Biblical Parameters of Deception

 

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiprah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it be a son, you shall kill him, but if it be 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 Pharoah, “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.

–Exodus 1:14-21

God’s word is given to us for our instruction and direction in the faith. As the emissaries and laborers of our Lord’s kingdom on earth it is never sufficient for us to theorize of and give lip-service to the ways of our Lord. We must have practical logistics and tactics which aim to transition the implication of God’s righteous laws from the abstract and hypothetical to the concrete and corporeal. As we engage in this process we are to make full use of the wisdom, instruction, and commands given to us in the Old and New Testaments.

One such tactic which we find repeatedly employed in Scripture yet which always draws much controversy is the righteous use of deception. Deception, dishonesty, lying, whatever we should like to call it, is always a serious business and the Christian should approach the subject understanding that God hates a lying tongue and there is no place for liars in the heavenly Jerusalem. But lest we rush into places where angels dare not tread we must take a further look at the righteous use of deception as employed and divinely sanctioned by many saints in the Biblical accounts.

In the opening text cited above we find Hebrew women being forced by Pharoah to commit a very wicked act: murder children. So in response the midwives engage in a tactic which has drawn the condemnation of many Christian expositors and commentators through the ages: they lie. They don’t tell half-truths, remain silent, or attempt to conceal the matter. They plainly lie to Phaoroah’s face about the reality of the situation. These two midwives, Shiprah and Puah, were professionals in their vocation and they seem to be cabinet members, or advisors, of the Pharoah. Understanding that there were millions of Hebrews living in Egypt at this time they undoubtedly were the representatives before the Egyptian government of what had to be a multitude of professional Hebrew midwives. In fact we may gather from the Pharoah’s exact words, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women …”, that these Hebrews were so skilled at their jobs that they served the Egyptians also. Being greatly skilled as midwives, a skill even recognized by their Egyptian masters, it is unthinkable that the Hebrew midwives were arriving late for deliveries.

So they are plainly lying. There is no way to get around the fact. These women are both giving a false report to the Egyptian head of state in order to conceal a massive network of behavior which is criminalized by the Egyptian state. Far from scolding the women for their actions the Scripture has nothing but praise. In order to properly understand this we must closely examine the divine directives which allow for this as well as the circumstances which necessitate such action.

Firstly, this is not the only place in Scripture where we see saints lie. To make merely a partial list of the Biblical accounts we must include Rahab’s lies to defend the Hebrew spies during the conquest of Jericho and in Genesis 12, 20, and 26 we find Abraham and Isaac lying to protect themselves and their families. In all of these instances a great many theologians do what Scripture does not do: pass condemnation. We must bear in mind that no matter what we think of the actions in the verses given they simply are not condemned by God. Instead of seeking to read “honest interpretations” back into the Biblical narrative we must submit our reasoning to the truth of God and skillfully seek out why it is that these saints are not condemned for their lies.

And the answer would be that wicked men who seek to trample on God’s law and harm others do not deserve the truth from us. Speaking to His disciples concerning judgment, Christ says,

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.[1]

Proverbs 11:13 instructs us thus:

Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.

Just as in war or times of intense distress God makes provision for one man to take another man’s life, so too there are Biblical provisions for deception and lying aimed at those who seek to harm either us or others. And there are many forms of falsity which the Bible shows to be legitimate tactics by which we may defend ourselves from harm and keep back dogs and swine from trampling down Christ’s kingdom.

Caleb rose to prominence under Moses as an adept spy[2]. What is spying other than employing deception against one’s enemies in war? That this is so has been plainly testified to by nations at war that treat uniform wearing combatants as POWs but execute plain-clothes spies for their actions.

In Judges 14 Samson intentionally deceives the Philistines using riddles so that the Lord might use him to deliver Israel from servitude.

While fleeing from Saul David feigns insanity before the king of Gath in order to preserve his life[3]. By pretending to be insane David was clearly lying to Achish about his mental state.

Further uses of legitimate deception involve camouflage to conceal a position during war-time and leaving a radio on at home to confuse potential thieves while the family is away. The point of the matter is that the Ninth Commandment, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor may not be reread as “thou shalt always tell all of the truth all of the time.”

All of the actions listed above must truly be listed as dishonesty. Yet we must remember that they are all things that, in certain and specific circumstances, are commended by the Bible as righteous and wise behavior.

I do hope at this point the reader can begin to see when and why the careful use of deception is not wrong or sinful. A further analogy that may prove helpful is to that of killing a man. God’s law strictly forbids taking another man’s life yet makes accommodation for self defense. Exodus 22:2 reads:

If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him …

19th century theologian Robert Dabney makes a very perceptive comment at this point, he says,

Man may kill, when the guilty life is forfeited to God, and He authorizes man to destroy it, as His agent. So, I conceive, extreme purposes of aggression, unjust and malignant, and aiming at our very existence, constitute a forfeiture of rights for the guilty assailant.[4]

In the same way that the thief found breaking in has forfeited his right to life so too the man who seeks to harm others has forfeited their right to the truth. So in the case of the Hebrew midwives, they not only had the Biblical right to deceive Pharoah in order to protect the lives of the Hebrew children, they had a moral imperative to do so. Allow me to liken the situation to taking a life again.

If a man is witness to a woman being molested by another man then he is Biblically obligated to help her even to the point of killing her assailant. The man who refuses to help the woman is a coward and morally perverse. These same circumstances can apply to lying. If the midwives telling the truth had led to the death of infants would they be morally justified for telling the truth? Would a bystander be justified for allowing a woman to be raped so that he himself would be innocent of battery or perhaps killing the woman’s attacker? If the Hebrew women had done anything other than lie to Pharoah they would have cast the precious pearls of Israel before the dogs and swine of Egypt and been responsible for their being trampled underfoot. The Bible holds their actions up to us as a righteous standard, let us not presume to be more righteous than God.

Second, in order to properly apply the Divine allowance for falsity we must carefully understand the prescribed conditions under which it is allowed. Plainly, it is not acceptable for children to lie to their parents about their room being clean or for you to lie to your boss about the schedule on your project at work and pretend that this is justifiable. I once heard an objection to this doctrine that if we are permitted to lie to God’s enemies in order to preserve ourselves then why could we not lie to a non-Christian store owner about goods we intend to purchase in order to preserve our financial estate. Such mockery is useless. In the same way that we may not shamelessly lie in order to further ourselves or even to avoid minor loss to ourselves we may not kill over trivialities and claim it as self-defense[5]. Imagine if the driver of a vehicle shot and killed a fellow motorist under the pretense that the other driver was endangering them and they have the right to protect themselves. Clearly, such petty objections to Biblical doctrine is caviling and a disgrace to God’s word.

In order for us to deceive another and it not be a violation of God’s holy law the circumstances which necessitate such an act must comport with the seriousness of those laid out in Scripture. As God’s creatures we may not seek to lessen or strengthen the force of His word in this area. We see Rahab lie to protect the spies from certain death. Abraham lies to protect himself and Sarah from death or molestation. Shiprah and Puah lie to save thousands of lives. All of these actions are Biblically justified and in fact righteous.

One objection which I should like to deal with before moving to applications is that God will reward us if we always tell the truth. The idea is that God, as sovereign over all things will reward our refusal to violate His commandments against lying by weaving a happy ending out of any situation we may be placed in. In response to this argument Christ plainly teaches us,

You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.[6]

If a thief inquires of you when your neighbors will be leaving for vacation so that they may have an easy time plundering their goods it is not a righteous thing to tell the truth. When Herod ordered the three Wise Men to inform him as to Christ’s whereabouts it would not have been a righteous thing for them to tell Herod the truth. If your telling the truth clearly serves the purpose of bringing devastating harm to yourself or your neighbor, it is a wicked thing to do.

Applications

Having established the validity and even necessity of dealing falsely with those who seek to do serious harm to us or our neighbor let us examine a few situations where this doctrine may legitimately be employed.

A school principle is required by the federal government educational standards to teach twelve year olds in depth sexual education classes. By doing this the children are given dangerous exposure to what can easily lead to addictions to pornogrophy or sinful sexual behavior. It is perfectly legitimate for the principle to instruct his teachers that they will not be doing the sexual education classes which the government standards require and then forge the test scores in order to forego punishment or investigation of the school over which he presides.

A second example may be drawn from the medical field.

It is becoming common that doctors be required, upon the writing of a prescription, to ask invasive questions of the patient and then to supply the information gained to the FBI and FDA. For a practicing doctor to act as a spy for government agencies and ascertain information regarding their patient’s ownership of firearms or storage of paper money and precious metals is morally wrong. The doctor here has not only the option but the moral obligation to conceal the private matters of those whom he seeks to serve.

A final example regards modern child abuse laws. Governments today, believing that children belong rightly to themselves and not God and the family, steadily increase the number of laws which place families at risk of having their children taken from them. Parents in America today can face hardship from the authorities regarding the right to their own children if they fail to earn a certain amount of money, have too small of a house, or do not meet the federal standards for education. If a Social Services worker comes to your house inquiring about your neighbor’s income and methods of schooling, should you tell them the truth? Is it righteous for you to reveal things about your neighbor to government agencies that might result in the seizure of your neighbor’s children or land? Again, in this circumstance the same as the others, you have the moral obligation to protect your fellow man.

Conclusion

In the Biblical account of the midwives before Pharoah it would have been a wicked act for them to deal honestly with the Egyptian power structure and condemn thousands of Israelite babies to death. God’s law gives us both the pattern and parameters for righteous deception. Let us not seek to moralize and pretend to be more righteous than our Lord but rather be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves as we work for the establishment of His kingdom in righteousness, power, and glory.

[1] Matthew 7:6

[2] Numbers 13:6,30

[3] 1 Samuel 21:13-15

[4] Robert L. Dabney: Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology (Richmond, Virginia: Presbyterian Committee on Publications, 1871,1890, p. 425 f.

[5] Christ’s command to turn the other cheek is very useful in such situations

[6] Matthew 4:7b

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