|Picture adapted from Rembrant’s Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law
According to the Bible, the ninth commandment is: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Ex 20:16, Deut 5:20)
You must not defraud your neighbour, or pervert justice by not judging your neighbour fairly, or spread slander among your people (Lev 19:13-16). The punishment was a fine (Deut 22:18-19) or giving a ram to a priest, who will eat it to make atonement for your sin (Lev 6:1-7).
19:13 You shall not cheat your neighbour, nor rob him…16 You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people.
22:18 Then the elders of that city shall take that man and punish him; 19 and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel.
6: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 If a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord by lying to his neighbour … 3 or if he has found what was lost and lies concerning it, and swears falsely… 5 he shall restore its full value, add one-fifth more to it… 6 And he shall bring his trespass offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish from the flock, with your valuation, as a trespass offering, to the priest. 7 So the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord.
But the ban on lying applied only to “your neighbour” or “your people” (Lev 19:18) or “your brother” (Deut 19:18). The god consistently instructed his tribe to dispense different standards of justice to strangers and foreigners.
For example, Israelites could own foreign slaves for ever, but had to release Israelite slaves after six years (Lev 25:44-46, Ex 21:2). Israelites could charge interest on loans to strangers, but not to their brothers (Deut 23:20). Their neighbour or brother could sometimes keep property they had lent to them, but a foreigner still owed it (Deut 15:1-3). More seriously, strangers would be killed if they approached the tabernacle (Num 18:7).
In accordance with this policy, the god allowed, rewarded and even instructed lying to foreigners and strangers. All three Biblical Patriarchs told lies.
The prophet Abraham repeatedly lied that his wife Sarah was only his sister, in order to give her to the Pharaoh and save his own life (Gen 12:11-13). Actually his wife was also his half-sister, but he was still deliberately deceiving the Pharoe.
12:11 And it came to pass, when he was close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.
In a remarkable coincidence, Abraham’s son Isaac also lied that his wife Rebekah was his sister for similar reasons (Gen 26:6-7). In this case, Rebekah wasn’t even Isaac’s half-sister. She was his cousin. What a family!
26:6 So Isaac dwelt in Gerar. 7 And the men of the place asked about his wife. And he said, “She is my sister”; for he was afraid to say, “She is my wife,” because he thought, “lest the men of the place kill me for Rebekah, because she is beautiful to behold.
When it came to the third Biblical Patriarch, the god was even flexible with the “only lie to strangers” rule. He blessed Isaac’s son Jacob when he lied to his father to steal his brother’s birthright (Gen 27:19-20).
27:19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn; I have done just as you told me; please arise, sit and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.” 20 But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the Lord your God brought it to me.”
The god told Moses to lie to the Pharaoh that his tribe only wanted to leave Egypt for three days (Ex 3:18) and saved the life of Rahab for lying about Israelite spies (Josh 2:4-6, Heb 11:30-31) and caused four hundred prophets to lie to the King of Israel (1 Kings 22:22-23). Jehu lied to the prophets of Baal to lure them into being killed (2 Kings 10:18-20).
3:18 Then they will heed your voice; and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt; and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now, please, let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.
2:4 Then the woman took the two men and hid them. So she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. 5 And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.” 6 But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order on the roof.
11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days. 31 By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.
22:22 The Lord said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the Lord said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’ 23 Therefore look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you.
10:18 Then Jehu gathered all the people together, and said to them, “Ahab served Baal a little, Jehu will serve him much. 19 Now therefore, call to me all the prophets of Baal, all his servants, and all his priests. Let no one be missing, for I have a great sacrifice for Baal. Whoever is missing shall not live.” But Jehu acted deceptively, with the intent of destroying the worshipers of Baal.
Again, this law is not about universal values of right and wrong. It is about protecting the stability and interests of one tribe at the expense of others.
So that is commandment number nine. I will examine the tenth commandment in my next post.