Does God let us use deception for a good cause? (Part 1)

A friend of mine was taking a college ethics class. The professor told the class that there are some times when we don’t have to tell the truth.  My friend is a follower of Jesus who’s read the Bible often, and he said a verse immediately came  to his mind that suggested he should always tell the truth:  “You must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor.”

But then he got to thinking about this a bit more. He realized there are several places in the Bible where God’s people don’t tell the truth, but even so, they aren’t criticized or punished.  In fact, their actions sometimes seem to advance God’s purposes.

My friend thought of Rahab, for example, who lied about the spies to the men sent by the king of Jericho.  She said they’d already left her house, when really she had hidden them on the roof.  This saved their lives so they could report back to Joshua and he could plan the conquest of Canaan. Rahab is actually celebrated in the book of Hebrews as a hero of the faith because she sheltered the spies—but this involved not telling the truth.

James Tissot, Rahab and the Two Spies

So the issue really was more complicated than the “verse” that first occurred to my friend suggested.  But he was well on his way to “understanding the books of the Bible,” because he was reflecting on important questions in light of the whole message of the Bible as told in its individual books and stories, not relying on simple answers based on proof texts.

But what about Rahab? What’s going on in cases like hers? As we talked over her story, we recognized that lying is one thing—not telling the truth in order to cover up wrongdoing or to get an unfair advantage over another person.  Deception is quite another thing—using misinformation to protect people from violence and oppression in a situation where you don’t have the power to help them in any other way.

Unfortunately in the Bible we sometimes see even God’s people lying, and destructive consequences result. But we also see God’s people using the tool of deception or misinformation to further God’s purposes when powerful oppressors would otherwise thwart these purposes.

Is this sometimes the right thing to do?  When there is a great power differential in favor of the oppressors, and God doesn’t step in miraculously to overcome that differential (as happens in other places in the Bible), is deception an acceptable tool for us to use?  I’ll explore that question further in my next post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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