Did God Instruct a Lie?

-Sam B. Sears

Exodus is an exciting book in the Old Testament. Even in modern times, it catches our attention — as well as and that of the film industry. This has led to movies with Charlton Heston sternly commanding “Let my people go!” and a young Moses, discovering his own identity in the animated Prince of Egypt. More recent is the documentary Exodus: Patterns of Evidence, leading modern Christians on a scholarly, but still accessible, examination of the evidence confirming the historical event the book covers. Exodus is a favorite and frequent book to turn to for sermons and Sunday school lessons, and it features a vast storehouse of treasures to explore. Today we are going to look at just one verse which Is occasionally singled out.

Exodus 3:18 records a command from God to Moses, “They will pay heed to what you say; and you with the elders of Israel will come to the king of Egypt and you will say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. So now, please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ ” (NASB) Most of us are familiar with the story. The end goal was to move the children of Israel into what was then called Canaan, and what we know today as Israel, as well as some areas beyond its smaller modern borders. I was asked a question regarding this verse recently, as someone encountered it in their regular reading: Did God instruct a lie?

It’s important to remember that verses and chapters were added later for the purpose of aiding us in memory and locating different sections of words within a bigger book. The person asking me this question knew this, of course, but it is worth mentioning, for future explorations of difficult passages, and I personally love to dig into Scripture and questions just like this. The very next verse, 3:19, informs us that, “But I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion.” (NASB) God even goes on to give Moses the game plan; but why then would he still go along with asking, and even more so, why would God instruct him to ask, if they knew the end goal was to go “to the land of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, to a land flowing with milk and honey?” (Exodus 3:17 NASB) 

As with virtually all questions we raise when we encounter a passage in Scripture that makes us scratch our heads, some others have asked the question before. Most of the time, a hard to understand passage can become clearer by simply reading the passages around it. The “20/20 rule” is a reading tip that encourages the reader to examine 20 verses before and 20 verses past a difficult passage or verse. Still yet, some texts can remain puzzling, and often cultural context can provide needed details. In this case, three solutions have been suggested.

The ancient Jewish teacher, Rabbi Rashi, offers one approach to the verse, appealing to Psalm 18:26, which states, “With the pure You show Yourself pure, And with the crooked You show Yourself astute.” (NASB) That last word, “astute,” has been interpreted by linguists in different ways. It is somewhat ambiguous, but Rabbi Rashi and others point to it to suggest that God can and does poetically trick tricksters, scheme on schemers, and scam scammers. This is problematic if we imagine God doing evil, and not just allowing other evildoers to pay back evildoers. I don’t think this is the solution here, but it’s worth mentioning, as it is commonly used to explain the verse. Just because God allows something, say Pharaoh’s wickedness, doesn’t mean He is going to allow it to go unpunished. God may allow some who “sew to the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7) to reap from there, He does allow natural consequences to play out; and He does remove His protection, even sometimes using nations as punishments to other nations. However, nothing points to God directly telling his people to commit sins to punish the wicked.

Ethicists point out a moral hierarchy found in Scripture, that while not always clear, can be used to solve moral dilemmas. Famously, if asked, "are there Jews under the floor?" should a Christian lie to preserve life? Most conclude, based on Jewish cultural understanding of the texts, and logic, that yes, they should. Corrie Ten Boom is an example of someone who would smuggle Bibles into areas where they were banned or lie about refugees. This is connected to passages like David eating the showbread meant only for Priests in 1st Samuel 21 and Rahab being commended in Hebrews for her life-saving deception when she helped save the Jewish spies at Jericho. I agree with the concept of a hierarchy only when facing moral dilemmas. I would caution that it's only if two seemingly conflicting commands are trying to be obeyed, like don't lie, but also the less clear, but still present call to protect the lives of others. This doesn't work in this passage, though, because God is the one issuing the command and could easily have set up the situation differently. This is not a case of fallen people in a fallen world trying best to navigate a difficult and complex path. This is straight from God’s mouth.

I have found two different sources, Hard Sayings of the Bible and The Expositor's Bible Commentary, that cite both Augustine and the 15th century Spanish scholar, Abarbanel, with a third, and much more satisfying, solution to any discomfort and questions this verse may raise. It is also one that stays true to the historical context of Exodus. What Moses was being instructed to offer was the beginning of a process of diplomacy. Even though God knew Pharaoh would reject the offer, he was going about a series of requests that would get increasingly difficult for Pharaoh to grant so that Pharaoh had the opportunity to grant each one; and at each request, Pharaoh could have obeyed God, and let go of the Israelites slowly and peacefully. Had Pharaoh allowed it, the people would have returned, but they would then ask to go again and escalate to their freedom. This would be in line with negotiating with a king or ruler in that era. Pharaoh's hardness of heart is revealed in that he refused a comparatively small request.

So, in short, it wasn't a lie. Had Pharaoh allowed it, they would have come back, but God had more He would ask for as part of a culturally normal process, and He was aware that Pharaoh would not comply. God knows not only what will happen, but what might happen if people choose differently, as demonstrated when David asked God about townspeople in a very specific situation while fleeing Saul. (1 Samuel 23:6-14) God knew the men of Keilah would give David over to his pursuer, just as God knew that Pharaoh wouldn’t respond. Yet, God still gave Pharaoh the opportunity, as a show of grace and love, and finally to reveal to all just how stubborn Pharaoh was. This only heightened the drama that God — as The Greatest Storyteller — told about freeing His people from a cruel and greedy earthly ruler. - Sam

Originally printed in the March 2019 FCC Newsletter