Thinking Out Loud

Or rather, thinking via keyboard…..

In the book of Exodus, the Egyptian Pharoah has ordered the Hebrew midwives to murder all the male infants as soon as they are born. They don’t. He calls them before him to ask why there are still Hebrew baby boys around. They lie to him:

“Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children 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 grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.”

And God rewards them.

Moses is sent to deliver the Israelites from Egypt. His intention all along has been to get his countrymen completely out of Egypt and back to the land they left 430 years ago. But that’s not precisely what he tells Pharoah.

Moses is sent to tell Pharoah to let his people go, he misleads Pharoah repeatedly. He doesn’t tell him they want to leave and never come back, he keeps saying they just want to go out 3 days into the wilderness to make sacrifices to their God. Pharoah at one time tells him he can go, but not so far, and Moses says they have go 3 days out because their sacrifices will be disgusting to the Egyptians. Pharoah says they can go, but not all of them, some of them can stay at home in Goshen, and Moses says no, they all have to be there for this sacrifice. Pharoah says fine, go, but don’t take *all* your livestock, and Moses says they have to have all the livestock because they won’t know until the last minute which animals they will sacrifice.

Rahab in Joshua 2:

And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into an harlot’s house, named Rahab, and lodged there.
And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, Behold, there came men in hither to night of the children of Israel to search out the country.
And the king of Jericho sent unto Rahab, saying, Bring forth the men that are come to thee, which are entered into thine house: for they be come to search out all the country.
And the woman took the two men, and hid them, and said thus, There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were:
And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them.
But she had brought them up to the roof of the house, and hid them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order upon the roof.
And the men pursued after them the way to Jordan unto the fords: and as soon as they which pursued after them were gone out, they shut the gate.
And before they were laid down, she came up unto them upon the roof;
And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you.
For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.
And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.
Now therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the LORD, since I have shewed you kindness, that ye will also shew kindness unto my father’s house, and give me a true token:
And that ye will save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.
And the men answered her, Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business. And it shall be, when the LORD hath given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee.
Then she let them down by a cord through the window: for her house was upon the town wall, and she dwelt upon the wall.
And she said unto them, Get you to the mountain, lest the pursuers meet you; and hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers be returned: and afterward may ye go your way.

In the New Testament in James 2, the writer specifically declares her actions righteous:

“You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Now, isn’t the reason she could send them off in a different direction in the first place is because of the deception she had practiced on her King’s messengers?

She’s also part of the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11:
By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.

Judges 4:

Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.” And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a [i]rug. 19 He said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a [j]bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him. 20 He said to her, “Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ that you shall say, ‘No.’” 21 But Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and [k]seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died.

Now, I suppose it could be argued here that technically Jael didn’t actually lie to Sisera as she did not promise not to drive a tent peg through is skull. That seems rather twisty turny reasoning to me, however. I think that if any of us were in flight from an enemy and somebody came out and said, “Here, come here, don’t be afraid!” we would interpret that as an assurance of safety and we would feel deceived if we happened to notice our rescuer was attempting to murder us.

It is also true that quite often we get tripped up because we think the Bible is from cover to cover a morality tale, when it in fact it is often descriptive rather than prescriptive and often describes what did happen, not what should have happened. But in the following chapter Barak and Deborah praise Jael:

“Most blessed of women is Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite;
Most blessed is she of women in the tent.
“He asked for water and she gave him milk;
In a magnificent bowl she brought him curds.
“She reached out her hand for the tent peg,
And her right hand for the workmen’s hammer.
Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head;
And she shattered and pierced his temple.

Now, I know many people who manage to interpret the above passages in such a way that the people involved are either not lying, or by accepting that yes, they lied, but it was still a sin and they were not commended for their deceit, but for something else. There are other examples of deceit in the Bible where I think that’s true (Jacob lying to his father about being Esau, for one example), but I cannot see how to interpret the above passages that way. It seems to me that one’s obligation to the wicked does not necessarily include full disclosure.

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15 Comments

  1. Posted January 11, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    This makes me think of the question about WWII. Nazis show up at your door and ask you, quite directly, if there are any Jews hidden in your house. Is it morally permissible to lie and say “no”? Or are you morally required to be honest, at the sacrifice of those lives?

    Some could argue God’s sovereignty in this matter, some argue our own responsibility. I look forward to learning the answer when I reach glory. Though I do think its worth thinking and talking about now.

  2. Anita
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. I think a lie is a lie is a lie (right?) but if someone’s life is at stake from an obvious or inescapable evil you’re kinda allowed some leeway to say, “Nope, no way, no Jews living in my house,” or the like. But there are just as many accounts in the lives of the Saints and martyrs where individuals could have lied but didn’t and God either intervened miraculously on their behalf or they were killed and their death brought about miracles or the conversion of cities. It’s not a tidy circle. Only God knows….
    Speaking of Abraham, he lied at least twice by telling two different sovereigns that Sarah, his wife, was actually his sister (which is kinda true — she was his half-sister). But God rewarded him by sparing Sarah’s (ahem) “honor” and by multiplying the fields and fortunes of Abraham and his family.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Abraham’s son told the same lie to the same king, and his wife was not his sister. But I think in the case of Abraham and Isaac those are some lies like Jacob’s, The Bible telling us what did happen not what should happen.

  3. Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Rachael – that’s the first thing I thought of – WWII and hiding Jews. Of course we are to protect the innocent and if that means to lie to the enemy, then so be it.

  4. Lori in Wheaton
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve wondered the exact same thing. It has always seemed to me they were being commended with the lying, which I can’t understand. I have always put it down to one of those things I’ll ask when I see Him. :-)

  5. Lori in Wheaton
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Also, since we just read the Moses section, I can say Moses was directly instructed by God to say exactly what he did. Which is even more confusing.

  6. Donna
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    In the book, _The Hiding Place_ there is an amazing scene when the Nazis enter their home and one lies and says there are no Jews and one sister tells the Nazis that the Jews are hiding under the table, which was true. Thankfully, the Nazis did not see the trap door which was covered by a rug, but it made for a heated debate afterward. Did God want them to lie? The sister who told the truth could not lie as it violated her conscience and God still blessed her and the Jews. She was obeying God and God took care of the rest. The other sister thought that God desired her to participate in the deception as a way to save His children from evil.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 12, 2014 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      And there’s another story I’ve read in a holocaust book where a family member who had never told a lie in his or her entire life does lie to deceive the Nazis and save the lives of hidden Jews. The lie is successful because of that person’s reputation for honesty. Later, the family member most responsible for hiding the Jews apologized to the honest relative and asked if he or she was feeling okay about it. I thought the answer given was really brilliant- the person who had lied for the first time in a long, long life says, “Who knows? It seems to me that God allowed me to build that reputation precisely for such a time as this, and my reputation is not worth more than their lives.”

      I also think it’s interesting that in the Hiding Place, the relative who tells the truth (I think it was an aunt, not a sister) does not hide or save nearly as many Jews as the branch of the family that has no qualms about deceiving Nazis to save lives.

  7. Posted January 12, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I’ve wrestled with these passages. When I read the Metaxas biography of Bonhoeffer and his explanation of the “higher truth”, it helped me make sense, at least as much as I my imperfect human understanding can. The question of deceiving the Nazis was more than theoretical for Bonhoeffer.

  8. Gencie
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    This is something I’ve frequently pondered but only in a shallow way, and never really looked into, but I have always had a hard time interpreting the eighth commandment as forbidding general lying. To “bear false witness against thy neighbor” makes more sense on the surface to be interpreted as falsely testifying about someone, such as gossip or lying in the witness stand at court. Of course, lying is condemned elsewhere in Scripture, but I digress.

  9. MamaOlive
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    I once read a Catholic doctrine about lying, and it basically said (as I remember) that if a person doesn’t have the right to ask the question, you don’t have the responsibility to answer it truthfully. That helps some, but I also wonder how to wrap my head around the concept.

    • Anita
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      Yehhhhh…. But defining who has the right to ask is slippery. I think the Magesterium would endorse holy silence in the face of questioning that wasn’t a direct threat to someone’s life. (Aka the hiding Jews in one’s attic narrative)

  10. Rachel
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Technically, I think Yael’s case is closer to a lie than not. After all, her husband had an alliance with Jabin (Sisera’s king), so Sisera had every reason to expect Yael’s to be friendly. They were supposed to be on the same team, after all.

    I think the real lesson is on the other side of the story, though. We should not take things for granted. Esau held his birthright cheaply and took his father’s blessing for granted. He lost both. Balak took Balaam’s favorable prophecy for granted, and did not receive it. The people of Jericho took their safety for granted, and were conquered. Jacob took Laban’s good will as given and did not receive it. The Pharaoh and Abimelech both took their access to information for granted and were both caught in Abraham’s scheme. Sisera assumed he could trust this king’s friends. He died for the assumption.

    We can’t assume we know what’s going on or our place in the grand scheme of things. We must always be mindful.

    • Rachel
      Posted January 12, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      I’m also put in mind of Deuteronomy 9, especially:

      Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

      And Isaiah 10, especially:

      15 Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
      or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
      As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
      or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!
      16 Therefore the Lord God of hosts
      will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
      and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
      like the burning of fire.

      Just because we get our way for now, doesn’t mean we are right. Nor does being wronged indicate righteousness.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 12, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      Good point.

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