Is a bribe always a bribe?

My question is on Bribe and the Biblical application. It is a problem especially here in African countries. For example, I submit my Visa Application, and I’m all qualified and I give the official a gift. The immigration official did not do anything other than what his job prescribed; he just approved the visa faster than he might have otherwise done.

What does ancient Jewish wisdom say about this and how can we escape such in our day to day business?

Michael M.

What a fascinating question you ask, Michael. The Biblical prohibition on a judge accepting a bribe is extremely serious.  A judge is a person upon whom the entire system of justice depends; he strikes a fatal blow against his society and its vital institutions by accepting bribes.  The Bible is very clear on this. 

However, you describe not a judge but a public official.  Furthermore, your encounter might just as easily have occurred with a non-governmental official, say a loan officer at a bank or the representative of a building contractor.  In any of these interactions, a ‘gift’ might have been solicited in order to lubricate the process that the vendor is already being paid to facilitate.  The Bible does not prohibit you from giving any of these kinds of ‘gifts’ however it certainly does condemn the dishonesty of the employee who by soliciting and accepting your ‘gift’ just in order to do his job, is harming his employer.

Now back to the stern prohibition on judges accepting bribes (and also the equally stern prohibition upon us offering or paying a bribe to a judge).  This prohibition applies not only when a quid pro quo is clearly defined (I give you $1,000 and you declare me innocent) but, as the Bible verses indicate, judges are obliged to guard against any possible subconscious biases they may have. There is much discussion in ancient Jewish wisdom about how far-reaching this concern is, even citing an instance where a judge recused himself after an upcoming litigant extended a helping hand when the judge needed help alighting a vehicle.

The Bible is focused on helping us understand just how strongly gifts/bribes influence us.  At the same time, ancient Jewish wisdom recognizes that not all gifts are bribes.  As you well know, giving gifts to officials is the norm in some cultures. In the book, Little Soldiers: an American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, the author discovers that her son will be penalized in school if she does not give an appropriate gift to his teacher. The other parents are shocked at her surprise.

While giving gifts to teachers is not formalized in the United States in the same way, in many schools it is customary to give holiday gifts to teachers. Do some parents do so out of fear that the teacher will, subconsciously or not, bear ill will to their child if they do not participate? Does a teacher, unwittingly or not, bestow a warmer countenance on a student whose parents gave him a much-appreciated gift? The more we thought and prayed about your question, Michael, the more we realized how subtle and nuanced the subject is.

While we would not advise you to do something illegal, if giving officials gifts is not illegal in your country and, what is more, it is even accepted procedure, then we do not think that you need to stack the deck against yourself out of fear of transgressing a Biblical law. As a business owner, you may need to give gifts in order to have a level playing field. However, when the situation is reversed, you can elevate your own behavior.  Make it clear to others that you will not accept gifts when you are looking to hire, give raises, or confer other benefits on those under your jurisdiction.

Thank you for an intriguing question,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

13 thoughts on “Is a bribe always a bribe?”

  1. How far is an African allowed to go in fighting government corruption? Would killing the government official still be considered self defense?

  2. Dear Rabbai I have always enjoyed your answers tremendously. This particular issue on bribery is interesting, especially for us here in Africa. I feel that you did not fully understand the ‘weight’ of the question, may be you could as well elaborate it using the ‘word’ CORRUPTION. In my country here,it will be near impossible to transact any interaction with government office, institution, ministry or department without being FORCED, COERCED , INTIMIDATED, MANIPULATED etc to “pay” bribe. Whether its getting admission into government owned schools or reporting a case to the police, to carrying a legal luggage of your own through public roads. You cannot get or renew your traveling passport,Driver license, renewing your vehicle papers etc without being subjected to pay more than the receipt value. I know that bible condemned these acts. The problem in Africa is that your not ‘giving’ it but ‘paying’ it. I mean that you will not get the services but frustrated until you “involuntarily” pay.
    We Christians here are really concerned and have been asking God to help us.
    Thank you.
    Kristofa Okenta. (Nigeria)

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Kristofa
      Susan Lapin and I know the intensity of the corruption problem and understand the full extent of how it is impeding the progress of so many African nations. Nonetheless, our answer stands. The Bible does not prohibit you making those payments, as sad as it is that you have to do so. It is not only sad but frustrating as it adds so much to the costs of every transaction thereby spreading poverty throughout the land. Tragic, but still not opposed by the Bible. Now as far as those engaging in this corrupt behavior, the Bible certainly opposes what they are doing. But God sympathizes with good people who are held hostage by bad people with power.

  3. Giving gifts for services is not a good thing. People that can afford to do it are rewarded with better or quicker services, but people who can’t afford to gift will likely be treated as less than equal.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Of course, Judith,
      You are right and that is part of the tragedy of how this corruption harms people and nations.

  4. In 2nd grade, despite being a very strong student, I had a teacher who routinely expressed her dislike for me in lower marks on my progress reports and report card then was warranted by my class work and test scores. Despite several conversations, this persisted into the 2nd quarter. At the parent teacher conference she indicated that she loved all things “apple” so my mom, at a loss for anything else to do, made her an apple crisp. My report card took a gigantic leap up to finally reflecting my high test scores, simply because she liked us. My mom did that monthly. One month she forgot and the progress report took a dip, quickly rectified by a sweet gooey apple crisp. In retrospect, I would have rather flunked out of 2nd grade then have “appeased the beast” but at the same time I commend my parents for realizing this was more about the teacher’s issues and acting accordingly. Now, working in the highly political realm of local government, quid pro quo – overt or implied – is, sadly, the lubrication on which many things are accomplished and it is, not to overstate, a grotesque reality in today’s American landscape. I would be quick to differentiate between a “bribe” which we think of as making do something they do not wish to do (or should not do) and what is often called “baksheesh” which is considered a “tip” to increase the level of service one might otherwise expect in someone doing what they would have otherwise still done, albeit on a slower timeline then we might wish. I use this often when traveling overseas. For me that is the determining factor… am I simply speeding up what they would have done anyway or am I inducing them to do something they would not otherwise have done? Should the world work differently? Yes.

  5. Very interesting, as all your TT are. Enjoy the ancient Jewish wisdom you share with your readers. I have gained much insight from your writings, especially when it comes to the bible, which now comes alive and applicable to today’s world and my personal life. Many thanks to you and Susan for enriching my understanding and enjoyment of God’s word, the bible. Everyone DOES indeed need a Rabbi !
    (America’s Real War is a phenomenal work, and I can’t wait for the new up-dated edition.)

    1. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Virginia. Rabbi Lapin and Susan Lapin enrich my life every single day and provide me with an education about the Old Testament I have never had even as a once practicing Catholic.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Virginia–
      Much appreciate your warm and encouraging words. We’ll keep you updated on America’s Real War.

  6. R’ Lapin, I once heard your brother describe his having consulted for a large company. Some big-wig on it’s Board of Directors said to your brother, “The CEO was given a Mercedes from some firm we do business worth. But I assure you he would never treat that firm any differently because of that gift.”
    Your brother said, “Shame on him, then. The reason not to take the gift is because business ‘favors’ SHOULD be returned. Getting something for free is for low-lifes, not for people with integrity and self-respect.”

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks David,
      Exactly. Isn’t ancient Jewish wisdom wonderful? I told my brother of your recollection and he was very happy.

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