Someday Meditations: Biblical Ethics, Pt. IV – Deception

We are coming to an end of our case studies.  I feel like the basic points I want to make have some grounds for discussion by now, and I’ll draw those together in a summary post of conclusions after this if I don’t make a last minute decision to look at one or two more issues.

This particular case study was an afterthought that arose in a discussion I was having with a good friend about Romans 13.  How wide should we draw the boundaries of Paul’s command to submit to the government.  One of the examples we discussed was hiding Jews from Hitler’s forces in Nazi Germany.

This seems to us like a simple moral choice.  If Jews are trying to escape with their lives and ask to hide in your house, you let them.  If Nazi soldiers show up asking if you have Jews hiding in your house, you say no.

But from a model that states that our moral decisions start and stop with the text in the Bible, that simple moral choice becomes kind of difficult to justify, because not only are violating Paul’s command to submit to the government, but you are violating the multitude of injunctions against deception in Scripture.

I’m guessing I don’t have to go through the exegetical work of establishing the point that the Bible teaches us that lying is wrong.  There are many passages about dishonesty of all kinds with all sorts of applications.  In the Old Testament, we find this in Law:

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:11-12 (NRSV)


You destroy those who speak lies;
    the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.

Psalm 5:6 (NRSV)


There are six things that the Lord hates,
    seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
    and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
    feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
    and one who sows discord in a family.

Proverbs 6:16-19 (NRSV)


The villainies of villains are evil;
    they devise wicked devices
to ruin the poor with lying words,
    even when the plea of the needy is right.

Isaiah 32:7 (NRSV)

Obviously, this is a very small sample of a rather large amount of verses that forbid deception and note it as a hallmark characteristic of the wicked.

Jesus also has this same view of deception.  Among the passages we might examine, here is one of the more dramatic ones where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being children of the devil when they seek to kill him:

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 

John 8:44-45 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

In the rest of the New Testament, we have several commands about lies and deception.  One example is Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices

Colossians 3:9 (NRSV)

And for the purposes of our discussion, it’s also interesting that Paul lists “liars” in the same list as “sodomites” and “slave traders” when it comes to disobedience:

This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

1 Timothy 1:9-11 (NRSV)

And liars are listed as those who will be consumed by the second death in John’s Apocalypse:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

Revelation 21:8 (NRSV)

So, in a complete surprise to no one, we find lying and deception condemned in every genre of biblical literature.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you pull up your favorite Bible translation online and do a search for words like “lie” or “deceit” and various forms of those words, you’ll begin to wonder if the Bible talks about anything else.

Unlike some of our previous examples, there does not appear to be a time when lying moves from a serious ethical breach to a matter of personal preference.  What may surprise some people, though, is that lying is, at various times, condoned by God, recommended by God, and lauded.

It should be noted that all of our examples will come from narrative passages.  There is no statement I’m aware of in the Bible that commends lying, although Jesus comes dangerously close in one example that we’ll look at.

Our first example comes from the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1.  Here, Pharaoh wants to control the Israelite population, so he commands the midwives to kill any male children born to the Hebrews.  The midwives respond by… not doing this, and then lying about it when questioned.

But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

Exodus 1:17-21 (NRSV)

Because the midwives refuse to kill the children and then lie to Pharaoh to throw him off the track, God deals well with them and gives them families.  This is also, I might add, not very submissive to the government.

Speaking of lying and not being submissive to the government, perhaps one of the most lauded examples comes from the story of Rahab who hid two Israelite spies who were scouting out Jericho before an invasion.

Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof.

Joshua 2:3-6 (NRSV)

Rahab extracts an oath from the spies to deal well with her and her family when they invade, they agree, and this is what happens in Joshua 6.  If that’s all we ever heard about this episode, we could just write it off as a woman who saw where the political winds were blowing and lied to save her own skin.

The New Testament, however, has a different take:

By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

Hebrews 11:31 (NRSV)

Rahab makes the Faith Hall of Fame list in Hebrews 11 along with luminaries such as Moses and Abraham.  According to the author, the reason Rahab lied to the government was not to save her own skin, but because she had the same faith that the patriarchs had – she saw the fulfillment of Israel’s promises from far off, and because she genuinely believed them, she acted accordingly, prompting this stunning statement from old, codgery James:

Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?

James 2:25 (NRSV)

Rahab is James’ example of a person who was justified by works that were a result of saving faith.  Do you know who else James uses as examples?  Abraham and… no, that’s it.  Abraham and Rahab are James’ two examples of people who had true faith that produced works by which they were justified.

And what was this great work of faith that earned Rahab such accolades?  She lied to her king about knowing the men were spies and where they went so that his soldiers would go off on some wild goose chase while she hid them in her house.

The next example I want to look at is Samuel’s anointing of a new king of Israel.  There are many (many) examples of David lying to save his bacon, but the example I want to look at is interesting because it is a command from the Lord:

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

1 Samuel 16:1-5 (NRSV)

Now, I will grant that what God tells Samuel to do is not a blatant falsehood.  Samuel does take a heifer and does invite Jesse to the sacrifice.  However, clearly the whole reason the sacrifices happens is to provide a cover story for Samuel going to anoint a new king of Israel.  He is afraid Saul will kill him, so God gives him a cover story so he can tell Saul with a straight face, “Hey, I’m here to sacrifice to God.  No big deal, right?”

It’s deceptive.  This is the kind of technicality that gets people in trouble with their spouses.  “But I -did- go out to pay Steve the $20 I owed him.  We just happened to do it at a strip club.  But I told you the truth!”

“But I did sacrifice to the Lord,” says Samuel, “I just also happened to invite a man whose son I anointed king of Israel while you were still alive.  But I told the truth!”  Only the strangest ethical calculus would say this isn’t deceptive.  The whole reason the whole thing exists is because Samuel knows Saul will kill him if he knows the truth.  This whole thing is designed to conceal the truth from Saul.

If you still think that this technically does not constitute God-sanctioned lying, let’s take a look at an example from maybe my favorite prophet – Michaiah:

Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘How?’ the Lord asked him. He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.”

1 Kings 22:19-23 (NRSV)

There is a much more entertaining version of this story in 2 Chronicles 18, but the vision above is the same in both cases.

Here, God wants to destroy Ahab, so he asks his hosts who will trick Ahab into going into battle at Ramoth-gilead, knowing that He would destroy Ahab through this mechanism.  A spirit volunteers, God asks how he plans to accomplish it, and the spirit comes up with a simple plan, “I’m going to lie to all his prophets.”  God says git ‘er done, and there we have it.

While technically God is not telling the lie, Himself, He is most definitely authorizing it.  What’s more, this lie is being passed along to prophets so that they will give false prophecies, and these false prophecies, if successful in convincing Ahab, are all designed so God can kill him in battle.

You have to admit, this is a bit tricky to square with a plain reading of the ethical injunctions in the Old Testament.  Or the New one.  I can’t imagine Paul read that story and shook his head and thought, “Well, there’s one spirit who isn’t entering the kingdom of heaven.”

By the time we get to the gospels, lying is still bad, as we saw.  Jesus does not recommend that anyone lie.  There is a tricky bit regarding Jesus and a feast:

Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.

John 7:8-10 (NRSV)

This would count as a lie if Jesus purposefully intended to deceive his brothers.  I’m not sure that’s what happened.  The text tells us that he knew “the Jews” were looking to kill him, so he wanted to lay low, and his brothers are here telling him he should parade about so everyone can see the works he’s doing.  I think it’s just as likely Jesus didn’t intend to go when he had the conversation and then changed his mind after they left.

But I’m just speculating, there.  The text just says that Jesus said he wouldn’t go, and then he went in secret, anyway.

What I wanted to draw our attention to, however, is Jesus’ words about the coming tribulation and how the disciples are going to survive it.  In more than one case, Jesus commends those who will take his disciples in and take care of them when they are being persecuted by the powers that be.

For example, in Matthew chapter 10, Jesus spends almost the entire chapter warning his disciples about the upcoming persecution they will experience in Jesus’ name.  He warns that they will be dragged before councils and synagogues, kings and governors.  They will be turned in by their own people, even their own families.  But he encourages them to have faith in God’s care and their eschatological vindication.  Then, at the end, he mentions the people who will take care of his persecuted disciples.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

Just taken by itself, this passage just seems like basic hospitality.  But it isn’t on its own; it’s part of a speech where Jesus is warning them about days of persecution by both the religious and secular authorities and the people who will betray them.

So, these people Jesus describes are not just showing hospitality in a neutral environment – they are people who are taking in and caring for Jesus’ followers even in the midst of the government and synagogue looking for their blood and everyone out to turn them in.  While it is not a command to lie to anyone directly, it most certainly involves shielding these people from the government, very much like Rahab in that way.

Perhaps one of the more difficult statements Jesus makes in this vein is in Luke chapter 16, the parable of the unrighteous manager.  The parable goes that a rich man is about to fire his manager because he believes the manager has been squandering his money.  The manager, not knowing how he’ll survive, begins to negotiate the debt of everyone who owes his master money, lowering it so that they will treat him well when he’s out on the street.  The rich man finds out about this and commends the manager for his cleverness.

Jesus sums up the moral of the story with a statement that has given commentators fits since:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Luke 16:8-9 (NRSV)

Turns out that this dishonest manager is the hero of the story, and Jesus wants his disciples to learn a thing or two from this guy – use your (dishonest) money to make friends with the people who can take care of you so that, when you have nothing, they will welcome you into their dwellings into the coming ages.

There are some dicey translation issues, here, and I don’t want to minimize them.  I sure don’t want to make Jesus say more than he’s saying.  But the one part we really can’t work our way around is that the dishonest manager who squanders his master’s money and cuts deals behind his back to save his own skin is held up as a model of cleverness for the disciples to emulate so that they, too, will survive when they have nothing.

And yet, we have the dramatic story in Acts 5 of Ananias and Sapphira who both lie about the amount of money they are sharing with the other believers, and both are struck dead by the Holy Spirit (being slain in the Spirit isn’t a good thing, folks).

So, which is it, Bible?  Is it ok to lie or not?

If I had to sum up “biblical teaching” on whether or not it is ok to lie, I’d put it like this: “No, but it also depends on the situation.”

Despite the exceptions I’ve pointed out, there is a massive torrent of injunctions against lying, both direct and indirect, from Genesis to Revelation.  There’s probably even something about lying in the maps in the back; I don’t know.

And yet, despite the overwhelmingly clear and voluminous testimony in the Scriptures that lying is forbidden, the exceptions exist.  Someone lied and God rewarded them.  Someone lied because God came up with the idea.  Someone wanted to lie and God gave His approval to the plan.  But these testimonies do not make us conclude that it must actually be all right to lie, nor do they make us conclude that lying is a matter of indifference to God.

What appears to be the testimony is that, as bad as lying is, there are extraneous circumstances – such as protecting God’s faithful from the government – where lying is actually the right thing to do as far as God is concerned.  And it is interesting that this is part of Israel’s testimony, yet it does not create a slippery slope where everyone just decides it’s ok to lie, now.  Somehow, the people of God through the ages knew that there were certain situations where God condoned lying, yet also that by far and away lies were not ok and, in fact, are often told for very selfish reasons and not to save lives, for instance.

But how were these people to know?  How were the Hebrew midwives supposed to know God approved of their deception?  Or Rahab?  Well, it appears that they didn’t have documents to consult.  They acted out of faith.  I am tempted here to draw a connection to Romans 14, but I’m afraid that might be overstating the case.

My point in this case study is not to establish precedent for sinning if you think sinning is the right thing to do.  It certainly isn’t to deny that there is black and white just because grays are present.

It is, however, to point out that even THE clearest of moral injunctions in the Bible do not become abstract authorities against which there can be no thinking.  You do not get to shut your Moral Reasoner off just because the text seems like a clear prohibition (or commandment) to you.  That is not the end of the issue, even for something as basic and obviously wrong in the Scriptures as lying.