Of all the sins that seem really indispensable to human interaction, surely lying tops the list. A world in which literally no one lied is unimaginable. It’s not even clear whether we could agree what, in particular circumstances, would constitute lying. It is one of the first skills children learn, and even some animals appear capable of doing it. While the bible condemns lying in no uncertain terms, it also appears to permit it under certain circumstances. Abraham lied—twice—about his wife Sarah because he was afraid. Yet God intervened to save them—and to keep the bloodline pure—both times. In fact, the Old Testament is rife with stories of heroes lying to protect themselves, and there appear to be no bad consequences. Yet God gives this command: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
Hmm. That’s interesting. Instead of a blanket prohibition on lying, there is a much narrower prohibition against giving false testimony against a neighbor. It is narrower because it implies a context of justice. Someone empowered to adjudicate a dispute is trying to get factual information about it. It is in this context that lying is prohibited. This is also why the Law required multiple testimonies to establish guilt. Where one person might have a motive to lie, two or three likely would not. This kind of lying can have deadly consequences.
Consider the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab, king of Israel, wants Naboth’s vineyard because it adjoins his own land and produces good grapes. Naboth refuses to sell because the vineyard is part of his family’s inheritance, handed down from father to son since Israel first took possession of Canaan. So Ahab does what any wicked leader does when he doesn’t get what he wants. He sulks. He pouts. He refuses to get out of bed. His wife, Jezebel inquires about what’s wrong. Upon learning the cause of his sullenness, she taunts him. “Aren’t you a king?” she asks. “I’ll get you your vineyard.” She sits down and writes letters to the leaders of the town where Naboth lives. She tells them to throw a party for Naboth, but invite two scoundrels who will wait until everyone is a little drunk and then accuse Naboth of blasphemy and treason. Then they were to take Naboth out and stone him and let her know when the deed was done. The leaders do just as Jezebel asked. Once Naboth is dead she takes his vineyard for the king. To the common people it looks like a case of justice catching up with Naboth instead of cold-blooded murder.
Think this can’t happen now? Then I invite you to consider the case of Farkhunda Malikzada, a young Afghan woman in Kabul who was falsely accused of burning a Qur’an. Within minutes she was fighting for her life. A few minutes more and the mob had beaten her to death and set fire to her body—all because of lies told by wicked people who held a grudge against her.
These are lies told with the intent of harming or defaming someone. These are lies told in a context that inflames outrage and leads to mob violence resulting in death. The kind of lies prohibited by the commandment are not the little social lies we tell to people we don’t care about, nor are they the self-protective or self-aggrandizing lies we tell to escape censure or obtain approbation. They are lies told to harm someone else. I don’t mean to imply that harmless lies—if there are such things—are somehow blameless. Rather, to qualify as a lie prohibited on God’s top ten list, it has to be a lie that is intended to harm a neighbor. It has to be slander or defamation.