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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.

Swearing

“So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his lord and he swore to him on these matters.”

(Genesis 24:9)

 

Isn’t it interesting how there seems to be such a different emphasis in the Old and the New Testaments when it comes to swearing an oath. Here we find Abraham requesting his chief servant swear an oath to him regarding the journey that he will go upon looking for the woman we will later know as Rebekah. In fact, God himself commands that his people, if they swear, they shall swear by his name, Yahweh (Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20). When the command is given about not taking the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7) it is not implying that God’s people should never use God’s name nor is it implying that we ought never swear by God’s name, but it is saying that we should not do so for vain (empty or thoughtless) purposes. The same command is given in Leviticus applying to all oaths taken (Leviticus 5:4) and clarified later that we are not to swear by God’s name falsely (Leviticus 19:12; Psalm 24:4). In fact, when it comes to God’s wrath in judgment, He puts those who swear falsely in the same category as sorcerers, adulterers, and those who abuse the widow and orphan (Malachi 3:5).

Yet, when we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus speaking these words:

“Again, it was spoken in ancient times, ‘You shall not perjure yourself, but you shall pay out to the lord your oath. But I say to you do not swear at all — neither by heaven for it is the throne of God, nor by the earth for it is the stool for his feet, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Neither should you swear by your head for you do not have the power to make one hair white or black. Instead, let your word be, ‘yes, yes’ and ‘no, no;’ anything more than this is from the evil one.”

(Matthew 5:33-37)

So how do we reconcile these two things? Is this just a change in the way that God expects us to do business or is there something else going on here? The answer to these questions seems to be rooted in the context of what Jesus is teaching as well as in the use of the term “lord.”

In New Testament Greek, the  term ku/rioß (kurios) or “lord” has both a general and a specific meaning. In terms of the general meaning, it can refer to anyone who is in authority over you — an employer, a master, a leader, etc… It can also be used as a simple term of respect, much like we would use the term “sir” today. Its specific use is essentially the superlative of the idea of lordship and is only used of God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint or the LXX, the word ku/rioß (kurios) was used to translate both the Hebrew words yˆnOdSa (Adoniy — usually written as “Adonai”) and hwhy (Yahweh). Thus, when the specific use of the term ku/rioß (kurios) is applied to Jesus in the New Testament, we recognize it to be the application of the covenantal name of God to our Lord and Savior.

The practical question, though, is which use of the term ku/rioß (kurios) is Jesus intending in this passage? Typically, translations of the New Testament have seen this as a specific use of the term “Lord” thus have written it with a capital “L.” This is based on the references to the Third Commandment that are found in the Old Testament in terms of not vowing falsely when you use the Lord’s name (see references above). And while that might seem the plain reading of the text at the onset, the statement that Jesus makes is not implying that one is using the Lord’s name as part of the oath, but instead it is toward the lord that one is making said vow. Thus, it seems that it is better to understand this passage as a comment on the Ninth Commandment, not on the Third. In turn, the “lord” in reference, being the one to whom you are making an oath, is a human master or leader.

A reading focused on Jesus’ interpretation of the Ninth Commandment would also be consistent with the rest of this section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus addresses the Sixth Commandment (Matthew 5:21-26), the Tenth Commandment (Matthew 5:27-30), the Seventh Commandment (Matthew 5:31-32), and the Eighth Commandment (Matthew 5:38-42) respectively. This covers Jesus’ interpretation of the second half of the Law (Commandments 6-10) if understood in this way. Jesus then teaches that we ought not ever be in a position where we need to take oaths to confirm the truthfulness of our words — in other words, because we build a reputation where our “yes is yes” and our “no is no,” there is no question of a need to swear an oath.

If that is so, then we are still left with a bit of a quandary. If Jesus is teaching us that we should never need to swear, why here is Abraham still demanding the oath from his servant? Surely Abraham knows the character of his chief servant by this point in his life. The easy out is simply to say that Abraham slipped in his faith and demanded something from Eliezer that he ought not have demanded. Yet that answer is a bit of a cop-out based not only on the context of Abraham’s request but also on the various teachings of scripture calling for oaths in God’s name. It is also tempting to draw a line of division between different kinds of oaths. It could be argued, and rightly so, that this oath that Abraham is swearing his servant to is an oath in connection with the covenantal promises of God, not simply a human transaction to which Jesus (and the Ninth Commandment) arguably is speaking. While at the onset, this might seem to be appealing, it creates divisions that seem a bit artificial to the reading of the text.

The better answer seems to be the way in which Jesus is interpreting the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. He is deliberately intensifying them not only to show the intention behind the commandment, but also to make sure that none of us walk away from the Ten Commandments feeling as if we have somehow satisfied the command by satisfying the letter of the law. Thus, Jesus states that if you are angry with another person, you are guilty of breaking the law against murder; if you have lusted in your heart, you are guilty of adultery, and thus, if you have taken an oath by anything that is outside of your sphere of control (which, apart from your word is not much), you have broken the commandment about not bearing false witness.

And here we have an answer, I believe, that suits the context of Abraham’s action while also understanding what Jesus is trying to show us in the Sermon on the Mount. Abraham is a man of faith, but he is also a sinner — as we are all. Indeed, we should strive to live a sinless life, but the reality is, we all fall short of the mark in our daily activities and we need to take that principle and set it before us always.

So, then, what ought we do when making a contract with another? Should we take an oath or not? The best answer to that is first, never bear false witness against another so that they want anything more than a “yes” or “no” from you along with a handshake or a signature. Yet, if their conscience is burdened or if they do not know you and desire a greater assurance, said oath may be taken, but do not take the oath on heaven and earth or even on the hairs of your own head. First of all, you neither made them nor can control them. Second of all, there is someone higher and greater than the heavens and the earth — compared with whom the heavens and the earth are rather puny. Indeed, God states (and Jesus does not contradict) that we ought to swear an oath by the name of Yahweh, the God and creator of all things. He is the superlative of superlatives and you belong to him. It is not that your oath will compel Yahweh to complete what you cannot complete, but your oath, taken in holy reverence for the one in whose name you are taking it, ought to compel you to truth and action. May your word be your bond, but if you are compelled to swear an oath, do not do so by anything in creation for the earth and the stars cannot compel you to action; God can and will.