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Corruption (Ecc 5:8, 9)
I can't read Greek. So I have to use a lexicon / dictionary if I want to know more about a word. It is often hard to catch all the nuances of a Greek or Hebrew word in a single word or phrase, which is all that the translations can do, so I like at times to get a broader perspective of the word. That is one reason I really like the NET notes.
My first court of appeal is pretty well always a comparison of translations. If I discover a lot of variation in thinking, then I check further. Some passages simply are obscure, even for Greek or Hebrew scholars and the best they can do is look at the context and try to figure out what it is all about.
Note the footnote in the ESV
The NET note for this verse reads...
N27 tn The syntax and exegesis of the line is difficult. There are three basic interpretive options:
(1) the king takes care of the security of the cultivated land: "in any case, the advantage of a country is that there is a king for the cultivated land";
(2) the king is in favor of a prosperous agricultural policy: "in any case, the advantage of a country is that there is a king who is obeyed for the sake of the agriculture"; and
(3) the king exploits the poor farmers: "the produce of the land is [seized] by all, even the king is served by the fields."
Perhaps the best option in the light of the context is to take the referent of כֹּל (kol, "all") to the government officials of Ecc_5:8 rather than to the people as a whole. The verse depicts the exploitation of the poor farmers by corrupt government officials. This is reflected in two English versions: "the increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields" (NIV); "the profit of the land is among all of them; a cultivated field has a king" (RSV margin).
On the other hand, the Septuagint (LXX) treated the syntax so the king is viewed in a neutral sense: και περισσεια γης ἐπι παντι ἐστι, βασιλευς του αργου εἰργασμενου ("The abundance of the earth is for everyone; the king is dependent on the tilled field").
Most English versions deal with the syntax so that the king is viewed in a neutral or positive sense: "the profit of the earth is for all; the king himself is served by the field" (KJV); "a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land" (NASB); "this is an advantage for a land: a king for a plowed field" (NRSV); "the greatest advantage in all the land is his: he controls a field that is cultivated" (NJPS); "a country prospers with a king who has control" (Moffatt); "a king devoted to the field is an advantage to the land" (MLB); "a king is an advantage to a land with cultivated fields" (RSV); "the best thing for a country is a king whose own lands are well tilled" (NEB); and "an advantage for a country in every respect is a king for the arable land" (NAB). See D. BarthÈlemy, ed., Preliminary and Interim Report on the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project, 3:576-77.
While a knowledge of Hebrew would be helpful, the layout of this note give a lot of information that people without that knowledge can understand. The overview of various translations saves a lot of work. This is what I look for when I hit something like this.
[I will reproduce this in the Ecclesiastes threat, along with what I wrote for an explanation. Note that I wrote this before I read the NET note, so it is possible to take this understanding from these verses simply by comparing translations.]
Solomon, again, looked at his subject from a philosophical perspective, not a human rights perspective. The poor were oppressed by those who were stronger than they were, or who had more authority. Those people in turn were oppressed by those above them. The chain of oppression reached all the way to the top, and may have even included the king.
The perversion of justice is common. In some countries of the world, a person is better off to accept oppression than to report it or to try to get justice. Solomon wasn’t commenting on the right or wrong of this (it is obviously wrong). Instead, he was describing a basic reality of life along with a little lesson on economics.
Solomon used a field as a simple example of economic supply and demand. Many people needed to live from the economic product of the field. The people who planted the field, watered it, and harvested it were the most obvious economic beneficiaries. In Bible times these people didn’t own the field or finance the crop, they were just laborers who were paid for their work. So, they needed to get enough of the field’s economic product to live on, probably in the form of wages. The man who owned the field, also financed the crop and paid the laborers. He too needed to receive a benefit because he also had to eat and probably had a family to support. He may have sold the crop to a miller, who produced flour from it. That man also needed to make some income from the field’s product to feed his family. So, he sold the flour to a baker, who baked bread and sold it to a local store. The local store finally sold it to the person who ate it. So, the laborers, the farmer, the miller, the baker, and the store all needed to have a share of the economic product of the field to live. (FTNT 21)
But the process goes beyond that. Some of these people might have borrowed money to finance their operations, so the economic product of the field also paid the interest on their loans. And finally, the government collected sales taxes and income taxes from these people. So even the government lived from the field’s economic product.
Now, none of this is wrong. But it does give a lot of opportunity for doing wrong. At any link of this economic chain, someone could oppress the person who depended on him for his income. The most obvious point was at the bottom of the ladder. If the farmer was greedy, and many people were looking for work in the fields, he could make extra money by paying unfair wages. The laborers had little recourse, because they had less money and less authority and fewer powerful friends than the farmer did.
Some people try to take advantage of others by bribing them. Some threaten them by using their authority. And on and on it goes. The king (ie. the government) was at the top of the ladder and had the most power and authority of all. It is very easy for government to use this power to take advantage of the population.
The process of corruption is prompted by greed, of course. But it is also prompted by the fact that the economic resources of the field are limited. Finally, you can only stretch a natural resource so far. The people in the line for getting a piece of the pie are afraid that the economic profit won’t reach around, and so they fight over it. In cases like this it isn’t the early bird that gets the worm. Rather, the biggest bird gets it, even though he may the last one to reach the table.
People living in democratic countries like to think that these things only happen in third world countries or countries run by dictators or crooked governments. But anyone studying the effects of capitalism, lobbying and big money in our time will soon realize that these things happen to us as well.
Corruption is one of the realities caused by the love of money. If we depend on money for happiness or meaning in life, we will be disappointed. Which, I believe, was Solomon’s point in these verses.Edited to add: Ftnt 21 Not every step is necessarily present all the time. The householder in Bible times probably bought the flour and baked his own bread. The poorer people probably bought grain and ground it and baked their own bread. The baker probably took the bread to a local market and sold it directly to the householder, but he probably had to pay a fee to the market owner. These principles take many different shapes, but the basic principle Solomon gave here is part of the economic cycle everywhere.