Contend Earnestly: God Deceives

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

God Deceives

I was challenged by this question last Sunday and I have been meditating on it ever since. The main idea of this text comes from my pastors message but since I’ve added my own commentary I don’t want to put words in his mouth by quoting him as the author of this concept. I do however not want to falsely claim that I’ve come up with this myself but I affirm the idea. (So pastor if you’re reading this understand that I’m not trying to steal your thunder or misquote you).

I have been troubled with a common theme for the past 10 years. I’ve had great bible training in college and from the pulpit but much of what I have come to embrace as biblical truth is really only man’s explanation. So Rahab didn’t really lie because God doesn’t bless liars. How many passages in scripture are glossed over because they don’t fit our paradigm?

Is it ever right to deceive? Consider the story of Samuel in 1 Sam. 16:1-5. Here’s a summary of the story. First, God tells Samuel: “I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king” (v1b). Next, Samuel protests: “How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me” (v2b). What is God’s response? “Trust Me and obey Me.” Not so. God tells Samuel: “Take a heifer with you and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice”

God agrees with Samuel’s concern: Saul will likely kill Samuel in route to anointing one of Jesse’ sons. So, Samuel should travel with a “heifer.” If anyone asks what he is doing, he is to tell them, according to God’s instructions, “I have come to sacrifice.” Upon arriving in Bethlehem, the people are afraid. They ask, “Have you come in peace.” Following God’s instruction, Samuel says to the Bethlehemites: “I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me” (v5b).

God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to do what? Yet, if Saul hears about Samuel’s intent, he will kill Samuel. And, if the people are told why Samuel is there, they will likely prevent him from entering the city.

Thus, God tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem under the cover of “sacrificing to the Lord.” That way Saul will leave him alone and the people will allow him to enter the city. God’s plan works. Once the people, including Jesse and his family, have been consecrated to offer a sacrifice, Samuel springs into action. Revealing his true reason for being there. Namely, to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be King of Israel.
Samuel did offer a sacrifice. But did he deceive the people? Did God tell him to deceive the people?

Imagine going to the store to buy a gun and when the wife asks where you’re going you say to buy bread. Now when you go to the store you intent and purpose is to buy the gun, whenever anyone asks where you’re going or what are you doing you can say, “I’m going to buy some bread.” While at the store you buy the gun and pick up some bread on the way out. You didn’t lie when you stated that you were going to buy bread but that was not the reason for your trip to the store.

This is not the only time we see a biblical account of misleading.

In Ex. 1:15-21. This story ends: “So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own” (vv20-21). They did fear God. They did disobey Pharaoh. But they also lied when the explained to Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and
give birth before the midwives arrive” (v19).

And again we see God showing favor to a ruse in the story of Rahab and the spies.

Joshua 2:1-15. Rahab hid the spies of Israel and lied about their
whereabouts. When a route for escape became available, she led them out another way from that of the pursuing soldiers. Rahab is praised by two New Testament writers for her actions: "By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace" (Heb. 11:31). Rahab is listed with Abraham as one whose faith was reflected in her works: "And in the same way [as Abraham] was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?" (James 2:25). By sending the spies out by another
way, she subverted the king's desire to capture the spies. God commended Rahab for deception.

There is another point that is often missed in this story about Rahab's lie. "Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim… (Josh. 2:1). The text continues by telling us that "they went and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there." Did they announce that they were Israelite spies? Joshua says the operation was to be done "secretly," that is, without revealing the truth of their mission. Are not "spies" in the business of lying?

So, is it ever right to deceive others? Or were Samuel, Joshua, and Rahab guilty of moral failure? And what are we to conclude about God’s role in and response to all of those situations?

Over the years I have seen many ways that preachers have tried to avoid these passages. Ironically God does not. Why are we so ashamed when it appears that God does not shy away from these accounts at all? Could it be that we are trying to fit God into a formula that He cannot be put in?

Man always wants to figure everything out. Diligent study is not a bad thing but when we try to be too systematic for our own human understanding we can take away from God’s special uniqueness.

We know that God is good, honest, right, and trustworthy. But God is also mysterious and very unpredictable.

Unpredictable. What does that mean? Does it mean that because we can’t figure out God’s ways that His ways are wrong? Does it mean that we can put restrictions on God and then blame Him when He doesn’t follow our rules? Does it mean that when two opposing views accomplish the sovereign plan of the Almighty that He violated His own standard? May it never be! We cannot predict what God is going to do based upon our false standard of how He will act in every situation.

I suggest that we have it wrong. When we think of terms like crafty, sly, shrewd, misleading, we believe them all to be lies. A ruse or an artful stratagem filled with ingenuity tends to be the way of the Lord and the Lord does not lie.

Take a look at some other unpredictable ways of the Lord. It would appear that a good looking guy like Saul would be a good king then we get the ruddy Dave. Saul seems to be affirmed, by Samuel (God’s man) and Israel. David on the other hand is affirmed by God. God calls Saul to trust in His protection but then He tells Samuel to protect himself in chapter 16 of 1 Samuel.

If there is nothing that changes in the ways of God, nothing surprising, nothing unpredictable then, we will find it difficult to rightly read, interpret and respond to the entire Bible. We will casually explain away divine providential activity that makes us uncomfortable or confuses us like the Egyptian midwives and Rahab. We’ll appear dishonest or ill-equipped when we are challenged by these very clear verses.

If there is nothing unpredictable about God then we will find our faith leaning on and depending on something other than God and Christ

I will need God to provide a single and sure answer for everything
I will need God to satisfy my reason at all times in all matters
I will need God to follow my formula (a+b=c makes sense to me, a+b= x does not make sense)
I will need God to give to me in exchange for what He gets from me

In short, I will need God to be and act domesticated—predictable, controllable, safe. We have a tension because we want God the same all the time. So when we read scripture we become literalists at the point of each passage. Romans 10:9 says confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. So is that all we need to do? Pray that prayer and you are saved? What about stoning your disobedient children? As difficult as it may be we must address these passages without applying a formula or technique.

God is totally trustworthy and unpredictable. When you don’t understand God’s ways you just don’t understand. Deuteronomy 29:29 is not an escape for difficult questions, it’s an explanation. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.

Since it is Christmas season think of the term “Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14 tells us, “Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name “God with Us.” Who could have predicted that God, Himself would take the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in the appearance of man, humble Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, Phil 2:7-8. Although written about long before it took place nobody predicted it. Some still struggle with this concept. God took the world by storm by being born and then rocked the world even more by dying. Totally unpredictable. In trying to apply a formula to God the Jews totally missed Him.

All this to say that it appears God uses a clever artifice to mislead and deceive the Bethlehemites in order to accomplish His purpose which would be the forerunner to Christ in the anointing of David.


Seth McBee said...

will have to do more study on this, but we don't want to go as far as the Muslims and say God can do whatever, which I know is NOT what you are saying but that is the danger, is it not?

Anonymous said...


Here are a two additional puzzling passages which come straight to the point of God's initiative in deception.

Consider 1 Kings 22:13ff, where in a council a spirit steps forward and says 'I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all [Ahab's] prophets.' And [the LORD] said, 'You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.'"

Micaiah the Prophet doesn't let God off the hook, either, for he explains in verse 23, "Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you."

A second passage is found in Isaiah 6, in which God's commission to Isaiah is this: " 10 “ Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.”

I did my Master's thesis on these two verses, attempting to demonstrate that (1) it was God's intent to deceive the entire nation Israel concerning the coming and identity of the Messiah, and (2) to suggest ways in which the written prophecy of Isaiah was instrumental in accomplishing this purpose. In developing this thesis, I had, of course, to engage this question: "Can God deliberate decieve someone and remain free of a credible charge of lying?" In the case of Isaiah's prophecy, it is fairly simple to show that lying is not intended or accomplished, even though the wholesale deception of Israel was intended and was, indeed, accomplished via Isaiah's prophecy.

Fr. B

Tony said...


I'm not sure what the Muslim position is. If they are saying that God can and will do evil then they are wrong.

In our systematic human approach we have tried to tame, control and corral the Almighty. In doing so we humanize Him assuming our ways and thoughts are His.

I am suggesting that we must humble ourselves by not pretending that we have Him all figured out. We can't change the passages which make us uncomfortable. Instead we need to pour into them and gain new insight and understanding into the power of God.

Tony said...

Fr. B,

I would love to hear more about your conclusions. Does it come down to the "ends justifies the means"? The progress of redemption is what trumphs all?

Anonymous said...

Seth, good topic. I have dealt with it myself here on my blog. I'd be curious to get your opinion.

Seth McBee said...

to all...this is Tony's post not my own...just FYI.

The Muslim position, from what I have read, is that God can change His mind on things, that is why they believe in abrogation so heavily. It got to a point in Muhammad's beliefs that God could literally do anything He wanted and caused Muhammad to doubt whether he would be in heaven.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic with some good comments. I jumped over and read David McCrory's piece and it provides some helpful insight. Thanks to all you guys.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate all the good comments that have been made above. My thoughts are a few. First, what is right is defined by God. What He does, and who He is, defines good, and truth, and right. It is easy to take such standards and use them to try to define God. What God does is right, and good, no matter if we understand it or not. Second, in our fallen world I believe that we have a situation that we won't face in heaven. That is, the occassion where one truth opposes another truth, and a decision has to be made. For example, it is wrong to kill, and it is wrong to lie, but there might be a time when telling the truth will lead to the murder of another. Murder or truth? We have to decide. Such a conflict of truths I believe are the product of our fallen world. And lastly, though what God does is always right, from our perspective we can be puzzled at times as we examine His actions. God doesn't paint His character in black and white for us. There are a lot of shades of grey from our perspective. Similarly, it is nice and tidy to try to paint this world, and our own character, in blacks and whites, but in reality there is a lot of grey. Grey, that makes us seek God, to walk close to Him, and to let our right behaviour be goverend by His Spirit rather than by a sharply defined list of rights and wrongs.

Lance Roberts said...

I started a few years ago marking all the verses where God used, endorsed or blessed lying. It's amazing how many of them there are.

I would certainly say that the lying must be in the will of God, even if I can't always say how to find that; but I certainly wouldn't hesistate to hide a friend from evil men, and then lie to those me about his whereabouts.

Justin Evans said...

Tony, the man who loves the controversial blog (although Seth's hand-raising one was up there as well). Good thing I know you well, or a title like this would cause much angst! As a good friend told me once "as soon as I meet someone more conservative than me, I repent and move." In the case of this subject, your post is certainly challenging. And there are some passages mentioned that I have not studied.

What we know:
It is impossible for God to lie (Num 23:19, Heb 6:18). God does not change (James 1:17; which is why the title I would personally re-rite. Deception involves the act of changing in my opinion), God is not the author of evil (James 1:13), lying is a sin (Ex 20:16, Eph 4:25). Now, the good news is that I know that most of those involved in this conversation believe and agree with these points, and in that I rejoice. By definition, there are tensions in these accounts which are good to wrestle with. "Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar" (Rom 3:4).

My two bits are as follows; we know that an essential biblical hermeneutic is that clear interprets unclear. All of these passages (except the NT inspired commentary on Rahab from Heb and James) are historical narratives. It is a challenging thing to develop a doctrine on a stated historical account rather than from the completed revelation when God speaks directly to condone certain behavior, especially when it appears to contradict a clearly stated doctrine elswhere in Scripture.

The classic example is Rahab. And the only one listed above that I have studied so far. But the NT commentary does not say that God blessed her deception. He blessed her faith. I believe we would have seen a great movement of the hand of the Lord to save the spies another way if she had not lied. I am in the camp of those who say "it is never ok to lie". Now, the burden is on me to look at the other passages and see that concept through. But I do know that God can decree evil and sin while not being the author of it. I believe this is the heart of the issue, though I do not have all the answers.

"God is not a man, that he should lie"

Lance Roberts said...

Exodus 20:16 actually refers to witnesses, as in a trial, though of course that applies to more than the courtroom.

Numbers 23:19 is about a word/promise that God gave/made, and that he wouldn't break it. Hebrews 6:18 is also about oaths.

James 1:17 seems to be more about the character of God.

When God was talking to Abraham about Sodom & Gomorrah, he said that he'd change his mind if Abraham could provide some evidence. God doesn't change his character, but he can change his "mind" (intents). Of course, God knows if he's going to do this or not, from the beginning of the world.

I do think many kinds of lying are sin (Eph 4:25 as mentioned). I just think the lying is a broad category, and there are appropriate times, like protecting someone, or when undercover police lie to the bad guys, etc.

Justin Evans said...

Lance, as always, thank you for your comments. Some further thoughts on the verses I put forth:

Num 23:19 - I agree that it is about a promise that God had made, but the confidence that the promise would not be broken is based on His intrinsic nature (not just a localized/situational promise). I see the intent of the verse stating that the nature of God (truth) is diametrically opposed to the fallen nature of man (deceit - Jer 17:9).

Heb 6:18 - the comment that it is impossible for God to lie is almost parenthetical. The "two things" (the oaths mentioned in the passage) are rooted in this basic nature of who He is. Thus, the oaths will be carried through because He, by nature, cannot lie. There was no deceit found in His mouth, remember. This is the one example chosen to show that Christ was sinless in 1 Peter 2:22. He IS the truth (John 14:6).

James 1:17 - I agree that this is speaking of His nature, and not directly about falsehood. But Scripture as a whole shows that He does not lie or deceive. And unless I am reading this entire post wrong (original article and comments, not just your last one, Lance), I'm surprised that we are debating the inherent nature of Almighty God as being truthful in all He does!

I have yet to see, from Scripture, where lying itself is condoned.

Prov 6:16-19 "There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers."

To be clear, and to avoid violating the last part of vs 19, what I love about the process of these posts is that we are going to the Book for the answers, as we discuss. Iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17), and I have been challenged to think through these beliefs I have. A very beneficial process. Thank you for that.

Seth McBee said...

I have yet to completely study this out but when we look at what Justin is saying and the thought of "God is not a man that should lie" and when we see that to deceive is to be false or to be dishonest, isn't that lying?

Some things we don't fully understand, especially with naratives in the Bible,so to take those and say "God deceives" to me is a little far fetched.

Are we then going to next say because God had many wars faught in His name and told many people to be destroyed that He is also a murderer? He did wipe out wholes of people including children...I am not willing to depart from imperative such as "God does not lie"

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