Partiality (“respect of persons”: KJV) in judgment is wrong. The Hebrew “hakken [from the root ‘nakhar’] panim” means literally “to choose among faces (plural)”, thus to distinguish between one face and another, and by implication to favor one face, or person, over another. The “greatest” of men, that is, the rich and powerful, are especially susceptible to this fault — for they tend to favor their own, that is, those who are most like themselves. Such partiality is a mockery of justice (Lev 19:15; Deut 1:17; 16:19; Prov 18:5; 24:23).
When Samuel was called to visit the family of Jesse, the prophet prejudged the sons and selected — at least in his own mind — Eliab, over all the others:
“Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD” (1Sam 16:6).
But he was rebuked by the LORD Himself:
“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (v 7).
King Jehoshaphat exhorted the judges:
“Now let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Judge carefully, for with the LORD our God there is no injustice or partiality [‘respect of persons’: KJV] or bribery” (2Chron 19:7).
The phrase “is not good” is not — as it might appear at first reading — a weak negative, but a deliberate understatement to call attention to a terrible wrong (compare Prov 16:29; 18:5; 1Sam 2:24).
“Yet a man will do wrong for a piece of bread.”
In Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Allen Ross writes: “The second line of this verse
has several possibilities. It could mean that:
- (a) a man can be bribed for a very small price (a piece of bread being the figure for it), or that
- (b) some might steal for a piece of bread so the judgment should show a little more compassion on the crime of desperation, or that
- (c) even in such a desperate act one should show no partiality.
The first interpretation harmonizes best with the law. Kidner adds poignantly that the price can go even lower than a piece of bread and that what is true of judges is true of preachers as well.”
Ross then calls attention to Malachi 2:9; there God, through the prophet, casti- gates the priests of Israel:
“So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in mat- ters of the law.”
On the first of the three possibilities, the JFB Commentary says: “The judge who at first was induced only by a great price to transgress by favoring one side, through the habit of sinning comes at last to do so for a mere trifle.” So Ezekiel rebukes the pseudo-prophets who “have profaned [Jehovah] among my people for [no more than] a few handfuls of barley and scraps of bread” (Ezek 13:19).
In Proverbs 28:21, the Hebrew “pat lechem” means basically a piece of bread. This deceptively simple phrase has an interesting history. The Hebrew, or Aramaic, “patbag” would appear to be a compound word along the same lines:
- “pat”: a bit or morsel;
- “bag”: prey, meat, or perhaps food in general.
According to Robert O’Connell, however, “This term probably derives from the Old Persian ‘pitfabaga’ (cuneiform ‘pitipabaga’), a portion, ration, a distribution quota… in Egyptian Aramaic ‘ptpa’ means food supply, ration” (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis).
This Aramaic word “patbag” is the NIV’s “choice food”, or the KJV’s “portion of their meat”, in six passages in Daniel (Dan 1:5,8,13,15,16; 11:26). “All six Old Tes- tament uses of this expression occur in the book of Daniel, a book that preserves several technical terms of Old Persian origin… The term ‘food quota’, table ration, relates to a custom of Persian kings described by Xenophon as the sending of food or drink portions from the royal table to favored friends” (O’Connell).
As for “pat lechem”, used here in Proverbs 28:21, O’Connell continues: “Perhaps because several other Old Testament texts use the Hebrew ‘pat’, morsel, in the idiom ‘pat lechem’, bit/morsel of bread/food (Gen 18:5; Jdgs 19:5; 1Sam 2:36; 28:22; 1Kgs 17:11; Prov 28:21; or plural ‘petotei lechem’ in Ezek 13:19), the scribes of the Masoretic Text posited that the obscure term ‘patbag’ should be presented as two words, ‘pat’ (bit/morsel) + ‘bag’ (prey, meat, food) and, hence, separated the supposed parts of the expression, so as to mean a bit of food, tidbit, delicacy.”
Considering this historical connection, then, the writer of Proverbs here may be drawing a parallel, but a parallel with a strong contrast. The parallel is this: Just as the most favored courtiers received fine food and wine from the Persian king’s table, so the rich and powerful counted on the Jewish judge or priest to show them favoritism.
Now for the contrast: even when the prize to be had was the smallest token — the “pat lechem” and not the “patbag”, that is, the crust of bread instead of the royal banquet — even then, the unseemly competition and the awarding of prizes to personal favorites continued!
One further step takes us to an interesting conclusion: At his “passover”, Jesus gave a “piece of bread” (KJV “sop”) to Judas (John 13:26,27,30). Commentators have pointed out that this was a custom at the Passover Meal; the host would take a bit of bread, dip it in the common dish, and hand it personally to an honored guest. As one writer puts it: “For the host to select such a tidbit from the main dish and give it to a guest would be a mark of courtesy and esteem” (Merrill Ten- ney, EBC, on John 13:26). This passover tradition may have been borrowed from other Middle Eastern customs, such as the Persian and Babylonian ones, of kings providing honored guests with the bounty from their tables.
In this case, with Jesus, it may only have been a bit of bread (a “pat lechem”, if you will). But, with Judas as with all of us who partake of the Memorial Service, the bit of bread represents the greatest banquet imaginable (the “patbag”, this time) — the “bread of life” from heaven, “which a man may eat and not die” (John 6:25-50). Just as our Lord could take a few small loaves and create from them a feast for thousands, which he did on more than one occasion during his ministry — so he could manufacture out of his own single body the one bread, and the One Body, emblematic of eternal life in his Father’s Kingdom.
The proverb is a pathetically sad picture. It shows a worldly moneygrubber (rich or poor) seeking for the special favor of banquets, or even crumbs, from other men who are in the last analysis as powerless as he. His desired “patbag” or feast proves in the end to be no more than a pitiful “pat lechem” or crust of bread. No matter what or how much he eats, he will die.
On the other hand, the seeker after Christ will find that even the “pat lechem”, the little bit of bread which he receives each week from his Lord (“Do this in remembrance of me”), will turn at last into the endless feast of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
George Booker (Austin Leander, TX)