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Just because you see a word in any type of historical document doesn’t mean that word has the same meaning today.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?