Spies, Midwives, and White Lies
The Bible is very clear that God is not a fan of lying. The ninth commandment prohibits “false testimony.” Proverbs lists a “lying tongue” and a “lying witness” as two of the seven things God hates. In describing the new life that Christians should live, Paul called on us to walk according to the “purity of the truth” and to “put away lying” and “speak the truth” to our neighbors. Jesus even described Himself as the “truth” and Paul wrote that love “rejoices in the truth.” These are just a few examples of the many scriptural criticisms of lying and affirmations of truth telling.
Nevertheless, there are times when this principle is put to the test. The Hiding Place is the first-hand account of a Christian woman named Corrie ten Boom who lived through the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She and her family helped many Jewish people escape through an underground network. One of the things they did was hide Jews inside their house behind a fake wall until the network could arrange for safe transportation out of the country (or to another hiding place).
This arrangement repeatedly put Corrie and her sisters in the difficult position of choosing whether to lie to authorities or tell the truth and risk sending themselves and others to concentration camps. Corrie records several times they each made those decisions and the consequences of those decisions. Her sisters, Nollie and Betsie, chose to tell the truth.
Nollie was hiding two Jews in her house. They did not appear Jewish just by looking at them and they had falsified documentation that indicated they were not Jewish, so they were not that hard to hide. When Nazi officials came to her house, one of the officials asked if Nollie’s female guest was Jewish. Nollie told the truth, “Yes.” She and the Jewish woman were immediately arrested. A few days later, the prison where the Nazis were holding the Jewish woman was raided and she was among 40 who were rescued.
Betsie lived with Corrie. At one point, Nazi soldiers burst into the home and asked the family if they were hiding Jews. At that time, they were hiding them in a hidden room built under the dining room table. Betsie’s immediate response was, “Yes, they are hiding underneath the table.” By God’s grace, the Nazis took that as a sarcastic response making fun of them. They searched the rest of the house but never once looked under the table. The Jews they were hiding all survived.
However, Corrie wrote about multiple occasions where she lied to conceal their underground activities. She even practiced and rehearsed what to say if the Gestapo raided the house. When the raid eventually did come, she refused to admit that she was hiding Jews even after she was physically beaten, arrested, and sent to concentration camps. A clerical error led to her release a week before women her age at that camp were executed.
Four Stories from Scripture
Was Corrie right to lie or should she have followed the example of her sisters? What does the Bible say about all of this? Well, it’s complicated... Let’s look at four stories from scripture that depict deception carried out under extreme circumstances.
The Hebrew Midwives
Exodus begins with a story of attempted racial genocide against the Jews (sound familiar?). A new Egyptian king comes to power who does not remember Joseph and why the sons of Jacob were welcomed into Egypt. He notices that the Israelites are becoming numerous and powerful and rallied the Egyptians against them. First, he imposed harsh working conditions and oppressed them through forced labor. Then, he approached two Hebrew midwives and commanded them to kill all of the Jewish sons at birth.
However, because these midwives “feared God,” they did not obey the king’s command. When the king summoned them to explain themselves, this is what they said:
“The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.”
First, I want to point out that this is very clearly a lie. Some people have analyzed this passage and tried to whitewash it by saying that the midwives could have simply been pointing out the truth. However, if that were so, they really didn’t do anything, did they? The entire context of this story in scripture shows that these midwives are being honored for standing up to the Egyptian king. It makes no sense if they really just couldn’t do what he said because they couldn’t make it in time for the birth. That just makes them bad midwives.
No. They lied. Moreover, they didn’t lie to save somebody. They lied to cover up that they saved somebody. They lied to protect themselves from getting into trouble for disobeying the king’s command. Now, you could argue they lied so that they could continue in their work; but this explanation is not very compelling because they had to have suspected that the king’s response would be just as it was: to go around them. In this case, he did so by ordering all of the Egyptians to assist in killing all Hebrew sons.
So, this feels like a misstep, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it feel like somebody whose heart is in the right place but maybe takes it a bit too far with a blatant lie? Shouldn’t these midwives have simply accepted responsibility for their actions, standing up to the king with their own words, and relying on God for their salvation? Just look at how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood up to Nebuchadnezzar and how God saved them through the fire as an example.
Nevertheless, listen to what the Bible says immediately after it tells about this lie from the midwives:
So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very numerous. Since the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
Moses, who was one of the Hebrew boys born during this time, even took time to record the names of the midwives (Shiphrah and Puah) in scripture so that they would forever be remembered and honored.
Fast forward a bit, after God has parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from the Egyptians, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, as the Israelites are getting ready to enter the Promised Land, Joshua sent two spies into Jericho to scout the land. They were apparently not very good spies. The king of Jericho learned that Israelites had come to scout their land and that they were staying in the house of a prostitute named Rahab.
The king sent word to Rahab, commanding her to hand them over. Rahab did not want to hand over the spies, though. We later learn that she has heard stories about the Israelites and their God and she believed “the Lord has given [them] this land.” She did not want to be on the losing side. So, she chose to lie and protect the spies:
So she said, “Yes, the men did come to me, but I didn’t know where they were from. At nightfall, when the city gate was about to close, the men went out, and I don’t know where they were going. Chase after them quickly, and you can catch up with them!” But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them among the stalks of flax that she had arranged on the roof.
After doing this, she asks the spies for a favor in return. She asks them to spare her and her family from destruction. And, they do. They give her a scarlet cord to tie to her window so they could identify her home in the town wall and spare those in her household. They were the only survivors of Jericho.
Even more so than the Hebrew midwives, Rahab is greatly honored in scripture. She becomes part of the family lineage of Jesus and Matthew goes out of his way to point that out in his lineage of Christ. She is listed in Hebrews 11, known as the “Hall of Fame of Faith.” And perhaps the strongest statement of all is from James, who points out that Rahab was “justified by works in receiving the messengers and sending them out by a different route[.]”
Here we have scripture pointing to this specific deception not only as something to be honored, but also as an act of faith leading to spiritual justification!
Just a few chapters later, we read about how the kings in the region heard about how the Israelites had defeated Jericho and Ai, and they decided to form a unified alliance to fight against Israel. All of them came together with one notable exception: the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites came up with a more creative solution to their problem.
They saw the writing on the wall and decided if you can’t beat them, join them! Somehow, though, they must have known that God had instructed the Israelites not to make a treaty with any of the peoples native to the region. They put on their oldest and dingiest clothes, took old and moldy bread and cracked wineskins, and made sure their entire community looked like it had been traveling for a long time. Then, they approached the Israelites and claimed to have traveled from a distant land, asking to enter into a treaty (which God allowed for non-inhabitants of the Promised Land).
Although the Gibeonites are not honored in scripture anything like Rahab, they are successful in their venture. Rather than being annihilated as per God’s instructions, the Israelites enter into a peace treaty with the Gibeonites (because they do not seek God’s counsel first and take the Gibeonites at their word). The Gibeonites by no means get out of this unharmed as they are put to work as forced laborers like a conquered people. They became woodcutters and water carriers “for the community and for the Lord’s altar” (we’ll come back to that).
This is not the last we hear from the Gibeonites in scripture. Immediately after entering into this treaty, that alliance of foreign kings decides to try to attack Gibeon. With God’s blessing and full support, the Israelites honored their treaty and came to Gibeon’s aid. It is during this battle that we see one of the more impressive miracles of God in all of scripture. In response to Joshua’s prayer, God made the sun stand still to extend the day to allow the Israelites to complete their victory over the foreign kingdoms attacking Gibeon.
King Saul would later violate the peace treaty with the Gibeonites and try to “finish the job” by killing them off once and for all. He was unsuccessful in the end and there were bitter consequences for both him (David would hand over two of his sons and five of his grandsons to Gibeon to be hanged as atonement for Saul’s betrayal) and the Israelites (there was a three-year-long famine).
The Gibeonites likely became temple servants assisting the Levites in the care of the tabernacle and, later, the temple. Eventually, scripture indicates the Gibeonites were completely assimilated into the nation of Israel. The city of Gibeon was given to the tribe of Benjamin and became a Levitical city. King Solomon offered sacrifices at a “most famous high place” in Gibeon. Gibeonites were among those who returned with Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and among the exiles who returned from Babylonian captivity after the walls were rebuilt.
Clearly, though, the story of scripture is that the Gibeonites, because of their act of deception, saved themselves and their children from certain death and eventually became a part of God’s family, intimately associated with the temple and worship of God.
The Woman Who Hid David’s Spies at Bahurim
Later on, after Saul’s death, David assumes the throne as King of Israel. All is not well for long, however, as Absalom (David’s third son), led a revolt and attempted to usurp the throne. Jonathan and Ahimaaz were two men who remained loyal to David. They would meet various informants in a neutral location and return to relay the information to King David. They were like CIA operatives of their day.
One day, someone loyal to Absalom saw them and Absalom sent his servants to find them. They hid in a well belonging to a married couple in Bahurim. When Absalom’s servants arrived, the wife covered the well, scattered grain on it to make sure it did not appear to have been recently moved, and told Absalom’s servants that Ahimaaz and Jonathan had “passed by toward the water.”
This allowed Ahimaaz and Jonathan to escape and relay valuable information to King David that allowed him and his forces to escape a plot by Absalom to attack them with overwhelming forces. This allowed David to gather his forces and defeat Absalom’s soldiers in battle.
Unlike the other stories referenced above, Scripture does not indicate what came of this couple that hid Jonathan and Ahimaaz. We just know that it was a vital moment. This deception ultimately allowed for David’s survival and his restoration to the throne, which was a crucial element to many of the prophecies of the coming Messiah who would be his rightful heir (Jesus was of the line of David).
Hard Cases Make Bad Law
Hard cases make bad law is an adage or legal maxim. The phrase means that an extreme case is a poor basis for a general law that would cover a wider range of less extreme cases. In other words, a general law is better drafted for the average circumstance as this will be more common.
Before I get too far into analyzing what we can take away from these stories from Scripture, I think there is a very important caveat to lay out there. As the quote above says, it is a common adage in the legal world that hard cases make bad law. I’ve seen it first-hand in my practice and I don’t know how many times I have read judicial opinions that established bad rules because the judge was trying to create a bright line rule for everybody that would work for an extremely unusual situation.
When we think about extreme situations like what Corrie ten Boom experienced or what these Scriptural references depict, we must be very careful drawing conclusions for our more normal circumstances. A proper understanding of the principles underlying these stories must take into account the severity of the circumstances surrounding them. We must not oversimplify it by saying something as broad as “God’s okay with lying as long as you are doing it for a good reason.”
The problem with that is that it risks underplaying the importance the Bible places on truth telling throughout the rest of scripture. This article is pulling out a handful of obscure stories, but recall that it started by pointing out the much more frequent refrain of scripture that God is not a fan of lying.
Every single one of the instances mentioned in this article involve matters of life and death for multiple people. Can we extrapolate from them to less dire circumstances such as, say, lying to keep a surprise party a secret? I don’t think so.
God Sees the Heart
I, the Lord, examine the mind,
I test the heart
to give to each according to his way,
according to what his actions deserve.
– Jeremiah 17:10
What can we learn from these passages? I believe we get a glimpse at how God judges us. He examines the mind and the heart, not just the outward actions we take. The Bible places an emphasis on how God judges based on what He sees in our heart.
God is no pharisaical and legalistic judge looking to catch us in a trap and say, “Gotcha!” He is not simply looking at our words and our actions. He is also looking at our heart. Now, here’s the interesting thing. The “heart” to the writers of scripture, both Old and New Testament, had a little different connotation than it does today.
Today, we think of the heart as where our feelings come from. We love with all of our heart. We think with our mind, right? To the modern world, there is a divide between the heart with all its emotions and the mind with all its rational thought. That is, in part, a function of our modern understanding of biology that was missing throughout much of history.
In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle considered the heart to be where mental activity occurred. In his opinion, the brain was merely a secondary organ to the heart, serving as a cooling agent and the home of “common sense.” It was not until 170 B.C. that Roman physician Galen first suggested the brain was the seat of complex thought. Even then, the idea was controversial and the scientific community didn’t really come to a solid understanding of the role of the brain until well into the Renaissance period.
Prior to that, and for purposes of understanding what was meant by both Old and New Testament authors, figurative references to the heart were not merely references to emotions, but to our entire “inner person.” It was the seat of our mind, emotions, and will. It directed our thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
Therefore, when the Bible says that God searches the heart and judges us by it, He is not just looking at how we feel, but whether our thoughts are probably ordered, and whether our intentions are pure. This is why we have to be careful with the modern world’s notions of “follow your heart.” To the modern world, that means do what feels right. However, in a Biblical context, God is concerned not just with what we feel but how we think and whether we our guided by proper purpose.
For the Hebrew midwives, Moses focused on the fact that the midwives were guided by their “fear” of God. The Hebrew word translated here as “fear” is וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ which is the same word used for reverence and honor. It is the same word used in Leviticus to refer to how we should “respect” our parents. So, we see that the midwives chose to disobey the pharaoh at great personal risk to their own lives to save the lives of many newborns. Additionally, even though their words to pharaoh may not have been technically true, God judges in the context of the heart where all of their intentions and thoughts are laid bare. Based on that, He determined that their actions, overall, were worthy of honor.
For Rahab, listen to how she spoke of God when explaining to the spies why she had hid them:
I know that the Lord has given you this land and that the terror of you has fallen on us…. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to … the two Amorite kings you completely destroyed across the Jordan. When we heard this, we lost heart, and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.
Rahab professed faith in God’s power and placed her trust in Him and Him alone (not her king or her walls or the warriors of her city) to save her. That is the act of faith that put her in the Hall of Fame of faith. That is what led to her spiritual justification before God and acceptance among God’s people. In addition, have you ever wondered why Rahab didn’t just leave with the spies? If she was only trying to help herself, she could have just fled back to the Israelite camp with them. However, she placed her faith in their promise so that she had an opportunity to gather and save her family. Therefore, by her act of faith, not only was she saved, but her family was delivered from destruction. Yes, it was accompanied by a lie. She was also a prostitute. There are many sins in her life. Nevertheless, in the context of everything, God judged her heart and rewarded her for her actions here, which were guided by faith.
The Gibeonites are an interesting case to look at. Unlike the others, who had deceived others to protect God’s people, the Gibeonites deceived the Israelites. At first glance, they appear to have lied to protect themselves rather than others. However, you could also argue that, like Rahab, they were trying to save their families, including their children. Therefore, from the outside, their conduct really was not all that different from Rahab’s except for who they were deceiving. They were telling a lie to save their families from certain destruction. Listen to how they described God when speaking to the Israelites:
“Your servants have come from a faraway land because of the reputation of the Lord your God. For we have heard of his fame, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two Amorite kings beyond the Jordan…. So our elders and all the inhabitants of our land told us, ‘Take provisions with you for the journey; go and meet them and say, “We are your servants. Please make a treaty with us.”
Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like Rahab? How different are they, really? Nevertheless, when you read the Bible, there is no mention of the Gibeonites in the Hall of Fame of Faith. The Israelites held the Gibeonites as prisoners of war and forced them into servitude. When I have read these chapters of Joshua over the last few years, I have often wondered what is so different between the Gibeonites and Rahab. At the end of the day, I think we have to go back to the heart. It is what is in the heart of the Gibeonites that contrasts with Rahab. That is what God sees that is so hard for us.
Nevertheless, as I wrote above, we still see a sort of redemption story for the Gibeonites. God can bring about good even in the midst of sin and its fallout.
Though we don’t get much Scriptural context to see how God viewed the woman who lied to save David’s spies at Bahurim, I think there is ample reason to believe that her heart was acting in faith.
Actions Flow from the Heart
This gets to a central point from Jesus’s teachings: our words and actions are downstream from the heart. According to Jesus, "a good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart” and an "evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart.” Moreover, sin begins in the heart, before it even produces words and actions. In the words of James:
But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.
Going further, Paul identified sin as “everything that is not from faith.” Faith is the lynchpin of our salvation for it is by faith alone that we become "an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Therefore, it is not necessarily by the truthfulness of the words we speak that God judges us but by the faithfulness of the heart from which we speak.
However, here again we must draw a crucial distinction. James points out that faith without works is dead and useless. Indeed, faith is activated and completed by works. John echoes this sentiment when he states that if we truly know and love God, we will keep his commands and not sin. In light of this, we must be careful not to conclude that our words and our actions are irrelevant. Indeed, they are the surest sign of faith.
Living by faith means that we are doing our best to comply with God’s commands and not our own thoughts or feelings. In Proverbs, we are instructed:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own understanding;
in all your ways know him,
and he will make your paths straight.
So what does all of this mean for white lies? Was it ok for Corrie ten Boom to lie? Was it ok for her sisters to tell the truth and risk death for others? I think the answer lies beyond our vision, because it relies on their hearts. Were they acting in faith, doing their best to do as they believed God had commanded? Or, were they relying on their own understand by trying to do what “felt right”?
The scripture we have looked at helps us to get a better understanding of sin. It is not merely breaking certain external rules of conduct. It is a misalignment of the heart. It is lack of faith. It is self-reliance.
Here are some specific takeaways I have gotten out of all of this:
To defeat sin in my life, I need to shift my focus from just knowing the rules to building up my inner faith to ensure that the overflow of my heart is aligned with faith in God. I know the way to do that is through continual prayer and repeated study of scripture.
I need to prepare to obey God in faith in extreme circumstances by practicing that faith even in the day-to-day ordinary circumstances of life.
This all serves as another reminder to be slow to condemn others and sit in judgment over them even for actions that technically violate God’s law. Only God sees the heart.
 Exodus 20:16
 Proverbs 6:16-19
 Ephesians 4:24-25; Colossians 3:9
 John 14:6
 1 Corinthians 13:6
 See also Psalm 119:29, 163; 120:2; Proverbs 8:7; 10:18; 12:17-22; 13:5; 14:5, 25; 17:7; 19:5, 9, 22; 20:17; 21:6, 28; 24:28; 25:18; 26:19, 28; 30:8; Acts 5:1-11; Romans 3:7-8; Revelation 21:8
 If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
 Exodus 1:8
 Exodus 1:9-10
 Exodus 1:11
 Exodus 1:15-16
 Exodus 1:17
 Exodus 1:19
 Exodus 1:22
 Daniel 3:13-30
 Exodus 1:20-21
 Exodus 1:15
 Joshua 2:1
 Joshua 2:1-3
 Joshua 2:3
 Joshua 2:9-11
 Joshua 2:4-6
 Joshua 2:12-13
 Joshua 2:17-20; 6:22-25
 Joshua 6:21, 25
 Matthew 1:5
 Hebrews 11:31
 James 2:25
 Joshua 9:1-2
 Joshua 9:3-6
 Deuteronomy 20:16-18
 Joshua 9:3-6
 Joshua 9:3-6
 Deuteronomy 20:10-14
 Joshua 9:14-15
 Joshua 9:27
 Joshua 9:27
 Joshua 10:1-5
 Joshua 10:6-11
 Joshua 10:12-15
 2 Samuel 21:1-2
 2 Samuel 21:5-9
 2 Samuel 21:1
 Joshua 18:25
 Joshua 21:17
 1 Kings 3:4-5; possibly the same place where the tabernacle and the altar of burnt offering were kept as referenced in 1 Chronicles 21:29
 Nehemiah 3:7
 Nehemiah 7:25
 2 Samuel 15
 2 Samuel 17:17
 2 Samuel 17:18
 2 Samuel 17:18
 2 Samuel 17:19-20
 2 Samuel 17:22-24
 2 Samuel 18:6-7
 1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalms 19:14; 44:21; 51:10; Proverbs 4:23; 21:2; Jeremiah 17:10; Matthew 5:8; 15:19; Hebrews 4:12; 1 Timothy 1:5
 Leviticus 19:3
 Joshua 2:9-11
 Joshua 9:9-11
 Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:43-45
 Luke 6:45
 Matthew 5:21-30
 James 1:14-15
 Romans 14:23
 Hebrews 11:7
 James 2:17, 20, 26
 James 2:22
 1 John 2:3-6, 9-11; 3:24; 5:18
 Proverbs 3:5-6