Exodus 1:15-21. “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, ‘. . . .if it is a boy, kill him, but if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. . . .’Why have you done this: Why have you let the boys live?’ The midwives answered Pharaoh, ‘Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women, they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.’ So God was kind to the midwives, . . . And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.”
Exegesis and Application
This is a key passage in the discussion of the biblical view of truth-telling. Two important exegetical questions need to be answered from this passage: 1) Did the midwives lie to Pharaoh, the civil authority over them? 2) Did God approve of their conduct?
This passage, like several others, goes to the very purpose of language which is for interhuman communication leading to loving and just relationships. William Paley, the 18th c. British Christian philosopher, wrote, “A lie is a promise: for whoever seriously addresses his discourse to another, tacitly promises to speak the truth because he knows the truth is expected. The obligation of veracity may be made out from the direct ill consequences of lying, to social happiness. The consequences of lying will result in either in some specific injury to particular individuals or in the destruction of personal confidence, which is essential to human intercourse” (Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy).
Normal human intercourse had been destroyed by Egypt and thus there were no grounds for truth communication between Egypt and God’s people. Pharaoh was at war with Israel. Egypt had enslaved, abused, killed and sentenced to death Jewish infants. The midwives lied and God approved. David Clyde Jones (Biblical Christian Ethics) gives a short but masterful treatment of this passage, with the conclusion being, “The murderous order of the king of Egypt signaled a radical breakdown in human relationships and hence in human communication: Pharaoh had no right to know the truth of the midwives’ action.”
Since the Egyptian Pharaoh had no right to the truth, the Hebrew midwives were to righteously lie with gusto. It pleased God for them to do so. Indeed, Ps. 50:18 (“When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers.”) tells us that if we excuse or go along with sin we become accomplices to that sin. So it was not only right but necessary for midwives to lie.
Christian journalist, you must be wise and skillful in conducting yourself. The Proverbs exhort us to be thoughtful and mindful of God’s instruction about our daily, mundane decisions. In our Exodus passage we are being taught that telling the truth depends on the circumstances and the parties involved because not everyone always has a right to the truth nor do we have the obligation to always be truthful. There are greater obligations at play in our human relationships and we need to be sensitive to those circumstances.
Having said all this, to tell a lie is to be in concert with Satan and to act like a child of darkness. But this is for another musing.