You might wonder that the heroes of the bible were great liars. The reason is because in their world, lies and deceptions were seldom moral failures. In shame-based cultures lying can be very honorable, and not considered to be “really lying” at all. On the negative side, it denies enemies or outsiders the respect to which they have no right as rivals. On the positive side, it maintains harmony among friends; it’s shameful to tell the truth if it dishonors or hurts the feelings of a friend. On the other hand, to be called a liar, in any case, is a great public dishonor, because it implies that one really is lying.
Truth has more to do with appearances than reality in these cultures. Contrast the psychological relationship between the selves for American individualists and Mediterranean collectivists. (Individualist cultures tend to be guilt-based; collectivist cultures tend to be shame-based.)
Publicly defined self = Privately defined self
(In-group defined self in the background)
Publicly defined self = In-group defined self
(Privately defined self in the background)
In individualist cultures, the publicly defined self is generally expected to coincide with the privately defined self, while the in-group defined self recedes into the background. To speak one way while thinking another is hypocrisy. But in collectivist cultures, the publicly defined self is generally expected to coincide with the in-group defined self, while the privately defined self recedes into the background. To speak one way if it’s not what people expect or want to hear is dishonorable.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho. One day I had to leave my village and travel to the capital. A fellow villager asked me to run some errands for him and pick up a large amount of goods from various places in the city. I told him, quite truthfully, that I would probably not have time to visit many of those places — and that, in any case, my backpacks would be stuffed to a breaking point. That was the wrong thing to say. Though I had given an honest answer, I had seriously insulted him. He was belligerent and hostile for weeks afterwards.
I later learned that I should have told the villager I would run the errands for him, even if I knew in advance that I could not or would not do this. I should have given him the face he deserved as a friend and member of the community. Only after returning from the capital should I have accounted for any failure to do as requested. The situation between me and this villager was exactly the same as between the two sons and their father in Jesus’ well-known parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-30). I had behaved like the first son instead of the second. The first son said “no” to his father — an outrageous insult, regardless of his subsequent attempt to rectify that disgrace. I said “no” to a fellow villager — likewise an insult, regardless of how honest and sincere my motives were. Even if I had ended up picking up the things he wanted, the damage had been done, and a lot more would have been needed to effect a reconciliation. As it was, it took weeks to bring about such a reconciliation.
This may sound crazy to western ears, but even we as individualists have socially required forms of lying, as in cases of thanking someone for an unappreciated gift or saying that someone’s new hairdo looks nice even if it looks ghastly. In these cases the publicly defined self coincides with the in-group defined self, not the privately defined self. (A lie is told so as not to hurt people’s feelings.) Yet for the most part, individualists are raised to believe that lying is a bad thing. This is simply not true for collectivists, for whom lying is commonplace and honorable. The key to remember is that lying in order to (a) preserve harmony among friends, or (b) deceive or degrade enemies, are both equally honorable and in many cases expected of people in collectivist cultures.
John Pilch has identified seven kinds of lies and deceptions employed in the service of honor, and offers biblical examples of these strategies (see his Cultural Dictionary of the Bible). Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) have excellent commentary on the example of Jesus in #4, and Philip Esler (Sex, Wives, and Warriors) nails the case of Judith in #2. I add many more examples myself.
1. Concealment of Failure
Some lies conceal failure to live up to high ideals or expectations. The scenario in Jesus’ parable of the two sons, as discussed above, is most instructive. Anthropologists have presented the riddle to modern Lebanese villagers:
“A man had two sons. He went to the first son and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard.’ He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same. He answered, ‘I will,’ but did not go.” (Mt 21:28-30)
The Lebanese villagers unanimously agreed that the second son (who told his father he was going to work in the field, though he did not actually do so) was the good son. He gave his father a respectful answer and told him what he wanted to hear. The first son (who refused to go, but later went anyway) was viewed as acting shamefully. His public refusal of the father’s order was an outrageous insult and a challenge to parental authority. The villagers would not abide such blatant dishonor by a son to a father.
Again, appearances are more important than reality. The first son dishonored his father, regardless of his subsequent attempt to rectify that disgrace. The second son lied in order to conceal his failure, thereby honoring his father and giving him face. To Americans, the first son is preferable. To Mediterraneans, the second son is better…even though he lied.
Jesus, however, puts a twist on this. He does not ask, in verse 31, which is the “better son”. He asks which of the two “did the will of his father”. Obviously everyone (including Mediterranean natives) would agree with Jesus that the first son did the will of the father. But that’s not usually the important question. For Jesus, it becomes the important question according to his reversal-of-values theology, where the last are first and the first are last. He makes an allegory between the first son and tax collectors/prostitutes, and the second son and religious authorities, and (most importantly) the father and God (verse 31b). In effect, he says that despite appearances, tax collectors and prostitutes do God’s will and will thus inherit the kingdom ahead of religious authorities, who appear to do God’s will but do not.
2. On Behalf of Kin, Friends, Guests, Patrons, or Nation
Rahab lied to the king’s men about the whereabouts of Joshua’s spies, in order to protect her guests (Josh 2:3-6). Her lie was also for gain (see 5, below), however, since she was hoping that Joshua’s invading armies would spare her and her family (2:12-13).
Paul said that his lies made God’s truthfulness abound all the more (Rom 3:7). He was rather blasé in admitting that he lied like “everyone” (3:4), perhaps because lying on behalf of his Lord offered him the greatest honor of all.
The apostle is also famous for his deceptive missionary strategies in winning converts to Christ. He is candid about his willingness to become “all things to all men” in order to save them (I Cor 9:19-23). He endorsed chameleon evangelism, “to the Jew becoming a Jew, to the Gentile a lawless pagan”, for the good of their souls, as he saw it.
The book of Judith is a part of the biblical apocrypha, dealing with lies told on behalf of one’s nation. It tells of a widow who is upset with her fellow Israelites for not trusting God to deliver them from their Assyrian conquerors. So she goes to the camp of the Assyrian general Holofernes, seducing him and feeding him false information. He’s smitten by her and allows her access to his tent one night, and when he falls asleep, she decapitates him and takes his head back to the Israelites. The Assyrians lose their leader, and Israel is saved.
Judith’s string of lies is endless: She tells the Assyrian scouts that she is fleeing from the Hebrews (10:12), that she has trustworthy information for Holofernes and that she will show him the road to capturing the highlands (10:13). She offers a wish of long-life to Nebuchadnezzar (11:7). She says that death is about to fall on her own people (11:11) and the reason she offers is the imaginative fantasy that the Israelites have been eating food dedicated to God (11:12-15). She says that she fled from the Bethulians when she heard of this blasphemy (11:16). She says that she will tell Holofernes when God has revealed the time he should march against the Israelites (11:18). She forecasts that she will enthrone him at the center of Jerusalem and that he will lead the Israelites like sheep (11:19).
All of these lies and deceits resound to Judith’s honor. She is esteemed a hero for using them to defeat Holofernes. She’s no less a hero than David, who used his sling against Goliath. David with his sling and Judith with her lies got the enemy in a comprising position, and then decapitated them, saving Israel.
3. Avoiding Quarrels or Trouble
In cultures where honor is the core value, quarrels can easily escalate to violence and result in someone’s death. People seldom want quarrels to reach this point, so deceptions and lies are often used to avoid quarrels or any trouble at all. Abraham and Sarah lied about their marriage while traveling about as aliens in Egypt. Fearing the natives would kill him and steal his wife (Gen 12:11-12), Abraham told Sarah, “Say you are my sister so that it may go well with me” (12:13). Later they told the same lie to King Abimelech of Gerar: Abraham said, “She is my sister”, and Sarah said, “He is my brother” (20:2,5).
Peter’s infamous lie is another good example. After Jesus’ arrest, he denied knowing the Nazarene three times (Mk 14:68,70,71). Peter’s triple bald-faced lie was told in order to avoid a gruesome fate, that of Jesus. (Note that Peter’s lie also concealed an earlier failure (see 1, above). During the last supper Jesus had indicated that all of his followers would desert him in his time of need, but Peter denied this, promising, “I will never fall away…even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mk 14:29,31). But during Jesus’ arrest in the garden, Peter fled along with everyone else. Peter thus protected his honor, by lying in order to conceal his failure as a disciple.
Note that Abraham and Sarah’s lie is considered honorable in the Bible, while Peter’s lie is not, for obvious reasons. The gospels are confessional pieces about Jesus the risen Lord, and so a disciple of Jesus who lies to deny him can only be construed as acting dishonorably.
4. Sheer Concealment (Habitual)
In collectivist cultures, unrelenting community curiosity and village gossip generates habitual deception. The strategy of deception is honed and practiced, and it soon becomes part of everyone’s daily life (“out of habit”), simply because one never knows what nosy people may do with the truth.
Concealing one’s whereabouts is an example of such habitual deception. Jesus lied about his travel plans in order to minimize a potential risk to his life. (This was also a lie to avoid trouble (see 3, above).) Here’s the full passage:
Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them… “Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but in secret.
The background is lethal: the Judeans were looking for an opportunity to kill Jesus (7:1). But his relatives urged him to go to the festival anyway, because (so they said) his mighty works would enhance his honor-rating (7:3-4). In reality they probably figured that his death would rid them of a perpetual disgrace to family honor, for in fact — and this is key — “his brothers did not believe in him” (7:5). A prophet was always without honor in his hometown and in the eyes of his family (see Jn 4:44). Jesus declared, “I am not going to this festival” (7:8) and remained in Galilee (7:9); but as soon as his relatives left, he did in fact go to the festival, “not publicly but secretly” (7:10). It is because his brothers “did not believe in him” that they are properly regarded as enemies or rivals of Jesus, and thus by honor-shame standards they deserve to be lied to.
Jesus actually made a habit of concealing his whereabouts, whether or not there was an explicit threat to his life. (See Mk 7:24, for instance.)
5. For Gain
In the well-known Genesis story, Jacob deprived his older brother Esau of his birthright and blessing. Their father Isaac had become near blind (Gen 27:1), and Jacob exploited this by pretending to be Esau. When Isaac asked him, “Are you really my son Esau?”, Jacob said, “Yes, I am” (27:24). Isaac later admitted to Esau that he was fooled — that his brother “deceitfully robbed him of his inheritance” (27:35) — to which Esau replied, “Indeed, he has taken away not only my birthright but my blessing as well!” (27:36) The story concludes with Esau “hating Jacob for the blessing with which their father had blessed him” and planning to kill his brother for his lies and treachery (27:41). It is ironic that Jacob remains the hero of the story for today’s Jews and Christians, because, from a western perspective, he was a liar and a thief. But from a Mediterranean perspective, Jacob was not “really a liar”. He was a shrewd and cunning rogue who knew how to acquire honor beyond his wildest dreams. Such coyote-figures made the best heroes.
David was another coyote-figure, who lived by his wits while others sought to destroy him before he became king. On the run from Saul’s men, he came to the priest of Nob and lied, saying that he was on an urgent mission from the king (I Sam 21:1-2). Spinning a completely fictitious tale, he obtained the Bread of the Presence (which only priests were allowed to touch or eat) for him and his men (21:3-6). And note that centuries later, Jesus appealed to David’s deception in order to justify plucking grain on the sabbath (Mk 2:23-28). By saying, in effect, “What’s good enough for David is good enough for me,” Jesus indicated that he would follow David’s lead in performing deceptions and sacrilegious deeds as if they were holy.
6. False Imputation (Slander; Insults)
Sometimes it is necessary to attack the honor of another in order to save one’s honor. “The best defense is an offense”. The offense takes the form of a lie of false imputation: slander and/or insults. These are lies of degradation more than deception, though they can be both. The story of Naboth’s vineyard is illustrative. Naboth’s vineyard (I Kings 21:1) was the basis for his wealth and honor, and he was duty-bound not to relinquish it to anyone. The king’s offer to purchase or make an exchange for it (21:2) was improper and shameful, but the king was evidently hoping that Naboth would be swayed. When Naboth refused to yield (21:3), the king was shamed, and, having been caught acting shamefully, he wanted to die (21:4). The king’s wife, Jezebel, then came to the rescue. With lies of false imputation — claiming that Naboth “cursed God and the king” — she ruined Naboth’s honor (21:8-13a), engineered his death by stoning (21:13b-14), and obtained his vineyard for the king (21:15-16). Not only did the king obtain what he wanted, but the acquisition of the vineyard increased his honor as well. (Note that Jezebel’s lie was also on behalf of her king (see 2, above), as well as for gain (see 5, above).)
In John’s gospel, a group of Judeans made a claim to honor (Jn 8:39a) and Jesus challenged their claim (8:39b-41a). The Judeans then made a further claim to honor (8:41b), to which Jesus responded with a vicious insult: “You are children of the devil, and you murder and lie like the father of lies” (8:44). That the Judeans were offspring of the devil certainly wasn’t true, and it’s doubtful that they were all murderers. But lies and insults are legitimately offensive ways of protecting one’s honor. So point counterpoint, in order to save what remained of their own honor, the Judeans accused Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a demon (8:48), though Jesus was well known as a Galilean. Volleying back and forth lies of degradation can easily escalate to violence and get people killed, and it’s no surprise that the Judeans finally picked up rocks to stone Jesus (8:59).
7. Pure Mischief
Satan is the lord of lies, “the deceiver of the entire world” (Rev 12:9). As the serpent, he engineered humanity’s fall from paradise out of sheer mischief (Gen 3:1-15). It is thus honorable for God to counter Satan’s mischief with His very own. Indeed, it is God who lied to Adam, saying that to eat the forbidden fruit would result in immediate death (Gen 2:17). The serpent exposed God’s lie by telling Eve this was not true (Gen 3:4). This raises the question of whether God or Satan is more deceitful, which is typical between foes and rivals in the honor-shame milieu.
The Old and New Testaments make clear that God’s enemies are fair game for His lies. Witness I Kings 22:19-23, where God sends “a lying spirit into the mouths of many prophets” in order to bring about King Ahab’s disaster; and II Thess 2:11-12, where God sends His enemies “powerful delusions, leading them to believe lies”, precisely “so that they will be condemned”.
Social-science critics like Pilch, Malina, Rohrbaugh, and Esler might give the impression that collectivists lie and deceive more than individualists. I’d put it rather differently. Western individualists lie and deceive as habitually as collectivists. Anyone who doubts the ubiquity of human deception should read Why We Lie by David Livingstone Smith, who shows that deception is genetically hard-wired in the human species. What our social science experts do show is that deception is far more socially acceptable in some cultures than others. I often wonder if individualists are pretentious about truth and honesty when they esteem it too highly.
In any case, the bible doesn’t provide a template for western honesty. When parents teach that “all lies are bad”, their wisdom would be laughed to scorn by the most righteous heroes of the bible.