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Exceptions to Truth Telling (Nazis Asking About Jews) and the Ninth Commandment

June 27, 2016 1 comment

Continuing through Tom Chantry’s Ten Commandments series, the section on the ninth commandment includes 14 lessons, encompassing the three issues addressed.  “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” addresses more than merely “not lying” and always telling the truth, but encompasses and combines three issues:  truth, justice, and reputation.  Through many different scripture texts, Chantry connects this commandment to issues of truth versus relativism (the worldview of Pontius Pilate); reputation and biblical, true “self image” and concern for our own good name as well as that of our neighbor; and justice versus oppression.

This in-depth look at what the commandment is really about, the working together of these three important issues, provides the proper context for what some have called “ethical dilemmas”: the rare situations in which someone should lie and not tell the truth – such as what to say to Nazis when you’re asked about Jews that you have hidden.  As Chantry notes, these truly are “exceptions” to normal practice, so rare that most of us will never actually experience them, and yet the “standard” answer, given by many well-meaning Christians, is that we should always tell the truth regardless of the circumstance.  See the following posts, this one and also this follow-up post, from over a year ago at the Cripplegate blog, for examples of how many Christians approach the question of lying versus telling the truth.

Chantry’s series includes one full lesson on this topic, “Exceptions to Truthtelling,” in which he relates the well-known story from Corrie Ten Boom.  As I remember the details of the story, it was actually Corrie’s sister, and the question was regarding the whereabouts of a few men in their group who were hiding the Jews, not the location of actual Jews – but the main part of the story was that the people were hiding under a hidden trap-door that was under the floor, thus under the kitchen table.  When asked to tell where these people were, Corrie or her sister said “they’re under the kitchen table” – an answer that she reasoned was technically true and thus avoiding the problem of never telling a lie.

The problem with such reasoning, as Chantry points out, is that our understanding of normal language is such that to say “they’re under the table” would mean they were actually under the table itself.  To make such a statement and yet mean that they were really in a room underneath the table, is being deceptive – and deceiving and misleading in this way really is the same as telling a lie.

Instead, Chantry directs us back to what the ninth commandment is all about – the combination of upholding truth AND justice.  Normally, truth-telling and justice work together, and all societies recognize this, as seen in our laws concerning perjury.  The truth is necessary to determine and carry out right judgment and for justice to occur: to acquit the innocent and punish the guilty.  Sadly, though, history does present us with cases where an oppressor – someone working against justice – would demand the truth in order to carry out their injustice and oppression.

Scripture gives us a few cases where truth and justice are in conflict, of which the earliest one – Exodus 1:8-21 – is the clearest example of how God views this situation.  A wicked Pharaoh, desiring to oppress and carry out injustice –harming the innocent (infants) – tried to accomplish his purposes through the Hebrew midwives, and then asked them why they had not killed the baby boys.  On the surface of it, from our perspective, the lie that they tell Pharaoh seems incredibly bad – who would believe such a thing, that the Hebrew women really were stronger than the Egyptian women and could give birth to their children without a midwife’s assistance?  Yet, consider the actual situation and what the Pharaoh believed; this was someone who was rather paranoid and afraid of the Israelites, someone fearing them because they were so numerous, someone trying whatever he can think of to stop this threat of a numerous people, to keep them from spreading and growing – to the point of genocide.

The lie that the Hebrew midwives told was actually a brilliant one – it was a racist lie about the Hebrew people as a race, saying in effect that they were different from other people, that they were like the animals (which deliver their young on their own, without assistance).  It actually made sense to Pharaoh, he believed it – yes, he thought, there really is something different about these Hebrews, that I can’t do anything to stop them from multiplying.  It was the type of lie that Hitler would have fallen for.

If the Hebrew midwives had told the truth, they would have been killed – and Pharaoh would have brought someone else to do the work for him.  Contrary to the claims of the “no exceptions to lying” camp, the Hebrew babies were still in danger—it would have been an easy thing for Pharaoh to find someone who could replace the midwives and to start killing all future baby boys.  If all Hebrew babies were already safe, with no threat to future babies, Pharaoh would not have summoned the midwives to ask them this question.  The “no exceptions to lying” camp would also say, “well, God commended them for their faith, but He did not approve of their lying” — and yet scripture is quite clear that God approved of them.  The midwives feared God from the beginning, and nothing in the account suggests that God was in any way displeased with them, or that the midwives had committed a “lesser sin.”  To suggest that God commended them because of some aspects of what happened, but that He didn’t really approve of them lying, is going beyond what the text says–and injecting our own presupposition, that lying, in and of itself, in all situations, is always a sin.

If lying itself, regardless of the circumstance, were always a sin, then God could have communicated that truth to us easily enough.  The three commandments that immediately precede this one  – the sixth, seventh, and eighth – are worded in that terse, simple manner: “no murder,” “no adultery” and “no stealing.”  It would have been quite natural, if God wanted to communicate the same regarding truth and lying, for the ninth commandment to follow in that same pattern:  “no lying.”  Instead, the ninth commandment adds complexity—truth (and not lying) is within the context of justice and reputation: you shall not bear false witness (false witness is lying, not telling the truth, within a context of justice and a court system) against your neighbor.

God’s Unfailing Purpose: A Study in Daniel, from Covenantal Premillennialist Michael Barrett

June 20, 2016 Leave a comment

A few months ago I read Michael P.V. Barrett’s “Beginning at Moses: A Guide to Finding Christ in the Old Testament,” a well-written, layperson-level book from a current-day covenantal premillennialist.  Now I am enjoying another of his books, also available on Kindle for 99 cents:  God’s Unfailing Purpose: The Message of Daniel.

This one is shorter (198 pages) but similar style of a well-written layperson book on an always relevant topic: God’s sovereignty over the nations and over history, as seen especially in the book of Daniel.  The focus here is not a sensationalist-type prophecy book, nor the specifically premillennial emphasis of Robert Culver’s “Daniel and the Latter Days”  (see this previous post), but more of a straight-forward commentary overview (not verse-by-verse) look at the theme of the book of Daniel.  Topics presented include a look at Daniel himself (the facts), the basics of reading prophecy including the nature of history and the nature of prophecy, and detailed consideration of several items brought out in Daniel’s prophecies.

Barrett explains the features of prophecy and types, how prophecy differs from history – progressive prediction or prophetic telescoping, in which the focus is on the events’ certainty rather than their timing.  Barrett acknowledges the never-ending debate over “partial, single, or double fulfillment—or even multiple fulfilments,” stating simply his own view of single-fulfillment of prophecy:

A single prophecy has a single fulfillment… the single fulfillment axiom works well in almost every instance. … The temporal ambiguity guarantees its relevance; one fulfillment is all that is necessary.

He provides examples from specific scriptures, as with the comparison of Isaac to Christ:

The fulfillment of the prophecy develops progressively from element to element until the completion of the whole.  For instance, both Isaac and Christ constitute Abraham’s promised Seed. Obviously, Christ was the main issue, but there had to be an Isaac before there could be the Christ.  Isaac marked the beginning of the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy.  I prefer phrasing it that way rather than that the promise was fulfilled in Isaac and then again in Christ.

A later chapter considers the parallel prophecies in Daniel 2 and Daniel 7 – pagan man’s viewpoint of a figure with gold and other metals, versus God’s view of four monsters – and brings out some interesting observations.  I knew the main points from these texts, about each type of metal or creature representing each of the successive kingdoms: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.  Barrett goes beyond this, to note the description of the lion that “was made to stand upon the feet as a man, and man’s heart was given to it” as a reference to the individual Babylonian ruler, Nebuchadnezzar.  He brings together the prophecies given in Daniel 2 and 7, along with the events of Daniel 4 – subsequent events, the later dream to Nebuchadnezzar and what it took for God to teach the lesson to Nebuchadnezzar.

Ironically, God put a man’s heart into the beast [Daniel 7 vision] by putting a beast’s heart into a man (4:16). … The humanizing of the lion symbolized the gracious conversion of the king.

The above is just a brief sampling, from the first third of the book (my reading of it still in progress).  I recommend this book from Barrett, as one that I appreciate and enjoy: an easy, straightforward reading style, while also instructive and helpful, providing depth of material and many scripture points to study.

The 8th Commandment, Property, and the Early Church

June 3, 2016 Leave a comment

In Tom Chantry’s “Ten Commandments” series, the section on the 8th commandment looks at the overall issue, the precept behind the wording “do not steal,” of ownership and property.  A study of this topic in both the Old and New Testaments affirms God’s purpose that people own individual property.  The fact that we are commanded to not steal, means that some items must belong to another person and that those items do not belong to you.

As pointed out in this lesson, Genesis 1:26 gives the dominion mandate to the human race

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Implied in this command is the reality that this could not be done by Adam alone:  Adam is a finite individual with limited resources.  Genesis 2 follows up with the specific situation for Adam: he as an individual, along with Eve, would have responsibility for one specific location, the garden – a particular location.  He was made the proprietor of a particular piece of land with defined boundaries.  The overall mandate of Genesis 1 could only be fulfilled through the mechanism of property ownership, of giving particular pieces of land to specific individuals.

Then, with the only country that truly could be called “God’s Country” – the Old Testament nation of Israel – we again see God’s concern and interest in individual property.  Leviticus 25 in particular tells us that the land belongs to God (“the land is mine,” verse 23) – and God’s ownership of the land was the basis on which the Israelites would own the land, and very specific laws were setup concerning the buying and selling of their property, within the context of the year of Jubilee.  The people of Israel were to live as the people of God, living out the commands, the moral precepts, of God.  Their living out these commands required that they have dominion over something, in order to use it for God and to bring glory to God.  As also brought out in scripture, the Israelites had to be free men – freeholders; they were not to be slaves, as slaves cannot fulfill this purpose of possessing something in order to use it for God.

To own something is not to grasp at something.  There is no practicality, and no virtue, in giving away all right and title to what is ours.  This brings the study to the issue of what was going on in the early church in Acts – a case which some have cited to claim support for communism and communal living.  After all, so the claim goes, the text says that the believers “had all things in common.”

But a close look at the texts – Acts 2:44, then Acts 4:32-33, and the first part of Acts 5 – clears away two common errors:  1) an assumption that the Acts texts are providing a legal definition of property, and 2) the idea that this situation was normative.  The first idea – a legal definition of property – ignores the use of language.  For instance, when someone visits us in our home, and we say “my house is your house” or “make yourself at home,” such expressions do not mean that we are relinquishing ownership – but rather a show of hospitality.  Peter’s words to Ananias in Acts 5 make it clear that Ananias’ sin was of lying, and not anything pertaining to the property itself.  The land, while unsold, belonged to Ananias, to do with as he pleased – it was his own, at his disposal; and when Ananias sold it, he then owned some money, which also was at his own disposal.  Thus, scripture itself proves that the early church was not a commune and was not some type of cult in which everyone gave up ownership to the “common pool.”

The early church in Acts was also a unique and unusual situation – and an opportunity for those who were wealthy to be generous and give of what they owned in order to help others.  At this point the church consisted of Jewish converts: people who had been part of the Jewish system and belonged to synagogues, yet now experienced persecution– which included excommunication from Judaism and possibly having their means of livelihood taken from them.  Thus the need to care for many poor people, including many only recently impoverished.  The situation opened a ministry need, which Barnabas (in Acts 4) and likely others as well, stepped into with their generosity.

Chantry also observes another aspect I had not considered, that perhaps is true; the early church had received the prophecy, the words from Jesus, that Jerusalem would be judged and destroyed at some point in the relatively near future.  Thus, the people who sold land had knowledge that the place would be destroyed, and that now was a good time to sell their property while it was still worth something.  Certainly if the land they sold was in or around Jerusalem, this well may have been the case.  Study through commentaries and historical research would better answer this question, of whether the people in Jerusalem were actually selling land that existed in that area or if they were engaging in sales of property that existed outside of that area.

Even aside from the question of the impending judgment upon Jerusalem, though, this lesson is a good study on the biblical issue of individual ownership and support for this point throughout the Bible: from earliest creation for all mankind, in Israel’s own government and civil laws, and the same teaching for us in the New Testament era.