Last update Dec. 18, 2001
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You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
Exodus 20: 16 (RSV)
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- Exodus 20:16 (NRSV)
You shall not testify against your neighbor as a lying witness.
- Exodus 20:16 (Brevard Childs)
The commandment contains several technical legal terms, suggesting its original meaning was a warning against false accusation in a court of law (Childs):
Several measures protected the accused in ancient Israel:
1.2. Old Testament Extension of the Commandment to Lying (Slander, Deceitfulness)
You shall not steal, you shall not deal falsely, and you shall not lie to one another
- Leviticus 19:11 (NRSV)
You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people. . . I am the LORD.
Leviticus 19:16. (NRSV)
Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant. . . they have acted deceitfully. . .
- Joshua 7:11 (NRSV)
There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out . . .
- Hosea 4:1-2 (NRSV)
Again, you have heard that is was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely. . .’
But I say to you, Do not swear at all. . .
Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
- from Matthew 5:33-37 (NRSV)
Swearing, oath-taking presume a tendency to lie. Jesus requires a truthfulness in his disciples that makes oaths unnecessary.
At the heart of the Commandment:
A “negative” reading of the Commandment. We must:
A "positive” reading of the Commandment. We must:
2.1. What Lies at the Heart of the Sin of "Lying"?
The dictionary definition of "To Lie": To say / write something untrue, with the intention to deceive.
The heart of the commandment is a commitment to truth. The sin of a “lie” is the intention to deceive, not the means of deception (voice, writing, facial expression and tone, or innuendo)
Is it a “lie” to deliberately withhold truth to keep alive or nurture a possible false impression in the mind of others?
Is it a “lie” to deliberately withhold the truth, not for purposes of nurturing or keeping alive a false impression, but to impart an incomplete or unbalanced understanding?
1. Slander - to make false charges or misrepresentations of Another to defame or damage their reputation
2. Jewish tradition describes the “evil tongue” (lashon hara) and “the dust of the evil tongue” (avak lashon hara), in which rather than make a false charge, we use a partial truth or an exaggerated truth to tear Another down
How far must we take our commitment to truth?
Is lying / deception ever permissible?
Are there moral values that override our commitment to truth?
3.2. White Lies
White Lies (devarim shevalev = “words in the heart”). Statements understood to reflect a sentiment of the heart, not necessarily a pure, literal truth. Some examples:
We justify these “lies” because:
The Talmud suggests that God tells white lies. It cites the story of God telling Abraham that Sarah would bear a son. Sarah, listening behind the tent entrance, ". . .laughed to herself, saying, 'After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?'" (Genesis 18:12 NRSV)
God then said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?'" (Genesis 18:13 NRSV). God leaves out that Sarah had also said Abraham was old.
In WWII, lying to the Gestapo in order to protect the a Jewish family hiding in the antic.
3.4. Kant's Position versus the Majority Position
Immanuel Kant’s position on lying:
Most moral theologians however would justify a lie when telling the truth would cause Another serious harm
Questions to ask if a lie is to be a permissible action:
“Viable human community depends on truth telling”
In the sense of the original, narrow meaning of the commandment:
The commandment is “a recognition that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.” (Brueggemann)
In the sense of the broader meaning of the commandment:
Relevance in modern life:
5.1. Promoting Truth in Our Personal Relationships, Families and Communities
Truthful living in our personal relationships, families and communities requires that we:
We need to create a “space where truth can be told”
Our culture however does not invite truth-telling. It does not provide much space where truth can be told. The problems are:
“if we would . . . learn more about tolerance, human failure, the real possibility of broken promises. . . if we learned to allow others to speak, acknowledge, opine, or even, if necessary, confess and repent, we could become a society promoting truthfulness.”
5.3. Witnessing to the Truth of Christ. Evangelism
As Christian, we have a special call in promoting truth: evangelism
Broken Tablets. Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves. Rachel S. Mikva, editor. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999.
Do We Still Need the Ten Commandments. A Fresh Look at God’s Laws of Love. John H. Timmerman. Augsburg. Minneapolis, 1997
Exodus. (Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.) Terence E. Fretheim, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1991
The Book of Exodus. Walter Brueggemann. In: The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994
The Book of Exodus. A Critical, Theological Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Brevard S. Childs. Westminster Press, Louisville, 1974
The JPS Torah Commentary. Exodus. Nahum M. Sarna. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1991