BIBLICAL Versus SITUATION Ethics
The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” But Samuel said, “How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me.” 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 to do. You are to anoint for Me the one I indicate.” — 1 Samuel 16:1-3 NIV
Is lying ever justified? Is deceiving the same as lying? Was the prophet Samuel involved in deception? These and other questions immediately come to mind as we read the above verses of 1 Samuel 16. At once we are plunged into the arena of biblical ethics. What is the Bible teaching us here about lying and deception? A short answer is not easy. In fact, to give a well-thought-out and biblically-based answer is quite an exercise in ethics.
What About Abraham And Isaac?
Before we analyze this difficult case of Samuel, it will be helpful to briefly discuss other biblical cases where the question of lying comes up. The lies of Abraham and Isaac about their wives (Gen. 12; 20; 26) pose no real problem to the bedrock biblical ethic of “Thou shalt not lie!” Abraham and Isaac did lie but they were clearly wrong. The Bible not only records the acts of faith of the patriarchs but also their mistakes. Abraham and Isaac both gained entrance into the so-called “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11, but not for their lies. There is no need to get Abraham off the hook by calling his sin a “white lie” because Sarah was his half-sister. And there is certainly no kind of ends-justify-the-means ethics being taught by the Bible in these cases of Abraham and Isaac. The end was selfish deliverance of one’s life at the expense of his wife’s purity. In each case the means of lying almost met with tragic results, and only by God’s grace was disaster averted.
What About Rahab?
What about the case of Rahab in Joshua 2? She definitely lied to protect the Hebrew spies and God preserved her and her whole household when Jericho was destroyed. However, the Bible does not say that Rahab was blessed for her lie but rather for her faith in the Lord God of Israel (2:11). Her works of faith of receiving the spies (Heb. 11:31), hiding the spies (Josh. 6:25) and redirecting the spies (Jas. 2:25) were praised and met with divine approval, but not her lie. Rahab’s lie is not justified on the basis of some kind of “wartime ethics.” If we justify lying to the enemy in time of war, it isn’t long before we begin to justify lying to any of our “enemies” who are at “war” with us. Some people justify lying on their income tax returns because they view the state and its unfair taxes as an “enemy” at “war” with them. God did not need Rahab’s lie, even though it was a time of war. God was not down to His last option for protecting the two Israeli spies from the King of Jericho! The inclusion of the former prostitute in the genealogy of Christ is not God’s stamp of approval on Rahab’s lie, but rather evidence of God’s amazing grace!
What About The Hebrew Midwives?
The case of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1:15?-21 is a little more complicated because there are two possibilities. The first is that the midwives were not lying. If this was the case, then God miraculously intervened at that time to shorten the labor of the Jewish women. The second possibility is that the midwives were lying, but here again their lying was not sanctioned by Scripture. The inspired record indicates that the midwives were blessed of God, not for lying but for fearing God and refusing to participate in Pharaoh’s program of baby-killing.
But wait a minute! Weren’t the midwives forced to lie because it was the only option other than killing babies? No! They could have refused to talk, for example, and taken the consequences. Such a stand could have resulted in their deaths, but does the preservation of one’s life justify falsehood? What is the biblical concept of martyrdom all about anyway? We, too, will find ourselves at times in very difficult and perplexing predicaments because we live in a fallen world.
However, God doesn’t put us in situations where we are forced to disobey Him. No individual is ever forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Jesus also lived in this fallen world with all of life’s complicated circumstances. Did He ever disobey God’s laws because He was forced to choose the least evil course? No! He always chose the right course, no matter how difficult or unpopular the choice. Throughout the New Testament we are exhorted to follow our Lord’s example.
What About Hiding The Jews During WW2?
How does this apply to the classic case of hiding Jews from the Nazis during World War 2? What would we have said to the authorities who asked us if we were hiding any Jews in our house? Would we have told the truth and thus betrayed the Jews, or would we have lied in order to preserve their lives? Would we not have been forced to choose one of two evils? No! There was always the alternative of silence while our house was searched or even the alternative of questioning the legitimacy of Nazi authority. Yes, it may have resulted in the imprisonment and death of the Jews as well as ourselves, but we would not have betrayed them and we wouldn’t have lied.
We would have obeyed God and left the consequences in His hands. Lying to the authorities would not have guaranteed safety anyway. Whether we would have the guts and presence of mind to do the right thing in circumstances like these is another question. However, God does promise us, in 1 Corinthians 10:13, that we will never be in a situation without a right way to go, and we will never be without the necessary strength to go the right way. What a promise!
Back To The Midwives
Let us return to the case of the midwives in Exodus 1 and ask one more question. Wasn’t their lie justified because it was the most loving thing to do in that situation? This is what situation ethics would teach. While situation ethics sounds Christian with its emphasis on love, it is not biblical ethics, because ultimately situation ethics gives man authority over God. Who, for example, decides what is the “loving thing” to do when disobedience to God’s commands is involved? Dare we play God? Even adultery has been committed in the name of love and situation ethics.
The Bible does not teach situation ethics. With our limited perspective of any situation, we must love and obey God. The “loving lie” of the midwives did not save the day. Pharaoh resorted to drowning babies in order to accomplish his evil purposes. The bottom line for us is to obey God in every situation and trust Him with the fallout, knowing that He has unlimited control over the total picture.
What About Samuel?
Now what about the case of the prophet Samuel? This is certainly the most difficult of all the cases we’ve looked at – maybe the most difficult in the Bible. For one reason, the cases of Abraham and Isaac, as well as that of the midwives, took place before the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the case of Rahab involved a Gentile who did not have the Mosaic Law. Of course, this doesn’t excuse their lies or lower God’s standard in any way (and they had God-given moral consciences). But these facts may have something to say about their degree of guilt and how God dealt with them.
However, the prophet Samuel had the written Ten Commandments before him. Furthermore, the Lord Himself told Samuel to deceive Saul. Or did He? Was this really a case of deceiving? Deceit, by definition, involves dishonesty. The Lord did not tell Samuel to do anything dishonest. He did not tell Samuel to say he was going to Bethlehem to sacrifice and then not actually sacrifice. Samuel did conduct a sacrifice, which was his normal custom, but he also took the opportunity to anoint David as the new King of Israel. This is a case of concealing truth from those who do not have a need or right to know the whole truth.
Lying is never justified, but the Bible does not require us to reveal all the truth to everybody. Concealment of truth is only a sin when an obligation exists to reveal the hidden facts or where there is intention to lead astray into moral error. The Lord Jesus never lied to His enemies, but many times He did not give them straight answers in order to conceal the whole truth. He purposely spoke in parables to conceal truth from the skeptics who had forfeited their right to know the truth (Mt. 13:10-?13).
Samuel would have been wrong if he had lied to King Saul, but he was not wrong in concealing his full intentions. By way of application, parents should never lie to their children, but they are not under compulsion to divulge all the facts if their children do not need to know them. Parents should be careful, however, in the way they conceal the whole truth from their children. On the other hand, a child who conceals activities which his parents have a right or a need to know is wrong.
A contemporary application more similar to the case of Samuel would be that of Christians in anti-Christian countries who meet in secret. It would be wrong for them to lie to the authorities, but it is not wrong for them to let it be known that they are going shopping (similar to Samuel’s taking the heifer), but then meet with Christians along the way to the market. The fact that the authorities might be mistaken as to the Christians’ full intentions does not make them morally culpable. Consider the example of our Lord in Luke 24. He first hid His true identity from the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and asked, “what things” happened to Jesus? (24:19), and then “acted as though He would go further” (24:28). Our Lord’s intention was to draw out the hearts of these two disciples. In no way was He guilty of giving false information or practicing deceit, even though the two disciples were led to believe that He was only an ignorant stranger.
Not lying, but at the same time not revealing all the facts, explains the biblical cases of Ehud (Jud. 3:12-?30), Elisha (2 Ki. 6:8-23) and Jeremiah (Jer. 38:14?-28). Ehud did not lie because he actually did have a secret message from God for the pagan king Eglon – his death warrant! Elisha did not fabricate an untruth because the context clearly shows that the ultimate target of the Syrians was the king of Israel. Jeremiah did not lie to the officials who questioned him about his actions before King Zedekiah because he had talked to the king about his imprisonment while delivering his prophetic message.
The same principle of not lying, but concealing the whole truth from those who did not have a need or right to know, was practiced in the divinely-directed ambush of Ai in Joshua 8. God cannot be accused of telling Israel to lie or practice deception just because the army of Ai thought Joshua’s tactics were the same as those he had used in Joshua 7.
It is important to note in this case that God did not tell Joshua to stage an ambush by sending a fake peace delegation ahead of His hidden attacking forces. That would have been dishonest, because it was outside the generally understood and accepted rules of warfare. Similarly, the use of camouflage and fake moves in a just war is not labelled lying and deceiving. But the use of Red Cross symbols or white truce flags as decoys is outside the generally accepted rules of warfare and inherently dishonest and deceitful.
Hard But Good Exercise
Exercises in ethics are not easy. Often we end up with more questions than when we started! However, such exercises are good for our spiritual health, even though all the “loose ends” are not thoroughly tied up. While not all Christians will agree, our conclusion to this brief exercise in ethics is as follows: The Bible teaches that lying and deceiving are always wrong, but not revealing the whole truth is sometimes right.
By David R. Reid
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org