Subterfuge

“And it came to pass that when the bringing of the gift had come to an end, he sent home the people who carried the gift. But he turned back from the idols which were at Gilgal and said, ‘A secret thing is with me for you, O king.’ And he said, ‘Silence!’ And all the ones who stood by him went from him.”

(Judges 3:18-19)

The tribute is brought and here we clearly know that this “gift” is more than just what is at the right side of Ehud. Yet, still, the language of the text is intentionally ambiguous in some key areas. The most important area is that of the “secret thing” or “secret message” or “something secret” that Ehud has for Eglon.

The term that is translated as “thing” here is rDb∂;d (dabar). This Hebrew word can mean a whole litany of things depending on its context. It can refer to a word, an idea, a physical thing, or even to a command or set of instructions. Clearly, here will be a context where Eglon misunderstands the meaning of this word…or at least, he understands it in a different way than Ehud is using it.

This leads us to an important ethical question. Is Ehud lying by being intentionally vague? In argumentation, this is called equivocation, or the logical fallacy of equivocation, where depending how words are used, the sentence that contains them can be understood in very different ways. This, is the thing that puns are made up, but it is also something that kids tend to be quite adept at, particularly when trying to fool their parents while also trying to avoid lying (at least technically so).

The historic confessions of the Christian faith would remind us that the ninth commandment deals with more than just outright lying before a magistrate, thus bearing false witness. The Westminster Larger Catechism, for example teaches that the ninth commandment forbids speaking untruth in any form, forgery, hiding sins, boasting, or concealing the truth. The Heidelberg Catechism affirms the same and also goes on to say that the expectation of this commandment is that we love the truth. So, isn’t this use of double-entendre, though technically not lying, still breaking the ninth commandment?

It seems that we have two directions with which we can take this question. The first, and arguably the simplest, is to suggest that while this subterfuge is sin, and thus not a model for us to follow, God still uses the sins of his people to accomplish his good purposes. Certainly we find lots of examples of this, Samson being one of the first that comes to mind. Samson broke every one of his Nazarite vows, he slept with a prostitute and with a woman who was not his wife, and he was a bit of a terrorist when it came to his assaults on the Philistines (I am thinking about the foxes…). Yet, all of this was part of God’s good design to punish the Philistines for their oppression of Israel. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, killed to hide his sin. That adulterous affair ended up adding Bathsheba to David’s already growing list of wives, again, not what I would argue was the Biblical model established in Genesis 2. Yet, from that relationship came Solomon. So, one might simply argue that such subterfuge was sin and would always be sin, yet God sovereignly uses even our sin to accomplish his designs.

The trouble with that answer is that first, it almost seems to excuse the sin (for God will make good things happen anyhow) and it seems to follow into a matter of the end justifying the means, which the Bible never advocates. Plus, there are times when others seem to lead one down a road that could be construed as misleading before the Truth is revealed.

An example of this can be found in the way that Nathan rebukes David after David’s affair with Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 12:1-15). Nathan told a parable about a rich man stealing from a poor man to illustrate what it was that David had done to Uriah. To expand on that idea, when Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain why he teaches in parables, Jesus answers that the purpose is to conceal the truth from those who are spiritually blind and deaf (Matthew 13:10-17).

One can easily argue, given the context, that Ehud’s situation with Eglon is much the same as Nathan’s with David. In both cases, the truth is being somewhat concealed (though in both cases the truth was revealed in the end) and in both cases, judgment was being brought (in the case of Ehud, it would be Eglon’s death; in the case of Nathan, it would be the death of David and Bathsheba’s first son). Even in the case of Jesus’ parables, the intention is judgment as well (by Jesus’ own admission).

So, what principle ought we draw from this encounter? Is there now justification for lying? No, there is not justification for lying, it is breaking the ninth commandment. How about justification for concealing the truth? Perhaps, but I would argue that what we find here is that when truth is being concealed in each of these cases, the intent is not to mislead, but instead to position yourself in a situation where truth can be revealed in judgment over sin. In the case of David and Nathan, that is pretty obvious. Nathan is concealing the truth within a parable for the purpose of causing David to condemn himself. In the case of Ehud and Eglon, Ehud is concealing the truth within double-entendre, to give him the opportunity to get close enough to Eglon to carry out his God-given task: judgment on the wicked king. In the case of Jesus, we again see the same principle. Jesus is speaking truth clothed in a parable so that the wicked who are under condemnation do not repent and are held under condemnation until the day they stand in judgment where the truth will be fully revealed.

In most cases, then, we still need to be very careful about subterfuge because it can easily fall into the realm of lying or at the very least, intending to deceive. Yet, in the case of Ehud, there is Biblical president in the way that God works with his people and certainly also in the way that Jesus, who was sinless, commonly taught.

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