What Does the Bible Say About Lying?

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Biblical


God said we should not lie, but Abraham lied about his wife Sarah on two different occasions in Genesis. God defends him on both occasions and doesn’t even rebuke him. Also, Isaac lies about Rebekah, his wife, and God doesn’t rebuke him either. What can you say about these instances; why doesn’t God rebuke them? Thanks.

Response (staff answer):

This is a question that has puzzled scholars and enticed them for centuries. For a long time, they’ve studied the similarities in the stories, of which there are many, and suggested that these are really three versions of the same story. This is based on the documentary or source theory that suggests the Pentateuch was derived from different sources. These scholars think that the first and third stories resulted from the work of J, while the second story comes from E.

In the last few decades, however, the documentary or source theory has lost much of its emphasis. Rather than trying to separate and pull out the various sources that went into the text, scholars have been looking at the final product as a whole and trying to determine how these various elements all fit together. Someone gave this book its final form and purposefully chose to repeat these stories. There has been no shortage of possible explanations.

In all three situations the stated motive is that the patriarchs feared being killed. The focus is on them. The patriarchs’ lives are in danger since they are aliens in lands controlled by powerful men. They seek to secure their own lives by declaring their wives are really their sisters. Some scholars even suggest that in the ancient world, a wife could also be declared a sister. Indeed, this would be a much higher marriage since she would then be both a blood relative and a legal wife. Other scholars argue that this misses the point. The enduring explanations of the stories usually involve some element of deceit, primarily because each king is upset about having been deceived.

By the time we get to modern days, scholars have covered these stories from the standpoint of each of the characters – the patriarchs, the matriarchs, the leaders, and God. The women do not have a voice, but looking at the story from their point of view can be very illuminating. Lessons can be gained from all the characters. But the questioner is interested in what God does (or doesn’t do). So let’s focus on God’s role in these stories. To do that, let’s review.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis end with the story of Babel, where the people wanted above all “to make a name for themselves and to not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” At the end of the Babel story, the people have no names and are scattered over the whole earth. This story, then, stands as the culmination of those 11 chapters. It’s as though the people somehow misuse, misunderstand, reject, or distort the blessings of God that have been extended “in the beginning,” in that very first story of creation, and continued throughout universal history for over 2000 years. Until, finally, in this last story, the people themselves are completely alienated from the God who has blessed them. What more can God do? He can try again. He can choose one individual family and bless them. He can make them the bearer of His divine purpose. Through them, he can usher in another new beginning. And so it is.

Without any segue, chapter 12 begins with a genealogy, dating back to Shem, one of Noah’s sons. The genealogy progresses to Terah, who has three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

One day out of the blue, the Lord calls to Abram, apparently not because of any meritorious activity on the part of Abram. (He’s on the list of geneology.) But God calls him and says, “Go from your country, your kindred, and your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” This is accompanied by promises of descendants and land. Without fanfare, Abram does as the Lord has told him. But he takes his nephew, Lot, his wife, all the possessions and people that he has acquired in Haran. By everyone’s estimate, a nephew is considered kindred. So from the very beginning, Abram and the Lord have a complicated relationship.

On the way the Lord appears to him and reiterates His promises. Abram responds by building an altar. He continues on his journey southward when a famine hits the land. Abram, being an alien, is about to enter Egypt when he tells Sarah that she must say she is his sister. Whether she does or not is not recorded, but she is taken into Pharaoh’s house. As payment, Pharaoh gives Abram many animals. But the “Lord afflicts Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarah.” Pharaoh calls to Abram and accuses him of lying. He sends Sarah, Abram, and their many possessions out of Egypt. A careful reader will notice that Abram does not call on God at any point in this whole incident.

But we soon find out that Abram is “very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.” One assumes that these riches are part of the payment from Pharaoh. So not only does God not rebuke him, but Abram profits greatly from his ruse, in a sense fulfilling one of God’s promises that he will be greatly blessed.

Though the remaining two incidents have their unique characteristics, they follow a similar pattern. Patriarchs are fearful; lies are told. Matriarchs are taken into palaces. God intervenes. Leaders experience plagues/problems, discover lies. They accuse the patriarchs and send the matriarchs back to them with additional rewards. When a story appears three times in the text, one might rightly wonder why, what’s the purpose? Essentially, these events pose a threat to the fulfillment of God’s promises. The patriarchs’ weaknesses and strengths are in full view.

It is important to remember that God chooses these people, but He doesn’t transform them. He doesn’t remake them, give them powers or great insights. They live and act in their own times. They need to work out their own issues. Yet, God hovers in the background. He is able to deliver His own. Indeed, He does not abandon them to whatever choices they make, but oftentimes intervenes as needed. These stories are an integral part of the larger picture, which is the working out of God’s relationship with His chosen people.

It is very heartening to see God’s responses to their foibles. They are saved from the folly of their own limitations through God’s unmitigated mercy and grace. It is God who safeguards the promise by making it impossible for the leaders to have any contact with the matriarchs. And it is important to point out that this merciful act of God isn’t just extended to the patriarchs, but also includes the households of the leaders.

God does not abandon His people – no matter what they do (and they make some pretty poor decisions throughout the text). Instead, God provides for them every step of the way. This is a beautiful example of God’s faithfulness and His commitment to them. Some scholars have argued that the whole story of Genesis is really about God’s faithfulness to His people. It’s a different way of looking at these stories, but it is also a wonderful example for us in that we also get to make bad decisions and mistakes without the fear of being rebuked by God. Like the patriarchs, God will also be with us, showing us a way to go forward. In a sense, these stories assure us that God will always be faithful and committed to us, too.