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In Proverbs 17:8 (ESV) the author states,

A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.

Earlier in the text in 15:27, the author states,

Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live.

But later in 17:23 he states,

The wicked accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice.

Finally, in 21:14 he says,

A gift in secret averts anger, and a concealed bribe, strong wrath.

It seems then that author of Proverbs is claiming that while wicked people accept bribes, bribing someone else may be advisable and result in positive outcomes. Is this the case, or is the author of Proverbs universally condemning both the giving and receiving of bribes?

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TL;DR: Bribes that pervert justice are condemned, but gifts which curry favour are allowed and sometimes even a sign of wisdom.


שׁחד

The Hebrew word for 'bribe' in these verses is the root שׁחד (except for 15:27 which has מַתָּנָה 'gift' - I'm not sure why most translations render it as 'bribe' when 'gift' seems to fit the context just as well.) שׁחד only occurs 25 times in the Hebrew Bible which means we can do a comprehensive word study pretty easily. Below I will list most of the verses with this root.

I think the data shows the word is used in two contexts. I'm not sure if the word therefore has two distinct senses. I think it might really just have one sense, perhaps a 'gift of enticement' would convey the meaning well, which can be used in just and unjust contexts.

Bribes which pervert justice are condemned

The most common context is when a gift is given to pervert justice. Here are the texts (from the ESV) condemning such bribes:

Exodus 23:6-8: You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. 7 Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. 8 And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

Deut 10:17-18: For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.

Deut 16:18-20: You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

Deut 27:25: Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

Isaiah 5:23-24: Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
  and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
  and deprive the innocent of his right!

Psalm 15:1, 5: O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?
  Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
5 [He] who does not put out his money at interest
  and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.

Psalm 26:9-10: Do not sweep my soul away with sinners,
  nor my life with bloodthirsty men,
10 in whose hands are evil devices,
  and whose right hands are full of bribes.

Job 15:34-35: For the company of the godless is barren,
  and fire consumes the tents of bribery.
35 They conceive trouble and give birth to evil,
  and their womb prepares deceit.”

Proverbs 17:23: The wicked accepts a bribe in secret
  to pervert the ways of justice.

2 Chron 19:7: Now then, let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the LORD our God, or partiality or taking bribes.”

And we have some examples:

1 Samuel 8:3: Yet his [Samuel's] sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

Ezekiel 22:12: In you [Jerusalem] they take bribes to shed blood; you take interest and profit and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; but me you have forgotten, declares the Lord GOD.

Micah 3:11a: Its [Israel's] heads give judgment for a bribe;
  its priests teach for a price;
  its prophets practice divination for money;

So what we would call bribes are completely forbidden. You can't give a bribe to escape justice or a punishment, to induce a judge to wrongly convict someone else. The tender process probably didn't exist back then, but I think it's clear these verses would condemn the use of bribes to cheat and wrongfully win contracts as well.

Gifts to gain the favour of another

The other context is much rarer. The only verses endorsing such gifts I could see are the ones you gave in the question:

Proverbs 17:8: A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it;
  wherever he turns he prospers.

Proverbs 21:14: A gift in secret averts anger,
  and a concealed bribe, strong wrath.

But we do see some examples of people giving such gifts. They're not positive examples though, such as these two kings who gave the treasures of the temple to other nations:

1 Kings 15:18-19: Then Asa took all the silver and the gold that were left in the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house and gave them into the hands of his servants. And King Asa sent them to Ben-hadad the son of Tabrimmon, the son of Hezion, king of Syria, who lived in Damascus, saying, 19 “Let there be a covenant between me and you, as there was between my father and your father. Behold, I am sending to you a present of silver and gold. Go, break your covenant with Baasha king of Israel, that he may withdraw from me.”

2 Kings 16:8: Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the LORD and in the treasures of the king’s house and sent a present to the king of Assyria.

It was wrong to take the treasures of God to give to another, and it's wrong to trust in your own means rather than God, but these examples are more misuses of an allowable option than proof the option of giving gifts is categorically as wrong as giving bribes.

Ezekiel likens Israel's idolatry to a prostitute who pays/"bribes" its customers to sleep with her. And Proverbs 6:35 says that you can't make up for sleeping with someone else's wife by giving them gifts.

Ezekiel 16:32-34: Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! 33 Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. 34 So you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; therefore you were different.

Proverbs 6:35: He [the jealous husband of the woman you commit adultery with] will accept no compensation;
  he will refuse though you multiply gifts.

I think the kind of gifts which are allowed and even considered wise would be gifts like giving a bottle of wine to a new client, or taking your favourite clients out to a fancy restaurant. Even secret gifts can still soften anger, such as when countries trade spies with each other. But this is a matter of wisdom, and to ensure that gifts like these are not actually bribes, many jurisdictions now require those in public office to declare all gifts, and they may put limits on what can be accepted. We should consider carefully what is communicated by such gifts in our present culture.

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In this context in Proverbs17:18, the author is saying that the bribe is like a "magic stone" in the eyes of the one who gives it, and wherever he turns, he prospers.

This does not mean that the author is saying that giving a bribe is a good thing. On the contrary, there are several references in scripture that state "magic" or sorcery are condemnable for anyone to take pleasure in.

But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
-- Revelation 21:8 (NASB)

Also, just because he is "prospering" in result does not mean that one should go ahead and do this. In fact, financial gain really almost has nothing to do with pleasing God, and if anything, rich people often have a really tough time getting into heaven!

Then Jesus said to his disciples,

Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
-- Matthew 19:23 (NIV)

On another note, take a look at the other scriptures you referenced. All of them say that bribes are wicked and lead to hard times and bad results. Financial gain is not necessarily a good thing, and it is obvious that if someone is giving a bribe or dealing with money dishonestly, they are in all, making an unwise decision despite the fact they might make a few extra bucks.

The bible teaches us to be content with what we have financially,

5 and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. 6 But godliness with contentment is great gain.
-- 1 Timothy 6:5-6 (NIV)

  • Your point about magic being regarded as evil is a good one(+1), but Re: "...the other scriptures you referenced... say that bribes are wicked and lead to hard times and bad results." Proverbs 21:14 says that a Bribe averts strong wrath. – James Shewey May 11 '17 at 4:11
  • I have formatted your Bible quotes and identified the version of each, which helps make your answers easier to read, and to verify. – enegue May 11 '17 at 7:17
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I think that Proverbs is saying that offering a bribe in certain situations can be prudent.

For example, in the 1945 biographical movie of pianist Frederic Chopin, A Song to Remember,

A Song to Remember (1945)

a friend is able to convince Chopin's childhood piano teacher to talk to Chopin about going back to his original plans of performing in concerts all over Europe to earn money to help their Polish countrymen against the occupying Russian authorities. Around the 1:26:00 mark, she tells the piano teacher that another Polish uprising was put down by the Russians, who threw the best of the people in jail:

"every man who can speak or think or write or paint.... With money we can bribe many of them free!"

She then gives the piano teacher a small bag containing some earth from Poland. The piano teacher goes and speaks with Chopin and gives him the bag. This convinces him to do the tour, with him giving just about all of the money earned from his concerts to the Polish cause, which included bribing his countrymen free.

Another example is Oskar Schindler in the 1993 movie Schindler's List.

Schindler's List (1993)

Based on actual events, Schindler saves many Polish Jews from certain death at the hands of Nazis by repeatedly offering bribes to Nazi guards and officials. At one point he is able to bribe someone for the return of his workers by offering a small bag of diamonds. The diamonds in this particular bribe really were like "magic stones" to Schindler who offered them. Additionally this "concealed bribe" averted the strong wrath and malice of the Nazi official, who otherwise would have sent them all to their deaths without a second thought. In this case, Schindler's bribes did not deprive anyone of justice and in fact averted injustice.

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No, Proverbs is not condoning bribery - none of these verses condone bribery in any way.

"Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live" 15:27

The author here clearly describes someone who accepts a bribe as 'greedy for unjust gain' - seeking profit for themselves at the expense of justice or fairness.

"A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers" 17:8

In this verse, on the other hand, the author is referring to someone who offers a bribe to others. To have 'a magic stone in the eyes' is to be subject to an illusion - what this person sees wherever he turns is not reality but only the jewel: his own prosperity. If he can use his wealth or influence to get his own way around the rules, then it's likely he believes this will ensure his prosperity in everything else. Not only is he blind to all the real experiences of life, but he fails to see that wealth, power and influence are only the appearance of prosperity - they don't bring peace of mind or genuine happiness, particularly if you have to cheat to gain it.

"The wicked accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice." 17:23

Again, the author here refers to someone accepting a bribe, this time in secret. To do so in order to pervert the course of justice is clearly described as 'wicked'.

"A gift in secret averts anger, and a concealed bribe, strong wrath" 21:14

There are two ways we could look at this last verse, and it depends on our interpretation of the phrases 'in secret' and 'concealed'. I'm not an expert on translation, so I will defer to the many contributors on this website who are more knowledgeable on this point. But I would assume that either these phrases refer to the clandestine nature of the entire action, or simply to the anonymity of the giver.

If it is only the identity of the giver that is concealed, then it is possible to interpret this verse in a positive way, suggesting the effect of anonymous generosity on anger and wrath. But I don't think this is what the verse means.

I am inclined to interpret the phrase 'in secret' in the same way as 17:23 - as the entire action being secretive. This interpretation is a warning to anyone either giving or receiving.

The first half of the verse suggests a relatively harmless action: a 'gift' given secretly to someone to prevent them from being angry. The second half of the verse suggests that if the potential for anger is greater, one expects it be averted by an equal escalation on the other side. At some point it can only be described as a 'concealed bribe', which we have already been warned against for both the giver and receiver. The author draws our attention to the similarity of the two actions - only the intensity varies.

The warning is that while we convince ourselves that a 'gift' is harmless, the choice of word is only our attempt to downplay what is still a dishonest action - it is still bribery.

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