dripping from you. No one should think about self-esteem; the mere idea of self-esteem, so enshrined in our society, is contemptible. We human beings are really the most disgusting, evil, hideous monsters alive anywhere in this Solar System. We alone, out of all of God’s creatures, possess the power to exterminate all life on this planet God gave us. We alone constantly develop new and disgusting ways of having sex, new and disgusting ways of exploiting people for money, and new and disgusting ways of dominating each other. We must learn to hate ourselves, and to love God, and God alone, because only God offers us purity and salvation. Otherwise, we, like sows, will return to our own vomit, as Christ has said. And that’s what this is: vomit.


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