Is Lying Always a Sin?
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 13 June 2012; Revised 3 January 2016
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (Updated Edition 1995). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic and Jewish character of the entire Bible I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament).
Many followers of Yeshua have difficulty with a number of passages where a Bible character misrepresents the facts. While some would paint the issue starkly black and white, the issue is far from simple.
Axioms on Lying
First, God does not lie:
"God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?" (Num 23:19)
"It is impossible for God to lie." (Heb 6:18)
Second, Satan is a congenital liar:
"You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies." (John 8:44)
Third, all human beings lie:
"All men are liars." (Ps 116:11)
"Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar." (Rom 3:4)
Lying is an extremely common phenomenon. It is safe to say that everyone lies about something. Lies may be categorized as evil, justified or benign.
Evil lying is often done to cover up sin, to tempt someone into sin or to cause harm to another. The first evil lie recorded in Scripture came from the enemy of God (Gen 3:1), which resulted in the fall of Adam and his wife. One lie caused countless misery to the human race. Evil lying is condemned in the ninth commandment (Ex 20:16), which relates to perjury but the principle applies to other kinds of deceptive or dishonest behavior. There are many examples of evil lying in the Bible.
"Then Adonai said to Cain, 'Where is Abel, your brother?' 'I donít know,' he said. 'Am I my brotherís keeper?'" (Gen 4:9 TLV)
Cain lied to God to cover up his murder of his brother Abel.
"David did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the case of Uriah the Hittite." (1Kgs 15:5)
David attempted to deceive Uriah and cover up adultery (2Sam 11:1-27), for which he was rightly rebuked by the prophet Nathan.
A prophet who lied: He said to him, "I also am a prophet like you, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the LORD, saying, `Bring him back with you to your house, that he may eat bread and drink water.' " But he lied to him." (1Kgs 13:18)
This lie occurs in a tragic tale of a young prophet sent to King Jeroboam with a message of judgment. God told the young prophet not to eat bread, drink water or tarry on the journey. An old prophet apparently became jealous because he had not been chosen for the special mission and enticed the young prophet to stop for a meal in order to hear the story. Unfortunately, even though deceived the young prophet was killed on his way home by a lion because of his disobedience.
Ananias and Sapphira
But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? (Acts 5:3)
In the act of donating money to the treasury of the Jerusalem congregation Ananias and his wife Sapphira conspired to misrepresent how much they gained from the sale of property. They pretended to donate the full sale price. Peter put this lie in the worst possible category.
"The one who says, 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; (1Jn 2:4 TLV)
"Who is the liar, if not the one who denies that Yeshua is the Messiah? This one is the anti-messiahóthe one who denies the Father and the Son." (1Jn 2:22 TLV)
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1Jn 4:1)
Habitual liars are classed with the worst of sinners: Ps 31:18; 109:2; 120:2; Prov 6:17; 10:18; 12:19, 22; 17:7; 21:6; 26:28; 1 Tim 1:10; Rev 21:8.
Yet, there are some situations in which lying may be necessary. Lying may be justified to protect yourself or someone else from harm, such as Christians who sheltered Jews from the Nazis in World War II. Lying to an enemy in the form of deception is often necessary to win a battle in war (e.g. Joshua and the battle for Ai, Josh 8:1-2). The Pharisees would agree with the principle of justified lying in situations to protect life, because saving a life trumps all requirements of the Torah (Yoma 85a).
Abraham asked Sarah to be silent about their marriage when they met Pharaoh (Gen 12:10-20) and Abimelech (Gen 20:1-18). He introduced Sarah as his sister, which she was (Gen 20:2). He was merely trying to protect her and Sarah obeyed without demur, because she trusted her husband regarded him as her lord (Gen 18:12; 1Pet 3:6). When her welfare was jeopardized God protected her. It was Pharaoh and Abimelech who were chastised by God, not Abraham (Gen 12:17; 20:6-7, 17). For more discussion on this subject see my article The Story of Abraham.
Jacob has been the subject of much criticism for allegedly stealing a blessing that belonged to Esau (Gen 27:1-19). In reality God had decreed the blessing belonged to Jacob, so he could not steal his own property. Jacob's disguise fooled Isaac completely (Gen 27:24), but the deception was necessary to accomplish the will of God and prevent Isaac from committing a great evil. See my article In Defense of Jacob.
In this familiar story (Ex 1:15-22) the Pharaoh felt threatened by the increasing Israelite population, so he ordered two prominent Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill male babies as they were being born. The midwives knew they were being told to commit murder, so they not only disobeyed the order, but enabled the male babies to live. When questioned about the matter the midwives offered a rationalization that could have been a bald-faced lie or perhaps a lie wrapped in truth. They said the Hebrew women were "vigorous" in delivering babies (verse 19). The Talmud interprets the adjective "vigorous" to mean "like animals" (Sotah 11b). In other words, Hebrew women give birth quickly like animals in the wild. The Targum interprets the adjective to mean that the mothers were "as skillful as midwives," a view favored by Rashi. In any event, God rewarded the midwives and blessed their faithfulness to life by giving them households of their own.
In Joshua 2:3-6 Rahab lied to the King of Jericho to protect the Israelite spies that Joshua had sent to determine the city's defenses. Due to her loyalty she and her family were rewarded with their lives and inclusion in the nation of Israel (Josh 6:25). She eventually joined the Messianic line (Matt 1:5). The apostles considered Rahab a fitting model of faith and faithfulness (Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25).
In this tragic story Samson attempted to conceal the source of his great strength from Delilah, a harlot and agent for the Philistines. She pestered Samson to tell her the truth, but he lied to her three times (Jdg 16:7, 11, 13, 15). He became overconfident and failed to realize Delilah's purpose. Her continued pestering finally yielded the truth, which led to his defeat and incarceration. Only in his death did Samson gain vindication. Paul included him in his list of Heroes Faith (Heb 11:32).
He pretended to be insane while in Philistine territory in order to save his life (1Sam 21:10-15; Ps 34).
She deceived her husband, Nabal, by providing provisions to David for his services in protecting their flocks (1Sam 25:18-19). Nabal had refused to do anything for David and his men and David was going to exact revenge. Abigail's deception preserved her household and prevented David from unnecessary violence.
She lied to her father, King Saul, regarding David's whereabouts, saying "he is sick" in order to spare his life (1Sam 19:14).
Yeshua told his family an apparent falsehood pertaining to going to Jerusalem for Sukkot (Feast of Booths) (John 7:8-10). Yeshua's brothers wanted him to publicly declare his Messianic claim. Yeshua knew what he intended to do (cf. John 6:6) and for him it was not a time to celebrate. He attempted to inform his brothers that he was not going to Jerusalem to fulfill their agenda nor would he participate in the festival in the prescribed manner. He had a teaching mission to complete. (See my commentary on John 7.)
People may lie to defend personal privacy, to diffuse a tense social situation, to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to calm someone who is frightened. "Say honey, how do I look?" Typical greeting exchanges go something like, "Hello. How are you?" "Just fine, how are you?" The reality is that often we are not "fine," but don't really want to get into an extended conversation about the matter.
Distinguishing between the types of lies is not intended to justify dishonesty in our words. It's easy to point to a Bible character and say, "he or she lied, so I can, too." However, the circumstances of justified lying in Scripture are extremely narrow in scope. We are commanded in Scripture to speak the truth to others, because relationships require trust to remain healthy and trust is based on truth. God knows the motivation of our hearts and will judge us accordingly.
Copyright © 2012-2016 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.