Monday, March 4, 2013

The Folly of Suretyship according to Proverbs 6:1–5

An important part of being wise, according to the Old Testament, is knowing what constitutes foolishness and avoiding such behavior. In Prov 6:1–19, Solomon identifies ten different acts of folly, the first of which is the folly of going surety for others. Standing as surety or going guarantor means promising to take on the debt of someone else if that person defaults on the debt on question. A variation of this is putting up a certain amount of one’s assets as security in order for someone else to get a loan.

From the perspective of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, going guarantor for someone else is not a good idea. Standing surety for someone else is putting yourself in a trap (Prov 6:1–2). If the other person defaults on their debt repayments, then you are stuck with it, like a gazelle caught by a hunter, or like a bird caught in a trap (Prov 6:5).

Solomon’s teaching here is consistent with what we see elsewhere in the Bible. In Prov 22:26–27, in the sayings of the wise, it says: “Do not be someone who strikes hands in pledge or goes surety for debts; if you lack the means to pay, why should your very bed be snatched from under you?” Similar teaching about avoiding going surety for someone else is found in Prov 11:15; 17:18.

From the biblical perspective, being in debt is generally a bad situation to be in, so why would you want to take on the debt of someone else? There is an old Assyrian proverb which says: “I have hauled sand; I have carried salt; but nothing is heavier than debt” (see Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient East [3rd ed.; Mahwah: Paulist, 2006], 306). Debt is something to avoid if at all possible.

For those who have fallen into the trap of going guarantor for someone else, Solomon says that such a person should not sleep until he has liberated himself from standing as surety (Prov 6:4–5). In Prov 6:3, Solomon advocates grovelling forcefully with the creditor in order to negotiate a release from such an obligation.

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