Home > Bible Study, church history, church life, Decalogue, Exodus, Ten Commandments > Exceptions to Truth Telling (Nazis Asking About Jews) and the Ninth Commandment

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


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.

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  1. June 27, 2016 at 8:10 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

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