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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Lying, deceit and dishonesty in the Bible

What is lying? The Free Dictionary says that there are actually three English words, all spelled that same way. The third of these is most relevant, and this is the definition given:
n.
1. the telling of lies.
adj.
2. telling or containing lies; deliberately untruthful. 


Some people of my acquaintance have a broader definition. They would say that, if you thought the way to get to the local Fossil Fuel gas station was to go two miles down Main Street, and turn to the left, and told someone that, but the correct directions were to go three miles, and turn right, you would have lied. Not so. You would have given misinformation, and probably caused some inconvenience, but if you didn't know any better, you were not lying. If you did know better, you were lying. You were "deliberately untruthful."

Is lying a sin, according to the Ten Commandments?
Exodus 20:16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (All scripture quotations, including this one, of the ninth Commandment, are from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.)


Is lying a sin according to the Ten Commandments? Here's what some experts had to say on this commandment.

Matthew Henry, the seventeenth and eighteenth century English clergyman, said this about the ninth of the Ten Commandments, in his commentary on Exodus 20:
The ninth commandment concerns our own and our neighbour’s good name: Thou shalt not bear false witness, v. 16. This forbids, 1. Speaking falsely in any matter, lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbour. 2. Speaking unjustly against our neighbour, to the prejudice of his reputation; and (which involves the guilty of both), 3. Bearing false witness against him, laying to his charge things that he knows not, either judicially, upon oath (by which the third commandment, and the sixth of eighth, as well as this, are broken), or extrajudicially, in common converse, slandering, backbiting, tale-bearing, aggravating what is done amiss and making it worse than it is, and any way endeavouring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbour’s.

John Calvin wrote this in his commentary on the same commandment:
Although God seems only to prescribe that no one, for the purpose of injuring the innocent, should go into court, and publicly testify against him, yet it is plain that the faithful are prohibited from all false accusations, and not only such as are circulated in the streets, but those which are stirred in private houses and secret corners. For it would be absurd, when God has already shewn that men's fortunes are cared for by Him, that He should neglect their reputation, which is much more precious. In whatever way, therefore, we injure our neighbors by unjustly defaming them, we are accounted false witnesses before God. We must now pass on from the prohibitive to the affirmative precept: for it will not be enough for us to restrain our tongues from speaking evil, unless we are also kind and equitable towards our neighbors, and candid interpreters of their acts and words, and do not suffer them, as far as in us lies, to be burdened with false reproaches. Besides, God does not only forbid us to invent accusations against the innocent, but also to give currency to reproaches and sinister reports in malevolence or hatred. Such a person may perhaps deserve his ill-name, and we may truly lay such or such an accusation to his charge; but if the reproach be the ebullition of our anger, or the accusation proceed from ill-will, it will be vain for us to allege in excuse that we have advanced nothing but, what is true.

John Wesley's Commentary (available from this source) says almost exactly the same thing as Matthew Henry does.

Adam Clarke's Commentary (available from this source) says:
Verse 16. . . . Not only false oaths, to deprive a man of his life or of his right, are here prohibited, but all whispering, tale-bearing, slander, and calumny; in a word, whatever is deposed as a truth, which is false in fact, and tends to injure another in his goods, person, or character, is against the spirit and letter of this law.
Suppressing the truth when known, by which a person may be defrauded of his property or his good name, or lie under injuries or disabilities which a discovery of the truth would have prevented, is also a crime against this law. He who bears a false testimony against or belies even the devil himself, comes under the curse of this law, because his testimony is false.
By the term neighbour any human being is intended, whether he rank among our enemies or friends.

These three do not completely agree, but they do agree on this -- speaking deceitfully in such a way as to damage a neighbor's reputation is the most serious violation of this commandment. Of the three, only Henry includes plain vanilla lying.

The Blueletter Bible gives access to several different Bible translations, including the King James, the New King James, the NLT, the NIV, the NASB, and the ESV. None of those 12 English translations of Exodus 20:16 say "You shall not lie." All of them use a variation of the more restrictive "You shall not give false witness." As indicated above, deliberately damaging a neighbor's reputation by speaking falsely seems to be the thrust of the Commandment. That doesn't mean that God normally allows telling a lie. He doesn't. But, most likely, lying in such a way as to damage someone's reputation, and to undermine the system of justice, is particularly dangerous. (Similarly, there are many varieties of sexual sin, but only adultery is mentioned in the Ten Commandments.) 

The discussion below documents the fact that, as a general rule, lying is a sin. But there seem to have been Biblical examples of deliberate falsehood, sanctioned by God. None of them damaged someone else's reputation. Most of them were to protect innocent parties.

Is lying -- deliberate deceit -- ever permissible?
The Wikipedia article on "lie" (there is no article on "lying") says, as of February 4, 2014: A lie is a false statement to a person or group made by another person or group who knows it is not the whole truth, intentionally . . .

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. See here for more on Kant and lying. Kant even held that it is wrong to lie to a vicious killer who comes to the door and asks, about an innocent person that you think he wants to kill, "Is so-and-so home?" For further discussion of Kant on lying, see here and here.

The Bible seems to indicate that lying is usually, possibly always, sinful. Here are links to the passages I have found that indicate this (All links to the Bible are to the ESV, as the World English Bible doesn't have provision for linking to particular verses.):

Exodus 23:1 “You shall not spread a false report. Don’t join your hand with the wicked to be a malicious witness.
2 “You shall not follow a crowd to do evil. You shall not testify in court to side with a multitude to pervert justice.
 


In Joshua 7:11, when Achan took loot against God's command, his disobedience, his taking, and his lying were apparently all sinful.

Leviticus 6:1-7 says that lying and deceit which result in loss of property to another are sins, and restitution must be made.

Leviticus 19:11 says, in part, "you shall not lie to one another."

Psalm 5:6 says that God destroys liars and abhors deceitful people.

Here's Psalm 101:7:
He who practices deceit won’t dwell within my house.
He who speaks falsehood won’t be established before my eyes.

Proverbs 12:22 says that God abhors lying lips.

Proverbs 19:9 condemns false witnesses and liars.

Proverbs 21:6 says that getting property by deceit leads to death.

in Jeremiah 27:12-16, Jeremiah condemns false prophets for their lies.

These, of course, are all Old Testament scriptures. The New Testament also has harsh words for deceit.

In John 8:44, Jesus says that the Devil is the father of lies.

In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira died because they lied to the Holy Spirit.

In Colossians 3:9, Paul tells Christians not to lie to each other.

1 Timothy 1:8-11 includes both liars and perjurers in a list of types of sinners.

1 Timothy 4:1-5 says that the time will come when some believers will "depart from the faith" due to the influence of demons, deceitful spirits, and liars.

Revelation 21:8 places "all liars" into the lake of fire, with murderers and other sinners.

This is not a pretty picture. It is possible that deceit is sometimes allowed by God, generally to protect someone else from evil, but generally, it is not. There is no scriptural evidence that it is ever all right to selfishly advance your own interests by lying, or that it is ever all right to harm an innocent party by lying. In most, maybe even all cases, lying is sinful.

Occasions where God seems to have allowed, or condoned deceit
Genesis 12:10 There was a famine in the land. Abram went down into Egypt to live as a foreigner there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he had come near to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman to look at. 12 It will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will kill me, but they will save you alive. 13 Please say that you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that my soul may live because of you.” See similar occasions in Genesis 20:2, and 26:7. In each of these cases, Abraham tried to make someone believe 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.)

*Exodus 1:15 The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah, 16 and he said, “When you perform the duty of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool; if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God, and didn’t do what the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the baby boys alive. 18 The king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and have saved the boys alive?”
19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous, and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
20 God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied, and grew very mighty. 21 Because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.


*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.)

*1 Samuel 16:1 Yahweh said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite; for I have provided a king for myself among his sons.”
2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.”
Yahweh said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, I have come to sacrifice to Yahweh. 3 Call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. You shall anoint to me him whom I name to you.”
4a Samuel did that which Yahweh spoke, and came to Bethlehem.
God told Samuel to say that he had come to Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice (which he did) but that wasn't his main purpose. Nor was it the original reason that Samuel was told to go to Bethlehem.


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 believed David.

*1 Kings 13:1 Behold, a man of God came out of Judah by Yahweh’s word to Beth El; and Jeroboam was standing by the altar to burn incense. 2 He cried against the altar by Yahweh’s word, and said, “Altar! Altar! Yahweh says: ‘Behold, a son will be born to David’s house, Josiah by name. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and they will burn men’s bones on you.’” 3 He gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign which Yahweh has spoken: Behold, the altar will be split apart, and the ashes that are on it will be poured out.”
4 When the king heard the saying of the man of God, which he cried against the altar in Bethel, Jeroboam put out his hand from the altar, saying, “Seize him!” His hand, which he put out against him, dried up, so that he could not draw it back again to himself. 5 The altar was also split apart, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign which the man of God had given by Yahweh’s word. 6 The king answered the man of God, “Now intercede for the favor of Yahweh your God, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored me again.”
The man of God interceded with Yahweh, and the king’s hand was restored to him again, and became as it was before.
7 The king said to the man of God, “Come home with me, and refresh yourself, and I will give you a reward.”
8 The man of God said to the king, “Even if you gave me half of your house, I would not go in with you, neither would I eat bread nor drink water in this place; 9 for so was it commanded me by Yahweh’s word, saying, ‘You shall eat no bread, drink no water, and don’t return by the way that you came.’” 10 So he went another way, and didn’t return by the way that he came to Bethel.
11 Now an old prophet lived in Bethel, and one of his sons came and told him all the works that the man of God had done that day in Bethel. They also told their father the words which he had spoken to the king.
12 Their father said to them, “Which way did he go?” Now his sons had seen which way the man of God went, who came from Judah. 13 He said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” So they saddled the donkey for him; and he rode on it. 14 He went after the man of God, and found him sitting under an oak. He said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?”
He said, “I am.” 15 Then he said to him, “Come home with me, and eat bread.”
16 He said, “I may not return with you, nor go in with you. I will not eat bread or drink water with you in this place. 17 For it was said to me by Yahweh’s word, ‘You shall eat no bread or drink water there, and don’t turn again to go by the way that you came.’”
18 He said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are; and an angel spoke to me by Yahweh’s word, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into your house, that he may eat bread and drink water.’” He lied to him.
19 So he went back with him, ate bread in his house, and drank water. 20 As they sat at the table, Yahweh’s word came to the prophet who brought him back; 21 and he cried out to the man of God who came from Judah, saying, “Yahweh says, ‘Because you have been disobedient to Yahweh’s mouth, and have not kept the commandment which Yahweh your God commanded you, 22 but came back, and have eaten bread and drank water in the place of which he said to you, “Eat no bread, and drink no water”; your body will not come to the tomb of your fathers.’”
23 After he had eaten bread, and after he drank, he saddled the donkey for the prophet whom he had brought back. 24 When he had gone, a lion met him by the way and killed him. His body was thrown on the path, and the donkey stood by it. The lion also stood by the body. 25 Behold, men passed by, and saw the body thrown on the path, and the lion standing by the body; and they came and told it in the city where the old prophet lived. 26 When the prophet who brought him back from the way heard of it, he said, “It is the man of God who was disobedient to Yahweh’s mouth. Therefore Yahweh has delivered him to the lion, which has mauled him and slain him, according to Yahweh’s word, which he spoke to him.” 27 He said to his sons, saying, “Saddle the donkey for me,” and they saddled it. 28 He went and found his body thrown on the path, and the donkey and the lion standing by the body. The lion had not eaten the body, nor mauled the donkey. 29 The prophet took up the body of the man of God, and laid it on the donkey, and brought it back. He came to the city of the old prophet to mourn, and to bury him. 30 He laid his body in his own grave; and they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!”
31 After he had buried him, he spoke to his sons, saying, “When I am dead, bury me in the tomb in which the man of God is buried. Lay my bones beside his bones. 32 For the saying which he cried by Yahweh’s word against the altar in Bethel, and against all the houses of the high places which are in the cities of Samaria, will surely happen.”
(See 2 Kings 23, where the word of the old prophet was fulfilled, and the tomb of the  two prophets is mentioned again.)


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 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 to be, at best, ambiguous. I include it here for completeness, not because I believe that Jesus lied in this case.

*The evidence that God allowed, or condoned, or even suggested deceit seems to be unambiguous, in the cases marked with an asterisk.

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. I conclude, with grave reservations, that Kant was wrong about the murderer -- it is sometimes acceptable to deceive, if the main purpose is to advance God's kingdom, or to protect an innocent party. Deceiving deliberately to get out of some situation we have gotten ourselves in, or for some sort of gain, be it power, fame, romance, or material goods, is sinful.

I find no scriptural allowance for lying when giving testimony in court, which would be a violation of the ninth Commandment.

"White lies"
Suppose someone asks you "How do I look?" and you are convinced that he doesn't really want to know, but wants to be affirmed by you. He wants you to say "You look fine." Are you lying if you tell him what he wants to hear, when you don't really think he looks especially fine? That's a hard question. If you do say that he looks fine, is your intent to deceive, or to reassure? Most of the time, it's to reassure. If we said that the person really didn't look very good, they might be devastated, and for no good purpose. I'm not sure that sort of thing is sinful. There are, of course, many variations of this -- such as commenting on someone's cooking, or on some sort of performance.

Summary
When in doubt, tell the truth. It is possible that not telling the truth is the right thing to do, in rare cases, but they are extremely rare. If we aren't careful, we might try to rationalize lying to cover up our own misdeeds, or to gain an unfair advantage. That's always sinful. Lying in such a way as to undermine the justice system, or to damage someone else's reputation, is particularly condemned, and included in the Ten Commandments.

This is a long post. It was modified a little on July 20, 2014. Thanks to anyone who read it!

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