Thou shalt not bear false witness
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16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
20 Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.
The 9th commandment is commonly interpreted as a injunction against lying in general. Better interpretations are that it is an injunction against bearing false witness and accusing your neighbor of something he or she did not do.
Generally prior to innocent before proven guilty most cultures used a guilty until proven innocent approach. The act of accusing somebody of a crime was a serious step and unless they could prove their innocence they could be executed for the crime. The crimes of perjury or filing a false police report are probably more accurate than lying. Due to improvements to our legal code, this commandment has little application to today.
- We have adequate laws against perjury and false advertising, but we all know that it is sometimes necessary to tell a lie in order to protect someone from harm. Lies in wartime are considered virtuous. The biblical prostitute Rahab was considered virtuous because she lied to protect Israelite spies (Hebrew 11:31).
- If a person knew the whereabouts of a woman who was being hunted by her abusive husband, society would consider it a moral act to lie to the man. True morality is being able to weigh and compare the relative merits of the consequences of one action against another. It is flexible. The bible, on the other hand, makes absolute statements without admitting the possibility of ethical dilemmas. As with killing and stealing, most cultures through history have made honesty a high ideal, with or without the Ten Commandments.
Does this commandment forbid lying?
Many Christian apologists and evangelicals interpret this commandment as "Thou Shall not Lie" to forbid all lying. To them, lying in order to save another person, or lying about your lovers new shoes, is just as criminal in the eyes of God and the Bible as committing perjury or Richard Nixon lying about Watergate.
Here we shall explain why this is not the case and lying is not forbidden anywhere in the 10 Commandments. The Ninth Commandment is very specific charge, not regarding something as broad as lying overall. Bearing false witness against thy neighbor, you can misrepresent another person without technically lying, or you can tell a lie without misrepresenting another person. However, it is more specific than misrepresentation. The Hebrew word to focus on here is "Eid"
- From the Jewish Study Bible regarding this specific commandment, we read "Bearing false witness against thy neighbor. This covers both false accusation and false testimony in court. False accusation is a means of deprive ones follow of what belongs to him as when the accuser falsely claims ownership of something of anothers possession and the accused cannot disprove it. The penalty for false testimony is described in Duet. 19:16-21."
- From the Oxford Bible Commentary, "This is concerned with a testimony in the courts. In Israelite courts, the witness was in fact a prosecutor as there was no state prosecution system. False accusation could put ones life, not merely ones reputation, in danger (see 1 Kings 21, Duet. 19:15-21).
- From the Hebrew Dictionary, the word "Eid" - "the various interpretations of the word eid and how they are impounded can mean: witness, defense witness, state witness, state' evidence, eye witness, false witness, perjurer, hearsay witness, prosecution witness, female witness." So it has a very specific context, not just lying.
Duet. 19:15-21 - One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established. If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Are there any liars in the Bible? Most definitely there are liars in the Bible. Lets look at Abraham. Genesis 12:10 and onward tells a story of Abraham lying about his wife Sarah (claiming she is his sister) to avoid punishment from the Egyptians. When the truth is later revealed (right after the Pharaoh married Sarah) the Pharaoh asks Abraham "why did you lie to me? Why tell me she was your sister? If I knew of your relationship and she already belonged to another man, I would not have married her." The Pharaoh gets punished, Abraham gets rich, and then the Pharaoh tells Abraham and Sarah "Get out of here!" Abraham goes unpunished for this lie. Abraham lied, and yet was rewarded.
Another liar is the brother of Joseph. Joseph is the most beloved of all the brothers and the brothers hate him for it, so they conspire to kill him (Genesis 37) but they settle for something else. Joseph ends up being sold to slave traders. The brothers tell their father that Joseph was eaten by an animal (they lied). Joseph becomes employed by the Pharaoh, warns the Pharaoh a famine is coming, and when it does the hungry come to Egypt because it was prepared for the famine. Among the hungry was Joseph's family. When the father discovered that Joseph is alive, what was the punishment for Joseph's brothers? Nothing. Who are the brothers? Ruben, Benjamin, Judah...as in the forefathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yes, the forefathers of Israel were a bunch of liars who conspired to murder their own brother.
But these examples came before the 10 Commandments, so lets hop ahead after the 10 Commandments. Joshua chapter 2 tells a story of Joshua telling two men to go to Jericho, to the house of Rahab (not the same Rahab from Isaiah and Psalms). When the King of Jericho demands that Rahab reveal the men who came to her house, but Rahab hid the men and lied of their whereabouts. What is her punishment for this lie? None. What does the rest of the Bible have to say about these lies? Jump to Hebrews 11:29-31 and James 2:22 and none of them condemn them or talk ill of Rahab, rather they praise her even though she was a liar.
It can also be argued that there are several books and epistles in the New Testament that are claimed to be written by Paul and Peter, but in fact they are the works for forgers lying about their identity. All forgers have a subconscious goal to deceive, that is the point of forgery. These forgeries include 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 peter and 2 Peter.
In United States law
- The 9th commandment is only a part of U.S. law if you agree with the interpretation that this refers to Perjury. Most interpretations consider this as a general injunction against lying. If this view is taken, then it is not law. Providing no other person is harmed, a person is free to make up any story they see fit.