As I meander on my journey of finding the best way for a Christian to handle money, I have taken a turn down Debt Avenue. Many finance bloggers, journalists, and gurus are quick to help you get out of debt, but I want to take a step back and understand first why I should get out of debt. I have already begun this conversation with an introductory post and another that directed me towards the topic of debt. Now I continue deeper into that topic. (I have written another post on debt that is not categorized in the “Philosophy” category.)
Looking to Scripture
I want to dive deep into one particular verse to try to understand what it is saying: Proverbs 22: 6-8 (NIV)
6 Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
7 The rich rule over the poor,
and the borrower is slave to the lender.
8 Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity,
and the rod they wield in fury will be broken.
Verse 7, particularly the last half, “the borrower is slave to the lender,” has been thrown around a lot lately in my social circles, as I have been attending Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. What does Solomon mean when he says that the borrower is slave to the lender? Is he saying that this is how it should be, or that this is an evil thing he has seen in life? Maybe he is just saying that this is the way the world works, not necessarily making any moral judgement. Does this verse mean that we are to never become a borrower, or even a lender for that matter? Answering these questions is difficult, especially because of the nature of the book of Proverbs. What often appear to be disjointed, unrelated sayings, are sometimes connected in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
Asking Smarter People
Although I do have some understanding in Biblical interpretation, having graduated from a Christian college where Bible classes are required, I take Biblical interpretation very seriously, and didn’t want to stray too far into murky waters. I looked at a couple different peer-reviewed theological journals and commentaries to get some foundational understanding of this passage. Daniel Treier offers some incredibly helpful background information into the genre of Proverbs:
Proverbs do not offer ironclad guarantees, because they chew on the reality of creation in bite-sized comments. These aphorisms make no pretense of examining every side of a situation.
He goes on to apply this specifically to one of the verses we’re looking at, verse 6. Are there cases where children depart from a righteous way of life despite having had great parenting? Of course! The point of the proverb is to communicate the importance of good parenting and teaching children how to live. The proverb is meant to evoke more questioning and reflection, rather than giving a straightforward answer to how to raise kids. In discussing this point, Treier later says,
Proverbs, in other words, do not map the world in the systematic fashion that modern scholars are used to. Neither are they, for all their concreteness, practical in the sense that Western people expect.
So then, how does this apply to our discussion on debt? Verse 7 is not a rule, just like verses 6 & 8 are not rules. Are they generally true? Yes, the proverb is simply citing what people have already observed, however, it is meant to be a point of reflection rather than a directive. This is wisdom literature. The wise person considers the weight of going into debt before going into it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that wise people don’t borrow money, just as the verse doesn’t mean that the borrow is always slave to the lender.
While Treier gives an appropriate and helpful background into the genre of Proverbs, Washington and Fox focus more specifically on the types of proverbs found in chapter 22. Washington points out that proverbs such as 22:7 are a type of analysis and critique of the way society operates. The proverb is “saying it like it is” without commenting on whether it is right or wrong. Money presents people with power, and those with money and power rule over those without money and power. The same is true today – many politicians are quite wealthy and many wealthy people have influence in politics. But are we a slave to these wealthy people? In some ways yes, and in some ways no.
Fox connects verse 7 to verse 8, suggesting that the pair of verses has more implication for the lender than for the borrower. In essence, “Be good to your subjects, you rulers and wealthy, for if you rule with harshness, your power may be taken from you.”
A Word on Slavery
I find it interesting that the term “slave” is used. Most translations either use the word “slave” or “servant.” Slavery has a horrible connotation in our culture, as it should – the injustice of the American form of slavery was evil in every sense of the word and is still felt today. However, slavery in the Bible was quite different. Through Moses, God even provided a system of slavery for the Israelites. It was closer to what we think of today as bankruptcy and had nothing to do with race or ethnicity. In addition, slaves were guaranteed freedom after 7 years. “Slavery” in either sense is not anything close to what we experience today when we take on debt, when both the bank and the borrower benefit and agree to the loan.
So What Does It Mean?
It seems that Proverbs 22:6-8 is neither approving of nor condemning the borrowing of money. A fundamental rule in Biblical interpretation is, “a text can never mean what it never meant.” Proverbs never comments on our modern form of banking; it was written in a time of verbal agreements and bartering. To strictly apply these verses to the modern use of student loans, car leases, and mortgages is invalid. However, the truths of Scripture are still timeless. Can you become crushed by getting yourself too deep in debt? Absolutely! We are to be wise as we borrow, and we are to be wise as we lend.
Fox, Michael V. “The Epistemology of the Book of Proverbs.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 126, no. 4 (December 1, 2007): 669-684.
Treier, Daniel J. 2011. Proverbs & Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press, 2011.
Washington, Harold, C. Wealth and Poverty in the Instruction of Amenemope and the Hebrew Proverbs. SBLDS 142; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994, 191-202.