Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
One problem that comes up sometimes in the Bible is its honesty- its extreme honesty. Be it Noah getting drunk or the moral ambiguity of Jonah (who actually wanted the Lord to destroy the city he was supposed to save); God doesn’t withhold the truth from believers. Solomon in his (a little too honest) wisdom tells us that bribes not only work, but can be profitable. Check out Proverbs 17:8, “A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds.” It even sounds like King Solomon recommends bribing when you’re in a pinch according to Proverbs 21:14, “A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath.” However, the Bible is also pretty clear that we shouldn’t use bribes. For one, there is actually a law about it in Exodus 23:8: “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous.” And what about pro-bribe Solomon? Oh, well he might be honest about a bribe’s effectiveness, but he opposes them anyway, “A wicked man accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the course of justice” (Proverbs 17:23). All this can lead to an overall confusing reading of the Scriptures and potentially incorrect doctrine being drawn from it. So what is a Bible-believing follower of Christ to do?
To show me the answer, the Holy Spirit led me back to the book of Genesis to learn from a fairly well-known incident of bribery. Jacob (who fathered the twelve tribes of Israel) was not the most moral character in the Bible and he had swindled his twin brother, Esau, out of his birthright as well as their father’s blessing. Understandably, this did not sit well with Esau; and so we read, “Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob’” (Genesis 27:41). Since his brother was homicidal, Jacob ran away; but he couldn’t run forever. Well, he probably could have, except that he also upset his uncle Laban and therefore ran from him too (did I mention that Jacob is not the best role model?). When he finally decided to return to his homeland, he sent messengers ahead to soften his brother up first. Genesis 32:3-5 records,
Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my master Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been straying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’”
However, this plan appeared to have backfired, because the very next verse records, “When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, ‘We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him’” (Genesis 32:6). In holy fear of his brother, Jacob did when he did best, he formulated a plan. We read,
He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds” (Genesis 32:13-16).
Ah-ha! A bribe! Solomon said that a bribe is useful when dealing with wrath, so Jacob set the stage for a big one (since his brother wanted him dead). The strategy is revealed in Genesis 32:17-19,
He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’”
He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him.”
And so Jacob sent his gifts ahead to his brother before meeting him and his men. What happened? Scripture records,
Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept (Genesis 33:1-4).
It worked! Esau and the four hundred men were bought by all of Jacob’s stuff. WAIT. No. That’s not the end, for if we keep reading we find out what happened next,
Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?”
“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.
But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself” (Genesis 33:8-9).
Esau’s response wasn’t, “I was going to kill you, but your gifts changed my mind.” It was, “What’s all this crap you sent ahead to me?” Esau even tried to not accept the gifts, but Jacob was insistent, so finally he took them. Here after all this worrying and scheming and attempted bribery, it turns out that Esau was just happy to see his long-lost brother.
What can we learn from this? God doesn’t like bribes (as we already saw from the law about it). Therefore, for us who are in Christ, the Lord makes it so that we don’t have to use bribes (nor should we feel compelled to do so). Jesus tells us,
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).
The Lord will help his children in all that they seek. This means that if you are trying to act within God’s will, he will make the situation favorable to you, thus making bribing a pointless exercise. If you do need to bribe in order to obtain what you desire, then it’s probably a good indication that you are acting outside of the will of God and should pursue something else. In Jacob’s case, his bribe was pointless because God likes family; and so while Jacob was away, the Lord blessed Esau abundantly and not only calmed him down but made him long for his brother. Take note, both men cried upon meeting; Esau actually missed his sneaky little twin brother. Therefore we learn that for those made pure by the blood of Jesus that, although probably effective, bribes are ultimately pointless. For those who aren’t Christians it’s a whole other story, but they’ve got bigger things to worry about than the morality of bribery.
Rock on God!