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death faith jesus lying myth sin spiritual life trust

Who Lied? Literal Truth and Deception – Part 2

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In my last post, I closed with an accusation of lying against God. In this post I intend to clear him of the charge—even though he does not need my defense.

How you understand what someone says depends on how much you trust that person. If you trust them a lot, you will try to interpret what they say as truthful. You will be generous and allow them a lot of freedom to use metaphorical language. If you don’t trust them, however, you will treat what they say with suspicion. You will be guarded and construe what they say as literally as possible.* You can see the difference if you compare love letters to legal contracts. Love letters are written with an expectation that the reader will construe what is said with love and kindness. The language is very open and highly metaphorical. Legal contracts are written with the expectation that the reader may construe them with suspicion and hostility. The language is very careful, circumspect, and literal. Terms are clearly and carefully defined.

We think that we trust others because they tell us the truth, but that is actually backwards. We believe that others tell us the truth because we trust them. Our default is trust. We meet strangers and trust them immediately, and our trust is usually justified. We don’t normally fact-check the clerk who tells us the price of an unmarked item is $12.99. Occasionally we meet people who take advantage of our trust to lie to us or cheat us, but they are the exception not the rule. We normally expect others to tell us the truth even though we do not know them and have no reason to trust them. True, we don’t construe what they say with the same generosity that we use with those who love us, but we also don’t treat them with the same suspicion that we reserve for people who have already wronged us.

In the myth of the Fall, the serpent does not lie to deceive Eve. Instead, he insinuates that God has an ulterior motive for his prohibition. He implies that God is not concerned about protecting her life but about excluding her from opportunities she ought to have. He introduces suspicion into her normal and natural trust of God. Eve is tempted by the prospect of improving her life but also by the suspicion that God is withholding that improvement from her.

Adam and Eve do not suffer biological death when they eat the fruit. It is not poisonous. Something happens, however. They experience shame. They feel exposed and want to conceal themselves from one another and from God. They hide. They blame others for their own choices. Though their bodies remain healthy, something within them has died just as God had said. This metaphorical understanding of death continues throughout the whole bible. Read Ezekiel 18 with this in mind, and it makes a whole lot more sense. Paul tells the Ephesians that they were dead in there sins until they believed in Christ. In the same way, the eternal life implied in Genesis that comes from eating the fruit of the tree of life is not an unending biological life. It is the eternal life that Jesus promises his followers, a life that overcomes their fear of death and makes them invincible. Those who put their trust in Jesus pass from death into life. He restores them to a relationship with God characterized by mutual trust and love.

Some people have strayed so far from this trust in God that they do not even believe he exists. They imagine that the whole story is a fairy tale perpetuated by the powerful to dominate the ignorant. I know that for the most part I cannot change minds and hearts so distrustful of God. Jesus came into a culture where God was viewed as an exacting tyrant, insisting with hair-splitting accuracy on correct behavior. Jesus revealed God to be utterly different, a loving Father who embraces those who return to him and throws them a party. Yes, he is demanding, but in the way a good Father demands the best of his children, encouraging them, comforting them, loving them, and at times disciplining them. But he is not harsh. His commands are not burdensome; they are easy. His way is not weighed down with impossible demands; it is light. He encourages his children to love one another, help one another, carry one anothers’ burdens, and forgive one another. This is the God I serve. He does not lie. He does not deceive. He invites us to trust him and live.

*This goes a long way toward explaining the wildly differing accounts of events offered by supporters of Hillary Clinton and those of Donald Trump. Trump’s supporters give Hillary’s statements and events in which she has been involved the worst possible construction. Clinton’s supporters do the same to Trump. They trust their own candidate and treat as self-serving and cynically manipulative anything the opposing candidate says or does. This is not to say that the candidates are equal. But their supporters are roughly equal in their regard for truth and justice.
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death lying myth sin theology trust

Who Lied? Literal Truth and Deception – Part 1

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The myth of the Fall as told in Genesis 2 and 3 is one of the fundamental narratives of Western culture. Even those who completely reject it have to come to an understanding of it because it so pervades our perception of what it means to be human. The common understanding of it is this:

God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, a lush sanctuary where they could live and work in comfort and security. Along with all the trees God provided for food, he placed two special trees. One was the Tree of Life, of which a man might eat and live forever. The other was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, of which God forbade the two to eat, telling them that if they did they would certainly die.

One day the serpent, who was craftier than the other beasts, encountered Eve and asked her, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the Garden?”

“We may eat from any tree except the one in the middle of the Garden. He said if we eat from it or even touch it we will certainly die.”

“You will not certainly die,” said the serpent. “God has forbidden it because he knows that if you eat from it, you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”

Eve believed the serpent. She saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and desirable to make one wise, so she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then their eyes were opened. They became aware of their nakedness and sewed together fig leaves to cover their bodies.

Later God discovers them cowering among the trees and finds out that they have disobeyed his command. He pronounces curses on each participant. The serpent becomes a slithering beast who must eat dust. The woman is cursed with pain in childbirth. The man is cursed with drudgery, working very hard just to survive. Then God expels the pair from the Garden and places cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance to prevent them returning and eating from the Tree of Life and living forever.

First off, it’s worth noting that by any objective standard, God is the villain of this piece. He does not appear as a loving Father but as an arbitrary and vindictive autocrat, punishing an outcome he surely must have foreseen, even if he were of only average intelligence and not all-knowing and all-wise. The hero of the story is the serpent. He risks God’s wrath to bring a wisdom and understanding to the human pair that God had apparently reserved for himself. Like Prometheus giving fire to humans, he defies God and lifts the unwitting humans out of their subservience and into genuine autonomy, by which they become fully human. If God chooses to curse them for their defiance, it is because he is evil, for their intentions were noble: they wanted to be like him.

Yet this is not the common interpretation given to this story. A few visionaries (for example, William Blake) have seen it this way, but for the most part, we all know that God is good and just, the serpent is the devil, and the human pair sinned and brought evil into the world. I don’t want to go into the differences between the interpretations we’ve inherited and the one I just expressed (which might be called a literal interpretation). I want to focus on just one question that we might ask of the story. Who lied?

According to the traditional understanding, the serpent lied. Eve lends support to this understanding when she testifies, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Yet her testimony is suspect because she seeks to deflect the blame that Adam had just cast on her. In fact, if we carefully consider the serpent’s words, we find that everything he said was literally true. God really did forbid eating from just the one Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they ate, they did not die. God himself testifies later that they had become like him, knowing good and evil.

The one thing that the serpent says which flatly contradicts what God had said is this, “You will not certainly die.” In fact, Adam and Eve did not die. They both lived on for many years—for hundreds of years, if the stories of antediluvian longevity are to be believed. Since what the serpent said was true and contradicts what God had said, it is rather God who must have lied. He told the human pair that they would die, but they did not. By taking God’s and the serpent’s words literally, we have to conclude that God lied and the serpent told the truth.

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lying ten commandments

9. No Lying

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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 liedtwice—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.

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