Is It Ever OK to Lie?

(Quick Comment Va-ye-ra Genesis 18:1-22:24)

The Talmud teaches (B. Yevamoth 65b) that on rare occasions one may be less than truthful for the sake of peace. For example, God advised Samuel to tell King Saul that he was going to Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice when his real purpose was to anoint David to be King in Saul’s place. (I Samuel 16:2) God’s advice was in response to Samuel’s understandable fear that Saul would kill him if he knew the real purpose of his journey.

We Know that in Egypt Exodus 1:15 ff) the Hebrew Midwives Shifra and Puah dissembled to Pharaoh when he asked why they had, against his orders, allowed Hebrew baby boys to live. They claimed that the Hebrew women are just like animals and already give birth before the midwives can get there to help.

The Talmud notes that once even God lied in order to maintain peace between a husband and wife. When God announced to Abraham that his wife Sarah would bear a son, Sarah was eavesdropping and laughed saying: “Now that I am withered am I to have such pleasure—with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12)

God then said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” (Genesis 18: 13-14)

The point the rabbis make is that when speaking to Abraham, God purposely withheld the information that Sarah had maligned his capacity to father a child. The Talmud (B. Baba Mezia 87a) comments: “Peace is a precious thing, for even the Holy One…made a variation for its sake.”

Our tradition teaches that sometimes, though not often, there are higher values than absolute truth. Yes, sometimes there are higher values, but very seldom.

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