We near the end of our series on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments. The previous essays in this series can be accessed through the links in the left hand column of this page.
As with the other Commandments please remember that they are intended to apply to practicing Jews and Christians. Those who would apply them to others who have not chosen to follow them abuse the original intention of the Commandments.
Today we look at the Ninth Commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." In Hebrew, the actual words are blunter. Ed Saqer literally means do not be a "lying witness."
Most modern dynamic translations of the Bible translate the Ninth Commandment simply "You shall not lie," which, I think, is the appropriate thrust of the Commandment for us today, even though that translation likely is broader than the original meaning of the Commandment.
Originally, the Commandment was a prohibition against a very particular kind of lying: lying in court against a fellow Israelite. It was not likely a prohibition against lying in general, although it clearly soon became that for the Israelites, and is still for modern Jews and Christians.
If you read the Old Testament closely you will notice that almost all crimes, even the most trivial ones, were usually punishable by death. Obviously, the people then did not have video cameras and forensic experts or any of the modern devices and methods we take for granted in building a case against a criminal.
Rather, cases against alleged criminals were largely decided upon by the testimony of witnesses. In other words, the foundation of justice was based upon the truthfulness of the accusing citizens.
The Israelites were well aware of the potential for abuse of such a system and built numerous safeguards against lying witnesses into their judicial system. These safeguards are all recorded in the Bible.
Because a lying witness could literally commit murder by lying in a capital case - and remember, almost all cases were capital cases - the witness had to also be the executioner if the accused was found guilty. Death was by stoning, and the accusing witness was the one who was required to "cast the first stone."
This was because, if he were lying, by casting the first stone he would himself be guilty of "blood-guilt" before God, which was considered a most heinous crime against God, not just against a fellow human.
In the same way, no one could be found guilty upon the testimony of one witness alone. And while this no doubt allowed some who were guilty to go free, it also guaranteed that at least two or three witnesses would have to be against the accused for him to be condemned. There were also prohibitions against joining others in a conspiracy of lying witnesses.
And, finally, the punishment for witnesses who were found to be lying was that they would receive the punishment that the accused would have received; in other words, that they themselves would be put to death by stoning. It was no casual thing to perjure oneself in those days!
Yet, while the original Commandment was probably fairly narrowly focused we see elsewhere in the Old Testament that it quickly was expanded to cover many other types of failure to be truthful.
As early as Chapter 23 of Exodus, God prohibits spreading false reports, joining hands with the wicked in malice against another, even in following the majority in wrong doing, and siding with the majority when you know they are lying and trying to pervert justice.
And in Leviticus, telling idle tales (gossip), and bearing false tales told by others (rumor mongering), dealing falsely with others (deception), lying in general, and swearing falsely in the Lord's name (blasphemy) are all prohibited.
Further expansions to cover any and all types of lying are found in Deuteronomy, Joshua and Hosea, including any deceptive, slanderous, idle or empty talk about others. In fact, any talk that would undermine the reputation of others, or cast them in a bad light, including deliberate efforts to deceive as well as casual gossip and rumor mongering that damages the esteem in which another is held was condemned.
And in many parts of the New Testament lying, gossip, slander and malicious talk is condemned as well, including St. James' scathing attack on the loose tongue, which is found in Chapters 3 and 4 of his Letter. Lying, in any form, has long been condemned as loathed by God.
While we naturally tend to focus on the harm done to the individual when we think about the consequences of lying - and that harm can be devastating and irreversible - there is, and always has been, a larger issue at stake here.
And that is that God has designed justice to depend upon the truthfulness of the people of the community. Without truth, justice crumbles; and the society with it.
There is, of course, a positive side to all of this when we choose to commit ourselves to the truth and to enhancing the well-being of others. But it is our choice. God always gives us the right to choose between good and evil.
In his glorious diatribe against the lying, slandering, maligning, deceitful, judgmental tongue, St. James clearly recognizes that it is the same tongue which lies that praises God, with which we bless God, and with which we ask blessings upon our fellow men and women. It is the same tongue that builds up and destroys.
And so, once again, with this Commandment as with all the others, it all comes down to motive. We can, and often do, tell the literal truth about another with the intent of doing them harm. Truth is elusive when there is mischief and deceit in the soul.
And truth itself is not always found in the facts, contrary to what our culture tries to tell us. Will we use factual truth for evil or for good? That is the question that is always presented to us by God.
Let me make up just one example from the hundreds that any of us could come up with to illustrate the point that motivation is the key. God, after all, has told us that he will look beyond the "facts" and see the truth. And we would do well to remember that.
Let's say that you are driving home very late one night, about 2:00 in the morning, in fact, and you see Henry coming out of John and Mary's house. And as you drive on it dawns on you that John is in Chicago all week on business.
And so, the next morning at a weekly coffee and cookies meeting at church, when things are a bit dull, you happen to tell the truth. "You know, I saw Henry coming out of Mary's house last night at 2:00 in the morning."
What have you done? Well, nothing. Right? I mean, all you did is tell the truth. And all present get that profound look on their faces that says, without words, "Well, you know what that means!" And, after the meeting, each goes about her and his business, which is to pass on this little tidbit of "factual information."
Now, as these "facts" get ground finer and finer in the gossip grist-mill a couple of days later someone who was not at the church coffee meeting decides to repeat to you what he has heard - which is, unbeknownst to him, of course, your original story, slightly skewed. He says, "I heard it from a reliable source that Henry and Mary are having an affair behind John's back."
Now, of course, it wouldn't occur to you that this is your rumor coming back to you. Rather, this is confirmation of your suspicion. This explains why Henry was coming out of Mary's house, sneaking out, come to think of it, in the middle of the night.
And you decide right then and there that this is something that the Pastor had better do something about. So, the next morning you go to him and tell him, "Pastor, I just thought that you should know that Henry and Mary are having an affair. Everybody knows it, and I even caught him sneaking out of her house the other morning before dawn."
The Pastor takes your information, thanks you, changes the subject, and finally ushers you out of his office. And you never hear word one from him about it again.
So what are you to do? Well, there is only one thing to do. At the next coffee and cookies meeting you tell everybody, "I found out from a completely reliable source that Henry and Mary are having an affair, which is why I caught him sneaking out of her house the other morning. And, as a good Christian I did my duty and told the Pastor about it. But he refuses to do anything about it. How can a so-called "man of God," when confronted with the facts, ignore this sin going on right under his nose!"
End of story.
What has happened here? Who has been built up? Who has been encouraged? Who has been hurt, maybe irrevocably, by this gossip, by this "innocent" recitation of "the facts?" Who has been given the benefit of the doubt? Who has been Christ-like?
Listen to St. James:
"Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?"
Next: the Tenth and final Commandment: thou shalt not covet.