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Saturday, November 18, 2006

False Witness, Lying, Deceit, etc.

Once, I was asked to speak on cloning, I believe it was, to a group at our small church. I said, "What's the first thing you should know about any subject?" I expected what would have been my own response, namely "What does the Bible say about it?" I got an even better response, from a man who, though living, can no longer speak. He said "What is it?" I'm musing about lying. What is it? What does the Bible say about it?

What is a lie? The Wikipedia article on the subject, as of Nov 15, 2006, says:
"A lie is an untruthful statement made to someone else with the intention to deceive. To lie is to say something one believes to be false with the intention that it be taken for the truth by someone else." The article goes on to exclude actions not using language, such as pretending to be asleep, or wearing a false mustache, from lying.

The Free Dictionary says that a lie is:
"1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.
2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression."

This would be, then, a broader definition, in that pretending to be asleep and wearing a false mustache are included.

The Wikipedia article goes on to say that there have been important thinkers who have believed that lying is never permissible, including St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant, who, says the on-line encyclopedia, had these arguments against lying:
1) it is unnatural use of the power of speech
2) lying attacks the trust on which society is based on
3) in lying, you are demeaning the person(s) lied to, by making a decision for them, and not allowing them to decide something for themselves
4) lying is a way of using someone else as a means to an end.

There are, however, a few cases in the Bible where someone indicated as generally having God's approval, or God Himself, told something, or told someone else to tell something, that the speaker knew to be untrue. They are given below. I have marked cases where the evidence that God approved the lie in some way is strong:
Abraham, in Genesis 12:13 (all links to ESV), also 20:2, and 26:7, told someone that Sarah was his sister, not his wife. (This was partly true, as she was his half-sister, but the intent was to deceive -- she was his wife.)
*The Hebrew midwives, in Exodus 1:18-21, told the Egyptians that the Hebrew women gave birth to sons before they could kill these babies, which was false. Exodus says that God blessed them for protecting them.
*Rahab lied to the army of Jericho, telling them that the Israeli spies had left, when she had hidden them, in Joshua 2:1-21. Hebrews 11:31 lists Rahab as one of the heroines of faith. (Abraham, described above, is also listed as an example of faith in Hebrews 11.)
*in 1 Samuel 16:1-3, God told the prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem and anoint a king as successor to Saul, who was still very much alive. Samuel responded that Saul would kill him. God then told Samuel to say that he had come to Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice (which he did) but that wasn't his main purpose.
In 1 Samuel 21:1-6, David lied to the high priest about the purpose of his journey, which was to escape from Saul, rather than to go on a special mission for him, which latter is what David said. The high priest was killed for giving David help, which he had done in innocence -- he apparently believed David.
*In 1 Kings 13:1-22, there are two prophets. God told one of them to deliver a message without eating and drinking at the destination. The second prophet, an old man, lied to the first, saying God had told him to come home to eat and drink with him, when the Bible says that God had not done so. Then the second one prophesied that the first prophet would die as a result of disobedience.
*In 1 Kings 22:1-39, God is described, by a prophet, Micaiah, who is speaking for God, as having put a lying spirit in the mouth of King Ahab's pagan prophets. (It is possible, I think, that Micaiah didn't understand where the lying spirit came from, or that he was just telling a story, because he knew that the pagan priests were liars.)
*In 2 Kings 6:8-23, Elisha struck an enemy army with temporary blindness, through God's power, then lied to them about where he was taking them. The blindness was removed, at which time they knew they had been lied to, and these men were unharmed.
Jehu, on a mission of meting out God's punishment, in 2 Kings 9:1-26, says that he has come in peace, when he has not.
In Jeremiah 38:24-28, the king asks Jeremiah about his fate. Jeremiah prophesies, telling him. The king commands Jeremiah to say that he has been speaking to the king about something else, namely Jeremiah's fate, and Jeremiah complies.
Some allege that, in John 7:1-10, Jesus lied to his disciples, saying that He was not going to a feast, when He did go in a day or so. This case seems to me (and others, including the writers of the Wikipedia article) to be, at best, ambiguous. I include it here for completeness, not because I believe that Jesus lied in this case.

I don't believe that any of the cases above show any evidence of deceit for selfish reasons. In several of the cases, the intent was to protect someone else from harm.

I am not aware of any certain example of anyone, who is clearly approved by God, lying in the New Testament.

Please don't take this post as license to lie. Besides the Ninth Commandment, there are other indications in the Bible that lying is usually, maybe even always, wrong. I intend to post on that later.

A previous post in this series, on the meaning of the Ninth Commandment, is here. A subsequent post, giving scriptural evidence that lying is, at least usually, sinful, is here.

Thanks for reading.


Jeremy Pierce said...

I'm in general agreement on all this. I posted on it myself a couple years ago. I do think it's worth saying that the burden of proof is always on the person who will engage in deceit, since it almost always is wrong. But I think you said enough to allow for that.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. I think you are correct about the burden of proof. See also my subsequent post, giving scriptural reasons why lying is wrong, at least usually.

Weekend Fisher said...

In some of these cases, the text does not seem to indicate that it was the lying per se that God condoned. In the case of the midwives and of Rahab, it seems to be either protecting someone's life or showing faith that God condoned. That our righteous acts are like filthy rags was never in question.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Weekend Fisher. I think you are right.

I believe that this involves the doctrine of "double effect," wherein you try to do A, and, in order to achieve A, you have to do B. Your purpose isn't B, but you can't get to A without doing it. For example, Samson killed himself. That was not his purpose -- his purpose was to kill as many Philistines as possible, but he had to kill himself in the process. Therefore, he shouldn't be condemned for committing suicide.

I think such arguments have merit, but I also think we have to be very careful that we aren't self-deceived.

The most important question is "what is my motive?" I don't think lying is ever approved if the motive is to hurt someone else, or to advance ourselves.

Jeremy said...

Weekend Fisher is giving a common view, but it's one that doesn't stand up in all the cases. For instance, God flat-out commands Samuel to lie on the occasion of the anointing of David.

Martin LaBar said...

That's what 1 Samuel, which I referred to, reads like.