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C7/43 (2008): 9-20

Lies, Lies, I Tell You!

The Deceptions of Genesis
MichaelJ. Williams

Sometimes it seems like we have a love-hate relationship with deception.

On the one hand, we suspect that we should not do it. On the other hand,
it sure does seem helpful sometimes. Our moral ambivalence about deception reminds me of the student who jumbled up his Bible quotations and
came up with: "A lie is an abomination to the Lord . . . and a very present
help in trouble." We just are not certain about how we are supposed to understand or deal with this thing called deceptionwe are not certain how
to deal with it as individual Christians, and we are not certain how to deal
with it as leaders in the church.
Our understanding is further muddied by the presence of so many instances of deception in the biblical narrativesand especially in the book
of Genesis. In addition to its creation stories, ancient genealogies, and primeval histories, Genesis is also chock full of accounts of deception. Almost
every significant narrative1 in the book contains an incident of deception.
If you insist that deception is always morally reprehensible, then you are
forced to condemn the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (among many
others) whose practice of deception has been deemed worthy of preservation in this body of sacred texts.
At the very least, the presence of so many accounts of deception certainly makes example preaching difficult: Abraham trusted in God's promise,
so we should trust in God's promise; Abraham deceived, so we should,
oh, wait....
While it is possible, of course, always to regard deception as an ethical failure, it seems advisable at least to consider other available options. Of course,
one other option lies at the other end of the moral spectrum. It consists of
the opinion that deception is never wrong. I do not know anyone who actually holds this view, and even if someone tried to persuade me that he did,

The only exceptions are the account of God's creation of the heavens and the earth (an
understandable exception inasmuch as a party to deceive had not yet entered the picture)
and the flood story.


I could not be sure that he really meant what he said. No, it is difficult to
imagine a society that could actually function with such a moral construct.
Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is the view that deception may
sometimes, and under certain conditions, be morally permissible, or even
praiseworthy.2 This is the view that I maintain and, moreover, will argue is
necessitated by the evidence preserved for us in Genesis.
Any discussion of deception, especially one that will focus on its morality,
must necessarily begin with a definition of the term. We have to try to be
as objective as possible here because, obviously, the way we define deception could color the results of our investigation from the outset. The Oxford
English Dictionary gives the following definitions for the verb "deceive":
1. To ensnare; to take unawares by craft or guile; to overcome, overreach,
or get the better of by trickery; to beguile or betray into mischief or sin;
to mislead. 2. To cause to believe what is false; to mislead as to a matter
of fact; lead into error, impose upon, delude, "take in." 3. To be or prove
false to, play false, deal treacherously with; to betray. 4. to cheat, overreach; defraud. 5. To beguile, wile away.3
A common, and critical, element of these nuances is intentionality. Unintentional miscommunication may be due to problems on the front end caused
by a person's being "deceived in the first place,... ignorance, fatigue, bias,
delusion, intoxication, or language difficulties."4 One time, when I was in
a little restaurant in a small town in Ukraine, I was surprised to see that the
establishment had an English menu. However, it was soon clear to me that
they really did not know English but had simply used a basic dictionary to
translate words from Ukrainian into English. For example, I was amused to
find on the menu an offering called a language sandwich. I figured out that
what was really meant was a tongue sandwich. Their dictionary had obviously
provided language as an equivalent for tongue and so this had made its way
onto the menu. There was obviously no intent to deceive. This example also
shows that most of the factors that result in misunderstanding or misinterpretation may also be operative on the receiving end so that a person could
end up with a mistaken belief that was never intended by the communicator. I could have ended up with the mistaken belief that learning Ukrainian
was as simple as eating a sandwich. That would be nice! Obviously, that was
not the message that the restaurant owners intended for me to receive.

Gerald R. Miller and James B. Schiff, Deceptive Communication (Newbury Park, Calif.:
Sage, 1993), 1-2: Only the most stubborn ethical absolutist would undertake to defend the
proposition that it is neverjustifiable to communicate deceptively."

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 305.

Sissela Bok, "Deceit," in Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2 vols., ed. Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte
B. Becker (New York: Garland, 1992), 1:242.

Lies, Lies, I Tell You!

If we can withhold judgment about the morality of deception for just a

little while, and summarize that complicated definition of the Oxford English
Dictionary, and take into account the necessary element of intentionality,
we will arrive at something like the following definition, which I will use to
analyze the deception accounts of Genesis:
Deception takes place when Party A intentionally distorts, withholds, or
otherwise manipulates information reaching Party in order to stimu
late in a belief that A does not believe in order to serve A's purpose.5
This definition has the advantages of including the notion of intentionality
and not yet making any judgments about the morality of this behavior.
When we apply this definition to the narratives of Genesis, we find that
over a quarter of its chapters contain an episode of deception! Additionally,
this does not even include the much greater amount of material that deals
with the lead-up to the deception or its subsequent effects. We are also not
even considering those cases where there is some ambiguity about whether
or not a deception took place. Only allowing for clear cases of unambigu
ous deception, we find no fewer than fifteen!


31:4-9, 38-42)
31:17-18, 20-29)
31:19, 30-35)

The serpent's deception of Adam and Eve

Abram's deception of Pharaoh
Abraham's deception of Abimelech
Isaac's deception of Abimelech
Rebekah's and Jacob's deception of Isaac and Esau
Laban's deception ofJacob regarding his wife
Laban's deception ofJacob regarding his wages
Jacob's deception of Laban
Rachel's deception of Laban
Jacob's sons' deception of the Shechemites
Joseph's brothers' deception ofJacob
Tamar's deception of Judah
Potiphar's wife's deception of Potiphar
Joseph's first deception of his brothers
Joseph's second deception of his brothers

It almost seems like everyone is deceiving everyone else! These decep

tions include a reptile deceiving the first human beings, a tribal chief and
his sons deceiving kings, a mother and son deceiving a father and son, an
uncle deceiving his nephew (and vice versa), a daughter deceiving her
father, a gang of brothers deceiving the inhabitants of a city, sons deceiving
a father, a daughter-in-law deceiving her father-in-law, a wife deceiving her
husband, and a brother deceiving his brothers. The practice of deception
in Genesis, as in our own contemporary experience, is found at all levels of
the social ladder.

Components of this definition are found in Bok, "Deceit," 1:242; and David Nyberg, The
Varnished Truth: Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1993), 67.


How are we to explain the fact that the book of Genesis is virtually rid
dled with cases of deception? What is going on here? How are we supposed
to regard this phenomenon, often perpetrated by esteemed patriarchs,
people we have been taught to respect? Is all of this deception bad? Are any
of these deceptions ever positively evaluated? If so, why? Why have so many
instances of deception been preserved for posterity? What are the implica
tions of all of this for us today? At least some progress toward answering
these questions can be made by considering the narratives' own evaluations
of these events, though sometimes this is lacking or unclear.
Almost all of these deception events are evaluated as negative by the text
itself. This is certainly no problem for us inasmuch as we are already predis
posed to regard deception negatively. For two events (8 and 9), the narra
tive evaluation is unclear. This still does not present us with any problems.
There is nothing specifically stated in the text so far that challenges the
prevalent view that deception is bad. The problem comes into focus when
we see that three of the events (12, 14, and 15) are evaluated positively, at
least implicitly, by the narrative itself.
In event 12 (Gen. 38:1-26), afterjudah's son and Tamar's husband died,
Judah gave his other son to Tamar to raise up offspring for the dead brother,
as was Tamar's right under the law of the levirate. When this resulted in the
death of the second son, Judah withheld his third son from Tamar out of
fear that he, too, would die. Then Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, deceived
Judah himself into impregnating her. The narrative evaluation is provided
by none other than the person deceived. Judah himself concludes: "She is
more in the right than I," or an even better translation: "She is in the right,
not (38:26) .6
In event 14 (Gen. 42:7-28), when his brothers traveled to Egypt to get
grain during the famine, Joseph pretended not to recognize them, accused
them of being spies (which he knew was untrue), and commanded them to
produce their other brother Benjamin as proof of their truthfulness. There
is no explicit narrative evaluation provided by the immediate context. How
ever, the fact that these actions on the part of Joseph eventually led to the
restoration of the family indicates a positive assessment.
In event 15 (Gen. 44:1-34), during his brothers' second trip to Egypt
for grain, Joseph planted his divining cup in Benjamin's sack in order to
frame him for a crime he did not commit. This resulted in an impassioned
plea from Judah for consideration of their father's love of Benjamin and
for permission to be held as Joseph's slave in the place of Benjamin. There
is no explicit narrative evaluation of this deception event either. However,

This is referred to as "a comparison of exclusion," [in which] the subject alone possesses
the quality connoted by the adjective,... to the exclusion of the thing compared" (see Bruce
K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax [Winona Lake, Ind:
Eisenbrauns, 1990] 265 [14.4e]).

Lies, Lies, I Tell You!

a positive assessment is again indicated by the narrative's description of

the outcome of the deception, which resulted in family reunification and
How can it be the case that some of these deceptions could be morally permissible, or even praiseworthy? Is there some specific thing that these three
events share that is different from the others that are negatively evaluated?
Throughout the years, various suggestions have been advanced for why
deception can be regarded as positive:
First, some hold that deception is positive if a person of lower social
standing deceives a person of higher social standing; that is, if someone
with less power deceives someone of higher power. Deception is thus viewed
as a kind of socially acceptable equalizer.8
However, the positive narrative evaluation of Joseph's deception of his
brothers hardly fits this description, because Joseph has more power than
his brothers. Moreover, if this were the operative criterion for positively
evaluated deceptions, one could make a case that Genesis got it wrong for
events 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, and 13 (at least), where the weaker party deceives the
more powerful and receives a negative narrative evaluation. The problem,
obviously, is not that Genesis got it wrong, but that some contemporary
exegetes got it wrong.
Second, others have held that deception can be regarded as positive
if it is perpetrated by a patriarch.9 However, this factor does not seem to
be determinative either. We see, perhaps uncomfortably for us, venerated
patriarchs practicing deception, and coming off quite badly in the narrative evaluation. When Abram deceives Pharaoh regarding Sarai (event 2),
Pharaoh's strong rebuke of Abram is the last word in the episode, and it
goes unchallenged.10 Isaac follows in his father's footsteps and is similarly

Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1985), 308: 'That the sons of the hated wife should have come to terms with the father's
attachment to Rachel. . . and her children is enough to promise an end to hostilities and a
fresh start."

See, for example, Ora Prouser, 'The Phenomenology of the Lie in Biblical Narrative"
(Ph.D. diss., Jewish Theological Seminary, 1991), 182-83: "It was considered acceptable, and
generally praiseworthy for a weaker party to engage in deceit in order to accomplish his or her
goals against a stronger power."
See, for example, Josephus's views in this regard, described in Michael Williams, Deception
in Genesis: An Investigation into the Morality of a Unique Biblical Phenomenon (New York: Peter
Lang, 2001), 90-96, 97,137.

See Claus Westermann, Genesis: A Commentaryf 3 vols., trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis:
Augsburg, 1984-86), 2:166: "Pharaoh's reproach is the last word in the narrative and so takes on
considerable importance with regard to the whole. It shows at once that the narrator does not
approve ofAbraham's conduct and attributes a clear conscience to Pharaoh." Similar conclusions
can be drawn from Abraham's and Isaac's deceptions of Abimelech (events 3 and 4).


rebuked (event 4) .Jacob's sons, especially Simeon and Levi, are strongly rebuked by their father for their actions against the Shechemites (event 10).
Simeon and Levi give a legitimate reason for taking action, but the reason
does not justify the action that they took. At least, this is their father Jacob's
evaluation. Later, on his deathbed, Jacob talks about the unbridled rage
of his two sons: "Simeon and Levi are brotherstheir swords are weapons
of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they
pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel" (Gen.
49:5-7). After the incident at Shechem, these brothers deceive their own
father (event 11), causing a rift in the family that took years to heal. In the
narrative, they themselves admit their guilt (Gen. 42:21). It is clear from the
Scriptures that the patriarchs do not get a pass on deception just because
they are patriarchs.
Third, perhaps the criterion for positively evaluating deception is when
an Israelite deceives a non-Israelite.11
A quick scan of the positively evaluated deception events, however, shows
that this is also an inadequate criterion. Tamar, an Israelite woman, deceives
Judah, and her deception is positively evaluated. Joseph deceives his brothers and this is positively evaluated. In the cases where an Israelite deceives a
non-Israelite, the narrative provides negative evaluations.
What is left to consider? I suggest that the only criterion for positive deception in the Bible is the motive of the deceiver, and the only acceptable
motive for perpetrating deception on someone else is . . . the restoration of
shalom. By shalom I do not mean some pie-in-the-sky Utopian existence but
rather, as Claus Westermann has defined it: "the normal way of life... in all
of its aspects, along with all of its tensions."12
Shalom is the normal relationship of things or people to each other.
When two people have established some kind of mutually agreed upon relationship with each other, with all of its expectations and all of its responsibilities, the continuation of this relationship is shalom. When one of the
parties in this relationship wrongs the other one, the scales become imbalanced, and shalom is disturbed. In this case, where the expectations and
responsibilities of the relationship have been violated, the wronged party
may legitimately use deception to restore that shalom to what it was before.


Consider the tendency of the targums and midrashim to present the deceptions of
Israelite deceivers in a favorable light. This is conveniently presented in Williams, Deception in
Genesis, 114-24 (for the targums) and 125-31 (for the midrashim).
Claus Westermann, "Peace (Shalom) in the Old Testament," in The Meaning of Peace:
Biblical Studies, trans. Walter Sawatsky, ed. Perry B. Yoder and Willard M. Swardey (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 1992), 29.

Lies, Lies, I Tell You!

For shalom to be re-achieved legitimately by means of deception, the following elements need to be present:
1. The deception must be limited to the person who caused the original
2. The deception must not disadvantage the deceived person
3. The deception must not advantage the deceiver beyond his/her status
prior to what it was before suffering the original wrong
In those rare instances of positively evaluated deception in the book of
Genesis, we find deception functioning to restore shalom. Conversely, when
deception introduces a disruption in shalom, it is evaluated negatively.
When Judah denies Tamar her rights by not giving her his son Shelah
to carry on the line of her deceased husband, he introduces a wrong, a
disruption of shalom. When Tamar subsequently deceives Judah, she does
not harm, or disadvantage, him and does not by means of her deception
advance her own position beyond what it was before Judah wronged her.
Her deception of Judah simply results in the "normal" situation of having
her deceased husband's line continued; that is, she has restored shalom.
Joseph's brothers had wronged him and had by means of this wrong
broken apart the family. When Joseph deceives his brothers, he does not
harm them (in fact, they ultimately benefit greatly). He certainly does not
advance his own position. Rather, by means of his deception, he effectively
returns the situation to that which existed prior to their wronging himthe
family is reunified, and so shalom is restored.
We can also better understand the negatively evaluated deception events
by noting the absence of this intent to restore shalom. For example, when
Jacob's sons deceive Hamor and Shechem in order to retrieve their violated
sister, it is true that a prior wrong, or disruption in shalom, had occurred,
and that they were thereby justified in using deception to restore shalom.
However, they do not restrict or limit their deception to the original perpetrators of the crime; instead they kill all the males in the city, even those who
were innocent of any wrong in their regard. They also benefit personally
and advance their position by plundering the city. Thus, the excuse they
give for their actions ("Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?"
Gen. 34:31) provides a sufficient basis for them to undertake deception,
but their actions do not restore the unsatisfactory situation to a more satisfactory or normal one. That is, their deception does not restore shalom.
Instead, their overreaction to the genuine wrong they had suffered resulted
in another unsatisfactory situationwanton slaughter of innocent people
and their own personal, unjustifiable profitthat rendered them, as their
father puts it, "a stench" to the people living in the land (34:30). This overreaction is what Jacob found unacceptable and was the basis for his deathbed denunciation of Simeon and Levi (49:5-7).


Deception does not, therefore, have an exclusively negative connotation

when it is considered in connection with its motive and goal. It is the end
to which this intentional manipulation of information is directed that is
determinative for its moral evaluation. Positively evaluated deception is not
primarily directed at persons but rather at sustained situations of disadvantage caused by a prior wrong (or, shalom-disturbing situations) in order to
restore shalom.
Now that we have a sharper understanding of deception in Genesis,
we are left with the question of why the book contains so many deception
events. This is the hard question and requires a big-picture perspective, and
when I say big picture, I mean really big. We will start with Genesis and then
zoom out to the whole Bible.
The deception events in Genesis occur throughout the book, from beginning to end, and nevertheless God continues to advance his plan of salvation from Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, and to Joseph.
While human deception is acknowledged and even highlighted by all of
these deception events, the greater truth that they serve to showcase is that
God will accomplish his purposes in spite of, and even by means of, this
post-fall innate human deceitfulness. We are told through the prophet Jeremiah that the human heart is deceitful above all things, and no one can
fathom it (Jer. 17:9). Nevertheless, God's sovereignty is not limited by human deceitfulness, and the pervasiveness of human deceitfulness only highlights our desperate need for divine sovereign intervention in our behalf.
Human deceit, as we have seen, is rarely regarded positively. In those
few cases where the text does provide a positive evaluation, it is because the
deception contributes toward the restoration of shalom. The restoration
of shalom, broadly understood, is another way of speaking about God's redemptive purposes for his creation. Deception is evaluated positively if it is
undertaken for a purpose that is in line with this larger divine purpose.
Now let us consider deception in the context of this larger divine purpose. In the book of Genesis, we see how humankind's problems begin
with an act of deception. The serpent deceives Eve, and God's good order
is disturbed; shalom is disrupted in a big way. We human beings are, as a
result, in "a sustained situation of disadvantage caused by a prior wrong."
This sets the stage for an allowable divine act of deception to restore shalom, to rebalance the scales. This is one way the crucifixion was understood
by the church fathers.
God deceives Satan into believing that by crucifying Jesus, the divine
agent of human salvation, God's efforts to redeem humankind would be
thwarted. That is, by means of the Cross, God deceives the Great Deceiver
and thereby restores shalom. The church fathers already viewed the Cross
as a means of deceiving the Great Deceiver in order to restore shalom. For
example, Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 350) described the humanity of Christ as
the bait that drew the adversary to swallow the hook of Christ's divinity. As a

Lies, Lies, I Tell You!

result, death's tyranny over the human race was broken, and the process of
shalom restoration was begun.13 As Gregory elsewhere puts it:
So it is with the incarnation. By the principle ofjustice the deceiver reaps
the harvest of the seeds he sowed with his own free will. For he who first
deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature. But the purpose of the action changes it into
something good. For the one practiced deceit to ruin our nature; but
the other, being at once just and good and wise, made use of a deceitful
device to save the one who had been ruined.14
Thus, to express this idea as succinctly as possible: Deception disrupts shalom
in the garden and deception restores shalom at the Cross. Deception ends
the beginning and deception begins the ending. By deceiving Satan with the
Cross, God is undoing what Satan has done. He is restoring shalom.
When we narrow our focus back to the book of Genesis, we also see
that those rare individual acts of deception that are positively evaluated
both restore shalom on the interpersonal level and are simultaneously used
by God to contribute to his larger shalom-restoring redemptive purpose.
Tamar deceives Judah to restore her right, and, as a consequence, Perez
the ancestor of David, and ultimately Jesusis born. Thus, the Messianic
line is preserved, and God thereby advances his redemptive program.
Joseph deceives his brothers to restore his family and consequently the
nationand the Messianic lineis preserved, and God thereby again advances his redemptive program.
God is about the business of restoring shalom that was lost after the original deception. The only way our individual acts of deception could ever be
positively evaluated is if they mimic the purpose of his: to restore shalom.
This should be our purpose as we participate in God's plan of redemption.
At rare times, and with the restrictive criteria we find in Genesis, deception may be a part of this in our interpersonal relationships. Ultimately and
finally, however, the focus is not on us, but on God's redemptive activity. If
our deception contributes to this divine purpose, then it is used by God and
is positively evaluated. If our deception works against this divine purpose,
then it is still used by God, but is negatively evaluated. We must view all
of our humanityour words, our actions, and our attitudes (including our
tendency to deceive)in the light of the larger divine program. I humbly
suggest that we, as Christians and Christian leaders, concentrate our efforts
on making our lives conform and contribute to the divine shalom-restoring

Or. catech. 24 (for translation, see Cyril C. Richardson, "Address on Religious Instruction,"
in Chrstology of the Later Fathers, LCC 3; ed. Edward Hardy and Cyril Richardson [Philadelphia:
Westminster, 1954], 301).
Or. catech. 26 (see Richardson, "Address," 303). For a fuller discussion of divine disguise
or deception in the Devil's defeat, see Eugene Teselle, 'The Cross as Ransom,n JECS 4, no. 2
(1996): 150-51, and nn. 13 and 14.


work of redemption, in full dependence upon God's grace to do this. As we

hear Jesus say in the gospel of Matthew: "Blessed are the shalom-restorers
and preservers, for they shall be called children of God" (Matt. 5:9). Amen.
Several questions eure engendered by these conclusions.
First, do these conclusions regarding deception in Genesis also apply to
deception in the rest of the Bible?
An examination of biblical deceptions outside of Genesis suggests that
their positive evaluation is dependent upon a slightly different set of criteria
than those operative in Genesis. This difference appears to be connected to
a change in social structure. Within Genesis, we are dealing with individu
als or small family groups. Outside of Genesis, we are dealing with Israel
as a defined multitribal, national groupa covenant communitywith a
corporate identity. If the deceptive behavior serves to protect, preserve, or
restore shalom in the covenant community, it is positively evaluated. We
should also note that God is also an agent in this group dynamic on the
basis of his covenanted relationship with Israel.
There are also positively evaluated deception events outside of Genesis
where we find this principle at work: The Hebrew15 midwives deceive Pha
raoh in order to ensure the safety of the youngest male members of the
community of which they are a part and thereby preserve its shalom. They
utter a bold-faced lie! Yet, they do not harm Pharaoh or advance their own
position by their deception. They are blessed by God for their efforts (Ex.
Rahab defects to Israel16 and saves the lives of the Israelite spies by de
ception, thus safeguarding shalom in the new community to which she has
given her allegiance (Josh. 2:1-21). Her actions ensure her protection and
place in the community of Israel (6:22-25).
After the Israelites have been subject to Moab for eighteen years (a longterm shalom-disturbing situation!), the Israelite judge, Ehud, delivers them


Josephus (Ant. 2.9.2 206) and the LXX interpret the Hebrew (337 ^[]) as
"(Egyptian) midwives of the Hebrews." While the (unpointed) Hebrew does allow for this
interpretation, it is clear that the names Shiphrah and Puah are "perfectly good NorthwestSemitic names of women from the first half of the second millennium" (W. F. Albright,
"Northwest-Semitic Names in a List of Egyptian Slaves from the Eighteenth Century B.C.,"
JAOS 74 [1954]: 229). Another argument offered for the Egyptian ethnicity of these women
is that Pharaoh's expectations of them would otherwise be groundless. This argument, too,
is not convincing. John I. Durham (Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary [Waco: Word Books,
1987] ,11) speculates: "Perhaps the summons by so powerful a figure was calculated to frighten
the women." In any event, that Pharaoh's expectations of the women are, indeed, groundless
is subsequently proven by their actions.

As Katharine Sakenfeld observes, this new relationship "comes into existence... through
Rahab's recognition of Yahweh as God and her recognition that Yahweh has given Israel the
land (w. 8-11)" (Faithfulness in Action [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985], 22).

Lies, Lies, I Tell You!

from this menace to their community shalom by assassinating the Moabite

king, Eglon, through trickery. This results in an eighty-year peace for Israel
(Judg. 3:12-30).
Jael brutally dispatches Sisera, the commander of the army of the
Canaanite king Jabin, who had "cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years," by deceiving him into believing that he could find safety in her
tent (Judg. 4:17-22). Jael is praised for her actions in the song of Deborah
Nahash the Ammonite agrees to make a treaty with the Israelite town of
Jabesh Gilead only on the condition that he be allowed to gouge out the
right eye of each of its inhabitants, "and so bring disgrace on all Israel."
Having initially requested (and having been granted) a period of seven
days to seek rescue, the men of Jabesh Gilead are subsequently promised
deliverance by Saul. Their second, deceptive response to the Ammonites
is given to delay their attack until Saul could deliver them the next day
(1 Sam. 11:1-11), and thereby preserve shalom.
David's feigned madness before Achish, king of Gath, ensures his safety
(1 Sam. 21:10-15). Later, David again uses deception to conceal from the
Philistines that he is attacking the enemies of Israel while enjoying safety in
their land (1 Sam. 27).
Second, the church fathers viewed God's deception of Satan as one perspective on the crucifixion and atonement. Are there other instances in the
Bible where God deceives?
At times, even God is involved in deception. God instructs Moses and the
elders of Israel to request from Pharaoh permission only to take a three-day
journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to him (Ex. 3:18). No subsequent
clarification is ever given to Pharaoh to let him know that the Israelites have
no intention of returning to Egypt once they leave.
God directs Moses to have the Israelites take actions that will mislead
Pharaoh into believing that they are trapped in the desert and confused
(Ex. 14:1-4).
In 1 Samuel 16:1-5, Samuel expresses his fears to YHWH that Saul will
kill him if he finds out that he has come to anoint one of the sons of Jesse
as king. In response, YHWH directs Samuel to misrepresent the purpose of
his trip as simply "to sacrifice to the LORD" (16:2).
In 1 Kings 22:19-23, the prophet Micaiah recounts how YHWH put a
lying spirit into the mouths of the prophets "to entice Ahab into attacking
Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there" (22:20). This restored shalom by removing Ahab's negative influence on the covenant community
(1 Kings 21:1-19).


Ezekiel 14:1-11 deals with how God will respond to an idolater who seeks
a word from him through a prophet. God says he will answer such a person
in a way that catches him in his idolatrous thoughts (14:4-5).17 This apparently involves deceiving the prophet from whom the person seeks a word
Third, does this understanding of deception weaken the ninth commandment, which says: 'You shall not give false testimony against your
The commandment found in Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20 literally says: "Do not testify against your neighbor a testimony of falsehood
[Exodus]/emptiness [Deuteronomy]."18 We have to look at these words
carefully because we are walking along the edges of permissibility when we
talk about acceptable deception.
I make the following observations regarding this commandment: (1) It
presupposes a legal or covenantal setting,19 so there is already a previously
existing relationship between the parties involved. (2) Note that one is testifying concerning a "neighbor": that is, to a "friend, companion, fellowcitizen"a person with whom one is in a preexisting relationship that has
responsibilities and expectations. (3) The commandment, then, is in effect
prohibiting exactly the kind of violation of the responsibilities and expectations of this preexisting relationship that positively evaluated deception
rectifies. In other words, the commandment prohibits the behavior that
would create the need for a shalom-restoring deception. (4) Deception that
is directed toward restoring the contours of the preexisting relationship is
not "false" or "empty" (KI or nptf), but healing and restorative. (5) Deception that restores shalom is not directed "against your neighbor," but rather
against the "shalom-disturbing situation."
Thus, I conclude that deception that is perpetrated for the purpose of
restoring shalom does not violate the ninth commandment; just the opposite! It restores shalom that is disrupted by breaking this commandment.
Therefore, the understanding of positively evaluated deception set forth
in this article does not weaken this commandment's force or introduce an
exception to its prohibition. Rather, deception understood and exercised
in this way is working toward the same end as the commandment itselfthe
preservation and restoration of shalom.


For this interpretation of ^- ttfsn }, see Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20, AB

22 (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1983). 247-55, and especially 249.

Exodus 20:16 - & *pna narri vb\ Deuteronomy 5:20 - ? i r muri vb.


Note the word testimony (2) and the verb testify (3).

^ s
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