Ethical Deception

By Mac Deaver

There is one aspect of Biblical Ethics that has too often been ignored or overlooked as to its identification and its authorization. That is the area of authorized ethical deception. While all of us practice it to a degree, we do not always realize what is happening. Or, if we know we are, in fact doing such, we do not know how to describe the event so as to distinguish it from unethical deception. We may not even know the difference between deception in general and lying in particular. So, just here we will briefly treat on the matter.

Most Bible students will agree that lying is sinful. According to Revelation 21:8, “all liars” shall experience the second death. Lying is a form of deception for sure, but not all deception is lying. Lying is articulated deception by proposition. That is, a statement is made that is false, and it is known by the maker of it to be false. Webster says that to lie is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive…to create a false or misleading impression…” (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 487). The writer of Revelation also informs us that “every one that loveth and maketh a lie” will be on the outside of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 22:15). And the noun for “lie” in that verse is pseudos which means, “a lie; conscious and intentional falsehood…in a broad sense, whatever is not what it professes to be: so of perverse, impious, deceitful precepts…” (Thayer, p. 676).

The thing about lying is that some otherwise good folk at times lie. The Bible chronicles for us cases where usually fine people lie or where not so fine people in the doing of something honorable lapse into a lie. Furthermore, the Bible often passes over these events without the writer’s pausing to point out that sin was actually just committed. The lack of immediate description of the deed as sinful has caused some to conclude that some lying is acceptable, but it still is the fact that “all liars” will be lost. Those guilty must then repent. Such indisputable cases of lying include David’s lying to priest Ahimelech (1 Sam. 21:2), Rahab’s lying about the spies (Josh. 2:4-6), Isaac’s lying about his wife (Gen. 26:7-11), and Peter’s denial of the Christ (Matt. 26:69-75). Known falsehoods were indeed told, and there is no justification for them. If someone counters by saying that there are times when the “emergency” situation ethically allows for lie-telling, we respond that there is no more such thing as an ethical lie than there is ethical murder or ethical adultery. The way the good Book tells it, all lying is sinful. If one says that he had rather lie in order to produce a good result than to tell the truth and produce a bad result, we respond by saying that (1) there are times when one is under ethical obligation just to be quiet and not to say anything, and (2) if he is, in fact, under absolute ethical obligation to speak at all, he cannot be held responsible for the immediate harmful effect that obligatory truth telling produces.

Situation ethicists have long tried to make the case for the telling of some lies, just as Joseph Fletcher tried to make the case even for a justifiable adultery, but there can be no such thing as a good lie or moral adultery. But I imagine that we would all be shocked if we knew the degree to which people in our society have bought into the “white lie” or the “emergency lie” or the “well-meaning” lie policy. In fact, we might be surprised to know the number of brethren that have utilized the concept of “situation ethics” in their description of some events in the New Testament. Some have concluded that in some situations it becomes ethical to do what in less extreme conditions would be unethical. For example, when the Lord’s disciples were criticized for plucking ears and eating grain on the Sabbath, Jesus defended them, but in his defense, he referred to David’s doing that which was “unlawful” (Matt. 12:3, 4). Some have concluded that the Lord’s use of David’s deed posed a justification of doing the “unlawful” when the situation becomes somewhat of a desperation or an emergency. The Lord did not justify David. David sinned when he ate the showbread just as he sinned when he told the lie. But, as J. W. McGarvey has well pointed out, the Pharisees usually justified David (who was guilty for doing the unlawful thing) and criticized the Lord’s disciples (who were not guilty for doing the lawful thing). McGarvey declared, “If Christians may violate law when its observance would involve hardship or suffering, then there is an end of suffering for the name of Christ, and an end of self-denial” (A Commentary on Matthew and Mark, p. 104).

So, when we claim that there is such a thing as authorized deception, we must be clear that we are not claiming that there is such a thing as a biblically authorized lie, because there is not. So, the deception in whose behalf we write, cannot, then, be the equivalent of the lie that we have just condemned. They are not the same at all. And the authorized deception of which we speak cannot be a form of sinful behavior whereby one attempts to skirt his duty of truth telling or of abiding by other obligatory ethical principles. But that such an authorized deception exists, one simply has to resort to a single passage of Scripture.

In 1 Samuel 16:1-5 the Lord commissions Samuel to go and anoint the young David as the next king in Israel. The problem for Samuel is that the first king, Saul, is very much alive. Samuel knows that if Saul gets word that he is going to Bethlehem for the purpose of anointing a new king that Samuel’s life will be in jeopardy. “And Samuel said, How can I go? If Saul hear it, he will kill me. And the Lord said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the Lord. And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will shew thee what thou shalt do: and thou shalt anoint unto me him whom I name unto thee” (v. 2, 3). And that is what Samuel did. And at the sacrifice, Samuel anointed David (v. 13).

But notice carefully, that no falsehood was told, but a deception of a kind was enacted. That is, the real purpose for Samuel’s trip to Bethlehem was camouflaged by the assignment of a secondary purpose, a sacrifice. But Samuel was not originally commissioned to go and offer a sacrifice. The sacrifice became the means of preventing Saul from knowing the basic purpose for the trip. God used the sacrifice to deceive Saul. It was an ethical deception in that it was ethical for Samuel to sacrifice. It was ethical for Samuel to call Jesse to the sacrifice. And it was ethical for Samuel to claim the sacrifice as a purpose for his trip. It was ethical for Samuel to protect himself by being in a position such that if Saul found out about Samuel’s being in Bethlehem that Samuel could rightly say that he had gone to sacrifice. God made the sacrifice a purpose for his trip, and if Samuel referred to that purpose as a purpose, he would be telling the truth. If Samuel were to say that the sacrifice was the only purpose for his trip, then he would have told a lie. But the way that God arranged his assignment was such that he could correctly cite purpose without giving himself away.

Deception is a kind of prevention. It keeps something from showing or from being revealed. It keeps something hidden. A given concealment does not necessarily have to entail deception. One can choose simply not to reveal something without deceiving anyone (Deut. 29:29), but deception is a kind of concealment. Whether the deception is authorized or unauthorized would have to do with the intention behind or the purpose of the deception itself. The purpose or motive would have to be Scriptural and the deception itself would have to be ethical (entailing no lie or any other violation of biblical ethics). The purpose behind the divine deception in Samuel’s case was to prevent Saul from learning what was going on and thus to prevent the death of Samuel. Samuel had no obligation to reveal everything that was going on to Saul. He had no obligation of unconditional loyalty to the kingship of Saul. He did have an obligation to God’s instructions, and he certainly was under obligation to tell the truth. Had Saul learned of Samuel’s trip and had Saul asked Samuel as to the purpose of his trip, and if Samuel had said that he was only going to sacrifice, he would have lied. But if he had said that he was going to sacrifice, he would have been telling the truth. If Samuel had been in a situation such that he was under ethical obligation to admit “all” the truth surrounding his trip, then of course he would have had to state the complete purpose for the journey. But there was no such encompassing obligation. In fact, the divine commission for a sacrifice was the very means whereby God gave Samuel the ethical right to have a non-hazardous purpose, to be able to state a right non-hazardous purpose, and to forego mentioning the original purpose which was extremely hazardous. And the secondary purpose of sacrifice was to conceal the primary purpose which was to anoint David as king. Saul simply did not need to know about that.

Another case that I want to discuss briefly is the case of Abraham in Genesis 20. When God gave Abraham the assignment of leaving his homeland and traveling to a then non-named location, Abraham faced a certain difficulty. The problem was that he had a very pretty wife, and he knew that his life would be at stake if some Godless individual decided to kill him and take her. So, since Sarah was a half-sister as well as a wife to him, he suggested to her that they both claim on their journey that she was his sister. They would not mention the fact that she was his wife (Gen. 12:11-13). When they came into Egypt, Pharaoh took Sarah. But God plagued Pharaoh, and Pharaoh then asked Abraham, “What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? Why saidst thou, She is my sister?…” (12:18, 19). Notice please that in the text, God plagued Pharaoh and not Abraham. The next such deception takes place in Gerar, when the king, Abimelech, takes Sarah. But in a dream God said to Abimelech, “Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou has taken; for she is a man’s wife” (Gen. 20:3). Interestingly, in the dream Abimelech responds to God by saying that Abraham had claimed her as his sister, and that she had likewise said the same. Abimelech then says that “in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this” (v. 5). “And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her” (v. 6). Furthermore, God commands Abimelech to give Sarah back to Abraham and tells him that Abraham is a prophet. Furthermore, he tells him that Abraham will pray for him. Furthermore, if Abimelech refuses to return the woman to her husband, he and all his will die (v. 7).

When Abimelech asked Abraham as to why he deceived him by merely claiming Sarah as sister instead of wife, Abraham affirmed, “Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake” (v. 11). But then to justify what he and Sarah had claimed, Abraham refers to facts. He informs Abimelech that Sarah is indeed a sister. She is a half-sister, sharing the same father but not the same mother with Abraham (v. 12). Interestingly, when Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham, he refers to Abraham as “thy brother” (v. 16). Then, he gave much money to Abraham for a “covering of the eyes” of Sarah (v. 16). Then Abraham prays for Abimelech, and God, who had closed the wombs of all the women in Abimelech’s house, “healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants” (v. 17, 18).

Given the full account, the problem is not so much Abraham and Sarah and their plan to conceal some of the truth about their relation and reveal part of it, but the problem is that there were men who, whether rightly or wrongly, thought they could take Sarah to themselves. We are not told what would have happened had the full truth been given. Would it have stopped Pharaoh and/or Abimelech? It would seem that in Abimelech’s case, it would since God prevented him from harming himself further because of his integrity. We are not told so much about Pharaoh. But, regardless, there was no way for Abraham and Sarah to know what kind of men were in positions of power in areas where they were but traveling strangers. And please notice, that God always protected Abraham and Sarah.

This makes me wonder about Abraham’s thinking in the first place. Notice these points: (1) they had to travel in strange places, (2) they did not know whether in some places there was “the fear of God” or not, (3) God had already told Abraham that he was going to make of him a great nation [Gen. 12:1-3; give a certain land to his seed [Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 15:18-21], and that he would give him an heir [15:1-6]. It seems to me that the arrangement that Abraham made with Sarah was simply the best that he could think of because it entailed (1) truth-telling as far as they dared, (2) some hazardous fact concealment, (3) faith in God to protect Sarah when Abraham simply could not do it. Of course, someone could counter that since God had already told Abraham that he would make of him a great nation, that Abraham should have run the risk of telling powerful men that Sarah was indeed his wife. Perhaps this is correct. However, lest we be too hard on Abraham, we might simply raise the point that he (1) could not know what powerful men would do, (2) he was afraid that they might kill him and take Sarah, (3) he knew that he could not protect her himself, and (4) he simply would leave the protection for her to the One who made them both leave their homeland.

Furthermore, whether we question the plan or not, when we look at the way that God evaluated the situations that engulfed Abraham and Sarah as they utilized their plan, we do see that God was on their side each time and found no fault with the plan. He did find fault with the two men who took Sarah.

Now, if a half-sister is a sister, then when Abraham and Sarah claimed that she was his sister, they told the truth. If a half-sister is not a sister, then when Abraham and Sarah claimed that she was his sister, they told a lie. The proposition, “she is my sister” is either true or false. Which is it?

Look at it this way. What if Abraham and Sarah had found themselves in a different kind of difficulty that included risk to them if she were a known sister instead of a known wife? In the cases reported in Genesis, Abraham is afraid someone will kill him if he thinks that Sarah is his wife. But what if the case were such that Abraham was afraid that someone would kill him if they found out that Sarah was his sister? If someone had asked Abraham, “Is Sarah your sister?” and he had responded, “No, she is not,” would that have been true? Some of us might accuse him of lying in this situation. (She was more than a sister, but being more than a sister cannot in and of itself mean that she was not, in fact, still a sister). But if we would rightly accuse him of lying in this case, then we ought not to accuse him of lying in the other cases as recorded by Moses. And God never accused him of lying in any case at all! We preachers who have accused Abraham of lying have been wrong.

It is true that Isaac later, fearing for his life, did lie about his wife (Gen. 26:1-11), but we have no right to accuse Abraham and Sarah of lying. What they said was true. The reason that they only told what they told was that they intended to deceive. They told the truth for the purpose of deception, and in both cases, God plagued the one who removed Sarah from Abraham (Gen. 12:17; 20:3, 17, 18), and he blessed Abraham and Sarah.

Finally, let me simply refer to a few other authorized deceptions. The divine “ambush” set for the inhabitants of Ai is a case of military deception (Josh. 8). I would take the case of Elisha (with miraculous intervention employed) against the Syrian army as authorized deception. When Elisha says that he is not in Dothan, evidently at that point he is not, but he deceives the Syrian army with God’s help so that the army is taken to Samaria where God now opens the eyes of the hitherto blinded army, and they see the man before them for whom they had been looking (2 Kings 6).

If a gospel preacher disregards plain cases of authorized deception as reported in the Scriptures, at least let him be forced to answer this question first: Is it ever ethically right for a preacher to hide his sermon outline in his Bible while preaching, hoping that the audience will not know that he uses one? Is all subtlety unethical? No.