Each lie in the list above misrepresents the identity of persons. Before we righteously conclude that deceptive identity was a family trait, we might want to ask ourselves to what extent there were what we might call "justifying circumstances." Of course, you might well want to deny that there are any such things as "justifying circumstances" (that is hardly a Biblical phrase, after all). But read on and you will see what I mean. It is worth discussing anyway.
There were, arguably, some justifying circumstances in the sister-wife exploit practiced by Abraham and Isaac: they were keeping the patriarch from being killed and the clan from being absorbed by the king. Moreover, far from chastising Abraham and Isaac for their lie, the Lord seems to reward them in spite of it. Did he "wink" at the lie? Surely not. But read on.
And while Rebekah and Jacob did something wrong, they were motivated by a desire to see the father avoid a disastrous blessing of the wrong son, rather than the son whom the Lord had already blessed. Laban deceived Jacob in order to marry off the elder sister before the younger, which was apparently required by local practice. Jacob’s sons deceived the Hivites in order to keep themselves separate from them, and to get justice—or revenge.
Whether justified or not, the identity deceptions were done in order to secure what were thought to be the just prerogatives that the deceiver should have. And even more, in each case, the target of the deception is or has recently been engaged in some serious wrongdoing (or is at risk of doing so). Finally, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons used deception to seek peace from rapacious princes. So there were a number of mitigating circumstances.
Very well; so much for the "justifying circumstances." Can we conclude anything in general from all that? The real question is this: How then does the Lord judge the pattern of deception just mentioned?
This is not a simple question. Does God always punish lies? Not always in the text (but as we will see, that does not settle the matter). The Lord, it appears, repeatedly shields Abraham and Isaac from the natural consequences of their misrepresentation of their wives’ identity. Yet he also seems to chastise Jacob with twenty years’ labor, and hard labor for a man who is even less honest and more self-serving than he is; Jacob’s character appears greatly improved as a result.
The Lord seems to take a sterner attitude toward lying in the latter case: Jacob’s deception of Isaac is not the only instance where a Hebrew is allowed to suffer the natural consequences of his lie. Laban himself is guilty of deception and grasping, and that results in his losing herds, daughters, and grandchildren to Jacob. Later, we find the brothers’ lie about the fate of Joseph results ultimately in their being humbled before Joseph himself.
But the Lord does seem to permit lies to Egyptians and Canaanites without any obvious consequence—although in every case we have seen so far, the recipient of the lie has done or is at least contemplating perpetration of a wrong, and thus the lie is actually in self-defense. Is that correct and justifiable? Should we conclude that the Lord approves of lies of self-defense against wicked or unjust treatment, or in service of the Lord?
Let us consider both sides of this important question carefully.
We have seen that God does not always punish lies—or not in any obvious way recorded in the text. But that does not settle the matter: it hardly follows from that that the unpunished lies are acceptable to God. Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes groan with laments that unjust liars go to the grave with wealth and honor. But the NT makes it abundantly clear that unforgiven sinners will be ultimately destroyed, or punished forever in Hell; and in the law, “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence” (Deut 32:35) says the Lord to Moses.
Moreover, in no way does the Bible text ever suggest, let alone state in so many words, that “lying for the Lord” or for justice toward his chosen people is acceptable.
Still, there is a strong argument that the Lord sometimes turns his back on certain evildoers, both individually and collectively. And that matters a lot. His people shall execute those guilty of capital crimes, and those casting stones are not thought to violate the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” (Ex 20:13) Indeed, the Lord uses the Hebrews as instruments of his holy justice against the thoroughly wicked Canaanites—killing men, women, and children—and yet they are not guilty of murder.
Similarly, faced with the necessity of dealing with and living among wicked people, may we not conclude that the Hebrews could, on occasion, tell falsehoods—a much less serious act than killing—in the service of the Lord’s covenant and justice?
Was it really a serious moral failing of Rahab to tell an untruth to the men of Jericho (Josh 2:4), when a few days later they would all be slaughtered indiscriminately at the Lord’s command? The Israelites were doing the Lord’s explicitly-stated will, and in materially helping them, Rahab is also arguably doing his will. Well then, was her untruth among the “works” by which she was “justified,” according to James (Jas 2:25)? This is by no means clear. But how else was she to save the Israelite spies in wartime?
If that is right (and I am just puzzled in that particular case!), then our judgment of whether this was a “justified lie” stands or falls with whether it is absolutely necessary to a just cause. As a test case, we might look at whether the killing of the men of Shechem was justified. It was not, I would argue; there were other ways to achieve their legitimate goals; so the lie that the Israelites would intermarry with the Hivites after the latter were circumcised was not justified. Indeed, in all of the cases above, I would argue that not a single one of the lies is justified, though some were doubtless more seriously wicked than others. I humbly submit that the Lord disapproved of all of them.