Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Greed? (Proverbs 22:16)

Posted by jac/cdc on January 19, 2007

(Proverbs 22:16) עֹשֵׁק דָּל לְהַרְבֹּות לֹו נֹתֵן לְעָשִׁיר אַךְ־לְמַחְסֹור׃

o-SHAYQ DAL l’-har-BOT LO no-TAYN l’-a-SHEER ach-l’-mach-SOR

Oppressing the poor for one’s own gain, giving to the rich (leads) only to loss.

Well, its Friday and I’m left with a proverb that is so ambiguous as to yield no definitive interpretation. Its made more difficult by the lack of a monolithic view on the poor among the ancient Near Eastern sages. There are observations on the bitter plight of poverty (Ahiqar 105), there are sayings that neutrally describe the low social standing of the poor (Prov 19:7; Sir 13:3), and there are other statements about the oppression of the poor by the rich. At the same time, Proverbs 22:2 places the rich and poor on equal footing before God, and kindness toward the poor is encouraged as proper behavior for the righteous and honoring God, while oppressing them is an insult to God and brings one’s own ruin (Prov 14:31; 21:13; Avot 5:13). Poverty can come through laziness (Prov 10:4) or greed (Prov 11:24) or from God (Sir 11:14).

This proverb is grammatically amibugous: Is it an antithetical statement of two parts or a single statement? Does the prepositional phrase “for him” (for one’s own) refer to the oppressor or the poor person? One can perhaps tease out a central idea of greedy person who oppresses the poor and gives to the rich (a bribe of sorts to gain influence and social standing?) all in their attempt to bring about their own aggrandizement. On this interpretation “only to loss” needs to refer to the whole proverb: oppressing the poor (out of greed) and giving to the rich (to buy influence and standing) both bring the greedy to want.

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