|Rahab protects the Israelite spies|
The question of human lies in the Bible
Following the course of our previous article, we will here discuss the “cases” of Biblical lying which some have claimed either to justify the occasion use of lies or to prove that what the Catechism says is a lie is not really a lie.
As Catholics, we will approach these sacred texts in the threefold exegetical method: recalling the unity of the whole Bible, and especially of the Old and New Testaments; reading the text within the living Tradition of the Church, diligently considering the commentaries of the Church Fathers; and being attentive to the analogy of faith, by which various revealed truths are related one to another. (cf. Dei Verbum 12, CCC 112-114)
We will discuss several of the “cases” which have been brought forward by others in order to justify lying. First discussing the cases which involve patriarchs, who are examples of perfect virtue, we will then turn to those cases which involve other biblical figures who seem to have lied.
It is worth noting that there seems to be a great inconsistency in the reasoning of those who have referred to these biblical cases as a defense of lying: For, while they are willing to claim that lying is acceptable in certain circumstances because (as they claim) Abraham, Jacob, and others lied, they do not then proceed to claim that infanticide is acceptable in certain circumstances since it was practiced by the Israelites when they defeated their enemies and was prayed for by David in the 136th Psalm: Blessed be he that shall take and dash they little ones against the rock. This selective interpretation of the biblical text suggests that such persons are twisting the Scriptures to fit their own argument.
Did Abraham lie when he said that Sarah was his sister?
And when he was near to enter into Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife: […] Say therefore, I pray thee, that thou art my sister: that I may be well used for thee, and that my soul may live for thy sake. […] And Pharao called Abram, and said to him: What is this that thou hast done to me? Why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? For what cause didst thou say, she was thy sister, that I might take her to my wife? (Genesis 12:11,13, 18)
As Abraham is presented to us an example of perfect virtue, it would seem unfitting that he should tell a lie. Nevertheless, what are we to claim, when it is clear that he presented Sarah not as his wife, but as his sister?
On this point, the Douay-Rheims commentary tells us: “This was no lie; because she was his niece, being daughter to his brother Aran, and therefore, in the style of the Hebrews, she might truly be called his sister, as Lot is called Abram’s brother.” Thus, although Abraham did intentionally deceive Pharaoh, he did not tell a lie – since his words themselves were ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, one of which was true. Abraham made use of a broad mental reservation and spoke the truth, with discreet language.
St. Thomas, following St. Augustine, says the same: “As to Abraham ‘when he said that Sara was his sister, he wished to hide the truth, not to tell a lie, for she is called his sister since she was the daughter of his father,’ Augustine says (QQ. Super. Gen. xxvi; Contra Mend. x; Contra Faust. xxii). Wherefore Abraham himself said (Genesis 20:12): She is truly my sister, the daughter of my father, and not the daughter of my mother, being related to him on his father's side.” (ST II-II, q.110, a.3, ad 3)
Jacob’s prophetic utterance: I am Esau thy firstborn
Who art thou, my son? And Jacob said: I am Esau thy firstborn: I have done as thou didst command me […] He said: Art thou my son Esau? He answered: I am. (Genesis 27:19,24)
The deception of Isaac by Jacob is a most fascinating portion of the Old Testament. It certainly does seem that Jacob lied to his father, and even the Douay-Rheims commentary seems to allow for this: “St. Augustine (L. Contra mendacium, c. 10), treating at large upon this place, excuseth Jacob from a lie, because this whole passage was mysterious, as relating to the preference which was afterwards to be given to the Gentiles before the carnal Jews, which Jacob by prophetic light might understand. So far is certain, that the first birthright, both by divine election and by Esau's free cession belonged to Jacob: so that if there were any lie in the case, it could be no more than an officious and venial one.” Even if we were to allow that Jacob lied, we would still maintain that the lie was a sin, if only a venial one. Most certainly, this example of the young patriarch, who had not yet received his sacred name from the Lord, would by no means justify lying.
However, we maintain, together with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, that Jacob did not lie – rather, he spoke both metaphorically and prophetically. It is good to mention that, according to legal right, Jacob had supplanted his elder brother and taken his birthright (for Esau sold it to Jacob for bread and a pottage of lintels, Genesis 25:31-34). Hence, when Jacob said, I am Esau, your firstborn, he spoke from his office as rightful heir. It was no lie, even according to the strict literal sense – as we may call Pope Benedict XVI “Peter,” so too could Jacob rightly be called “Esau” by virtue of the office he rightfully held.
Moreover, this event is prophetic in nature – as is made clear from other passages of Sacred Scripture (and we recall that a Catholic must always read the whole of Scripture in unison): Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated (Romans 9:13, cf. Malachi 1:1-3). The whole event is a prophetic sign of what was to come. St. Augustine even maintains not only that Jacob knew he was acting prophetically, but that even Isaac was conscious of the reality! If we read the Old and New Testaments together, it is clear that Jacob did not lie (or at least, that the biblical text does not record Jacob’s words as a lie), but that the mysterious event is a prophecy of the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation.
The lie of the Egyptian midwives, and those of Rahab and Judith
And the king called for them and said: What is that you meant to do, that you would save the men children? They answered: The Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women: for they themselves are skillful in the office of a midwife; and they are delivered before we come to them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied and grew exceedingly strong. And because the midwives feared God, he built them houses. (Exodus 1:18-21)
In this case, we admit that the midwives did lie – but this lie was only a venial sin, on account of their good intention. For, although a good intention cannot make an intrinsically evil act to be good, it can mitigate the sin. St. Thomas rightly comments that the midwives are rewarded not for their lie, but for their good intention, because they feared God. The Egyptian midwives are presented to us as an example, not for their lie, but for their virtue in fearing the Lord.
And the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying: Bring forth the men that came to thee, and are entered into thy house: for they are spies, and are come to view all the land. And the woman taking the men, hid them, and said: I confess they came to me, but I knew not whence they were: And at the time of shutting the gate in the dark, they also went out together. I know not whither they are gone: pursue after them quickly, and you will overtake them. (Joshua 2:3-5)
Here again, we admit that Rahab lied. But once more, she is praised not for the lie itself, but because she feared the Lord. On this account, St. Paul wrote: By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with the unbelievers, receiving the spies with peace (Hebrews 11:31). She is not praised for the lie she told to the king's men, but for her faith and her gracious reception of the Israelite spies.
We hold the same for the events surrounding Judith’s victory over Holofernes (cf. Judith 10-15). As St. Thomas puts it: “Judith is praised, not for lying to Holofernes, but for her desire to save the people, to which end she exposed herself to danger. And yet one might also say that her words contain truth in some mystical sense.” (ST II-II, q.110, a.3, ad 3) The lie itself was wrong and a sin (at least a venial one), but Judith's other actions were heroically virtuous and meritorious of eternal life, on account of her faith and her devotion to her people.
The use of Scripture in the recent debate about lying
Again, it is quite striking to note that some (and certainly not all) – in arguing that lying is not always wrong or that lying does not consist in speaking falsehood in order to deceive another – have cited these biblical “cases” and, without even referring to the patristic exegesis of the passages or to the tradition of Catholic biblical interpretation, have not hesitated to claim that these men and women lied and that these lies were morally acceptable.
Yet, these same persons do not then justify infanticide (by appeal to Moses, Joshua, or David), nor do they claim that it is licit to have multiple wives and concubines (after the examples of Abraham, Jacob, David, and others). Instead, they selectively pluck these passages out from the rest of Sacred Scripture so that they may use them as “proof-texts” to justify their own beliefs – and all this, simply to win an argument.