It was my first trip out of the United States (well, I guess that’s not completely true, I had been to Canada, but does a trip to America’s hat really count?). I was headed to Cameroon with three other men to equip students at a small seminary in the northern part of the country.
As we stepped off the Air France jet I was slapped in the face by hot, dense air that was laden with scents foreign and challenging to my western sensibilities. Along with other weary travelers, we walked down the stairs that had been rolled up to the plane, proceeded across the tarmac, and made our way into a bustling airport to find where our luggage would be waiting. This last bit was really important, for our luggage contained not only all our personal supplies, but we also had around twenty rubbermaid containers filled with books and materials for our African students. We were eager to see if everything had made it safely with us.
As we approached the area where the unloading was occurring, we noticed a separate, small holding area where numerous pieces of cases and trunks—including our containers!—had been placed, surrounded by a few guards. It was then that we were told we may have to pay a “fee” to have our possessions released. As a virgin international traveler I asked, “A fee?” Yes, a fee. Well, really, a bribe.
Based on conversations with a number of my missionary friends, it seems that this is not all that uncommon in the developing world. In fact, some countries and regions have elaborate systems of bribes built into normal, everyday governmental processes by which cultures operate and function. It is built right into the economy.
In spite of that, my conscience and sense of justice reared up with indignation at the thought of taking part in a bribe. Because that’s wrong. It is not the right way to get what you want. Because I am a Christian, I live by a biblical set of standards, which guide me in the path of wisdom to pursue and live a good life. A righteous life.
A secret gift calms anger;
a bribe under the table pacifies fury.
(Proverbs 21:14, New Living Translation)
Wait, what!?! Did the Bible just condone a “secret gift,” and a bribe given under the table?! A plain reading of the text makes it seem that way. But let’s pause here for a moment, because as I sat in my favorite Bible reading chair early this morning, and my eyes hit and stuck on this text, here is what struck me—this is what makes Bible reading fun!
For here in this proverb, I was faced with a challenge to my thinking. I read something that didn’t make sense to my understanding of the world. Because if you’re like me, you were probably brought up being taught that bribery is wrong. We have laws against it in our country. Depending on the level of offense, you can be heavily fined and serve jail time for bribery. And this is important, because Proverbs is the book of wisdom, and it seems this little saying is condoning a crime.
So what’s going on here? How do I understand what is being presented as wisdom?
Again, here is where the fun of Bible study happens. You read something. You don’t understand it. And now, prayerfully, thoughtfully, with the help of the Spirit who will give you understanding in everything (2 Timothy 2:7), you dig in to figure out what’s going on. Shall we?
The first thing I do when I’m trying to get my head around a text is look at some other translations (including the original languages). Maybe it was just the New Living Translation that rendered it this way. The Bible can’t be saying bribery is right.
English Standard Version—
A gift in secret averts anger,
and a concealed bribe, strong wrath.
New International Version—
A gift given in secret soothes anger,
and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath.
Christian Standard Bible—
A secret gift soothes anger,
and a covert bribe, fierce rage.
Ok, based on some other translations, the plain reading is holding. There appears to be a consensus among a number of gifted translation teams on how to render this Proverb into the English language. And it seems to be saying a bribe is OK. So, how can that be?
As we think on this passage further, we see how important it is not to merely do a word search of the Bible, and use the results to justify each and every potential action we may be considering. For example, if I had pulled up my Logos Bible Software in that airport in Cameroon and searched “bribe” to see what I should do, this verse would have popped up, and maybe I decide on a quick read, “Hey, it’s ok to give a bribe to this person to release our luggage.”
But does this verse apply to my airport circumstance?
Read closely, we find it may be the proverb refers to a disagreement between two parties. Imagine that one person has offended another person in some way, arguments have occurred, and language—and people—have become heated. In the words of the proverb, “angry” and “furious.” So now the one causing offense finds themselves as a defendant in a litigation. A court case. What are they to do?
This proverb is a kind of observational proverb, offering some wisdom for how to cool the situation down and get it resolved before it must come before a judge. Offer a gift to soothe the anger, extend a bribe—a gift of money or other inducement—to assuage fierce rage. In our day, in such a case, we would sometimes call it a ‘settlement,’ and might even seal the terms (“a secret gift”) so no one but the parties would know.
Huh. Read that way, choosing and understanding words in context carefully, we see wisdom here. A gift, and a bribe, are not always a bad or wrong thing, and can actually bring about good, and a good life.
Would this reading have made a bribe at that airport OK? I’m not sure. I’m glad it didn’t come to that, because they ended up giving us our luggage.
Would it make a bribe to someone we’re dealing with, who is furious with us, OK? Just ask that harried mom with a screaming toddler in the cart at the grocery store about to give the child a candy-bar to keep quiet, and see what she says.
I love your Word! It is truly a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path. What a joy it is to dig in and find treasures of simple and wonderfully practical, every-day wisdom for a good life. Thank you for your Spirit, who gives us understanding in everything, when we apply our minds to think hard about what you’ve said. And Father, please keep opening our eyes, to see wonders in the Bible.
Yes, and very amen, in Jesus’ name.
Pursuing the wise and good life with you,
P.S. If you’d like to study some of the wisdom literature further, I highly recommend the Wisdom Series from The Bible Project, and their resources on the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs Thirty-One Day Reading Plan
August 14: Proverbs ch. 1
Aug. 15: ch. 2
Aug. 16: ch. 3
Aug. 17: ch. 4
Aug. 18: ch. 5
Aug. 19: Grace Day
Aug. 20: ch. 6
Aug. 21: ch. 7
Aug. 22: ch. 8
Aug. 23: ch. 9
Aug. 24: ch. 10
Aug. 25: ch. 11
Aug. 26: Grace Day
Aug. 27: ch. 12
Aug. 28: ch. 13
Aug. 29: ch. 14
Aug. 30: ch. 15
Aug. 31: ch. 16
Sept. 1: ch. 17
Sept. 2: Grace Day
Sept. 3: ch. 18
Sept. 4: ch. 19
Sept. 5: ch. 20
Sept. 6: ch. 21
Sept. 7: ch. 22
Sept. 8: ch. 23
Sept. 9: Grace Day
Sept. 10: ch. 24
Sept. 11: ch. 25
Sept. 12: ch. 26
Sept. 13: ch. 27
Sept. 14: ch. 28
Sept. 15: ch. 29
Sept. 16: Grace Day
Sept. 17: ch. 30
Sept. 18: ch. 31
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