We all know that lying is wrong, and we all know that God does not lie. After all, 1Sam 15:29 reads:
… the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change His mind, for He is not man who changes his mind. (HCSB)
But is it really true that God never lies? It turns out that the Bible itself records instances where God or Jesus do deceive people and where God’s people lie and are blessed for doing so! So what’s going on? Read on to find out.
examples of lying and deceit
A good place to begin is passages where either Jesus or God are the source of the deceit or else where the deceit of other characters is sanctioned by God. These are taken from the NET Bible, passages marked with * indicate where God/Jesus deceives:
- Genesis 18:12–13
So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, “After I am worn out will I have pleasure, especially when my husband is old?”1
The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child when I am old?’”
This is a pretty minor deceit. Perhaps Abraham was a little sensitive about his age, but whatever the reason, Yahweh seems to spare Abraham’s feelings by ignoring Sarah’s comment about Abe’s age.
- Exodus 1:15–21
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you assist the Hebrew women in childbirth, observe at the delivery: If it is a son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she may live.”
But the midwives feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this and let the boys live?”
The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women–for the Hebrew women are vigorous; they give birth before the midwife gets to them!”
So God treated the midwives well, and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he made households for them.
It’s clear that the midwives’ claim that they didn’t make it to the births in time was a lie, “they let the boys live.” Yet their deceptive action is blessed by God.
- *1Kings 22:20–23 (cf. 2Chronicles 18:21–22)
The Lord said, ‘Who will deceive Ahab, so he will attack Ramoth Gilead and die there?’
One said this and another that. Then a spirit stepped forward and stood before the Lord. He said, ‘I will deceive him.’
The Lord asked him, ‘How?’
He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets.’
The Lord said, ‘Deceive and overpower him. Go out and do as you have proposed.’
So now, look, the Lord has placed a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours; but the Lord has decreed disaster for you.”
The deceit here is pretty clear and, although initially carried out by a third party on Yahweh’s behalf, the last part makes it clear that it is ultimately a deceit perpetrated by Yahweh.
- 2Kings 10:18–28
Jehu assembled all the people and said to them, “Ahab worshiped Baal a little; Jehu will worship him with great devotion. So now, bring to me all the prophets of Baal, as well as all his servants and priests. None of them must be absent, for I am offering a great sacrifice to Baal. Any of them who fail to appear will lose their lives.”
But Jehu was tricking them so he could destroy the servants of Baal.
Then Jehu ordered, “Make arrangements for a celebration for Baal.” So they announced it.
Jehu sent invitations throughout Israel, and all the servants of Baal came; not one was absent. They arrived at the temple of Baal and filled it up from end to end…
When he finished offering the burnt sacrifice, Jehu ordered the royal guard and officers, “Come in and strike them down! Don’t let any escape!” So the royal guard and officers struck them down with the sword and left their bodies lying there. Then they entered the inner sanctuary of the temple of Baal. They hauled out the sacred pillar of the temple of Baal and burned it. They demolished the sacred pillar of Baal and the temple of Baal; it is used as a latrine to this very day. So Jehu eradicated Baal worship from Israel.
Jehu quite clearly sets up an elaborate deceit in order to wipe out the Baal cult in Israel, an act which is approved of by the author.
- *John 7:6–10
So Jesus replied, “My time has not yet arrived, but you are ready at any opportunity! The world cannot hate you, but it hates me, because I am testifying about it that its deeds are evil. You go up to the feast yourselves. I am not going up to this feast because my time has not yet fully arrived.” When he had said this, he remained in Galilee. But when his brothers had gone up to the feast, then Jesus himself also went up, not openly but in secret.
Here Jesus either deceives his brothers or else changes his mind about going up to the feast. However, given his reason for not going up did not change, it seems less likely that he simply changed his mind.
There are other passages which could be construed as approving of deceit but are perhaps less obvious such as Gen 38:26–30; 1Sam 16:1–5; 19:11–17; 20:27–34; 21:11–16 [Eng.: 10–15]; 2Sam 17:18–20 etc.
what does the quote from 1 samuel actually mean in its context?
Here is the Hebrew:
וגם נצח ישראל לא ישקר ולא ינחם כי לא אדם הוא להנחם
The important word here is the verb ישקר, yĕšaqqēr, “to lie.” The verb seems to be used in contexts where it specifically refers to breaking the terms of a covenant or contract of some form.2 In light of this it would seem that 1Sam 15:29 does not preclude the types of deception encountered in the other passages cited above.
what can we say about divinely sanctioned deceit/lying in the bible?
First, there is some explanation for God’s deceitful behaviour offered in David’s song to Yahweh in 2Samuel 22:27 (cf. Ps 18:26 [Eng. 27]):
With the pure you are pure,
but with the wrongdoer you will be deceptive.3
The term rendered “deceptive” here is a form of פתל (ptl) which seems to have the basic meaning of “twisted” and is used in the context of wisdom in places like Job 5:13; Prov 8:8. The point is, perhaps, that sometimes in dealing with a sinful rebellious world, God acts in ways which are not “straight” — that even involve deception. This certainly seems to fit with some of the passages above where evil people are deceived.
Furthermore, this description of God’s actions here is then perhaps similar to Jesus’ advice to the Twelve in Matt 10:16:
I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
The phrase “wise as serpents” (φρόνιμοι ὡς οἱ ὄφεις) is reminiscent of the serpent in Gen 3:1 who acts deceptively (the same words are used in the LXX), so it is interesting to reflect on precisely what Jesus was saying to his disciples about how they should act here!
Put together, perhaps it is valid to conclude that lies and deception of some form are acceptable when the outcome is just and fulfils God’s purposes. On the other hand, there are clearly times when deception is unacceptable, such as in legal disputes and other matters (where most of the texts about false testimony are to be found — see the quote in the conclusion below).
God can lie. God’s prophets can lie and deceive. But the circumstances in which such deceit is acceptable are limited. Here’s what Yael Shemesh has to say:
It is perhaps surprising, however, that nowhere in the legal literature of the Bible is there any general injunction to refrain from telling lies. The commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16; parallel in Deut. 5:20) refers solely to the judicial context, as does the injunction “Keep far from a false charge” (Exod. 23:7); while the verse “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another” (Lev. 19:11) is concerned with business dealings, and the next verse (v. 12), while forbidding one to swear falsely in God’s name, does not prohibit lying in itself.4
and in her conclusion:
In contrast to those theologians and philosophers who reject any kind of lying, under any circumstances, the Bible recognizes that certain situations justify and even require deceptive measures. This is true even regarding God and God’s prophets.
Yes, God’s prophets and even God lie in Scripture. But this does not give us carte blanche to deceive and lie — yet we also need to be aware that there may be some circumstances where it is not just the best course of action in a fallen world, but the one which proves to be blessed.
- Many English translations include the word ‘too’ at the end of the phrase, although this is not present in the Hebrew, so I’ve omitted it here to highlight the ‘white lie’.
- Shemesh, p. 83.
- Many English renderings seem to attempt to mitigate the implication of the second line by rendering it something like “to the devious you show yourself shrewd” (NIV). The “show yourself” seems to promote the understanding that the deception is all in the mind of the devious person rather than a specific action by Yahweh. I think that takes an interpretive step beyond what the Hebrew actually says.
- See HALOT and Newkirk, pp. 15–16.
Newkirk, M., Just Deceivers: An Exploration of the Motif of Deception in the Books of Samuel (Casemate Publishers; 2015).
Roberts, J. J. M., “Does God Lie? Divine Deceit as a Theological Problem in Israelite Prophetic Literature” in Emerton, J. A., Congress Volume (1988) 211–220.
Shemesh, Y., “Lies by Prophets and Other Lies in the Hebrew Bible,” JANES 29 (2002) 81–95.