Is Ethical Deception a Fiction? (Part 2 of 3)

By Mac Deaver

In Gary Summers’ second installment (September 15, 2013), he takes up the case of Abraham and Sarah, a case that I had referred to in my earlier article, and a case that I am convinced that most of us have mishandled badly. I took the position in my article that Abraham did not lie with regard to Sarah. Gary in his first paragraph asserts that I am as wrong on this as I am on the positions that I hold on the Holy Spirit. Of course, Gary cannot and has not yet proved my claims on the Holy Spirit wrong, but in unmerited confidence and having made another false accusation against me, he proceeds.

Summers refers to the agreement that Abraham and Sarah reached in Genesis 12 with regard to the strategy they would use as they, under divine obligation, traveled around. They both agreed that they would both identify Sarah as Abraham’s sister without any reference to her being his wife. This was done on the basis that Sarah and Abraham were the children of the same father. In Genesis 12 this strategy was employed in Egypt, and Pharaoh was deceived by it. Now, after referring to the fact that I had said in my earlier article that God in the situation had plagued Pharaoh and not Abraham, Summers then boldly asserts, “Although this observation is true, it does not alter the fact that Pharaoh was lied to and that harm had resulted.” Dear reader, do you plainly see that Summers is assuming his case rather than proving it. In logic, what he has done is referred to as “begging the question.” He has asserted a conclusion not yet established, a conclusion that he states as the contradictory of the position I had taken in my earlier article. According to Summers, Abraham lied. How do we know that he lied? Summers asserts it. But the issue is whether or not Abraham did lie. And as I will now establish, Summers’ assertion is inaccurate.

Summers then goes into a lengthy discussion of why God did plague Pharaoh instead of Abraham, and he tells us that God holds the deceived responsible for being deceived and that “Abram is the man He has chosen and just made the three great promises to earlier in Genesis 12.” Yes, but that doesn’t prove that Abraham lied to Pharaoh, does it? Not at all.

Then Summers takes up the second case involving Abraham’s and Sarah’s use of their deception strategy in Genesis 20 when in Gerar Abraham claimed once again that Sarah was his sister. In this second case, God plagues Abimelech’s household as he had plagued Pharaoh’s household because Abraham’s wife is taken from him again. In a dream God confronts Abimelech in which he explains to God that he had taken Sarah “in the integrity” of his heart (Gen. 20:5). And that is why God responds that God had prevented Abimelech from sinning against him in his relationship to Sarah (v.6).

Now, when Abimelech asks Abraham why Abraham had claimed that Sarah was his sister, Abraham explains his strategy and why he had used it (v. 11-13). Summers says, “Deaver thinks that Abimelech accepted this explanation and even referred to Abraham as her brother (4). He has missed the irony here. Abimelech is using sarcasm by referring to Abraham as her brother. Verse 16 makes this clear when it closes with Divine commentary: ‘Thus she was reproved.’”

First of all, it is not clear from verse 16 that Abimelech is using irony. Instead of the words “Thus she was reproved,” (KJV), we find in the ASV the following: “and in respect of all thou art righted.” The Berkely Version renders it: “and before all, your name is totally cleared.” The RSV translates it, “and before every one you are righted.” Second, as far as establishing whether or not Abraham did or did not lie to Abimelech, whether Abimelech used irony or did not use irony is beside the point. All I am saying here is that Summers never established his case on the point of irony. That’s all.

Summers theorizes that in their traveling Abraham and Sarah should have trusted God on these two occasions. I say that they did. In my earlier article, I had pointed out three reasons why it appeared to me that Abraham was doing the best that he could under the circumstances. The strategy 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.” Furthermore I had written,

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.

Nothing Summers offers alters my thinking regarding what happened a bit. I assert that the strategy that Abraham suggested to Sarah which she accepted as a plan for their safety was a plan based on their faith in God. I take the cases as instances of faith fulfillment—not faith failure! Summers knows that this couple, generally, were people of great faith (Heb. 11:8-19; Rom. 4:16-25; Jas. 2:21-24; 1 Pet. 3:5,6). Summers asserts that they simply did not trust God on the occasions chronicled in Genesis 12 and 20. I disagree! And I know that in his article he did not prove that their faith failed. He assumed it.

Next, Summers takes up the crucial matter of trying to prove that Abraham and Sarah lied. He writes, “They never lied? Yes, they did in that they withheld vital information.” Can you believe this, dear reader? He claims that the “lie” was in the withholding of vital information, after already informing us in his first article that concealment of information is not necessarily a bad thing. In the final paragraph on page one of his first article, he plainly takes the position that concealment of information does have its legitimate place.

He claims that (1) all of us in conversations at times know more “than we are willing to impart,” (2) we may keep certain information to ourselves “so long as it does not put anyone in jeopardy,” (3) we can retain “confidential” information, and (4) there are times when in response to a specific question, “we always reserve the right to answer, ‘I’m not at liberty to say,’ or ‘I think it would be better not to comment on that right now.’”

Regarding the second reason for concealment, I raise the question, “But what if you are already in jeopardy or consider yourself to be?” Has Summers really established his point that “so long as it does not put anyone in jeopardy” is an actual limitation on the proper use of concealment of information? He does not do so in his article. I contend that in Egypt and Gerar, Abraham and Sarah were acting in self-defense.

Then at the top of the second page, Summers writes,

But if an answer is required, we are under obligation to give a truthful one. The withholding of information (concealment) may be a definition of deceit, but it is not necessarily so; concealment may be a matter of privilege (choosing not to tell), but deceit is intentionally misleading someone. In other words, if God withholds information from us regarding a mystery to be revealed later, that is concealment, but not deceit. If He withheld a vital part of the plan of salvation so that we remained lost, that would be capricious and deceitful (if we thought we had all we needed).

In response, I would say that in both Egypt and Gerar, the situation being as it was, there was certain information (Sarah was Abraham’s wife) that was not by God required to be given in order for Abraham’s and Sarah’s integrity to be maintained. What was said was so. And the situation did not obligate them to reveal all that they knew. Even though the concealment was surely for the purpose of deception, the deception initiated was not a lie (truth was, in fact, told) nor was the truth presented with evil intention. None of us can prove that either Abraham or Sarah meant “evil” by their deed (cf. Gen. 50:20).

Now as we go back to Summers’ second article, as he tries to prove that a lie was, in fact, told by Abraham and Sarah, he contends that the lie was by withholding vital information. He claims that in telling part of the truth and only part of the truth, they lied. He says, “Concealing vital information makes their statements a lie. Withholding information that is not vital is not a lie, nor is it deceit.”

But what determines what constitutes the “vital” information? Summers does not tell us. It cannot be simply information that someone demands because he has already conceded that there are times when someone has no right to certain information, and he has told us that there are circumstances where someone simply is not under obligation to tell what he knows. The use of the word “vital” is not adequate to support his contention that Abraham and Sarah lied. It cannot in and of itself establish the point that he is most concerned to prove. Abimelech’s interest in the “full” account of the relationship between Abraham and Sarah does not and cannot in and of itself establish an obligation on the part of Abraham and Sarah to reveal all that they know about their complete relationship because Abimelech simply is in no position to place them under such obligation. As long as what they say is true, if they say anything at all, then truth is truth and integrity is maintained.

If Abimelech had asked whether or not Sarah was “only” Abraham’s sister (so as to ask whether or not that was the complete extent of their relationship) or if he had asked whether or not she was his wife, and if Abraham had said, “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second, both answers would obviously have been lies. But this is not what occurred! And we cannot rewrite Scripture to make it appear that these lies were told.

Next, regarding God, Summers contends that “If he could bless Isaac despite the lie, then surely he could do so for Abraham as well.” Yes, he could, but Summers has never established that Abraham told one while it is perfectly clear from the text that Isaac did.

Then, Summers claims that really I had, in fact, argued against myself in that I had referred in my first article to the fact that Abraham was aware of certain promises that God had made to him and that, according to Summers, “then Abraham had to know that God would protect him from those who might want to kill him in order to have Sarah. It was not necessary for Abraham to deceive.” And my contention is that the strategy that Abraham and Sarah employed was their way of doing what they could and leaving the rest to God. Would Summers argue that if we know by faith that God will provide our daily bread (Matt. 6:11) or our food and clothing (Matt. 6:25-34), that we then can receive such without any personal effort? No, he will not! So, the effort that Abraham and Sarah expended in self-protection has got to be condemned on some ground other than a lack of faith!

Next Summers refers to my claim that God found no fault with the plan that they used to deceive Pharaoh and Abimelech. And while admitting that, Summers declares that God “expressed no approval of the plan, either.” Oh? I know that he did not explicitly approve of the plan (that is, in so many words), but do not the facts as revealed show that he approved? Consider:

(1) Abraham received wealth from Pharaoh after he took Sarah into his house (Gen. 12:16);

(2) God greatly plagued Pharoah and his house because he had taken Sarah (Gen. 12:17);

(3) Abimelech was considered by God “a dead man” for taking Sarah (Gen. 20:5,6);

(4) Abimelech was prevented by God from sinning against God since he took Sarah “in the integrity of” his heart (Gen. 20:5);

(5) God tells Abimelech to restore Sarah to Abraham and to call on Abraham to pray for him since Abraham is a prophet. Abimelech’s life was dependent upon these two conditions being met (Gen. 20:7);

(6) Following Abraham’s explanation concerning why he did not reveal the complete account of his relationship to Sarah, then Abimelech restored Sarah and added to Abraham’s wealth (Gen. 20:14, 16);

(7) Abimelech then tells Abraham that he can dwell anywhere he wants to in Abimelech’s land (Gen. 20:15);

(8) Abimelech makes sure that all is all right between him and Sarah (Gen. 20:16).

Now, I know that we have accounts of action where men commit sin and yet where there is no account of divine disapproval explicitly given (cf. Gen. 9:21; 19:30-38, etc.), but with regard to Abraham and Sarah, it is not simply that we face the textual omission of any explicit statement of approval or disapproval regarding their deception, but that (1) there are “blessings” that they are given in the accounts of Genesis 12 and 20, and that (2) these blessings stand in contrast to the “plagues” which Pharaoh and Abimelech and their households suffered, and that (3) the blessings were granted as a result of the situation in which the deception on the part of Abraham and Sarah placed them, and finally that (4) later we learn in Genesis 14:23 that Abraham turned down the spoils of war offered by the king of Sodom, “lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.” If Abraham willingly took from Pharaoh and Abimelech but would not take from the king of Sodom given the reason offered, then is it not, at least plausible that Abraham rightly interpreted the blessings as approval of himself and Sarah in the situations in which their deception had placed them?

Abraham’s reason for refusing what was offered by Sodom’s king shows that the blessings he received in Egypt and Gerar he took neither as (1) mere fortunate chance (good luck), nor (2) coincidences, nor (3) anything based on mere natural law that any man might obtain, nor as (4) mere gifts from the two kings.

Furthermore, God’s favor of Abraham and Sarah throughout the “deception situation” is clear from God’s comment to Abimelech in Genesis 20:7 where God calls Abraham a “prophet” and tells Abimelech to have Abraham pray for him. God does not call him a false prophet, unfaithful prophet, or lying prophet. He at the time was a prophet whose prayers were acceptable to God! You might compare this to Job 42:7, 8 where God tells Eliphaz to have Job pray for him and his friends, for they had not spoken correctly regarding God (while trying to defend God) as Job had done.

However, even if Summers could prove that the blessings bestowed on Abraham and Sarah in the two situations could not be taken as absolute proof of divine sanction for the deception, the fact remains that Summers has not and cannot prove that a lie was told.

These accounts in Genesis 12 and 20 are not the same as the case of Rahab in Joshua 2:4, 5 where clearly a lie was told following which Rahab was divinely blessed. Her faith is what is commended and neither her lie nor her harlotry (Heb. 11:31). But in Genesis 12 and 20, we have no lie told.

Summers then suggests that in Genesis 26:6-7 “God did not find fault with Isaac’s plan, either.” It is true that there is no account of explicit disapproval, but certainly Summers would admit that God disapproves all lies, at least ones told in peace time.

Next Summers refers to brother Thomas Warren who used to emphasize that “Every precisely-stated proposition is either true or false.” Amen! But then Summers does a strange thing. In my article under Summers’ review, I had said, “The proposition, ‘she is my sister’ is either true or false.” In response, Summers grants that it is a precisely stated proposition. “Mac does present a precisely-stated proposition when in this paper he writes: The proposition, ‘she is my sister,’ is either true or false.” But then Summers begins to explain that the proposition isn’t so precise after all since, he claims, the word “sister” is somewhat ambiguous and stands in need of further clarification. He uses “half-sister,” “full sister,” “adopted sister,” and “step-sister” as illustrations of the fact that “sister” is not a precise enough term in my sentence. So Summers at first grants that the sentence “she is my sister” is a precisely stated proposition (and thus either true or false), but then and in utter self-contradiction, he takes it back by declaring that since “sister” could have at least four meanings, he claims that the sentence is ambiguous. I do not know how Summers could fail to see what he was doing. He takes the following two positions:

(1) The sentence, “she is my sister,” is a precisely stated proposition, and

(2) The sentence, “she is my sister,” is not a precisely stated proposition.

Furthermore, since he concluded that the sentence, “she is my sister,” was ambiguous due to the imprecision of the term “sister,” that means that the sentence is not either true or false. Well, if it is neither true nor false, then it certainly can’t be a lie! And then after discussing situations in which there is a need for precise definition, Summers concludes regarding “sister” as used in Abraham’s deception that “Sister is too broad of a category; half-sister is accurate.”

But here where Summers could have dealt with what I had said about a “half-sister” in my earlier article, he does not. The reader of Summers’ critique doesn’t know that I had dealt with this point in a very clear and conclusive way. I had written, “Now, if a half-sister is a sister 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?” And Summers does not answer the question in his response except by way of concluding, as already noted, that the sentence is ambiguous and, therefore, not a precisely stated proposition, which means that it is not true and it is not false. And that means that if it is not false, it certainly can’t be what Summers concludes: a lie! This one colossal blunder ought to be a warning to the reader of the way that Summers is handling the issue.

In my previous article I had suggested that looking at the situation from a different angle might be helpful in understanding whether or not a lie was told. I had written,

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 at all! We preachers who have accused Abraham of lying have been wrong.

She is not my sister” would have been a lie just as “she is not my wife” would have been one. But these statements are not at all the same as the statement that he gave! Consider the following True-False questions.

1. True or False? Sarah was Abraham’s sister.

2. True or False? Sarah was Abraham’s wife.

If we claim that the first one is true (as it surely is), that affirmation cannot in and of itself render the second statement false! Both statements are true. Sarah was both a sister and wife to Abraham.

Now consider the following True-False questions.

1. True or False? Sarah was not Abraham’s sister.

2. True or False? Sarah was not Abraham’s wife.

Dear reader, knowing the relationship that obtained between Abraham and Sarah, how do you answer? You would, as I would, say that each statement is false. And if each statement is false, then the first two statements are both true, and Abraham told no lie!!

Summers concludes his second installment by reiterating his unwavering position that those who have been accusing Abraham and Sarah of lying have been correct since (1) they withheld vital information and (2) for the purpose of deception. Furthermore Summers takes comfort from their alleged momentary lapse because it shows that even these people, as generally faithful as they were, were still human like the rest of us.

First of all, I admit that I used to think that a lie was told myself. However, in further more careful consideration of the facts involved, I came to realize the error of my accusation. Second, I have proved that Summers completely failed to establish his case that the withholding of what is “vital” information in all conceivable situations constitutes sin, and I have shown clearly that there are situations in which God himself authorizes deception and sanctions it. Summers declares, “Authorized Ethical Deception is an invention of man—not a Scriptural principle.” Here he merely asserts what he already had clearly failed to prove.