BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 13
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons
10. Do not slander [tattle on] a slave to his master, Lest he curse [denounce] you and you be found guilty.
The Sojourner of Proverbs 30 is a humble man. He makes this clear in verses 2-4, where he says that he is stupider than anyone else on earth, but he does know who God is. The theme of humility continues in verses 5-6, where Agur the Sojourner says that man must rely totally on God’s Word, and not on his own. The humble man then asks God to keep him away from lies and vain philosophies, and to keep him from extremes of poverty and wealth, lest he fall into sin (vv. 7-9).
We now come to verse 10. A humble man will not be so arrogant as to meddle in other people’s business. He will not try to drive a wedge between a man and his servant or employee.
The verb "slander" actually means "use the tongue." Here and in Psalm 101:5, the only other place this verb is used, the implication is a bit broader than lying. It could be something true that you are telling. The Bible forbids going up and down the land as a talebearer, even if the tale being borne is true (Lev. 19:16). Slander is any form of damaging gossip, true or false.
Like so many proverbs, this one is quite pithy, and meditating on it can carry us in more than one direction. I see two implications here. First, don’t meddle in other people’s business; and second, don’t tell lies about poor and defenseless people.
On the first point, even if what you report to the master is true, it makes him look foolish when you criticize his servant. It makes it appear that he does not have his house in order. There are people who take it as an insult if you offer them a suggestion. "Are you implying that I don’t know what I’m doing?" they ask. This is especially true of people who are powerful and vain, who are accustomed to getting their way — in other words, the "masters" of this present world. They take any suggestion as a criticism. If you think things could be improved, you are implying that they have not been doing a perfect job.
Of course, if you know someone well and have a good relationship, you might be able tactfully to report to him if an employee is doing a bad job. It all depends on circumstances. In the main, however, Agur’s advice is sound: Mind your own business. Meddling in other people’s affairs does not improve things, and only creates more conflict. If the master does not care enough to keep tabs on his servant, he’s not going to appreciate it if you report things about him.
The second implication of this proverb is that we are not to tell lies about servants to their masters, because the servant may curse us and we may be found guilty. There are several different words for "curse" in the Bible. The "curse on the soil," for instance, uses a term meaning "banish, or separate from." The idea is that man is isolated from the blessing of the soil. Here, however, the word used means "make light of, ridicule, embarrass, dishonor, denounce." It is the opposite of "honor." The best way to translate it here is "denounce." (See Herbert C. Brichto, The Problem of "Curse" in the Hebrew Bible [Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1963], p. 128.)
The servant, being a poor man, might cry out to God Himself, and the law warns us that if we oppress a poor man and he cries out to God, He will take action against us (Ex. 22:27). On the other hand, if he is an ungodly man who wants revenge, the embarrassed servant will lie in wait for us. When we slip, or when we do something that can be construed as bad, the servant will be quick to tattle on us, just as we tattled on him. He will denounce us, and we may be found guilty.
The word "guilt" here is the word used for the guilt or trespass or compensation offering of Leviticus 5-6. It implies feelings of guilt, true moral guilt before God, and also the penalty and punishment for guilt. Thus, the meaning of the proverb can embrace several scenarios. For one, the servant may denounce you to God, and you may come to feel guilty and be led to make an expensive compensation sacrifice according to the provisions of the law (a ram without defect from the flock — a heavy price to pay for gossip; Lev. 5:17-19).
Another possible scenario: The servant may lie in wait until you do something bad, and then denounce you. You may be found guilty in court, or at least in the court of public opinion. Or again, the servant may stir up enmity against you in the eyes of his master, and you may become guilty in his eyes with the result that you lose a friend, perhaps an important friend.
The most dangerous scenario, however, is the first one. You have meddled in another man’s business, unwisely. Worse, you have tattled on a defenseless poor man, and brought trouble upon him and his family. Being a Godly man, he cries out to God, denouncing you. God stands up to defend the poor, who are His special property. You have sacrilegiously laid hands on God’s property, and that requires you to bear guilt, or else to bring a trespass offering. This is a dangerous position to be in. It is best to avoid it.
(On the poor and defenseless members of the covenant as God’s property, and the trespass offering for attacks on them, see my discussion in Jordan, "The Law of Forbidden Mixtures," pp. 7-8, available from Biblical Horizons .)
Finally, a word about how this relates to Jacob, who is perhaps the author of this passage. Jacob was clearly a poor servant of Laban for many years, and Genesis 30:27 through 31:16 show that Laban and his sons changed Jacob’s wages repeatedly. Doubtless people were reporting to Laban, and Jacob was suffering because of these talebearers. At the same time, however, God saw it all, and protected Jacob. Jacob cried to God, and God appeared to Laban and threatened him (Gen. 31:24). Thus, Jacob well knew this proverb from the inside out.