Why Is the Word Bribe Used in Proverbs 17:8?

We love hearing how people are digging into God’s Word which often leads to questions about a translations choice. We recently received a question about Proverbs 17:8 and wanted to share the response from our translation team.

Q: Proverbs 17:8 says “A bribe is like a lucky charm, whoever gives one will prosper.” Should it not say “A Gift is like a lucky charm, whoever gives one will prosper?”

A: This is a good question, and there isn’t an easy answer for it.

The rendering our reader suggests (replacing “bribe” with “gift”) is a possible one, and this would certainly make Proverbs 17:8 easier for modern readers to swallow. In the ancient context, some bribes were essentially an expected gift and the means of getting transactions done. This is clearly stated in Proverbs 18:16, where the common term for “gift” (matan) appears, and we translate the term there as “gift.” It’s possible that 17:8 could be understood in this way, as it’s certainly true both in the ancient context and ours, and “gift” is in the semantic domain of the term here (shokhad). However, since the terminology is different in 17:8 from what appears in 18:16, the translation team believes it points us a different direction that could allow interpretation in a more negative direction.

As translated in the NLT and many other translations, 17:8 isn’t necessarily giving good advice, since bribes are sometimes clearly shown in a negative light when they lead to injustice (see 17:23, just a few verses later, where shokhad appears again). So in this potentially negative light, 17:8 could very well be simply describing the way bribes worked in the ancient context (not necessarily advice to be followed). This is true of many of the proverbs. In 17:8, the offering of a bribe could be a good thing or a clearly bad thing, depending on the motives of the one who gives the bribe. It could reflect either the situation in 17:23 or the situation in 18:16. So this verse is likely simply observing a truth—bribes are effective, for good or for ill.

This highlights an interpretive principle for approaching the proverbs. Many proverbs clearly offer godly advice (and in such cases, righteousness and godliness are clearly associated), but some proverbs clearly just state the way things work in society. For this reason, all the proverbs should be carefully interpreted in the broader scriptural context, allowing the rest of Scripture to lend perspective on interpretation

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