Does God allow lies sometimes?

I remember an ethics lecturer arguing that it could be okay to lie in particular circumstances.  The obvious ethical dilemma is the situation that people hiding Jews in the Second World War might have faced.  Do they tell the truth when questioned and risk the lives of those in their care? Or do they tell a lie to protect a life?

Well, that’s a big ethical dilemma and we probably wont get to the bottom of it in one post. However, I wanted to deal with the specific argument used by the lecturer here.  You see, first of all, he argued that the lie is okay because in fact we do better to think of truth as something in our possession. We have a choice who we give that truth to. The person whose intent is evil has no right to that truth and so we are entitled it keep it from them.

I find such a view problematic because it does place us in a position where we see truth as something within our control, something we own.  We then become the arbiters of who is entitled to that truth and sadly, I’ve seen examples of people following that ethic and believing that their employers, their church, their friends and family have no right to that truth so that deception is permitted.

Secondly, he argued that we in fact see examples of this in Scripture. There are a number of such supposed examples in the Bible but I’m going to focus on one, that of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1.  There we are told:

15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “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.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people,  ‘Every son that is born to the Hebrews[a] you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.’”

Exodus 1:15-21

It is assumed that the midwives are lying in verse 19 because they claim that the Hebrew women give birth before they get there.  It is then also assumed that they are blessed because of the supposed lie.  God rewards them for misleading Pharoah and this is presented as God fearing righteousness.

It is worth noting first of all that v20-21 do not need to be seen as a direct causal consequence of verse 19. Rather, Moses simply states God’s blessing and kindness through the midwives to the benefit of all Israel. The people multiply.  It is possible that v21 adds in a personal benefit to the midwives if the text refers to children of their own but even at tis point it may be simply re-emphasising the blessing they have of being involved in the growth of the nation.  The point is that blessing and reward is not because of what they told Pharoah but because they fear God and choose to resist Pharoah’s evil order.

Secondly, we assume that there is a lie in v19.  Now, the text doesn’t tell us that we have a lie here. In fact Eugene Carpenter believers that there is a simple truth here, that God is blessing the Israelites then perhaps the midwives are overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the work due to the fertility of God’s people.[1]

That is certainly possible. However, there is another possibility here. You see, it seems that one way or another the claim of the midwives is accepted. And in and of itself, I’m not sure it looks like a claim you would just accept.  Surely the midwives are experienced in their work, surely there are other dangers with childbirth that would require their presence.  So, either the claim is accepted because there is evidence of unique and miraculous fecundity amongst the Israelites or something else is going on

I wonder whether verse 19 is intended to be read as a truth claim at all or if we are meant to read it slightly differently. Tone is everything and I can’t help wonder if we are not meant to read this with a tone of sarcasm and mockery.  I think we have good reason to do so, sometimes preachers and scholars have a sense of humour failure, we miss the funny bits in Scripture. But when you look at Exodus, we get the feeling that there are points where we are meant to laugh with the Israelites and at the Egyptians. The first few chapters of the book seem intended to mock the folly of a Great Empire, humbled and brought low by YHWH. There is something ridiculous about Pharoah’s belief that he can resist the Lord.

So, it is possible that there is an ironic shrug of the shoulder and a “how are we meant to keep up?” response to Pharoah’s demands.  Almost a kind of “well if you think we are in a position to thwart YHWH, then best of luck with that” response. 

What the Israelite midwives are doing is exposing both the evil and the folly of the situation. It is ridiculous that the king can oppose God, it is both evil and stupid that he thinks that the midwives could get away with such an evil act.  We might paraphrase “the Hebrew women are not as Egyptian women” as “have you ever been in a delivery room? Egyptian child birth must be very different if you think midwives could get away with murder there.”

And so the mockery comes with a challenge.  Is Pharoah really meant to accept and believe that these experienced midwives are so incompetent that they are not there at the births, that they are not up to the very job they are paid for. Well, it is now up to him. He can choose to make a big deal of it of course. However, to do so would simply be to turn the spotlight further in on him. “So you want to investigate what’s happening in the delivery room do you Pharoah? Well okay then but who do you think has really got questions to answer.”

So, I’m not convinced that we need to see deception here. Instead, the focus is very much on YHWH’s ability to overrule in the most terrifying of circumstances. The focus is on what it means to really trust God in the darkest hour.

[1] Carpenter, Exodus 1-15, 114.

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