Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Abraham, Jacob, Rahab, and Judith: Biblical liars?

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.


dcs said...

What I find interesting about the defenses of lying that depend on these cases from the Old Testament is that no one seems willing to defend other actions of the Patriarchs such as Jephthe (like Rahab, praised by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews) sacrificing his own daughter as a burnt offering, David swearing Solomon to revenge on his deathbed (3 Kings 2), and, as you point out, the multiple wives and concubines of Abraham, Jacob, and David. Holy Scripture records what did happen, not what should have happened (and the fact that these Biblical figures did not act with perfect virtue all the time speaks to the authenticity of Scripture).

P.S. I believe the reference to Psalm 126, above, should be rather to Psalm 136(137).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is time to move on from this subject. At this point, I no longer care which position is morally correct in this lying debate - having believed it only had limited relevance in the first place. In charity, please do your readers a favour, and find other subjects of interest to discuss.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@dcs, Yes, you are correct...it should read 136th Psalm, sorry for the typo. I will correct it.
Thanks for the heads up!

Also, I do agree with you about the distinction between what did happen and what should have happened...still, we can generally take the patriarchs and prophets as examples; hence, the need to look to the interpretations of the Church Fathers (and the Doctors) so as to understand how to read each passage.
Here, I am sure, you and I are in complete agreement. Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (3:53pm),
I agree with you on one point...I am very tired of the Lila Rose debate!

However, why not take this very pathetic debate (in which the fickleness of the Catholic blogging world was so visible) and make it an opportunity for some theological reflection?

That is my hope with the recent posts... I will be writing at least one more -- on whether God has lied (a rather silly question, but one to which many impiously answered in the affirmative).

If you are not interested in this biblical exegesis, please do not reject the rest of the blog -- I believe that, in charity, it is important for me to present the Church's way of understanding these very confusing biblical texts.

Moreover, you will notice that (since the lying debate broke out) we at NTM have published 8 posts on other subjects (mostly biblical exegesis related to the Lectionary readings) and 7 related to lying.
Also, in the coming days, we will post our usual commentary on the Sunday Gospel; as well as a reflection in preparation for Lent.

Finally, I would ask (as always) that you leave some sort of name, tag, id, pseudonym, or something [at least at the final line of your comment]. Peace. +

Mark said...

From the CCC 2483 obtained from the Vatican's ".VA" obtained 6 March 2011 it states:

"2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth. By injuring man's relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord."

I'm am assuming that the Vatican posts the most recent and most binding CCC on its website. If so, the "right to know the truth" clause remains,and so seems to contradict a combox statement obtained from the now closed "It is a sin to lie, even to Planned Parenthood" web article. The combox statement is an excerpt and is shown below the +++++ line.

Any explanation for the differences? It seems the "right to know the truth" clause is still operational. Apparently, the remnants of Hugo Grotius lives on at the Vatican.

Fr. DannyChamps said...

The initial edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was sent to the Bishops of the world in 1992, was REVISED as to its definition of the lie. The initial edition in 1992 defined a lie in relation to a person's "right to the truth." The finally promulgated edition of 1997 took this right's language out, as it had never been the Church's stance on lying. It was a Protestant introduction by Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century, and eventually spun into all sorts of problematic positions.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mark, As a matter of fact, that IS NOT the most recent edition of the Catechism which you have quoted from the Vatican website...
Please see my pose "The Nature of a lie" ... there I discuss the change between the editions...http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2011/02/nature-of-lie.html

Also, I show that even the first edition [which had the 'right to know the truth' clause] also stated very clearly that intentionally deceiving another through falsehood is always and everywhere wrong (without any qualification about 'right to know the truth') [in other words, there was an inconsistency within the first edition of the Catechism itself; this was corrected for the second edition, as Fr.DannyChamps explained.]

In any case, as you can see from the official Latin typical edition (available on the website) the 'right to know the truth' clause is not part of the official Catechism:
"2483 Mendacium est directissima contra veritatem offensa. Mentiri est contra veritatem loqui vel agere ad inducendum in errorem. "

Mark said...


Thanks for explaining the "right to know the truth clause" issue.

You know, I don't know Latin, even though I fake knowing it when I verbalize the responses during the Tridentine mass. In this regard, if you could translate in Latin for me "right to know the truth" I'd appreciate it.

Also, why does Rome allow errors to be published in the vernacular? I have to read everyday English, so I need to know what I'm reading is correct and complete. Since part of the mission of the Church is to preserve, protect and transmit the truth, and I'm a regular joe who only comprehends English, I need to know the total transmission of truth in my language.

FYI, Janet Smith opines that Rome never rejected the first edition of the CCC, or words to that effect.

Thank you,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The Latin reads: "Lying is a most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error."
no mention of 'right to know'...

Remember that the Vatican is still pretty new with the whole internet thing...so, it's not too surprising that they would have the first (unofficial) edition up on the website.

I have read Janet Smith's claim -- again, I would emphasize that, even in the 1st edition, there were other paragraphs that made it clear that the 'right to know' clause is not to be applied...in other words, there was inconsistency in the first edition itself -- this was cleared up in the second edition. [please see my earlier article, "The Nature of a lie"]

Moreover, the first edition was original in french and was never an official edition...hence, though it does/did have some authority, it certainly cannot be compared to the current official (corrected) edition of the Catechism.

Finally, the tradition of Catholic moral theology is on the side of the current official edition -- the whole 'right to know' clause has been pretty well rejected by the best moral theologians of the past 500 or so years....

Mark said...

Fr. Reginaldus,

Yes, the Vatican is new to the Internet thing and I do need to be more patient and understanding if they haven't got every teaching of the Catholic Church for the last 2000 plus years in American style English up on the Vatican website. Overall, they do a real good job.

I want to thank you so much for humbly teaching me about the evil nature of a lie, and its subsequent aftermaths. I have read your other posts and find them outstanding.

I usually focus in on Catholic vs. Protestant apologetic issues as that is where my natural interests reside. Yet my concerns should primarily be placed with my relationship to God, as this directly affects my soul and the souls of others and my relationship with others. How I behave as a Christian is way more fundamentally important than my ability to "zing" or engage in "gotcha" apologetics with Protestants, or for that matter, with fellow Catholics who I may be in disagreement with on a particular subject. Yep, the basics are pretty important.

All this "are there permissible circumstances to lie for Jesus" type discussions on this and other blogs has, frankly, shook me to my core. I plan to make better confessions in the future. Boy oh boy, that priest better be ready...

I salute you sir for setting me straight. May our beautiful Lord continue to bless your good work on this website and elsewhere.

In Christ,

BTW. I'm 61, but I intend to keep learning. Thanks again!!! And don't let the argumentative comboxes get you down.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mark, Thank you for such a kind and gracious comment! It is good to know that this blog is helping!
Your words have given me a great deal of joy and encouragement.

Many blessings for you, and prayers for a good Lenten confession! :)

Mark said...

Fr. Reginaldus,

You're more than welcome. Rest assured, I will have that good Lenten confession.

Ironically, as I've spent so, so much time and emotional energy on your blog after discovering it via the "Lying for Jesus" discussions held elsewhere, I have decided to give up for Lent perusing Catholic blogs in general as a matter of re-establishing self-control and independence from the Internet, and to take an emotional break from contentious issues.

But, please also be assured that I'll be catching up with your blog's wisdom said during Easter after Easter so I won't miss things in the long run. Easter, for me, remains in my heart throughout the year, and so will your good teachings.

My intent during Lent will be to daily read the RSV or Douay-Rheims Bible and Jurgens' The Faith of the Early Fathers. In other words, I'm taking a break from electronic media and going back to the hand-held WORD OF GOD and other faith promoting books.

Knowing my faith better will give me the peace and knowledge to more properly appreciate the good counsel in your writings.

Thanks again Father!

Well, I got about 3 hours left before Lent begins on the West Coast. With the best of intentions I'll be "comboxing" with you soon after Easter.

In Christ,

Christine said...

Thank you for your commentary on this complex issue.

I think I can explain why some are willing to use the example of Rahab, Judith, etc. to support their defense of falsehoods while ignoring the OT practices of infanticide or polygamy: the latter have been clearly condemned by the Magisterium, so that one can be left in no doubt what the Church thinks on the subject of killing innocent babies or marrying multiple wives.

The Magisterium has been less clear on the former, particularly in the use of justified falsehoods in undercover stings, international spying, investigative journalism, or the Nazi-at-the-door scenario. If uttering falsehoods is clearly immoral in these circumstances, then one would expect the Church to have come out with a strong statement somewhere along the line condemning them. But She hasn't--not in the way that She's condemned killing the innocent or marrying multiple wives. So it leads me to believe that the issue is more nuanced than what is being presented here.

The reason moral theologians have debated Augustine's absolutist position is because it is unsatisfactory, and produces absurd results. Applying his definition literally would result in making all jokes and innocent pranks inherently sinful, since jokes/pranks are intended to deceive and lead another into (factual) error (at least temporarily). Aquinas tried to avoid this problem by arguing that jocose lies do not have the ultimate intent to deceive; but this is problematic, for neither does an undercover sting have as its ultimate intent to deceive, but rather to expose corruption.

I notice that you have an image of Bd. John Henry Newman on your banner. He himself wrote, in an extensive note on lying and equivocation, the following:

What I have been saying shows what different schools of opinion there are in the Church in the treatment of this difficult doctrine [justified falsehoods]; and, by consequence, that a given individual, such as I am, cannot agree with all of them, and has a full right to follow which of them he will. The freedom of the Schools, indeed, is one of those rights of reason, which the Church is too wise really to interfere with. And this applies not to moral questions only, but to dogmatic also.


You did quote Augustine and Aquinas to support your scriptural interpretation--but St. Cassian and St. Chrysostom had very different interpretations of those very passages, claiming that such dissimulation was right and holy. Even if this analysis hasn't become the majority opinion, the Church has never come out and explicitly condemned such a position as heresy. Until She does, I remain more circumspect about the Church's approach to falsehoods uttered in special circumstances (Nazi at the door, etc.).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Christine, I do not intend to enter again into the whole debate about lying... but just a few words.

First, you are correct, the question of the interpretation of these biblical passages is very complex.

Second, it is simply not true to claim that Augustine's (or Thomas') doctrine of lying would necessarily rule out all joking and also undercover sting operations...I have discussed this in previous articles (see, especially, "Lying, or is it mental reservation").

Third, you are correct that the Church has not condemned every instance of what St. Augustine would call lying in the same way it has condemned murder and polygamy...nevertheless, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (to which the faithful owe at least religious obedience) very clearly adopts the teaching of St. Augustine...therefore, it is unsafe for a theologian to recommend otherwise.

Finally, regarding the "freedom of the Schools"... Strict mental reservation has been condemned (Innocent XI) -- for more on this, see again the earlier article and also my response to Dr. Monica Miller (there I speak of what is the difference between strict and broad mental reservation).
Thus, if strict mental reservation has been condemned, certainly intentionally and directly presenting a falsehood as truth (which is worse even than strict mental reservation) is also wrong.

Nevertheless, your point is well taken...regarding murder vs. lying. Still, I have my doubts about those who would engage this abhorrent practice of plucking particular texts out of Scripture, simply to win an argument.

You, on the other hand, have made appeal to St. John Chrysostom (a Father, Saint and Doctor of the Church, as well as a superb biblical scholar) as well as John Cassian (who is most highly respected by St. Benedict as a spiritual master). This is the way we must read the Scriptures...with the Fathers, and Doctors...within the Tradition, and the Schools... I only wish certain others had done this when seeking to defend Live Action... [n.b. Dr. Monica Miller is a good example of how a Catholic theologian would defend Lila Rose]

In any case...thank you for the comment! +

Anonymous said...

Fr. Reginaldus,

I agree with your distinctions between lying and using broad mental reservation from other blog posts, but I'm having trouble seeing how Jacob could be said to have acted prophetically. I understand the analogy to the Gentiles, and the whole claiming that he had the role of first-born since Esau gave it to him, but going through the trouble to smell and feel like Esau seems to point to a strong attempt to deceive. How do Jacob's actions come into play here?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Arthur, Good question! I would emphasize that the simple intention to deceive does not make a lie ... we must look to the actual words/actions used -- if they are contrary to the truth, then we have a lie.

So, there is not necessarily a lie in dressing that way.

Hope that is clearer! +

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Fr. Erlenbush. I think I get the distinction now.

On something related, I have been confronted with Christ's words in St. John's Gospel (7:8-10):

"[g]o you up to this festival day: but I go not up to this festival day, because my time is not accomplished. 9 When he had said these things, he himself stayed in Galilee. 10 But after his brethren had gone up, then he also went up to the feast, not openly, but, as it were, in secret."

Is this broad mental reservation? And if so, how? Thanks again for any insights.


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