When is Lying Commended?

January 25, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Posted in Theology | Leave a comment

          I have hesitated posting this, because it could be rather controversial, and it could be easily misunderstood.  I am not claiming to have the definitive answer to this issue.  But the question does come up, so, as a Bible expositor, I can’t avoid it.  When is lying commended in the scriptures?  That is an interesting question I thought about last week in my reading.  Lying is condemned almost always in the Bible, however there seem to be some exceptions.  Namely two incidences: the story of the Israelite midwives Shiphrah and Puah is the first exception (Exodus 1:15-21 which I read the other day), and Rahab of Jericho is the second (Joshua 2).

          Commentators sometimes go to great lengths to explain why the lies of these three women were sinful and how they were not commended for their lies but for something else.  Now I don’t claim to be smarter than the commentators, however, it seems pretty clear to me that they were commended, not in spite of their lies, but for their lies – or at least the lies were a significant part of the actions that were commended.  In the first case, the women disobeyed the king of Egypt because they feared God, and when questioned about it, they lied.  Both before and after telling us they lied, the text commends them for their fear of God.  The most obvious reading is that the lies they told were somehow a part of fearing God and doing what he desired.  And so “God was kind to the midwives . . . And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.” (20-21)

          In the second example, Rahab lied to the king of Jericho about the spies being in her home; they were there and she said they were not.  “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 from.  At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left.  I don’t know which way they went.’” (3-5)  Then later, after she confessed her faith in the God of the Hebrews, they promised to spare her life.  “‘Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you.’ . . . ‘Our lives for your lives!’ the men assured her.  ‘If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land.’” (12, 14)  Notice that he condition for them dealing kindly with Rahab is that she not tell what they were doing.  In other words, if she would continue the lie she just told (this is reiterated in v.20).  Later we learn that Rahab would be spared because she hid the spies, and had she not lied, they would not have been hidden (6:17 and 6:25).

          There is a third example of lying that, if not commended, is at least not specifically condemned.  That is the case of David who was fleeing from Saul and lied to get some bread for his men and for their protection (1 Samuel 21).  But this one isn’t quite so clear.

          What is common to these examples is that innocent lives were at stake, and without a lie, those lives would have been taken.  Therefore, I wonder if the correct biblical understanding would be to say that lying is always wrong, except in the rare case where innocent lives are at stake.  In those rare cases a higher principle takes over, that is the value of human life.  That is why Corrie ten Boom’s family can be considered heroes for hiding Jews in Nazi controlled Europe, when they constantly had to lie to the authorities about it.  In her case, as in the biblical examples cited, innocent lives were at stake.  The biblical principle is that God values human life.  It is the highest of his creation and deserves protection.  Now I am a terrible liar, not only because it is wrong, but because I can’t hide my lying; it shows all over my face.  But if I’m ever in the place where I have to decide between the loss of innocent lives or telling a lie, I pray to God I can lie with the best of them – for the protection of those lives.

           At this time of year, we are often reminded to celebrate the value God places on innocent life – especially intrauterine life.  Maybe these thoughts can serve that purpose as well.  And maybe some of you have better thoughts on the matter.

P.S. I am not advocating situational ethics; rather I am showing a rare example.  And I would never extend this to say that God wants us to protect human life by violating other principles that he’s laid out, like deliberately taking another life.  I can’t think of any examples of that in scripture.  Murderers of abortionist seem to believe this way.  The only exception I see in the scripture is lying when approached on the matter.  It is never retributive, only protective.  Vengeance belongs to God.

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