A Christian friend has been reading a Bible story, usually from the Old Testament. And he or she is puzzled.
One or more of the characters in the story deliberately deceives others, either by their words or their actions. And there’s no hint in the passage that it was a wrong thing to do.
So does that mean that sometimes it’s right to use deceit? It’s a question I’ve been asked many times.
If you know your Bible at all, I’m sure you can think of examples.
When Joseph in Egypt met his brothers, he acted as if he didn’t recognise them. He pretended that he didn’t believe their story (Genesis 42:7-17). He arranged for his cup to be hidden in Benjamin’s sack and then accused them of stealing it (44:1-15). Yes, he intended that eventually he would let them know the truth, but at that point he deceived them. He gave them the false impression that he thought they were thieves.
When the Israelite midwives were commanded to kill every Israelite boy, they disobeyed and deliberately let them live. When they were asked why, ‘The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women... are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”’ (Exodus 1:19-20).
Moses was told by the Lord to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, so that the Lord could bring them to Canaan (Exodus 3:17). But then he was told not to say anything to Pharaoh about a journey to Canaan. Instead, he was to say, ‘Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God’ (v. 18).
Rahab hid the Israelite spies in her house in Jericho, but when questioned she pretended that they had already left: ‘“I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them”’ (Joshua 2:5).
The Lord told Joshua to use a strategem to capture Ai. A division of the Israelite army was to pretend to flee in order to draw the defenders away from the city, leaving it exposed to attack by the main Israelite force. ‘And they will come out after us, until we have drawn them away from the city. For they will say, “They are fleeing from us, just as before”’ (Joshua 8:6).
The inhabitants of Gibeon lied to the Israelites about where they lived, and saved themselves from extermination by doing so. The Israelites believed the lie, entered into a covenant with them, and stood by it when the truth emerged (Joshua 9).
Jael deceived Sisera into thinking that he had nothing to fear from her: ‘Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid.’ And then while he was asleep, she killed him (Judges 4:18-21).
Gideon deceived the Midianites into thinking that he had a vastly greater army than he had, sent them into panic, and won an overwhelming victory (Judges 7:16-22).
Samuel was told by the Lord to go to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king. But he was also told to conceal the real reason for the trip. ‘The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’”’ And Samuel did. (1 Samuel 16:2-5).
When David suspected that Saul intended to kill him and went into hiding, Jonathan tried to deceive Saul about David’s whereabouts. ‘David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem. He said, “Let me go, for our clan holds a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to be there...” For this reason he has not come to the king’s table’ (1 Samuel 20:28-29).
David fled from Saul to Ahimelech the priest and told him, ‘The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, “Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you”’ (1 Samuel 21:2).
On another occasion, David took refuge among the Philistines. But when they turned against him, he ‘pretended to be insane in their hands and made marks on the doors of the gate and let his spittle run down his beard’ (1 Samuel 21:13). Then, during a later stay with the Philistines, David ‘made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites’ (1 Samuel 27:8). But when the Philistine king wanted to know, ‘“Where have you made a raid today?” David would say, “Against the Negeb of Judah”, or, “Against the Negeb of the Kenites”’ (v.10).
During Absalom’s rebellion, David urged his counsellor Hushai to stay in Jerusalem and to pretend to Absalom that he had changed sides: ‘If you return to the city and say to Absalom, “…as I have been your father’s servant in time past, so now I will be your servant”, then you will defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel’ (2 Samuel 15:34). So Hushai became David’s mole in Absalom’s team, and saved the day.
The king of Syria sent troops to capture Elisha at Dothan. But the Lord struck them with blindness. ‘And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria’ (2 Kings 6:19).
Those examples are all drawn from the first half of the Old Testament; and there are plenty of others I could point to.
So what do we make of them? Let me list out three points which commentators and preachers often make when faced with passages like these.