Bribery in biblical perspective

Money talks, as we all know, and in recent months it has shouted itself into national prominence again and again. The use and abuse of money are matters of concern to us all. We try to keep up with phases and freezes and base prices, and worry over what it costs to put a tiger in the tank and a chicken in the pot. We shudder at towering interest rates. We are shocked by reports of Watergate “hush money,” of illegal campaign contributions, and of government favors that could be bought. We are stunned by the departure from office of a man who allegedly took contractors’ kickbacks not only while he was a state governor but even after he had become Vice-President of the United States.

These striking examples of the abuse of money provoke a question: What has become of the prophetic voice in society today? When confronted by the leaders of his day, Jeremiah weighed the options of hushing up or speaking out. He resolved, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:9). Courage to speak the truth boldly is desperately needed in our day. It is time for the deadly silence and deceiving doubletalk to end.

“The love of money is the root of all evils,” cautioned Paul. “It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:10). If the Bible were being written today, how would Paul expand on this verse? Would he not deal with such vices as hush money, black-market food operations, kickbacks from contractors to politicians, the fixing of speeding tickets, money on the side to building inspectors or welfare workers?

Today’s Christian needs to know what the Bible says about bribery. He must not only know why it forbids bribery but also be prepared to speak out against this evil when he sees it practiced.

The term “bribe” or “bribery” occurs more than twenty-five times in the Bible, all in the Old Testament. Both Old and New Testaments, however, contain a number of accounts of the practice of bribery.

The Hebrews had two main words for bribe. The more common, shōḥaḏ, means “to give a present.” Gift giving was seen as a legitimate means of getting ahead in ancient society (cf. Prov. 18:16), and so, Moshe Greenberg has pointed out, the “distinction between gifts and bribes must sometimes have been extremely subtle” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, I, 465). The other word used for bribe is kōpher, generally thought to come from a root meaning “to cover, hide, cover over” or “to pacify.” (This is the same word translated “atonement” in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.) Thus, etymologically speaking, the ancient Israelite might see a bribe as a “cover-up” or a way of “pacifying” another.

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As early in Israel’s history as the wilderness wanderings we see a kind of bribery at work. Balak, king of Moab, was in great fear of Israel. Desiring to have a curse put on this threatening horde, Balak dispatched his elders to the prophet Baalam with “fees for divination in their hand” (Num. 22:7). Before going to the Moabite king, Balaam resolved, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more” (v. 18). The outcome was that Balaam blessed (not cursed) Israel, four times.

During the period of the judges, each of the Philistine lords promised to pay Delilah eleven hundred pieces of silver if she would tell them the secret of Samson’s strength so that he might be overpowered (Judg. 16:5). Also during that period Samuel made judges of his sons Joel and Abijah. But Samuel’s “sons did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 8:3).

At the time of the divided kingdom, military alliances were crucial for a nation’s survival. On two occasions the nation of Judah used silver and gold to bribe a foreign nation to act on her behalf. First Kings 15 tells of Judah’s King Asa bribing the king of Syria to break off his alliance with Baasha, king of Israel, and to fight instead on Judah’s behalf. Later in Judah’s history (2 Kings 16) King Ahaz bribed Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, to rescue him from the Syro-Israelite invasion.

Bribery was present in the closing chapters of Old Testament history also. In Jerusalem, Shemaiah was bribed to prophesy against Nehemiah, telling him to flee to the temple “for they are coming to kill you” (Neh. 6:10–13). In Persia, King Ahasuerus was bribed by Haman with ten thousand talents of silver to consent to his plot to exterminate the Jews (Esther 3:8–11).

Probably the best known instance of bribery in the New Testament is that of the chief priests who, after the resurrection, gave money to the soldiers so they would “tell the people that the disciples stole the body of Jesus” (Matt. 28:11–15). The chief priests were also involved in bribing Judas with thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus (Matt. 26:14, 15). Finally, bribery is referred to in Acts (24:26), where Felix hoped that Paul would give him money to hasten his release from prison.

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To find out what the Bible says about bribery, let us first look at who takes bribes. Because God is man’s pattern to follow, here is where teaching on bribery begins. And “there is no perversion of justice with the LORD our God, or partiality, or taking bribes” (2 Chron. 19:7; cf. Deut. 10:17). It was thought in Canaanite religion that gods could be manipulated or appeased through offering and ritual. Yahweh, however, in sharp distinction from Baal, could not be bribed by man’s pious activities. Israel could not buy God’s love or favor; she already was the object of his love and grace. God wanted commitment and obedience, not empty ceremonies. In this God-like pattern Samuel and Job, two of the greatest Old Testament saints, affirm their moral integrity. They challenge those around them to find in them the taint of bribery (1 Sam. 12:3; Job 6:22).

Isaiah says, “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts” (1:23). Yet those particularly warned about bribery were the upper class of Israelite society, especially leaders within the community. Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, hurled these stinging words through the streets of Jerusalem: “Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong. Its heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money” (3:9–11). The Northern Kingdom during this time was equally as bad. A rich, self-sufficient merchant class had come to power “who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:12).

Judges seem to have been the most susceptible to bribes, for they are singled out more often than others. The Heavenly Judge is fully righteous and impartial in all his dealings with men (Gen. 18:25; Ps. 9:8), and the earthly judge must conform to His standard of integrity. Because there was the ever present temptation for a judge to “ask for a bribe” (Micah 7:3) or to “acquit the guilty for a bribe” (Isa. 5:23), the Mosaic law established specific qualifications for judges. They were to judge with righteous judgment, not pervert justice, not show partiality, and not take a bribe (Deut. 16:19). Putting it even stronger, Exodus states that a judge must hate a bribe in addition to fearing God and being trustworthy (Exod. 18:21).

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Building upon the biblical materials, the Talmud cites cases that show a very strict expectation for judges. It specifies, “If a man takes payment for acting as a judge, his judgments are void” (Mishnah Bekorot 4:6). Even the slightest courtesy extended to a judge, such as giving a hand to help him alight from a ferry, was enough to cause that judge to refuse to take the man’s case in court.

A second point to which the Bible speaks is God’s attitude toward bribery. The Law clearly forbids bribes: “You shall take no bribe” (Exod. 23:8). The man who is able to endure God’s fiery judgment when he exposes those engaged in secret unethical practices is the man “who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe” (Isa. 33:15). God’s vengeance in fire on bribery is likewise seen in the strong figure, “Fire consumes the tents of bribery” (Job 15:34).

God expects man to hate bribery (Prov. 15:27; it is a wicked man who accepts a bribe (Prov. 17:23). The one taking a bribe is the object of woe (Isa. 5:22, 23) and is declared “cursed” along with idolators, adulterers, and murderers (Deut. 27:15, 23–25).

God is opposed to bribery because it usually is a means to an unlawful end. Bribes are used to “shed blood” (Ezek. 22:12), for instance, and to “slay an innocent person” (Deut. 27:25). Bribes corrupt society, perverting the ways of justice (Prov. 17:23) and influencing the decisions of judges (Isa. 5:23). In addition, they contribute to sexual immorality (Ezek. 16:33) and neglect of the orphan and widow (Isa. 1:23).

A final question dealt with in Scripture concerns the outworking of bribery. How does bribery affect man and where does it eventually lead him? Gifts temporarily appease some (cf. Prov. 6:35), thus averting anger and wrath (Prov. 21:14). But the lasting effect of bribery on man is its corrupting influence on the mind (Eccles. 7:7). Three times the Bible describes bribery as that which “blinds the eyes” (Deut. 16:19; 1 Sam. 12:3; Ex. 23:8), thus making one incapable of impartial judgment.

The Bible does not specify a particular penalty for taking bribes. Talmudic law, however, states that in crimes where biblical law provides no penalty, the violator fell subject to corporal punishment in the form of flogging (cf. Deut. 25:1–3). In keeping with rabbinic tradition, the modern State of Israel holds culpable both the giver and the taker of bribes.

What is the end of it all from God’s perspective? The Book of Psalms says that those who do not “take a bribe against the innocent” will dwell on Mount Zion in God’s presence (Ps. 15:5); on the other hand, those “whose right hands are full of bribes” God will sweep away with sinners (Ps. 26:9, 10).

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How does all this apply to the Christian? Among the practical principles for Christian living that can be derived from what the Bible says about bribery are the following:

1. Money (“the gift”) is a powerful magnet and may readily be used by Satan to induce corruption of behavior. Outwardly, the Evil One makes bribery appear attractive: “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of him who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers” (Prov. 17:8). The believer must be alert to the insidious inroads of bribery and apply to his life consistently the wisdom of Hebrews 13:5, “Keep your life from love of money.”

2. Those in positions of leadership are especially vulnerable to bribes. In our survey of the biblical characters involved in bribery, the majority of the donors and takers were people of reputation and influence. Many were leaders in governmental and religious circles. Ministers today are not exempt from similar temptations. For example, a minister of a small church may avoid speaking against adultery because he knows that one of his faithful members, a heavy giver, is having an affair.

3. Bribery is often particularly attractive during a period of personal or national crisis, as a means of buying release from one’s tension. As seen in some of the biblical characters considered, under pressure man experiences a strong inner pull to trust the arm of flesh for deliverance rather than the Omnipotent One.

4. “The LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords … who is not partial and takes no bribe” (Deut. 10:17). Still, it is easy for the Christian to fall prey to the belief God can be “bribed” through religious exercise. A parent may think God must somehow be obligated to act favorably in behalf of a sick child if he puts an extra ten-dollar bill in the plate Sunday morning. We do not consider such an action to be an attempt to bribe God; nevertheless, the motivation behind our Christian obligations and actions is crucial in God’s eyes. It is easy to point to a man’s good works in seeking justification before the True Judge. But biblical theology can never be reduced to a mere quid pro quo formula. God takes no bribes in the form of human effort to merit his love and mercy.

5. The one who gets involved in bribery invariably ends up the loser. God says to us, “He who hates bribes will live” (Prov. 15:27). And the converse is equally true; he who loves bribes will die. Is it simply coincidental that both Haman and Judas met death with a noose around the neck? They were strangled by the tentacles of their own selfish desires.

Biblical religion is intensely ethical. “Whatever a man sows, that will he also reap.”

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