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Exodus 20:

15“You shall not steal.
16“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Should we interpret “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor" as "You shall not lie"?

Leviticus 19:

11 You must not steal. You must not lie or deceive one another.

Jesus says in Matthew 19:

18d do not steal, do not bear false witness,

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  • This guy thinks so; I don't.
    – Lucian
    Jul 13 at 15:33
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Although there can be an overlapping of sins with these two matters, they are stated distinctly in Exodus 20 for good reason. Here is a breakdown of the 8th commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal’:

Stealing is to take without permission that which rightly belongs to another person. There are various reasons given in the Bible as to why stealing is wrong - a sin in God's eyes. (1) It violates the God-given law of property, first given in Genesis 2:15-17. (2) Stealing betrays a grasping spirit - see Genesis 14:11-12. (3) Stealing encourages violence - see James 4:1-3.

Sadly, circumstances may arise where some poor people feel forced to steal in order to just stay alive. This is explained in the Bible in Proverbs 30:8-9) "Keep falsehood and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD'? Or I may become poor and steal and so dishonour the name of my God." Even stealing when in dire need still dishonours God and the prayer of faith to God is that He enables us to have our daily bread, then we will not have to steal.

Also complicating matters is the fact that there is more to stealing than just lifting another person's goods. There is deceitful stealing, like insider-dealing or fiddling tax returns or expense accounts- even deliberately 'forgetting' to mention something or giving a wrong age in order to better oneself could be stealing. See Romans 13:7. There's also theft by delayed paying. Many a small business has been ruined by its debtors holding back payment beyond the agreed time limit. See Romans 13:8. There's also theft by dishonest charging, weighting scales and so on. Very often, lying and falsifying claims / declarations can be involved.

The 9th commandment is, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” The Hebrew rendered as 'false witness' (testimony) refers not just to falsifying the evidence (as can happen when breaking the 8th commandment). Although that is included, it is also to speak what is worthless, useless or unfounded. It can refer to speech that is empty of value, pregnant with dark innuendos, or a blatant lie.

Jesus also expanded on who our neighbour actually is - everyone who comes across our path - Luke 10:25-37. Exodus 23:1-3 details how that 9th commandment is to be worked out: "Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness. Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favouritism to a poor man in his lawsuit."

The Christian writer James gave the most powerful denunciation of speaking wrongly: "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:6) This includes all gossip, malicious slander, a quarrelsome spirit, hasty words, coarse joking, flattery, the silent lie and unholy lies. This latter category deals with false testimony with or about God by those who claim to speak for God. When they lie, they are false prophets. God never says the false prophets are simply mistaken, he says they are liars; “The prophets prophesy lies… my people love it this way.” “They are prophesying lies in my name” (Jeremiah 5:31 & 27:15). Well-meaning or not, a prophetic lie was punishable by death (Jer. 14:13-16; 28:16-17 Zechariah 13:3). Spiritual lying comes under a far greater condemnation from God than any other kind of lying. In the same way those who profess to teach others will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). With God there is no colour-coding for lies. White lies are like white magic, they are evil because they come from the ‘father of lies’ (John 8:44).

Once both these commandments are carefully examined, we can see the immensity of their scope. That is why it is good to keep them distinct, as does the Bible. To have a clear understanding of one, and then of the other, will help us be far more alert to the very many subtle ways in which we might slip down the slippery slope of disregarding them, or thinking they can be simplified.


Source: The Ten Commandments For Today, chapter 12, Brian H Edwards (Day One 1996)

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    So, saying "My neighbor; I wonder about him, I'm always seeing him with little boys; doesn't that make you wonder about his morality?"... no lies involved, after all he is a Little League coach, but someone hearing this statement may take it a completely different way...
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 14 at 16:58
  • @CGCCampbell You can say what you like about your neighbour - I would not listen to you. Nor would I ever speak to others about any of my neighbours like that. If I had suspicions, I would report him or her to the police. The commandments here are designed to PREVENT misunderstandings due to not speaking aright about others. But once anyone has evidence of serious wrongdoing, they must report that to the correct authorities.
    – Anne
    Jul 15 at 15:50
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The problem is that many come to this commandment and apply a ‘modern/western’ dictionary definition to it. No. It means exactly what it says, it does not say what many want it to say.

EXODUS 20:16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

It does not say ‘lie’. To verify this, simple read it. That ‘interpretation’ gets added. And once added, gets used to ‘suit’ the occasion.

The last 6 commandments are about right living - the second greatest commandment sums this up ...

MAT 20:39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The intent of this command is that you don’t use your testimony to intentionally do harm (I.e. “‘do evil’) to others.

Many know about the passage in 1 Samuel 21 - where David ‘lies’. This passage is a ‘thorn in the side’ for many who (re) interpret this commandment. But there is a lesser know story earlier in this book ..

The prophet is being sent to Jesse, to anoint the next king - but must bypass Saul, so he says (to God!) ..

1 SAMUEL 16:2 And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.”

And God tells Samuel that if he meets Saul, not to tell him what he is actually doing, but instead say that he is doing something else. And that according to our dictionary is a lie! But here it’s God telling Samuel to do this!

But the ‘key’ here is that this was not breaking the commandment because the commandment does not say ‘thou shalt not lie’!

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    (+1) I really like that you've pinpointed the issue with importing Western definitions to Eastern texts, and this is something missing in a few other answers. One of the key differences is the value of Truth vs Honour. In the West we are Truth-based societies where "telling the truth" is often thought of the highest good. In the East - even today - "showing honour to others" is the highest good, and so for many it's more important to show respect and honour than to be truthful. As you've identified, often OT texts don't tend to penalise lies which occur for honourable purposes.
    – Steve Taylor
    Jul 14 at 10:47
  • While I would completely agree with regard to interpretation of Exodus 20:16, for Christians, there is also John 8:44 (Satan is the father of lies) and Revelation 21:8 ("For... all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death") to consider.
    – reirab
    Jul 14 at 19:55
  • @reirab My argument was over the definition of ‘lies’, not the use of it. And yes, Satan is the ‘father’ [source] of this - no doubt. John 8:44 lies/pseudos means ‘conscious and intentional falsehood’ - Bearing false witness’ to [intentionally] bring harm/evil on someone else. There are many examples in the OT where someone ‘lied’ (using our modern definition of ‘lie’) nevertheless their action was still seen as being ‘right’. (Side note- my working life had me buried in c/c# :-))
    – Dave
    Jul 14 at 20:27
  • @Dave Ah, I read your argument as over the definition of "bearing false witness," in particular, that it's more narrow than lying in general. And I would agree with that, but was just pointing out that there are other passages that do address lying in general, not just the more narrow concept of bearing false witness against one's neighbor.
    – reirab
    Jul 14 at 20:56
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I think we should be a bit suspicious about suggesting that the 10 commandments only prohibit lying in court.

The 10 commandments are only a "skeleton" law that was filled out and expanded in practical ways in the rest of the Torah. In the case of the 9th commandment we have other examples of its application, including the NT, such as:

  • Lev 19:11 - ... You must not lie or deceive one another.
  • Ps 34:13 - Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech.
  • Ps 58:3 - The wicked are estranged from the womb; the liars go astray from birth.
  • Ps 101:7 - No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who tells lies shall stand in my presence.
  • Ps 109:2 - For wicked and deceitful mouths open against me; they speak against me with lying tongues.
  • Prov 6:16-19 - There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness who gives false testimony, and one who stirs up discord among brothers.
  • Prov 12:19 - Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
  • Prov 14:5 - An honest witness does not deceive, but a dishonest witness pours forth lies.
  • Prov 19:5 - A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will not escape.
  • Prov 21:6 - Making a fortune by a lying tongue is a vanishing mist, a deadly pursuit.
  • prov 24:28 - Do not testify against your neighbor without cause, and do not deceive with your lips.
  • Eph 4:25 - Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one another.
  • Col 3:9 - Do not lie to one another, ...

Notice also that in many of the verse above, set in quintessential Hebrew parallelism that lying is parallel to giving false testimony. It should be recalled that court settings in ancient Israel were far less formal that now and that any falsehood ultimately hurts one's neighbor.

Therefore, bearing false witness against one's neighbor (Ex 20:16, Deut 5:20) can be seen as a general prohibition against lying generally. This can be seen in other areas as well such as the prohibition against dishonest scales (Deut 25:13-16) and the instruction to conduct commerce honestly.

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  • I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say that "bearing false witness" is equivalent to "lying generally," though you're definitely right that it's not limited to legal proceedings. Telling a lie about someone is still "bearing false witness" even if it's not done in a court. But, as you've noted, there are plenty of other passages that do address lying generally. I'd add Revelation 21:8 as a strong addition to that list.
    – reirab
    Jul 14 at 20:00
  • @reirab - I agree - thanks for your comments.
    – Dottard
    Jul 14 at 21:33
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Discussing the meaning of the Hebrew לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר (Exodus 20:16, MT) at "Does the בְ in לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר only mean against?" the answer to your question is apparently yes.

בְרֵעֲךָ֖ could mean among your neighbors/about your neighbor.

Another question is why is it the word for "witness" instead of "testimony."

Some even suggest לא תלך רכיל בעמך, You will not gossip among your people.

The rabbi (Ibn Ezra) in the link mentioning witness instead of testimony wrote that this means not allowing false witnesses. While Paul, who was rabbi educated, didn't reference this commandment, he wrote something similar in Eph, 5:6-14.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

              “Awake, O sleeper, 
  and arise from the dead, 
              and Christ will shine on you.” 
                      (Eph. 5:6–14, ESV)
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I think it's interesting that in both Exodus and Leviticus it doesn't just say don't lie or don't give false testimony, but do not deceive your neighbor or do not give false testimony against your neighbor. Presumably, this does not prohibit lying against your mortal enemy or to save a life when one rises up against the people of God the way the Hebrew Midwives did in the Exodus.

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