4

Abram deceived Pharaoh and Abimelech about Sarai’s identity (claiming she was his sister: Gen 12 and 20). Isaac deceived the second Abimelech about Rebekah’s identity (Gen 26). Rebekah and Jacob conspired to deceive Isaac about Jacob’s identity (Gen 27). Laban, a grandfather of most of the sons of Israel, deceived Jacob about Leah’s identity (Gen 29). Jacob deceived Esau about his intention to travel to Seir with him (Gen 33). Then we have the deceitful misrepresentation of the Israelites’ intentions in joining their clan with the Hivites (Gen 34). One could extend the list.

Is it fair to say that deceit or lying is a feature of this family? And if so, what did the Lord think of it? Is it possible that he approved of it?

7
  • 7
    Deceit is a characteristic of the entire human family!!
    – Dottard
    Jan 4 at 10:20
  • 1
    Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. God sees Abraham and God sees righteousness in him. And Sarah was, indeed, his sister. God promised Rebekah that the elder child would serve the younger. And Jacob obtained the birthright by trade with a man who didn't want it. And having got it, he represented himself as what he, indeed, was : the firtsborn by right, with the assistance of his mother who had received the promise from God almighty.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 4 at 13:00
  • Of the entire human family—absolutely. But as a moral pattern it certainly jumps out in these stories, and if lying is generally regarded as sinful, why does God not always punish it? Basic questions of Biblical theology, but they still need asking. Jan 4 at 15:49
  • Added Bible passages. Can this be unlocked? Or would you like specific verses as well? Jan 7 at 5:36

4 Answers 4

4

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.

4
  • 2
    +1 Very nice answer. :)
    – Rajesh
    Jan 4 at 5:46
  • The Sixth Commandment states "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor", which is loosely interpreted as "Thou shalt not lie". Bearing false witness is lying, but not all lying involves bearing false witness, so the two are not directly synonymous with each other. You can lie maliciously, but you can also lie with good intentions, to avoid hurting someone. You can also lie because your faith in God to work things out is lacking, as was the case of Abram regarding Sarai, even though you think you're doing the right thing at the time. It's a complex issue. Jan 4 at 6:00
  • 1
    So having accused innocent people of 'deceit' you now excuse lying as if it didn't matter.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 7 at 13:37
  • Jacob and Rebekah lying to Isaac was not exactly “innocent” in itself or in its consequences, regardless of how well-intentioned it was or how consistent the target of the finagled blessing was with the Lord’s intentions. Jan 7 at 15:03
1

Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. See several scriptures in Genesis, Romans and other places.

God sees Abraham and God sees righteousness in him. And Sarah was, indeed, his sister.

God promised Rebekah that the elder child would serve the younger. And Jacob obtained the birthright by trade with a man who didn't want it. And having got it, he represented himself as what he, indeed, was : the firstborn by right, with the assistance of his mother who had received the promise from God almighty.

I disagree with your conclusion regarding what you describe as 'deceit'. I see much, much more in the biblical record, regarding the faith of God's elect.

3
  • 2
    Are answers supposed to be written as replies to other answers, or as answers to the question? Not sure you have really answered the question or confronted the difficulty here. It is a plain old fact that the patriarchs did lie, deceive, or misrepresent on several occasions. No? Bear in mind that it is entirely possible for a person to tell an untruth and yet still rest the greatest faith in the Lord. And are you making the positive claim that the Lord excused these untruths, because of their faith or for other reasons? Jan 4 at 14:43
  • 1
    It says "Abraham believed God" it does not say "Abraham never lied"
    – David D
    Jan 4 at 14:48
  • @globewalldesk I am saying that what people are calling 'deceit' is not so. They see things wrongly. God's rightness is not as men see it. They think certain things are 'right' (as did Eve and Adam in the garden). It is not 'deceit' to say a woman is your sister if she is, indeed, your half sister. It is not 'deceit' to trade soup for a birthright (if the owner despises it and wants to trade). But it is definitely wrong to accuse the guiltless of crimes they never committed. But the question is closed now, so no further comment is necessary.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 7 at 13:35
0

The wife/sister theme is ancient, so ancient that the writers of Genesis no longer understood it.

E. A. Speiser's comment to Genesis 12:10-20 p. 91 in the Anchor Yale Commentary series

"This recurrent wife-sister theme in Genesis has been the subject of innumerable comments and speculations. Interpreters through the ages have found the material both puzzling and disturbing. This is not surprising in the light of the data that are now available. For it can be shown on internal grounds that the narrators themselves were no longer aware of the full import of their subject matter. The pertinent customs were peculiar to Hurrian society and practices in such centers as Har(r)an, where Western Semites, from whom the patriarchs branched out, lived in closest cultural symbiosis with Hurrians. On Palestinian soil, however, these exotic customs gradually lost eheir original meaning. Tradition retained the details but not their import. Small wonder that they came to be reinterpreted in the light of local circumstances and practices."

"In Hurrian society the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the juridical status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties."

My note: the salient point is that a sister had more protection and security than a wife. So a wife-sister relationship was a very, very secure legal situation.

According to the ancient customs, Abraham's marriage to Sarai carried wife-sister provisions.

p. 92-93

"We have fewer details in regard to Sarah, except that xx 12 (E) describes her indirectly as the daughter of Terah, but not by Abraham's own mother. This alone would make Sarah eligible for "sistership" status under the law of the land from which Abraham had set out on his journey to Canaan, with all the attendant safeguards and privileges which that law affored."

p. 93 "In Isaac's case, the situation is appreciably clearer. Not only was Rebekah a native of Hurrian-dominated Har(r)an, but she was actually given as wife to Isaac, through an intermediary, by her brother Laban. As a matter of fact, the details as recorded in xxiv 53-61 are remarkably like a transcript of a Hurrian "sistership" document. There are thus sufficient grounds for placing the two marriages, those of Abrahm and Sarah and of Isaac and Rebekah, in the wife-sister category."

Now that later narrators of Genesis recorded this as deceit is evidence of their misunderstanding.

But I agree. Messing over one another is a recurrent theme in Genesis. Maybe that is what we humans do? I don't have the details in front of me, but all these cases of deceit incur a "pay-back".

The one I remember are the silver pieces found in Joseph's brothers bags when they left Egypt. I think if you add them up, you get the same number of silver pieces that they originally sold Joseph for.

Deceit and pay-back. You have to look at the big picture, not just isolated details.

13
  • I'm confused. Are you saying it wasn't a lie?
    – David D
    Jan 4 at 14:47
  • @DavidD That is the way I understand it. It was not a lie in Abraham and Isaac's day, but by the time things were put into writing, or maybe even before in oral traditions, it was no longer understood, and presented as a lie. But I am only a hack at this. Ran across it a few months back studying Genesis. Jan 4 at 15:03
  • 1
    The full story in question is Genesis 12:10 - 20, the key verses are 18 and 19. Pharaoh clearly indicates that he was deceived.
    – David D
    Jan 4 at 15:14
  • The narrator presents Pharaoh as feeling deceived, yes. We have to remember that these narratives were written about 800 to 1000 years after the fact. Things can become transformed in that period of time. Maybe pharoah was being used in order to explain how Abraham came back with so many riches. I have no strong opinion on that. Jan 4 at 15:44
  • The Abimelechs were both highly incensed at being lied to as well. Jan 4 at 15:51
0

I just stumbled across this question and would have liked to comment directly to Daniel Ridings answer, but don't have enough reputation for that... So I'll have to write my comment this way.

Daniel mentions: 'Now that later narrators of Genesis recorded this as deceit is evidence of their misunderstanding.'

But when I read the story of Abraham and Pharaoh as well as the story of Abraham and Abimelech, I don't see the narrators themselves recorded anything as deceit. The story mentions that Abraham says Sara is his sister. The story also mentions that Pharaoh and Abimelech take that as deceit. But the story itself does not judge whether Abraham is lying or not.

So I'd say the narrators simply gave a short summary of events, but never intended to record or judge anything as deceit. From that it follows that there's no evidence of their misunderstanding.

Also keep in mind that we're looking at a culture clash here. Whether or not Abraham thought he was speaking the truth because of this wife-sister thing from his own culture, the Pharaoh and Abimelech from another culture certainly did not appreciate it.

That being said, personally I don't see the point of trying to justify Abraham or any other biblical figure, especially not because the bible itself seldomly tries to justify its characters. On the contrary, as far as I can see, the bible speaks openly about their flaws and then shows how they nevertheless found grace in God's eyes. If we're looking at bigger pictures anyway, then that is one of the biggest pictures the bible is trying to draw, isn't it?

1
  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Jan 4 at 21:07

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.