Is the Borrower Really Slave to the Lender?

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It’s been a while since I had a good ol’ fashioned accusation of being a heretic, so I thought I’d stir up a little trouble today.

“The Bible says it, that settles it”. This is a great statement to live by as long as you’ve done at least a little bit of work to confirm that the Bible says it.

I’ve been growing more and more uncomfortable with the common usage of Prov. 22:7.  The passage was accurately highlighted in many of the writings of Larry Burkett, and has now been popularized by Dave Ramsey’s frequent use of the passage.  In fact, I think Prov. 22:7 is a Bible passage known and accepted by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Here is the passage in question:

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7 NIV)

Does Our Use of the Word Servant/Slave Dishonor Those Who Are/Were Slaves?

Just because you see a word in any type of historical document doesn’t mean that word has the same meaning today.  What if you found a letter from 75 years ago that said, “I’m feeling quite gay.”  Would that have a different meaning than that word today?  I think it would.

Is it appropriate for me to say the heartache one feels because they have debt is comparable to a time when people were literally enslaved for having debt?

Webster’s dictionary describes slavery as “a condition … in which a person is deprived of freedom, at least for a period of time, by being in subjection to a master in order that the master may benefit from the labor of the slave.”

If I have credit card debt, does that mean I’m in slavery?  Does that mean that Proverbs 22:7 now applies to me and my life? Or is that being a little over dramatic?

The borrower today has obligations.  The borrow today gives up some future control over his or her life, but are they slaves?

Put another way, if the Bible was written today, would it really say that the borrower is slave to the lender?  I think that people from biblical times would say, “If you think this is slavery, you’ve got another thing coming.”

When Jesus finished a parable, he said, “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.” (Matthew 18:30 NIV)

If you have credit card debt, can you say to that man in jail – “Yeah, me too, I know how you’re feeling – I’m slave to my lender.”

Sure, we can say I’m in a type of slavery.  I’m being ruled over in a way.  But, somewhere the parallel breaks down.  Somehow our modern situation doesn’t seem quite as drastic.

All I’m saying is I’m not sure Proverbs 22:7 directly applies in our culture where there are borrowing laws, bankruptcy options, and a whole mess of other loopholes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say the Bible supports debt.  I’m just not sure this is the best ‘go to’ passage.  I’m not sure it is accurate to say that the borrower is indeed slave to the lender.  It’s bad, just not that bad.

Who is this passage addressing – the rich or the poor?

During the times of ancient Israel, it seems clear that a lender could collect any and every item from you until there was nothing left to collect except for the person him or herself.  At times, even children were sold to cover a person’s debt.  The Bible does forbid Israelite lenders from participating in such lending practices, but it proves their borrowing climate was very different than our own.

The Message writes the passage in this way:

The poor are always ruled over by the rich, so don’t borrow and put yourself under their power. (Proverbs 22:7 NIV)

The focus of this way of reading the passage is that some foolish people have borrowed money and they are now under the power of the rich.

I believe that in Biblical times, borrowing was a function of survival, while today borrowing is a function of convenience.  In our society, Petersons’ reading makes sense.  Don’t borrow and put yourselves under their power.

But, in the biblical setting, the way the Message writes it doesn’t make sense.  People borrow to survive. As such, the option is borrow or die.  People didn’t glibly go and borrow money for a car.  They borrowed money for crops or other items necessary for survival.  The alternative to not borrowing is dying.

At the least, we could say this is a passage without judgment on either the rich or poor.  It is simply a statement of facts.  Or, if there is any incitement, it could be against the rich for ruling over the poor.

Could this passage be addressing the rich?  Could it be addressing the lenders, not the borrowers? Is it noble for the rich to rule over the poor?  Is that simply a fact of life?  Should we say, “Hey, if you’re dumb enough to borrow from me, then you deserve to be my slave.”  Why must the rich make the borrow a servant to the lender?  Perhaps the challenge is towards the rich to change their oppressive habits, not the poor to change.

Could Proverbs 22:7 be a sad commentary that is intended as an indictment of the rich?

Since I live in a third world country, I do make it a habit to lend money to people.  Does that mean I’m in the habit of enslaving people?  Does this passage (Prov 22:7) give me permission to rule over those people?  I see Prov. 22:7 as much as a challenge for the rich to be different as a challenge to the poor to stop borrowing.

What do you think?  Is our current debt structure and system parallel with slavery?  Is that a little extreme?  Is Prov. 22:7 directed towards the rich or the poor?

Comments

  1. Cedric says

    Hi Craig,

    Interesting article as always. I think the bible does use strong language sometimes. For example, did Jesus really tell us to hate our father and mother? I think the passage gets across the point that by borrowing we do lose our freedom, our right to chose, we do inherit a second master. Especially in light of no man can serve two masters.

    I think there is more bondage through debt today than we would like to acknowledge. Our current system doesn’t provide the same debt cancellation mechanism as the year of jubliee or other mechanisms for debt cancellation after a certain number of years of servitude.

    I really liked hearing your perspective on directing Proverbs 22:7 to the rich. I recently read the book titled Lords of Finance (don’t read it, way too detailed). Lords of Finance showed how after WWI the winning countries were as bad off as the losers. The winners made the situation worse by placing extraordinary debt obligations on Germany. Translation: debt can ensnare the rich as well as the poor.

    Thoughts?

    Cedric

  2. says

    Well, I believe what the bible says. The borrower is slave to the lender. If those people borrow money from you, then you own them in a sense. They are in servitude to you. It sounds a bit extreme, but it is what the bible says. Just like if I borrow money from the credit card company.

  3. says

    I dunno Craig, if you look at the absolute spiritual bondage that folks are in these days to their debt, which may work itself out to where they become workaholics to pay for all their toys and keeps them from following Jesus I would say that’s a pretty strong slavery to be in.

    Slavery just means your rights are given up – you are now under the direction of someone else. Someone else is your master. Paul calls himself a slave of Christ – did that mean he had no freedom? Of course not, but he was now under the direction of a new master.

    The point of debt being slavery is not so much that we are chained up in prison for not paying our bills, it is rather that we are now under a new master – the lender is the master, we must do what they say.

    I wish folks would take debt more seriously, not less seriously – debt is a very real and very damaging slavery to be in.

  4. says

    When you realize that you qualify for a job and not get it only because you took a settlement on a debt to that company this passage rings true. It will not apply to every person in debt, but it will apply to the person who has been unemployed for over a year finds the “perfect’ job and is rejected because of debt.

    There is also the fact that paying the minimum on a $3,000 debt can take you 17 years to pay it off…Each payment covers the interest and if you are late well, that is a whole other story.

  5. Gholmes says

    There you go making me think. Debt can be painful but not literally make you a slave.

    Over 7 years ago I felt I was enslaved. I was a divorced Dad living in rural Oregon, with joint custody of my son. Then I got downsized from a very lucrative job. I had to take a job in Seattle to keep bill current. Every weekend drove home (6 hours) so I could be there for my boy. That is when I started listening to radio talk shows and heard DR. I was able to get out of debt and take a huge cut in pay and work in same town. I am able to go to all his games now, be with him daily. My car payments, toys, debt kept me away from my son. He graduates next year and I have options now that I am debt free.

  6. says

    Craig,
    As always you make me think. I realize that properly understanding the Bible in today’s context requires first understanding what the original writers were saying in the original context. So, yes, there may have been a challenge to lenders: “do not take advantage of those you are loaning money to”.

    This being said, I cannot believe we are taking the verse out of context by interpreting it as a warning to those today who voluntarily put themselves into the bondage of debt. The lender has some responsibility to be an honorable person, but the borrower (in today’s world) is not being forced to borrow the money. Like you say, “today borrowing is a function of convenience”.

    In the end, debt is a type of servitude (different today than it was thousands of years ago, but still servitude) and I believe Proverbs 22:7 is an apt warning of this bondage to those who voluntarily borrow money for convenience.

  7. says

    I agree with the need to read verses in context, but I don’t think that just because we don’t live under literal enslavement where we give up all our rights – doesn’t mean the warning against debt isn’t still just as valid. I believe being in debt does put you in bondage – a slavery of sorts where you have had parts of your freedom taken from you. I believe our nation is in a crisis of debt and enslavement right now – maybe not a literal one – but one that can be extremely dangerous and bring about the downfall of many.

  8. says

    We also need to understand that there were different types of slaves. Joseph was a slave in Potiphar’s house, but he was also in charge of a large portion of the day to day activities that went on. When he was put into jail, still being a slave, he was in charge of the other prisoners. Slavery, even in Biblical times, doesn’t mean you have no freedoms, you just don’t have total freedom.
    Proverbs 22:7 is dead on accurate yesterday, today and tomorrow. When you are in debt, you don’t have total freedom to spend your money anyway you want. You are bound by the agreement to pay it back. Even declaring bankruptcy doesn’t make you free. The bankruptcy will stay with you for years, impacting many aspects of your life.
    Great article though and I appreciate the opportunity to really think about what the Bible says.

  9. says

    Craig, the responses you received to your article were very thoughtful and we hope to add to the already excellent discussion. It is a vitally important topic to consider and you’ve asked some really good questions.

    We tend to agree that the meaning of words do change over time. Have the words rich and poor also changed over time? We would answer in the affirmative, but we will save that for another discussion. Examining the origins of these words, in the Hebrew and Greek, makes for a very interesting study.

    We would agree that during the boom cycle, borrowing was more a matter of convenience than a necessity, but since the year 2000 (the bust cycle) we’ve experienced a continual barrage of economic disasters, one after another, and, as a result, more and more people are now using revolving credit for basic needs (food, shelter, utilities, and clothing) to bridge the gap between declining incomes and ever increasing expenses. But Proverbs 22:7 makes no issue of what the borrowed money is to be used for, but focuses, instead, on the slave/master relationship that is cultivated. Might not a loving Creator, who is no respecter of persons, desire that we not contribute to such divisive class distinctions by unequally yoking ourselves in such a relationship (James 2:1-9)? And, is not such a relationship subject to the human frailties Paul describes in Romans 7:14-25, no matter how well intentioned the parties to the relationship may be going into it?

    Other questions that we would throw out for discussion are: What circumstances would warrant us giving up a portion or all of our freedom? And, to whom or for what would we be willing to give up this freedom? Are people today really that much different from their predecessors of old? Have not people of all ages and dispensations struggled with the issue of debt and debt’s not so distant cousins named chiefly…the lust of the eye and the pride of life? Is keeping up with the Jones’s a unique phenomenon of the 20th or 21st century? See Ecclesiastes 1:9.

    The ball-and-chain slave of yesteryear certainly understood the full meaning of slavery. The reason a ball and chain was used was because the slave of yesteryear would escape if given a reasonable opportunity. The debt slave, however, might not have such an awareness, but may be just as enslaved as his or her ancestors were or possibly even more so. Which type of slave is the more despicable human condition…the one who knows he is a slave and would seek to escape from bondage at the first opportunity or the one who doesn’t recognize his despicable condition and keeps coming back for more debt just like an abused spouse will often cling to their abuser and, in so doing, fosters a rather perverse co-dependent relationship?

    In today’s age of enslavement, does not the lender have more to gain by keeping the borrower on the hamster wheel of perpetual debt, for as long as possible, than he stands to gain by throwing him in jail? This is an especially important consideration when the lender knows, as a result of political lobbying efforts, that a bad loan will be made good by taxpayer backstopping (bailouts). The slave masters, in today’s highly technological age, may have smartened up a little while their subjects have remained somewhat aloof to the dummying down process inherent in an educational system that, more often than not, represents the interests of the oppressive rich. To be perfectly clear, the tool of the oppressive rich is not capitalism, but rather crony capitalism. We’ve not seen true capitalism in a half century or more.

    In our view, scripture neither lets the slothful poor nor the oppressive rich off the hook. We see a symbiotic and unhealthy co-dependent relationship between the two. And, we certainly need not lump the rich in with the oppressive rich nor lump the poor in with the slothful poor because there is a big difference between the two that often gets shoved by the wayside in these discussions. The key distinction that serves to differentiate the rich from the oppressive rich and the poor from the slothful poor is who they are serving. The oppressive rich and the slothful poor are both slaves…to the flesh.

  10. J G says

    …bBut the Bible also tells us not to presume upon the future: Proverbs 27:1/James 4:13. Don’t walk around assuming that your
    job, living situation, life, etc. will still be there tomorrow.

    Good for you if you pay back your loan. Consider yourself very fortunate. Others, however, unexpectedly lost their jobs, lost their
    homes, lost their lives. Circumstances beyond our control happen daily: it is part of a fallen world.

    I naively thought my job would continue for several years while I pay back my loan. What a fool I was. I became a slave
    to my lenders for years, and my lenders had not a shred of compassion for my situation, but instead harassed me non-stop. It was the most
    horrible, harrowing thing I have ever experienced.

    So I am here to confirm the truth of Proverbs 22:7. Just because you paid back your loan this time doesn’t mean this passage will be untrue
    the next time you borrow.

    • says

      JG,
      I 100% agree. I’m not recommending loans. I’m not suggesting people get into debt.
      The point of this article is basically that the word “debt” today is different than the word “debt” in the Bible so some critical thought is involved when determining what the Bible says about borrowing.
      The point is that since the Bible (and Jesus) does approve of lending there must be a Biblical allowance for borrowing.

  11. JMR says

    I think your analysis is being too pedantic (Proverbs 3:5). If your intent was to say “the consequences of not repaying a debt are different today than it did 2000+ years ago”, then just say that (Matthew 5:37, Proverbs 21:23, Proverbs 29:20).

    Otherwise, you’re suggesting that the psalmist at Psalm 37:21 is lying. Just because the worldly consequences of not repaying a debt are different now than in the past doesn’t mean that the spiritual consequences are any different. Not repaying a debt is a sin, an old one. It’s _theft_ (that’s commandment number 8, and it’s often done in the pursuit of violating commandment number 10). We have a moral obligation to our lenders, and going into debt is a weak form of testing God (you’re presuming your current state of “financial grace” will remain, which it may not — a lesson Job learned the hard way). Every single time the Bible talks about debt it does so in a negative light. It’s not that borrowing is a sin, but rather it’s trouble prone and usually an unnecessary practice — it’s like drinking alcohol. You can certainly do it without sinning, but it’s highly correlated with sinful activity, so if you’re doing a lot of it, you better check yourself.

    On top of all this, if you look at the Hebrew root “a-bad” (servant/slave in this verse), you find that root in all of these translated words from the Bible: slave, bondage, bond servant, burdened, cultivate, do the work, enslaved, holding in bondage, imposed, keeper, laborers, servant, manufacturers, performers, plowed, rendered, served, subject, tiller, uses services, workers, working.

    The “servant” and “worker” translations are used more often than “slave” for words with the “a-bad” root. So I think the verse is still valid if you say “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower (is burdened by, is imposed upon by, labors for, serves, works for, is the servant of) the lender.” All of those words have the same root and could probably be snapped into the verse without changing its core meaning.

    So I don’t think there’s any besmirching of people who went into indentured servitude or even slavery 200+ years ago in this verse or in the modern use of it — I think people like Dave Ramsey are using it just as it was intended — remember, we’re resident aliens on this earth — sin is still sin, even if we’ve made it relatively painless to sin in our modern society — that’s not always progress.

    • says

      JMR,
      Thanks for the comment.

      I felt like this was a very technical issue that need to be approached methodically.

      I’m not claiming that Ps 37:21 is a lie. However, I am claiming Proverbs are not direct cause and effect promised offered by God. In other words, the Proverbs are general truths that when you abide by them they generally are true – but there are exceptions.

      I think the danger is that one might take a word used in the Bible and define it by a present day context.

      I think the historical consequence is a very important part of this conversation because people didn’t borrow then like we borrow today. Our first job is to find the points of comparison and then apply that today.

      For an extreme example, if I were to find an older translation that uses the word ‘gay’ for ‘happy’. I can’t teach that the Bible teaches us to be homosexual.

      I think we take the word debt and apply it to our context without first filtering it through the context and setting of the Bible.

      If the consequences are different then the application is different as well.

      I don’t teach people to use debt. I don’t use debt. However, if someone says they are going to borrow $3,000 to buy a car I don’t feel like they are a ‘slave’. I think that word is too strong today. Instead, I want them to understand that they now have an obligation and responsibility to that person. If one takes on too much debt then their obligations mount up beyond their ability to replay and they will lose certain rights over their lives. Still, with the long US history of slavery that word does not properly communicate what I think the Bible wishes to communicate about debt.

      • Kirk says

        Craig:
        I’m a little concerned by your choice of wording in this response. You say that proverbs are general truths. I don’t believe you are correct. God’s word is not generally true

        • says

          Kirk,
          I think that there are different genres in Scripture. As such our interpretation must be directed by the genre.
          When I read the Psalms I read them as poetry. The phrases in Psalms speak of things that would not be true if forced into a literal sense. But, we all acknowledge the value of the poetic nature. To read the Psalms as a legal document would be to miss the point.
          Proverbs are not promises. In other words you cannot take the words and 100% expect things to happen as the Proverbs speak. It is a guide for living wise. We should follow the Proverbs, but acknowledge there are times when our results will differ from the words of Proverbs.
          Prov. 10:4 – lazy hands make for poverty. There are those who are wealthy by inheritance who have never worked a day in their lives.
          Prov. 10:27 – the fear of the Lord adds length to life. Faithful people do die young.
          In other words Proverbs are wise words to live by and are generally true, but there are exceptions. This is the very reason why Job is classified as wisdom literature. There is a disconnect between Job and Proverbs. Proverbs are not promises, they are general truths.

          By the way, I’m assuming that when you say “God’s word is not generally true” you meant to clarify that it is always true instead of generally.

  12. says

    How about the other way? Sometimes a debt cannot be collected no matter how hard you chase the borrower to return it after a certain time. The borrower is in bad faith and probably has not much intention to return the borrowed sum or drag his feet and make you wait an eternity before paying back some and giving lame excuses for paying the other balance. And if the amount is not big, (but not so small either), and going the legal route would prove to be more trouble than it is worth and the expenses incurred to collect the debt would negate the amount to collect. Then who is indeed the slave?

  13. says

    I am a “landlord” for a few recent years now and I would get out of it if it would not lock in my real estate losses forever. I am hoping for the economy to recover, the more the better. But I must say that, having experienced the feeling of being owed rents or payments, I MUCH PREFER that feeling over owing payments to others. So what am I saying? It’s the RELATIONSHIP of debtor and debtee (lender) that is the proverbial “evil” being addressed. Any society based on friendships is changed whenever one people owes or owns another people. It’s just the way it is, but the Kingdom of Jesus, who calls us all to be His friends, and to have love toward each other whereby we show the world that we are His disciples, tells us in His famous prayer, “Forgives us our debts as much as we give our debtors,” and, “whoever does not forgive, will not be forgiven”. What capitalist would lend his accumulations and then forgive the loan? Capitalists know full well that you cannot serve Money and God. Their choice of “relationship” preference reveals all that’s in their heart. I know the feeling well. I know what I prefer. But I’d rather be free and now I can’t be unless I suffer my losses–it’s such are hard thing to do.

  14. herb fisher says

    I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go — I MUST GO or else I will lose my time-paid object to the lien holder!

    And this system of debtors and debtees is LOVED BY THE WORLD! Nothing has changed, except the spellings…

  15. PO says

    There are two ways to enslave a nation, one is by the sword the other is by debt- John Adams
    Ask the Greeks, Spaniards today. No country is history has ever accumulated as much private and public debt as the United States. Today municipalities in this country owe $3.7 trillion in debt(muni bonds). The bible also required all debts to be forgiven after 7 years. I would not confuse the traditions of men with HIS; warnings in the bible about that also

  16. says

    The verse says “servant”. And yet the entire premise of your article seems to be founded on people’s mis-quoting of the bible when they substitute the word “slave” for “servant”.

    Weird.

    I’d think you would write an article about how that mis-quoting the Bible can change entirely the meaning of a verse, and how that we should be careful to “study to show ourselves approved unto God” rather then mis-quoting scripture, as we know from Revelation 22:18 that adding to the Book is warned against, heavily.

    But of course this brings up a whole new topic of which “version” of the Bible should be used. There are not versions, there is the Word of God, and there are perversions of the Word of God.

    Here are the versions that get it wrong on this verse alone, thus changing the meaning of what God has to say and bringing about this article:
    English Standard Version (©2001)
    New American Standard Bible (©1995)
    Holman Christian Standard Bible (©2009)
    International Standard Version (©2012)
    GOD’S WORD® Translation (©1995)

    Clearly, they are NOT all saying the same thing, just in easier to understand, modern English. If that was the motivation, then why SO MANY versions? Why not just one modernized version?
    The real motivations are as follows:
    1) Westcott and Hort, non-believers, wanted a “Bible” that had less to say about their sin, so they made it happen.
    2) Now other churches felt inferior for not having their own versions, and so we get the vaticanus, and others.
    3) Their is money in Copyrights, especially when you’re talking about the all-time bestseller in the world.

    • says

      Todd,
      Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, I’m a little confused.
      Which word slave/servant are you claiming is correct? Which is the correct version to which you refer to?

  17. john smith says

    The book you should read before coming to your conclusions is written by
    Ellen Hodgson Brown and is titled Web of Debt.
    It might open your eyes to how really serious the debt we’re ALL facing in today’s society is.

  18. Brian H says

    Good article and great discussion in the comments. I have been in a little debt, but learned immediately that it is a bad idea. When the wages of my work go to another, am I not just as literally enslaved as anyone else in history? Sure, I may be a well-treated slave, so long as I work and pay my dues faithfully, but I’m a slave all the same. I agree that the Proverbs teach principles, not literal promises of God. But I also think the principle taught here is very plain. You seem to use anecdotal evidence that some people today “get away” with debt to say it isn’t slavery. Seems like a very dangerous position to hold.

    Also:

    “In today’s age of enslavement, does not the lender have more to gain by keeping the borrower on the hamster wheel of perpetual debt, for as long as possible, than he stands to gain by throwing him in jail? This is an especially important consideration when the lender knows, as a result of political lobbying efforts, that a bad loan will be made good by taxpayer backstopping (bailouts). The slave masters, in today’s highly technological age, may have smartened up a little while their subjects have remained somewhat aloof to the dummying down process inherent in an educational system that, more often than not, represents the interests of the oppressive rich. To be perfectly clear, the tool of the oppressive rich is not capitalism, but rather crony capitalism. We’ve not seen true capitalism in a half century or more.”

    /thread

  19. Randy Katz says

    Hi Craig,

    I am not a Christian but I can see that your word bantering is way less constructive then the money preaching of someone like Dave Ramsey. Call it what it is and deal with it, in my opinion, leads to do the most good. Do we all need to cut the credit cards? Perhaps not! Especially those who have them and have not paid a cent of interest for 5 years! I would say, also in my opinion, that having a religious fervor towards reducing debt should mostly be healthy, especially in our current culture. Of course the guys in the straight jackets are waiting for those who take it to the extreme level!

  20. no3gods says

    The whole system is faulty and needs to be done away with. Dave Ramsey has a good point about borrowing, even from family members, “Your Thanksgiving Dinner will not taste the same when you know that you *owe* mom some money.” You look at people differently and treat them differently, and you also think you have a say (which to some extent you do) in how they spend their money when they are in debt to you. If you were not their slave then they would have no right to put their nose in your business. I wonder if that’s one reason the government is more intrusive, and why society lets it be; because of welfare (slave to the lender.)

    I wonder if Jacob would have been born if Abraham would have had no saving and had been in debt to others. No sheep or goats to spare for offerings and for longevity; it would have changed his family tree….for the worse. On the flip side, I think if he would have become a lender, in stead of a giver, it would have also of had a negative impact on his family tree.

  21. BC says

    There are some stores that if you owe them a debt and can’t pay it and file bankruptcy they come in and take their stuff back to help pay off the debt you owe them.

    There have been many who have sold all they have in order to pay off their debts..so yes, they/we are slaves to the lender.

    That is actually how slavery started in America, a man paid another man’s passage to America, the man was to ‘work’ off his debt for a number of years–the ‘servant’ believed his debt was paid after a number of years and the man who brought him here took him to court and the judge agreed his debt was not paid and made him a ‘slave’ for life.

    Many others came to America as “indentured servants–or slaves and had to work off their debt..but isn’t that what we do now..we work to pay off those we owe a debt to?? we may not work directly for that company or person..but when all of a person’s money goes to pay off his debt they have no freedom with their money..

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