In what sounds like a court rule, Exodus unilaterally forbids bearing false witness against your neighbor. Elsewhere in the Law, like Leviticus, lying in lesser contexts is also forbidden. Nowadays, we would call this illegal lying perjury. Committing perjury in a court case can have legal consequences for the perjurer, including time in jail or worse. It is a bad idea to lie in court.

But what about other contexts? Is it ever okay to lie? The highest form of this is what Plato (?) called the “noble lie” wherein a person would lie in order to prevent a greater evil. A good example of this is when some German families hid Jews in Nazi Germany. They lied to prevent the capture and certain death of their Jewish friends.

Another example of this is in the Scripture, in Exodus 1, when the Hebrew midwives lie about the birth of Hebrew boys (they were ordered to kill) by saying that the Hebrew woman are just too vigorous and give birth before they arrive. For this, God rewarded them with families of their own.

Another example would be Rahab in Joshua, who lied to her neighbors that the spies from Israel had run out of the city, rather than tel the truth that they were under her floorboards. Rahab and her family were spared from Jericho’s destruction because of her lie.

So it makes me wonder, if it is wrong to bear witness against your neighbor, what if you tell a lie to save your neighbor from something worse? Because it seems that God does not condemn all lying, just the lying that is to the hurt of your neighbor.

When a wife asks her husband if she looks fat, he could be honest, he could lie, or he could change the subject. She may have a little weight on her. That’s not the issue. The issue is, is he brutally honest about it, or does he offer a comforting lie, one which they both know is a comforting lie. “Honey, you look perfect to me.”

Honesty is always the best policy, but there are other policies which preserve the innocent from tyranny, and in those instances, they are better served.

The issue of the Hebrew midwives brings a certain moral ambiguity to the commandment, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor”, but I think that is why “against your neighbor” is part of the commandment. There is a context where lying is always bad. There are some, like the midwives, where lying is better.

Lord help me discern with wisdom those rare cases when lying will preserve life. Knowing that from Scripture those cases are rare, and in the context of greater evils, help me not rationalize to myself that I could lie. But rather help me to be honest. You are Truth, and You do not tolerate lies. May I ever testify to the truth. In Your Name Jesus I pray, Amen.

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I've been in ministry in the Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ for 20+ years. Finished my doctorate in Biblical Studies in 2015. Serve today as a Hospital Chaplain.

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