The theme of the Bible is twofold: to love God and to love people (Matthew 22:36-40). Thus, the issue of interpersonal relations is one of the two most important issues in the Bible. Under this theme of “loving others” would then fall the issue of ethics. In theory, nothing could be simpler. Paul writes that all the laws, whether “do not kill” or “do not commit adultery” are summed up in the law “love thy neighbor as yourself”, since if you love someone, you’re not likely to hurt them (Romans 13:8-10).
Even in practice, this is not so hard as it seems. In ethics classes, we delight in coming up with difficult scenarios, like, you’re living in Germany in 1938 and you’re hiding Jews in your basement. Now, if the Nazis come to your door and demand to know if you’ve seen any Jews around lately, will you lie?
It comes down to having the principle of “loving others” firmly imbedded in your brain, and recognizing that all laws are to be under-stood in light of that principle. That is, ask yourself, WHY does this law exist. Jesus derided the Pharisees when they criticized his behavior on the Sabbath by pointing out that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. That is, the laws are designed to BENEFIT you and others. If you find the application of a law or ethical principle hurtful or burdensome and unpleasant, then perhaps you’re misinterpreting it. Getting back to the Nazis and your hidden Jews. If you tell the Nazis about them, you’ve caused the death of the Jews and turned the Nazis into murderers—clearly violations of the central law: love others. Thus, you lie.
And if you still feel guilty about lying, then confess it to God later and tell him you’re sorry. Jesus died for your sins, anyhow. You can always repent. And which would you rather repent of, murder or lying? Of course, you haven’t actually lied anyhow.
What is Lying, Anyhow?
A college student wanted to skip her next class; she had a lot of pressing work that needed catching up on, not the least of which was an upcoming exam for which she remained unprepared. She didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of simply not showing up, so she told her professor she had a sick friend she needed to check up on.
However, she didn’t “check up on” her friend until that evening, long after the class was done, having spent the preceding hours catching up on her work.
Did that college student lie? Obviously. Although she did have a sick friend, and did check up on her, the friend’s illness was hardly the reason she’d skipped class.
But in the Bible, when God tells Moses to inform Pharaoh that “Yahweh wants his people to take a three day journey to the desert so they can worship and sacrifice”—even though God is really planning to take the people out of Egypt forever—we wouldn’t say God told Moses to lie, would we?
Or when God instructs Samuel to tell Saul that the reason for his trip to Bethlehem is so he can sacrifice—though his real purpose is to anoint David king—we wouldn’t say God told Samuel to lie, would we?
However, what is the substantive difference between Yahweh’s actions in these two instances, and those of that female college student?
In this, the latter quarter of the twentieth century, we define a lie simply as “an untruth”. Webster’s reports that lying is “to make a false or misleading impression” or “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive”. A lie is “an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive.”
God says that he does not lie (Numbers 23:19), yet by the just given definitions, he has. How do we extricate ourselves from this dilemma? It may not be so hard. Perhaps it is simply that the modern definition of a “lie” and the biblical definition of a “lie” are not identical. The whole difficulty may simply be semantic.
Lies and the Exodus
In Exodus 3:7-8 God’s intentions regarding the Israelites are stat-ed clearly:
Yahweh said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out be-cause of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.”
God clearly told Moses that he planned to rescue the people from the Egyptians; He is going to bring them out to the Promised Land. But, this is not quite the message Moses is supposed to bring to the Pharaoh. Look at Exodus 3:16-18:
Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, “Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abra-ham, Isaac and Jacob, appeared to me and said: ‘I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’”
The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, “Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to Yahweh our God.”
Quite clearly God instructed Moses to deceive Pharaoh regarding their intentions of leaving Egypt for good. By modern definitions, God instructed Moses to lie. Moses obeys, and is very consistent in his story from his first meeting with Pharaoh to the very last. Notice the following selected passages:
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.’”
Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go.”
Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to Yahweh our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” (Ex. 5:1ff)
Then say to him, “Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert. But until now you have not listened.’” (Ex. 7:16)
Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what Yahweh says: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs.”’”…
Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Pray to Yahweh to take away the frogs from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to Yahweh.” (Ex. 8:1-2, 8)
Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning and confront Pharaoh as he goes to the water and say to him, ‘This is what Yahweh says: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you and your officials, on your people and into your houses. The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies, and even the ground where they are.”’”…
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God here in the land.”
But Moses said, “That would not be right. The sac-rifices we offer Yahweh our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not stone us? We must take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to Yahweh our God, as he commands us.”
Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to offer sacrifices to Yahweh your God in the desert, but you must not go very far. Now pray for me.” (Ex. 8:20-21, 25-28)
Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, says: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.”’” (Ex. 9:1)
Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me,…’”
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “Yahweh is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Pray to Yahweh, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.” (Ex. 9:13, 27-28)
So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “This is what Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’”…
Then Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh.
“Go, worship Yahweh your God,” he said. “But just who will be going?”
Moses answered, “We will go with our young and old, with our sons and daughters, with our flocks and herds, because we are to celebrate a festival to Yahweh.”
Pharaoh said, “Yahweh be with you—if I let you go, along with your women and children! Clearly you are bent on evil. No! Have only the men go; and worship Yahweh, since that’s what you have been asking for.” Then Moses and Aaron were driven out of Pharaoh’s presence. (Ex. 10:3, 8-11)
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship Yahweh. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind.”
But Moses said, “You must allow us to have sacri-fice and burnt offerings to present to Yahweh our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping Yahweh our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship Yahweh.”
But Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not wiling to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.” (Ex. 10:24-28)
During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship Yahweh as you have request-ed. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.” (Ex. 12:31-32)
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” (Ex. 14:5)
God very clearly told Moses to tell the Pharaoh that the Israelites’ intention was to only take a short, three day trip to worship God. Apparently, this is what Pharaoh believed, and this is what he resisted letting the Israelites do–until the death of the first born. Then he relented and allowed them to take their three day journey of worship. It was not until the people were gone, and it became clear that they were making tracks, that Pharaoh realized he had been tricked. Since Numbers 23:19 states explicitly that “God is not a man, that he should lie”, the biblical idea of “lie” must be defined in such a way as to permit the behavior observed here in Exodus.
Lies and Abraham
Abraham is recorded telling less than the truth about Sarah his wife, not once, but twice. Just look at Genesis 12 and 20. The most puzzling thing about both incidents is that Abraham is not condemned by God for what he does (and he does it twice), nor does he get into trouble from God for telling Abimelech or Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister, without revealing the more relevant news that she is his wife.
Notice, in Genesis 20, Abimelech is threatened with death, his wives and concubines become barren, and he is told by God that Abra-ham “…is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.” (Gen. 20:7) Yet poor Abimelech is the one that had been deceived! And then, rather than being cursed, Abraham is greatly blessed by Abimelech:
Then Abimelech brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.” (Gen. 20:14-15)
Then, in verse 17, Abraham prays to God and Abimelech and his wife and concubines are healed.
Abraham is fully vindicated for what he had done, and in fact, is marvelously blessed for it. In neither the Old Testament nor the New is there ever any mention of Abraham being a liar. Therefore, it seems to me, that our definition of a lie must not include the behavior displayed by Abraham.
Lies and Rahab
Joshua 2:1-7 records the following incident:
Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim.
“Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.”
So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
The king of Jericho was told, “Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.”
So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab, “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”
But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come fRomans At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
Commenting on this event, the writer of Hebrews 11:31 records:
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Somehow the definition of a lie must be such as to allow Rahab’s behavior. There are a lot of apparent problems in this passage. Rahab is “lying”—stating things contrary to fact—and she is doing this to the representatives of her government. So not only is she “lying”, she also seems to be violating the spirit of Romans 13:1-7, where Paul tells the Christians in Rome to “submit to the authorities” and not only that, but states that “the authorities are God’s servants” and that “there is no authority except that which God has established.” How could Rahab legitimately fail to turn in the spies? She not only lied, but she rebelled against her government, and became a traitor. This is good?
Lying and Samuel
Similar problems confront us when we look at Samuel’s life. Notice the narrative in 1 Samuel 16:1-3:
Yahweh said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”
But Samuel said, “How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me.”
Yahweh said, “Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to Yahweh.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”
What happens in 1 Samuel is very similar to the pattern described in Exodus. Again, such activity must be allowed under the biblical definition of “lie”.
In Jeremiah 20:7 the prophet complains to God that he has deceived him. Likewise, in Ezekiel 14:9 God explains that when a prophet is deceived into making false prophesies, it is God himself who has deceived him in order to bring about that prophet’s destruction. In the New Testament, Paul writes that God will send a powerful delusion against the wicked so that they will believe lies and be condemned as a consequence (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12)
And then there is this odd incident described in 1 Kings 22:19-23:
Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of Yahweh: I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And Yahweh said, ‘Who will lure Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’
“One suggested this, and another that. Finally a spirit came forward, stood before Yahweh and said, ‘I will lure him.’
“’By what means?’ Yahweh asked.
“’I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.
“’You will succeed in luring him,’ said Yahweh. ‘Go and do it.’
“So now Yahweh has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. Yahweh has decreed disaster for you.”
So God apparently used a demon to confuse the false prophets, encouraging the demon to lie for him. Of course, the text doesn’t tell us this spirit is a demon, it simply tells us that it is a spirit in the throne room of God who volunteered to help God.
So maybe it wasn’t a demon…
But it lied!
And God sanctioned it!
Conclusion and Definition of Lying
What are some possible biblical definitions of the word “lie”? Since the sense of the word must be formed within its context, perhaps we could say that a lie is “failing to be truthful for selfish ends or for the purpose of causing suffering to another.” It seems that deception is acceptable in certain situations. The common thread running through all the examples of deception that I gave above, is that life and death issues were at stake; if there had been no deception, someone would have died. Biblically, what is called a “lie” usually occurs in the context of “bearing false witness” in legal proceedings. Obviously, the modern definition of lie is considerably broader and more comprehensive than the biblical meaning.
In any case, I believe that it is best to conclude that ethics are contextually realized. This is not to say ethics are arbitrary, but rather that they can be fully understood only within societal relationships. Like a word, which is virtually meaningless outside a sentence, so ethics are virtually meaningless without life.
Ethics do not exist in a vacuum. And something else to consider: many games depend on “lying” in order to work, ranging from quarterbacks in football games deceiving the other side into thinking they’re going to pass when they’re going to run, or vice versa. Most card games require some deception, as do games such as chess or checkers. And then consider warfare: making the Nazis think that the D-Day invasion was going to land on different beaches than they did was certainly a lie told to them–but we never think of it that way–nor should we. We don’t consider our spies who infiltrate nasty organizations such as al-Queda to be lying, now do we, when they don’t reveal that they are spies, and actively lie to cover up what they’re actually doing. Likewise, undercover cops infiltrating gangs or taking down drug dealers are not considered to be lying when they do their job, even though they are deceiving the bad guys.
Lying is not just deception or failing to tell the truth. It is, in essence, false testimony that either protects the guilty or condemns the innocent. It is lying if it hurts someone who shouldn’t be hurt. Remember the commandment: love people. It’s a lie if it violates that principle.