Lying to save life and biblical morality (Part II)

Analysis Of Truth: The Spirit And The Specifics While others have dealt in greater depth with the broad principles of honesty, integrity, and veracity,29 this article will briefly reiterate the essential features of this issue. “What is truth?” asked Pilate (John 18:38).30 The tragic irony of this question was that Jesus Christ, “the truth” according to John 14:6, stood right in front of him, and yet Pilate failed to recognize that. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), was sent to this world to bear witness about Jesus Christ, the essence of all truth (John 16:12-14; cf. Acts 2:1-4). Summarizing the biblical data on this subject, one scholar says:

The Old Testament characterizes Yahweh as a God of truth (Ps 31:6) or faithfulness (Deut 32:4), who is just and right (Deut 32:4; Pss 92:16; 119:137; 145:17), and without iniquity (Deut 32:4; Ps 92:16). His word and judgements are straight (Ps 33:4) and true (Pss 19:10; 119:137, 151-160) and altogether righteous (Ps 19:10). He does not lie, because He is not a man that He should lie or change His mind (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29); what He says He will do, and what He promises He will bring to pass (Num 23:19). The New Testament also characterizes God’s word as truth (John 17:17), denies that there is any unrighteousness in Him (Rom 9:14), and speaks of Him as ho apseudeis Theos, ‘God who does not’ or ‘cannot lie’ (Titus 1:2). Finally, the author of Hebrews claims that when the divine promise is confirmed by the divine oath, these two things make it impossible for God to prove false (Heb 6:18).31

In brief, “God does not lie; it is against his very nature.”32 Therefore, to speak of the sanctity of truth means to recognize the sanctity of the being of the Creator of the universe. “He is the God of all truth and all truth derives its sanctity from him.”33 This then is how the Scriptures describe the God of the universe – as absolutely honest, totally trustworthy, and One in whom His created beings can have complete confidence! But the Bible goes beyond that, teaching that God made mankind in His own image (Gen 1:26-28), in order to reflect His character of truth and integrity (Matt 5:16; cf. John 17:10; 2 Cor 3:2, 18; 2 Pet 3:18). Making this summons to veracity more specific, the Old Testament dogmatically declares: “You must not lie to each other” (Lev 19:11 ERV), and “You must not tell lies about other people” (Exod 20:16 ERV), for “the Lord hates lying lips, but those who speak the truth are His joy” (Prov 12:22 NLV). Correspondingly, the New Testament charges: “So you must stop telling lies. You must always speak the truth to each other” (Eph 4:25 ERV), “speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Furthermore, it unequivocally proclaims: “Never lie to one another; because you have stripped away the old self, with its ways, and you have put of a new self which will progress toward true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its Creator” (Col 3:9 [CJV], 10 [NJB]). Plainly, this is the pivotal point – that becoming a trustworthy and truthful person is only possible as we become more and more like Jesus Christ, One in whom there was no “deceit” (1 Pet 2:22), One who is classified as “the Truth” (John 14:6 NLV) in verity.

As we move from the broad principle of trustworthiness and integrity, to the specific application of truthtelling, a significant point needs to be made. Based on Romans 7:6, “that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter,” some have suggested that at times the literal interpretation of the ninth commandment contradicts the broad principle of honesty, at which point the letter should be ignored while the spirit is to be kept.34 Careful study of this text indicates that it has been taken out of context, as the immediately following passage reveals: “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’” (Rom 7:7 NIV). The broader context shows that, while Paul is rejecting a merely external obedience, he is calling for a genuine spirit-empowered allegiance to God’s eternal law. It is similar to Jesus’ condemnation of the proud religious leaders of His day: “‘These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me’” (Mark 7:6 NLV). Rather than nullifying obedience to God’s specific moral requirements, Paul affirms that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12). Evidently then, Scripture does not pose an either/or choice between the principle and the particular; instead, it calls for “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6 NLV), “for the love of Christ puts us into action” (2 Cor 5:14 NLV). Or, as John put it: “Let us not love with words or in talk only. Let us love by what we do and in truth” (1 John 3:18 NLV). Disclosing precisely such a fitting blend of letter and spirit in relation to the issue of “truth,” Ellen White says:

Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sunlight. Truth is of God; deception, in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan; and whoever in any way departs from the straight line of truth is betraying himself into the power of the wicked one. Yet it is not a light or an easy thing to speak the exact truth. We cannot speak the truth unless we know the truth; . . . We cannot speak the truth unless our minds are continually guided by Him who is truth.35

This perspective of Ellen White’s, that truth derives from the Divine, while all deception is from the Devil, conspicuously conflicts with the assertion made at the start of this study that it is a “porcelain argument that no one should lie under any condition.”36

A diligent investigation of the above Scripture passages on lying and truthtelling demonstrates that God has not made this matter merely optional; on the contrary, He has made this issue of truthful communication a binding moral obligation. So much so, that “people who tell lies” (Rev 21:8 ERV), and thus disregard this law, will go to hell (Rev 21:27)! This is not simply an arbitrary decision of the God of truth and verity, but is the only reasonable solution, since “everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev 22:15 CJB) is in reality choosing to emulate Satan, “the father of lies” (John 8:44 ICB), while those who elect to follow Jesus, “the Truth,” will inherit eternal life (John 3:16). Nevertheless, even though these basic biblical principles of honesty and the sanctity of truth are precise and plain, some have insisted that the central question must still be answered: What is the morally right thing to do, according to the Bible, when it seems that only falsehood will avert a fatality?

Deception or Death: A Challenging Choice

In order to adequately address this question, all the major points made above about Rahab’s daring duplicity will now be painstakingly appraised.

Scripture Stories And Ethical Standards

To recap, the first point made was that, “Morality can be learned from Scripture stories where the Bible does not directly condemn the activities engaged in in the actual narrative.” The same basic idea has been made in connection with 1 Corinthians 10:11, the first part of which reads: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition.” Based on this passage, some have claimed that the manner in which Old Testament people lived provides us with “God-approved examples of how He wants us to behave in similar moral conflicts.”37 Thus, it is concluded that stories such as those of Rahab, and of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, have been included in the Bible so that believers will know what to do under comparable circumstances. In brief, it is specifically argued that these stories demonstrate that lying to save life is perfectly legitimate, and actually the morally right thing to do, without any need for repentance or forgiveness, since this kind of lying is supposedly not considered a sin by God.38

This reasoning is similar to that of a high school teacher who produced a sizable document dealing with Christian marital relationships. Part of his research addressed plural marriage, especially as practiced in Bible times. He reasoned as follows:

Premise One: God never changes His moral standards; Premise Two: David, a man who pleased God, had many wives; Conclusion: It is right for a Christian to be a polygamist!

Of course, this “logical” deduction raises some significant questions, such as: Are all the actions of Bible characters to be emulated? If not all, then should some actions be imitated? If so, which actions should be considered as models of morality? And, more importantly, how is a student of the Bible to know which actions to emulate and which to avoid? In other words, are there any clear scriptural guidelines for rightly interpreting and understanding the narrative portions of the Bible that will assist in the development of a sound strategy for proper ethical decision-making?

Hence, what does the Bible really mean in 1 Corinthians 10:11 about Scripture stories being “examples” for believers? This verse is in effect a summary of the preceding passage, in which Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians, “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted” (1 Cor 10:6). Then Paul enumerates some of these evils, such as idolatry and sexual immorality (1 Cor 10:7, 8), together with some of the judgments meted out by God (1 Cor 10:8-10). Thus, rather than merely blindly following Scripture stories, the immediate and broader contexts need to be taken into account in order to distinguish between what the Bible actually teaches and what it simply reports so as to portray how far God’s people drifted from Him and His holy law.39 In other words, there are examples in Scripture that we should not follow. Therefore, far from suggesting that the actions of Bible characters should be uncritically emulated, 1 Corinthians 10:11 is a summons to all believers to “avoid the evils recorded and imitate only the righteousness of those who served the Lord.”40

Recognizing the dangers of simplistically imitating Bible stories, these two biblically sound cautions have been suggested:

A. Commendation of a person or notable action need not imply commendation of every element of the men and women cited.41

B. Reporting or narrating an event in Scripture is not to be equated with approving, recommending, or making that action or characteristic normative for emulation by all subsequent readers.42

Each narrative needs to be analyzed with regard to literary progression, dramatic structure, and stylistic features. “Though their communication is indirect, narratives nevertheless speak God’s truth powerfully when they are properly interpreted.”43

That is the fundamental issue: Stories need to be “properly interpreted.” Unfortunately, it appears that a variety of problematic strategies have recently been utilized, resulting in some dubious ethical theories.44

One of these methods is to twist the scriptural record so that a completely contradictory reinterpretation emerges. As a case in point, consider the ingenious (or is it disingenuous?) argument used in an attempt to strengthen the case on behalf of Rahab. Seeking to prove that “the Old Testament is saturated with examples of [allegedly appropriate deceptive] undercover activities in the accomplishment of the divine purpose,”45 the writer states:

Jochebed’s strategy to protect the baby Moses might be cited as a case in point. One can argue that every day the lad was kept concealed, Jochebed lived a lie as she went about her regular duties in the community. For, in effect, she was representing herself as standing in compliance with the Egyptian edict when, in fact, she was not.46

A simple reading of the Bible narrative quickly dispels the unsubstantiated assumptions advanced above. Exodus 1:22 notes that, after the failure of his plans to exterminate the Israelites, through brutal taskmasters and God-fearing midwives, “Pharaoh commanded all his people,” i.e., “the whole nation”47 of Egyptians,48 to drown every newborn Israelite boy in the Nile river. Thus, when it is correctly comprehended that the command was given specifically to the Egyptians and not to any Israelites, it becomes obvious that the characterization of Jochebed, as one who “lived a lie,”49 clearly contradicts the Word of God, which indicates that she was not violating any command at all. Incidentally, there is nothing innately immoral in the simple act of hiding. This can be observed from a consideration of the various times when Jesus Christ, our sinless Savior, and one in whom there is no “deceit” (1 Peter 2:22), concealed Himself (Mark 6:30-7:24; John 8:59).50 Since there is no evidence that Jochebed was involved in any deceptive activity in protecting Moses’ life, it would be unfair and illogical to suggest that this case study supports the hypothesis that it is justifiable to utilize deception “in the accomplishment of the divine purpose,”51 and that therefore Rahab’s lies were similarly vindicated. This is especially true in light of Jeremiah’s statement: “Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord deceitfully” (Jer 48:10a).52 Thus, while the imaginative, but erroneous, reinterpretation emerges as contradictory to the inspired record, the facts that are consistent with the biblical narrative exonerate Jochebed, and show how God worked through her to attain His divine plan.53 This narrative, rather than offering an excuse to deceive when under distress, inspires us to discover discrete yet ethically appropriate ways of obeying God’s absolute moral norms even while living in a hostile environment.54

Another strategy utilized by some is that of conjectural interpretation. This appears to be one of the more perilous approaches employed in the retelling of Bible stories, especially of brief narratives that seem to omit some details.55 One of the most common assumptions about the Rahab incident is that she “lied to preserve the lives”56 of Joshua’s scouts,57 and that her action, supposedly motivated by a magnanimous concern for others, is an excellent model of proper Christian compassion.58

Frankly, there is nothing in the biblical account that definitively states or even necessarily implies the above idea, as the reason for her deception. The text merely reports that Rahab hid the men, and then, when asked, lied about the fact that they were on her premises (Josh 2:4-6). A correct contextual explication of Scripture necessitates an understanding of how foreigners suspected of exploring the land were treated in biblical times. An apparently classic case, occurring during the reign of David, details the manner in which the Ammonites treated some Israelite men whom they believed had come “to look the city over, reconnoiter [i.e., ‘survey’] it and overthrow it” (2 Sam 10:3 CJB). Since they believed these Israelites were hostile, they “shaved off half of their beards, cut off their garments in the middle, at their buttocks, and sent them away” (2 Sam 10:4). Thus, they deliberately disgraced the Israelites, but did not put them to death! Concurring, one scholar noted that these emissaries were assumed to be enemy scouts “by the Ammonites and were treated accordingly”59 – not with abrupt execution, but with acute embarrassment.

Though the Pentateuch contains many regulations, there is no statute regarding what to do to an enemy scout that has been discovered.60 Perhaps a clue comes from the kind and compassionate manner in which even the animals belonging to an enemy are to be treated (Exod 23:5, 6). A similar lesson emerges in the story where Elisha calls for a banquet for, instead of bloodshed against the Syrian army he had captured (2 Kgs 6:8-23).61

Ancient historical evidence sheds further light on this subject. The Babylonian Laws, as recorded in the famous Code of Hammurabi, include this legislation: “If conspirators assemble in the house of a tavern-keeper, who are not captured and delivered to the court, that tavern-keeper shall be put to death.”62 This regulation, promulgated shortly before the Israelite entrance into Canaan, has been recognized by some scholars as having a bearing on the Rahab incident: “She knew that anyone suspected of collaborating” with the enemy would be put to death.63 Various thinkers have likewise concluded that, by keeping the Israelites hidden, Rahab incurred “a grave personal risk,”64 and “endangered her own life.”65 In basic harmony with these views, Ellen White observes that Rahab preserved the two men “at the peril of her own life.”66

The weight of evidence, based upon contextual implications, thus indicates that Rahab lied to save her own life. True, she did welcome the two Israelite scouts, hide them, and later help them to escape safely from Jericho. However, biblical, contemporaneous, and current information, shows that her deception was essentially an act of self-preservation, and not the highly-touted supposedly selfless, altruistic and purportedly “exemplary” deception.67

To capture the essence of this section dealing with the relationship between Scripture stories and ethical standards, let’s briefly review the tale of Tamar. Here is a woman, widowed due to her wicked husband (Gen 38:7), abused by her second spouse (Gen 38:8-10), and hoodwinked by her father-in-law Judah out of marrying his third son (Gen 38:11-14). So, taking matters into her own hands, she dresses like a prostitute to lure Judah into sex, without him knowing who it is. She becomes pregnant. When it is revealed that the pregnancy was due to “prostitution,” Judah summarily sentences her: “Let her be burned” (Gen 38:24). But just before the execution she proves convincingly that the father-to-be is Judah. Chagrined, Judah responds: “‘She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son’” (Gen 38:26). One of the twins born is named Perez, who becomes a direct ancestor of the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ.

What ethical imperatives are to be gleaned from this story, especially when it is recognized that not a single word of direct condemnation against Tamar can be found throughout the entire Bible? Does this narrative teach that incestuous sex with one’s father-in-law is morally acceptable, since through this kind of action Tamar became one of Jesus’ ancestors? Or does the record indicate that “prostitution” is permissible at times, when done to bring about justice, as Tamar succeeded in doing? Or does this narrative promote deceiving those who mistreat us, as Tamar did, with the result that she was classified “more righteous” than Judah?

Obviously, other than the gospel story of Jesus, who is our only true ethical example (1 Pet 2:21), no Bible narrative should be uncritically followed. The actions of these characters must be checked against the prescriptive propositional statements made in other parts of Scripture. Only if and when their actions coincide with God’s clearly revealed moral requirements, as in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:2-17), and as exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus, should they be emulated. Which is why Paul could say: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1 ICB). Put plainly, Tamar’s actions are explicitly condemned in Scripture because they violate specific divine moral laws which prohibit incest (Lev 18:6-17; 20:11-21), prostitution (Lev 19:29; 21:7; Deut 23:17, 18), and deception (Exod 20:16; Lev 19:11).68 The fact that Tamar is mentioned in the genealogical record of Jesus (Matt 1:1-3), does not justify her immoral actions any more than does the listing of Judah promote deceit, prostitution and a self-righteous judgmental attitude. Just as in the tale of Tamar, so in the record of Rahab, the conclusion is straightforward: She deliberately used deception; but Rahab’s action should not be imitated since it is a violation of God’s law (Exod 20:16; Lev 19:11), and contrary to His character (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Titus 1:2), as epitomized by Jesus our example who never practiced deceit (1 Pet 2:21, 22).

Exerpt from Ron du Preez’s book Morals for Mortals. See book for end notes.