"He who pampers his slave from childhood will in the end find him to be a son." Proverbs 29:21, NASB

I want to contrast this with a prior verse:

"A slave will not be instructed by words alone; for although he understands, there will be no response." Proverbs 29:19

29:19 seems clear; you give the instruction, then provide the motivation (and it seems to me that the motivation implies a negative consequence to the slave).

In 29:21, however, it gives a formula for acquiring a son, which seems to me to be a good thing. I don't know the implications of the language translated as 'pamper;' I would read that as 'indulge, permit freedom, spoil,' and so on, EXCEPT that we are also expressly warned against doing those things with respect to our biological children (Proverbs 29:15), because doing so will bring shame to its mother.

Does 'son' in this verse have a negative flavor?

Who has wisdom?

  • Here is another rendering from The NWT and it hard to see any conection to the NASB : Prov. 29:21 "If a servant is pampered from his youth, He will become thankless later on." & The NIV helps here: "A servant pampered from youth will turn out to be insolent."
    – user26950
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 17:36
  • It seems to me that in the world of the author of the proverb, pampering would be a negative thing.This suggests a negative final word. Is pampering the actual nuance of the word?
    – Ruminator
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 22:45
  • The heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; Galatians 4:1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 15:09

4 Answers 4


There is a well-known problem with translating Hebrew proverbs - many contain multiple meanings and their sheer pithiness and occasional deliberate ambiguity makes translation tricky at best and almost impossible at worst. Prov 29:21 has the added problem of containing a word whose meaning is uncertain. Here is a screen capture from Bible Hub https://biblehub.com/interlinear/proverbs/29-21.htm

Proverbs 29:21

The main problem here is the final word with Strong's number 4497 which both the Strong's dictionary and the NIV footnote lists as "meaning uncertain". That is, most translators have had to take an educated guess at its meaning; hence the variety of translations we find for this verse.

  • NIV: A servant pampered from youth will turn out to be insolent.

  • NLT: A servant pampered from childhood will become a rebel.

  • ESV: Whoever pampers his servant from childhood will in the end find him his heir.

  • NASB: He who pampers his slave from childhood Will in the end find him to be a son.

  • CSB: A servant pampered from his youth will become arrogant later on.

  • GNT: If you give your servants everything they want from childhood on, some day they will take over everything you own.

  • NET Bible: If someone pampers his servant from youth, he will be a weakling in the end.

    … and so forth. Therefore, it appears we do not have enough linguistic knowledge to finally settle this question and need to be mature enough to admit that at times.


I believe that the ambiguity might lie in how the Masoretes chose to vocalize and/or parse מנון.

Genesius explains here:

מָנוֹן m. according to the Hebrews, progeny (see נוּן and נִין). It is once found Prov. 29:21, he who brings up his servant tenderly from his youth וְאַחֲרִיתוֹ יִהְיֶה מָנוֹן afterwards he will be (will wish to be as) a son; Luth. fo will er darnach ein Tunker fehn. Others understand it to be an ungrateful mind, from the root מָנַן, Arab. مَنَّ to receive favours ungratefully.1

The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates the verse:

A slave pampered from youth
Will come to a bad end.

with a note in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible that the Hebrew is "uncertain".

Rashi (1040-1105) offers the Talmudic commentary:

If one pampers his slave from childhood, he will ultimately be a ruler.

a ruler: Heb. מנון, a ruler, and so is (Ps.72:17): “May His name be magnified (ינון) as long as the sun exists.” Similarly, every instance of נין in the Bible, since the son rises in his father’s stead to rule over his property.

The Septuagint reading here is:

ὃς κατασπαταλᾷ ἐκ παιδός, οἰκέτης ἔσται, ἔσχατον δὲ ὀδυνηθήσεται ἐφʼ ἑαυτῷ.

He that lives luxuriously from childhood shall be a servant, and in the end, he shall cause himself pain.2

indicating at least how another group of (pre-Christian) Jews understood the passage.

1. Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures
2. Orthodox Study Bible translation

  • 1
    Could you explain how the ambiguity depends on the Masoretic vowelization or division of the verse?
    – b a
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 8:32

As Peter McGowan notes, translating proverbs is problematic because of the intentional ambiguity and unknown meaning of 4497. Further, Hebrew grammar and syntax is quite different from English. Proverbs 29:21 has only six words in Hebrew, but the English "translation" has nearly tripled in length. It is very much like translating Chinese proverbs.

Despite these difficulties, the verses you mention, concerning slaves, seem to serve as warnings to slave owners, not slaves. In ancient times, owning slaves was seen as a blessing from God, and "good" slaves were obedient to their masters. Further, "good" masters were harsh. (Some translations may attempt to side-step concerns about the morality of slavery by reframing the issue. For instance, using the word "servant" instead of slave.)

While modern people generally regard children well, ancient people would consider only their own children, especially sons, positively. Having someone else's child, or a slave, as an heir would be a curse. (Perhaps this is why Abraham was desperate for a son. Who would inherit his wealth? His slaves?) Since people are genetically driven to care for young, almost regardless of genetic origin (Why are puppies and kittens cute?), it takes a "wise" person to realize the "folly" of our ways.

Proverbs 29:19

By mere words a servant is not disciplined, for though he understands, he will not give heed. (RSV)

1697 - speech, word
3808 - not
3256 - discipline
5650 - slave, from 5647 - work
3588 - that, for, when
 995 - discern
     - and
 369 - nothing, not
4617 - answer, response

Words aren't enough to discipline (control?) slaves because they perceive (hear?), but don't respond (obey?).

Proverbs 29:21

He who pampers his servant from childhood, will in the end find him his heir. (RSV)

6445 - indulge, pamper
5290 - youth
5650 - slave, from 5647 - work
 319 - afterward, from 309 - remain behind
1961 - fall out, come to pass, become, continue
4497 - [unknown] - thankless? propagator? son? heir?

If you indulge a slave (by allowing him to not work hard) when he is young, he will later become, or continue to be, thankless or, worse, (he will think of himself or behave like) a son or heir.


First & most important, we should eliminate the word and concept of “SLAVE” from all consideration of Proverbs 29:19 & 21. “There is no word in the Hebrew language for slave, and this grand fact speaks volumes,” - GEORGE CHEEVER. This post is not the place to debate ‘slavery’ in the Bible. I would simply for now direct any challenges to Cheever’s 1860 magisterial 480+pages classic “The GUILT of SLAVERY and the CRIME of SLAVEHOLDING as DEMONSTRATED by the HEBREW AND GREEK SCRIPTURES”. Should be required reading.

Further proof, out of at least 15 different Bible translations, the NASB you chose to quote is the ONLY one that dares, inexplicably, to mistranslate both Proverbs 29:19 & 29:21 as SLAVE instead of SERVANT.

For quickest confirmation of this, simply look elsewhere in these replies where Dr. McGOWAN supplies 7 different translations. The ONLY ONE of them that inserts the word SLAVE is the same NASB which the questioner chose. ALL the others translate ebed as SERVANT. In ALL the King James Version (KJV), (both Old & New Testaments of the KJV) the word SLAVE &/or SLAVERY occurs ONLY ONE TIME! The proper translation is SERVANT.

Of course, the best policy is always to give consideration to many of the alternative Bible translations. (They are easily found online at various Bible websites, such as BLUELETTERBIBLE.com.) As elsewhere said in Proverbs, a multiplicity of counselors gives wisdom. Translations are by their very nature open to interpretation, with words having various shades and possibly divergent meanings. Jacques Derrida made a career out of deconstructing words.

Now to address your intended questions Others in answering your question have also provided various interpretations. So, I shall try not to repeat those. Rather, I shall venture some plausible lessons from these two Proverb verses. And please keep in mind Proverbs 1:6, that to understand Proverbs includes discernment to interpret and learn from ‘dark’ or obscure sayings of the wise.

So, keeping in mind that these two proverbs are not about slaves, but rather relations between employer &or supervisor with employees, &/or customer/servant relations.

1st: (Proverbs 29:19 KJV) "A servant will not be corrected by words: for though he understand he will not answer." - First, this proverb does not apply to ALL, but rather just to those will not be corrected by words, and will not even answer though they understand.
This would be a limited group, even if “slaves”. It might just as well be translated, as similar proverbs often are, with “THERE IS a servant who will not be corrected by words: & though he understand he will not answer." There are no consequences, negative or otherwise, or punishments, necessarily implied & certainly not prescribed. Rather, the reader, even if an employee, servant, or “slave”, is left to ponder reactions if he is the sort of person who is acting this way, who will not heed instruction, and even will be so rude as to not answer or reply even when he understands. Proverbs is replete with many similar proverbs about those who will not heed instruction. A fool will not learn from words of instruction, but a wise person will.

And almost none of these could be open to the most negative or mean interpretation, nor ever license to mistreat, given the perhaps thousands of Biblical verses against oppression, cruelty and injustice.

And, what might an Employer (or even, totally unwarranted, a slavemaster) learn from this proverb 29:19? Well, they would already know that some people, who work for them, are like that. Arguably, though some might frowardly infer that such workers need negative consequences, they might far more wisely conclude that, rather than mere words, it would be more effective to use positive reinforcement. Perfect example of Proverbs 29:19 — ‘employees’ in Soviet Russia, or similar ‘socialist’ economies, whether factory workers (“they pretend to pay us & we pretend to work”), & also Waiters where there is no TIPPING (“To Insure Prompt Service”). Such service personnel are notoriously sullen, slow, unresponsive, without positive incentive. In both cases, as Proverbs 29:19 observes, there are ‘servants’ who will not be instructed by words alone, and though they understand, they may well deign neither to answer nor respond.

)))))))))))))))))) ::: (((((((((((((((((( Now on to Proverbs 29:21 KJV: "He that delicately bringeth up his servant from a child shall have him become [his] son at the length.”

There are some very invidious translations of this verse that are from unnecessary to unwarranted. This is a verse directed to the attention of the person for whom another works or is serving in some capacity. And what are some lessons to be imparted?: First and most obviously, thus primarily, that if a person treats his servant with extreme kindness, the result may be that the employee becomes effectively as a de facto child, with familial love and loyalty. This could be good, and the intent of the employer, just as well if not better than to infer that the consequences would be negative for the employer. A ‘master’ or employer may well be fond enough of an employee or servant to treat them so kindly as to encourage them to treat him as a parent. And even if misinterpreted as a ‘master/slave’ relationship, it was often the case in Roman slavery for a slave to become not only a person of great prestige and power, but also the heir &/or adopted by his ‘master’. Example, though fictional, is in the novel BEN HUR, a slave who was adopted as a son and heir by his master. Other modern applications of this proverb can be found, for example, in the military rules for many good reasons against “officers fraternizing with subordinates”. Because to do so may predictably give way to the subordinate taking liberties as though they are family. & BTW, the Non-Biblical proverb ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ may also apply here.

And in conclusion, I commend the question about these two proverbs, even if the question headline, based on the single referent Bible translation, misleads the uninformed reader to believe it is about slavery, and not servants.


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