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The Duty of all Mankind:

A Primer on Applied Biblical Ethics

 

Nishanth Arulappan

Abstract

Ethical theory has wide and far-reaching implications – not just for abstract academic discussions, but also for daily existential situations. While there are several angles and approaches to the study of ethics, this paper attempts to build a Biblical model of ethical theory based on: (i) a systematic approach to relevant Scriptural passages, and (ii) specific case studies from the Bible. The doctrinal model that will be constructed will be a foundational framework for fluid application across various categories and situations. Thus, this paper is a ‘primer’ and also has a practical bent: it studies how man’s obedience to God’s revealed commands is played out in history, in the light of His sovereignty. Ethical theories – both secular and Christian – will be mentioned in relevant places as it bears upon the discussion.

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I. Introduction: Worldview & Ethics

Many great minds, across the last several hundred centuries of Christian history and human existence, have attempted to understand the full scope of divine revelation, and express the unchanging truth of the Bible in their times and circumstances. It is the task of theologians and Bible teachers to explain the truth of God’s Word to the Church (Ephesians 4:11-13). There are several hundred tomes on Christian living and practical theology, written in each generation that builds on the works of previous scholars. But one theme that has been the foundation of all discussion is the metaphysics of morality. The epistemological justification for an ethical decision is ultimately based on a metaphysical foundation.

One’s views of right and wrong are eventually tied on one’s ultimate view of reality. The scientist who plagiarizes another person’s work does so because he believes that there is no right and wrong in science. The married man who maintains a mistress does so because he believes in a particular concept of masculinity, where it is considered “macho” to furtively support an extra woman. The manager, who arranges to fire his employee without valid justification for termination, does so because he believes that his authority is absolute and final – that is, he answers to no one but himself. It’s not uncommon to come across situations like these in real life, and in fact, the author has interacted with characters, who justified their behavior, in the exact situations described above.

Thus, what one believes about ultimate reality – or God – will determine how they behave in their everyday lives. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of key characters mentions this: “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permissible.” Without God – to whom all men must render an account of their thoughts, motives, and actions – moral actions are meaningless. Without an absolute and objective reference point to anchor our thoughts and actions, one is left to wallow in the mire of relativism, and subjectivism. Due to the post-modern influence that pervades public consciousness, many believe that ideological plurality negates the existence of absolute truth, and any claim to exclusivity is derided with passion.

In regular conversation, when different people from different cultures and places, use the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’, there seems to be a reasonable degree of overlap in the meaning of the concept. This is what makes conversation meaningful and even possible in the first place! However, when pressed to specifics there may be more than a few points of disagreement about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ The mere existence of several views of right and wrong does not in itself prove that all views have ontological equality. For example, relativists cannot explain why in Culture X, to “love your neighbor as yourself” is considered virtue, and in Culture Y, eating them for dinner is a sign of tribal honor and chieftainship. Of course, the people in culture X would be repulsed by the behavior of culture Y, but this is not just an eccentric anthropological phenomenon. This raises very fundamental questions.

Why is one standard of behavior right, and why is another standard of behavior wrong? Who defines it? Why should one culture accept the standards proposed by another culture? If the example of cannibalism seems too extreme, let’s look at something more relevant today. In certain cultures, mostly in the Middle East, when it comes to marriage, the groom has to pay a bride-price to the father of the bride, as a sign of goodwill to show that he has what it takes to provide for the bride. But in certain cultures in South-Asia, the girl’s parents have to pay what is called a ‘dowry’ (usually, a rather hefty sum) to the groom and the groom’s family as a token of…….God-knows-what! In fact, this is such serious issue in certain traditional societies, where women are mistreated and harassed for not bringing in enough dowry despite the existence of legislation that forbids such practice.[1]

Of course, worldviews are at the heart of the issue. Whether it is cannibalism, dowry, female infanticide, women’s literacy, ethical decisions in a warzone, or anything else – what one considers as good or bad is ultimately defined by what one believes to be true or false. The mere fact that there are varying definitions for good and bad, with a significant overlap in meaning, actually point to the existence of an objective and absolute standard. The extent of deviation from that objective and absolute standard is what leads to varying definitions of good and bad in various cultures across the world today.

Relativism cuts itself with the very sword it tries to wield so widely against its opponents: if everything is relative, then even the very concept – “that everything is relative” – is relative! So, why should anyone take a relativist seriously? To appear to be consistent, the relativist has to make an arbitrary exception to his foundational concept. That is, the very idea of relativism is an absolute one which is imposed on everyone with such force! Absolutes are unavoidable; otherwise meaning and conversation wouldn’t be possible. It’s not just a matter of logical consistency and fallacy – though that is primary – but of daily existential relevance.

 

II. The Biblical Worldview

Each ethical decision (“What?”) requires an epistemological justification (“Why?”) and this in turn is ultimately predicated on a metaphysical foundation (“What is real?”). The existence of an absolute and objective standard has been shown previously. The question now is: how can man know that? The purpose of this article is not apologetic – that is, defending the primacy and exclusivity of Biblical worldview. The scope of this article does not permit a detailed discussion on that topic.[2]

But let us quickly summarize the answer: there is an objective and absolute standard because it flows from God’s own nature, and He has revealed that standard in His Word. Without revelation from God – who defines right and wrong – justifying any action as praiseworthy or blameworthy is impossible. God is creator of the universe, and He defines the proper relationship between man and God, with fellow men, and the rest of creation. This is the metaphysical foundation for biblical ethical theory. The epistemological justification is revelation – God has revealed Himself in the words of the Bible, in whole and part – and thus, man can know the truth about God, about the rest of the created universe, and about God’s ethical requirements. Man derives meaning from knowing God and relating to Him and to fellow men according to the precepts given in His Word.

Man is made in the image of God, and in its very basic essence this is a rational mind – a mind that can think, emote, and relate to God’s revelation. This ‘image of God’ is what separates him from the rest of creation – both living and inanimate – and he is able to understand God’s commands, and commune with Him. While God revealed the Ten Commandments and various other laws from Mount Sinai in an explicitly verbal form to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, “He has not left Himself without witness” among the Gentiles either (Acts 14:17). Romans 2:14-15 mentions that God has inscribed the moral laws in the hearts of all people – what we call ‘conscience’ – and this is why all men have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. God created Adam in His own image, and from him made the nations. This also explains why men across times and ages have a universal sense of right and wrong – all men are made in the image of God, and God has inscribed his moral law in the form of ‘conscience’ in their hearts.

God has revealed Himself in the created universe, and that’s why when one looks at a sunset on a snowy mountain top, a feeling of transcendence overwhelms him, and his heart yearns for something beyond just the moment. The Bible says that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and in Romans 1:18-25 it is explained in detail that by looking at nature, one ought to recognize God’s hand. Instead, due to sin, men have rebelled and “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness,” inviting God’s wrath on themselves. This suppression of truth has been the defining principle of sin, and it manifests itself in various forms of rebellion against God. This ‘revelation’ in creation is called ‘general revelation’ and though it points to the existence of a supernatural deity and Creator, it does not provide any specific information of salvific value.

This is why special revelation is needed – specific and true information about God. The Bible is God’s personalized revelation to mankind. In Psalm 19, the contrast between general and special revelation is clearly marked out. The first 6 verses explain general revelation, and the remaining 5 verses explain the necessity of special revelation.

Building this biblical anthropological foundation was necessary, and now we can move forward with the express purpose of this article.

 

III. Methodology & Statement of Purpose

In a recent discussion with my medical ethics mentor, Dr. Payne, he mentioned a legal adage, that ‘hard cases make bad law.’ That is, do not let the unusual determine what is normative. He urged me to study only real-life examples. Many of the ethical dilemmas posited by theorists may not have actually happened in reality. Why study those that are theoretical only? Force the theorists to give actual real life examples, and not just what may or may not happen. Most of the so-called “ethical dilemmas” or “paradoxes” exist only in the minds of the debaters, and the actual outcomes of most case-studies are rarely mentioned.

Thus in this paper, all the case studies that I cite are based on actual events that are recorded in the Bible and have occurred in history. The main reason for this selection is because we have the relationship between the concerned party and God, the outcome of the events as a result of the person’s obedience/disobedience to God’s commands, and the way God controlled the situation. Thus, there is no need to hypothesize what would or wouldn’t have happened in a specific situation, if a particular decision was made. The Bible records God’s moral imperatives for all situations, and when a party has obeyed or violated those principles, the outcomes in those situations, and God’s approval or disapproval are recorded for us accordingly. A systematic analysis of these case studies coupled with basic doctrinal principles will enable us to build our model.

The principles of biblical ethical theory are identical to biblical worldview principles. Therefore, a fundamental requirement for building a strong foundation in biblical doctrine is to have a systematic understanding of the Bible. So the more one acquires an organized and holistic grasp of God’s Word, the better prepared they will be to make sound and precise ethical decisions in the situations that confront them.

The purpose of this paper is not to apply the Biblical worldview in various fields of present-day concerns, though that is also equally important. For detailed discussion on how the Biblical worldview applies in various spheres of life, please visit www.biblicalworldview21.org.

The author assumes that the reader is someone who already believes foundational biblical doctrines and has been ‘born again’ – regenerated by the Spirit of God (John 3:8). Though this article has a heavy theoretical foundation, it is more geared towards practical theology/applied philosophy, and primarily intended for those who know God, or rather, “those who are known by God” (Galatians 4:9).

 

IV. Divine Command Ethics

God is the creator and man is the creature. God is sovereign over all of creation, and this renders man accountable to God. Wilhelmus Brakel said: ‘the character of God eternally obligates the creature.’[3] In the Garden of Eden, God made all provision for Adam and Eve, and gave them a simple command: to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They violated it, and were cast out from God’s presence. This marked the entry of sin into the world.

There was nothing intrinsic in that particular tree or its fruit that invited God’s prohibition. Rather, what defined that act as sinful was simply the divine prohibition against eating from that tree. In this sense, God’s authority is wholly intrinsic and not subject to any external factor. What God defines as good is good, and what God calls evil is evil. There is no other being or principle in the universe to which God is subject to. God’s sovereignty implies that He governs the universe for His own glory and the reasons for His precepts and decrees are subject to His own will, wisdom, and pleasure. To understand this correctly is the starting point of biblical ethics. Thus, we read:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1:7)

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments.” (Psalm 111:10)

This solves Euthyphro’s dilemma. In the polytheistic context of the Greek pantheon, Socrates is said to have asked: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" In other words, do the gods consider something ‘good’ because it is intrinsically good, or does something become ‘good’ simply because it is loved by the gods? What is ultimate: the ‘good’ or the gods? The dilemma existed because the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses were basically an exaggerated version of mankind, wielding presumably supernatural powers not available to man. If the gods considered something ‘good’ just because it was intrinsically good, then goodness is something beyond the gods themselves, and even they were required to abide by it. Thus, the gods were not ultimate. On other hand, if something is good simply because the gods love it, then goodness was arbitrary since no one could predict what the gods would or wouldn’t do. The gods were filled with rage, passion, fury, and promiscuity. They often schemed and fought among themselves. So, if that was the case, then any idea of ‘good’ would have been constantly shifting based on the whims of the gods. Therefore, Euthyphro was on the horns of a dilemma, and didn’t have an answer within the confines of the Greek pantheon.

However, the God of the Bible is not a mythological fabrication of cultural tradition, and is unlike any of the idols of wood and stone, carved and painted by the skill and imagination of man. Isaiah 44:9-20 and Jeremiah 10 are a satire and polemic against idolatry. The biblical answer is that, there is one God and goodness is intrinsic to His nature. “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Goodness is ‘good’ because it flows from God’s own nature. And because God is unchanging, the definition of goodness does not change from time to time.

"For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Malachi 3:6)

"Of old You founded the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. Even they will perish, but You endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing You will change them and they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end.” (Psalm 102:25-27)

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

So, how does this fit in with ethical theory? An act is either good or evil, simply because God has so commanded it. God is the ultimate sovereign creator and ruler of this universe, and there is no other or higher power than God to whom He must give account to for His definitions and precepts. Good and evil is defined by God. God’s commandments regulate and define imperatives for all of human thought and conduct.  Thus, the extent to which we have a consistent understanding of His precepts, our thinking perfectly mirrors God’s thoughts on a particular matter.

God’s precepts refer to his commandments and His decrees refer to the sovereign plans of how He has ordained to fulfill His purposes in history. When faced with a situation, we should be focused on following the precepts of God, and not trying to conjecture what His decree would be in a particular situation. As we shall see in the case studies, there have been several situations where despite egregious violations of God’s precepts, God has still wrought good outcomes as a result of His sovereign power and control over the destinies of nations and individuals. But this does not in any way endorse the violation of the precepts.

Good and evil are clearly defined by the precepts/commandments of God, and any attempt to blur the distinction is met with condemnation and disapproval.

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)

 

V. Alternative Theories

There are two theories that have gained traction in the last few decades that claim a seemingly Scriptural approach to their position. Though there are insuperable logical criticisms that can be levelled against them, I will focus mostly on the biblical refutation. And in the case studies section, I will offer further criticisms on both these theories as and when necessary.

 

(a) Situational Ethics

The first is situational ethics, also known as contextualism, popularized by Joseph Fletcher. This claims that different ethical principles apply in different situations, they should be judged on a case-by-case basis, and there are no absolute and binding moral principles. Love should be the highest deciding principle, and not any absolute prescriptive claims. This view is rooted in relativism, and though it is frequently claimed that “love” should be the guiding principle, Fletcher does not follow a biblical definition of love. Love is left to be defined by the party in question. Using this way of thinking, any forms of sin can be justified, all in the name of a higher principle of ‘love’ – and due to the relativist underpinning of this theory, ‘love’ can mean anything to anybody.

Now, the Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:7-8), but God does not give us the liberty to define love on our own terms – according to each person’s private fancies. There are countless other verses that explain how God defines it. And quite contrary to Fletcher, love does not replace nor transcend the law. Rather, obedience to God is the true expression of love.

In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3)

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mathew 22:35-40).

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Galatians 5:14)

The love of God does not abolish the moral absolutes and prescriptive moral claims. Rather, it reinforces and demands an even stricter adherence to God’s commands. Rather than curtailing obedience to mere outward conduct, even the motives and thoughts of one’s heart is enough to render one guilty before God (Mathew 5:22,28). Love does not replace the law, but love is the fulfillment of the law. Without the moral absolutes that God has commanded, it wouldn’t even be possible to broadly define love in the first place, let alone consider what ‘love’ means in a particular situation. The entire law is fulfilled – not abolished or replaced – by the command to love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus said that the command to love your neighbor proceeds from the primary command to love God with all your heart, concluding that all the Law & the Prophets (the entire Old Testament) hangs on these two commandments.

Thus, love for God or love for our neighbor is defined by the moral imperatives and prescriptive commands that God has defined in His Word. To assume a definition of ‘love’ that is foreign to the Bible, or to enforce a moral theory that leaves God’s definitions out of the question is unscriptural and invites God’s wrath (Isaiah 5:20).

 

(b) Heirarchialism

The other view that we will consider is heirarchialism, or graded absolutism. This claims that in in a situation where two or more of God’s precepts are in conflict, we are commanded to obey the higher one. Obeying the higher precept outranks other moral considerations, and thus God will not hold people accountable for violating the lesser precept. This was mainly popularized by Norman Geisler and John Jefferson Davis. The basic premise in graded absolutism seems to be that there can be a genuine contradiction in the commands of God. When obeying commandment X inevitably involves violating commandment Y, we are permitted to violate the lesser commandment.

Imagine you are the innkeeper in a warzone who is secretly protecting refugees who are being persecuted. The belligerents are combing through the regions, seeking to kill any refugees. They can be at your door anytime. Now, will you “tell the truth” when the soldiers ask you? But doing so will result in the capture and death of the innocent refugees. Or, would you rather lie about it in order to “save the lives” of the refugees? This is the classical test case scenario, and those who advocate graded absolutism would approve of the latter action. That is, it is alright to violate the lesser precept in order to fulfill a higher responsibility. In fact, some would even stress that one is obligated to commit the lesser sin in order to uphold the higher good. This is a fictional scenario, and I mentioned it just to illustrate this theory.

Before looking at the practical considerations, let us get God’s view on this matter.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2:10-11)

Thus, breaking one law is as good as breaking the whole thing, and those who advocate that it is alright to violate one commandment in favor of the other, have certainly got it wrong. It is never necessary to violate one precept to uphold another, because God knew what He was doing when He gave us His commandments. This is His universe and He is in control of all situations. Even in the above fictional scenario, one is not left with binary options. If you are someone who truly knows and fears God, you are not limited to either of those options. The fear of man will not be the controlling factor in your decision. God sovereignty does not imply that His transcendence shuts him out from your situations. God promises to be with you when you approach him with a contrite heart (Psalm 18:6, 120:1, Isaiah 57:15). God is not limited in His ability to intervene when you are keen to obey Him.

Real-life experience have been documented by several people who have obeyed God’s call to take the gospel into forbidden territories, and they were never required to violate any biblical precept in order to obey Him. Brother Andrew, affectionately called “God’s Smuggler” is the founder of Open Doors ministry, and he used to take Bibles into former Eastern European communist countries, where such a thing was forbidden. His biography is a fascinating read to see how God intervenes – whether the request is mundane or life-threatening.[4] Another similar person is Rudi Lack, who had taken the gospel through several African countries.[5] His biography too is a gripping account of how, despite coming across various situations at border controls, he never had to lie or proactively violate any biblical precept to achieve some higher end – and no end can be higher than preaching the gospel! In fact, in each situation in which they found themselves in, God always intervened, sometimes even in the nick of time.

Most Christians who come across accounts like those described above, would say that events like that are ‘supernatural’! But this is exactly what God promises us when we rely on His intervention, even as we seek to understand and obey Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He will intervene when you call out to Him – and you certainly don’t need to violate any of His precepts to fulfill another higher good.

Look at what Jesus said:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Mathew 23:23).

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mathew 5:19)

Jesus certainly points out that there is a hierarchy of commands, and there are certain sins that incur greater guilt than others (John 19:11). But the existence of the hierarchy is not an excuse for deliberate disobedience to the lesser commands. He never advocated that the lesser law can be violated in favor of the higher. Rather, when speaking about the more important matters of the law and the lesser precepts, Jesus says: “you should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

Thus, heirarchialism fails as a tenable biblical position, and those who teach and advocate it ought to consider the warning given in James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” And, those who teach that we can set aside the least of God’s commandments will be considered least in the kingdom of heaven (Mathew 5:19).

 

VI. Case Studies from Scripture.

Now, we will discuss several case scenarios that are recorded for us in the Bible. We will observe the actual events, moral imperatives that were applicable in that situation, and God’s verdict on the situation. We will also consider as much of the background context as necessary. But there is a warning to be mentioned right upfront: none of these scenarios can be used to advocate disobedience or compromise, and there are three specific points I would like to highlight in this regard.

(i) While God may have forgiven the sins of omission or commission committed by these people, they still had to face the consequences – sometimes almost immediately. And though God ultimately turned out all things for His glory and purposes, it does not justify the evil committed.

(ii) I have come across people who have said things like: “Even the people in the Bible did it.” The inference they usually try to draw by saying things like that is intended to be an excuse for licentious behavior and compromise. David is quoted for justifying adultery, and Jacob and Abraham are used to justify polygamy. Rahab and the Hebrew midwives are mentioned as justifications for lying. But, the behavior of these people does not serve to establish preceptive guidelines. The Bible records the heights of divine intervention in a person’s life, and yet does not minimize or hide the depravity and damage that is wrought by indwelling sin.

So, in abstract terms: an “is” does not establish an “ought.” An existential fact does not establish an ethical imperative. Ethics is not based on ontology, but on epistemology. God’s precepts serve to define right and wrong, and the behavior of people – regardless of how “great” they were in the biblical record – does not establish any precept. Rather, the very behavior of the people mentioned in the biblical record, are to be judged by God’s precepts.

(iii) Those who advocate blatant disobedience and justify their continuing wickedness, even after being shown otherwise, cannot escape God’s judgment. For people who say such things, we can only reply: “Their condemnation is just!”

Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just! (Romans 3:8).

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7)

Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy. (Proverbs 29:1)

So, with this in mind let us study these case scenarios with a sober heart. I have divided them into two main categories. The first deals with situations where even true believers in God, acted out of their unbelief and in fear, by deliberately falsifying the facts in a given situation. The second contains situations where the true mission was concealed from third-parties for operational reasons, or as an investigative technique to produce a confession, and this shows how God authorizes legitimate means of information security, when the situation warrants it. The other sections analyze how God sovereignly orchestrated even the worst events in history to bring about unimaginably righteous events for His glory. The other sections, though minor, will deal with other relevant concerns that bear on the topic.

 

 

[a] Deliberate Falsification

 

(i) Rahab’s Faith in Receiving the Spies

The Israelites were camped on the shores of the Jordan, and ready to enter the Promised Land. God had rescued them from Egypt, and what was meant to be just a 40 day journey ended up as a 40 year journey due to their unbelief. Forty years earlier they were on the brink of entering Canaan. God had authorized Moses to send out 12 men to reconnoiter the land (Numbers 13:1-2). However ten of them – excluding Joshua and Caleb – gave a negative and bad report about the land (v 32) and the people rebelled against God and Moses. God punished them for this and swore to them that none of them who had grumbled would enter the land, and for the next 40 years they would roam in the wilderness (14:34).

Now that 40 year period was over and Israel was camped east of the river Jordan, ready to enter the land. Joshua, evidently having learned from the outcome of the previous reconnaissance mission, now sends out only two men to gather basic information about land and its inhabitants (Joshua 2:1). They came to the house of a prostitute named Rahab. Now, what made them choose this specific spot to spend the night is not mentioned in Scripture. It could have been circumstantial – they found a place to stay, and ‘it so happened’ that it was Rahab’s residence. Or, they could have selected her residence as a deliberate security measure to avoid staying in regular civilian locations, to reduce visibility and exposure. Nonetheless, Jericho’s counterintelligence apparatus was working overtime, and this news soon reached the King of Jericho, who demanded that Rahab turn over the spies. Instead, she hid them on the roof of her house and lied to the pursuers that she didn’t know which way they went (Joshua 2:1-7).

There are two specific places in the New Testament, where Rahab’s action in hiding the spies is commended:

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. (Hebrews 11:31)

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (James 2:25)

First, what is Rahab commended for? Notice what I have italicized above. Nowhere, are we told that God approved of her lies, or appreciated her for that. Rather she is commended for receiving the spies, and not for the lies she spoke to Jericho’s security officers. There are so many other places in Scripture where God condemns lying, and for somebody to build a case that Rahab’s lies were approved by God, is to totally miss the mark.

Rahab was a woman of faith. Though Rahab is identified as a prostitute, it does not mean that she was actively involved in the practice at the time the Joshua 2 incident occurred. She had used flax on her roof to hide the men. Now, to hide two adult men requires a lot of flax. The mention of flax on Rahab’s roof, I think, is not an incidental reference. Flax is otherwise mentioned in Proverbs 31:13, and is actually associated with the woman of virtue! Thus, Rahab would have formerly been a prostitute, but now she was earning her living by virtuous industrious labor and not by immoral means. In her interaction with the spies, what comes out clearly is that Rahab in a believer in God. Her mention of how God led the Israelites out of Egypt, dried up the Red Sea, dealt with other kings who harassed them, shows that she is familiar with God’s protection over His people. Finally she mentions this: “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:11).

Thus, Rahab was a believer in the true God – even if only in an anachronistic sense – and she is commended for the way she received the spies, and certainly not for the way she handled the situation with Jericho’s pursuit team. Scripture’s silence on Rahab’s lies does not imply automatic approval of the same. Several other incidents from Scripture will disprove the idea that God commends lying – even when done with a noble motive to protect a higher interest. Rather what we can conclude about Rahab is this: she was a true believer – albeit one lacking in maturity and character.

 

(ii) The Hebrew Midwives & the Fear of God

The Israelites were multiplying in Egypt, and a new Pharaoh – who did not know what Joseph did for them – came to power. Threatened by the rapid multiplication of this people group, and fearing possible military alignment with his enemies, this Pharaoh commanded the midwives to destroy every Hebrew male child. But the Hebrew midwives did not do so, and God rewarded them for that.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own. (Exodus 1:15-21)

Those who advocate situational ethics or heirarchialism force it upon the text that the Hebrew midwives lied about the situation. In the previous case of Rahab, she deliberately falsifies the fact, and her behavior can be described as a “lie” in the correct sense of the term. But, in the case of the midwives, there is nothing in the text to actually indicate that the midwives lied. The superior maternal health status of the Hebrew women may have very well been an actual fact. So, to assert the midwives lied about the situation is to accuse the midwives of something they never did in the first place! The midwives are commended for fearing God, and that’s why God blessed them. To assume that they lied, and even worse – that God blessed them for doing so – is a completely alien concept that is forced into the text and has blasphemous implications.

If at all, this passage can be used to instruct us to fear God in every situation, regardless of who you are up against – even if it happens to be the King of Egypt! We should also marvel at how God granted better obstetric outcomes to the Israelite women, so that the midwives didn’t have to falsify any information. The Israelite women were delivered even before the midwives could reach them. Thus, this passage cannot be used to support either situational ethics or heirarchialism, but instead pushes us to fear God and trust Him to bring about outcomes that glorify Him and protect the innocent.

 

 

(iii) Abraham’s and Isaac’s Espousal of Deception

 

Abraham In Egypt

Abraham had obeyed God’s call to leave his homeland and come to Canaan. God promised to make a great nation out of him, and to even bless the earth through him and his offspring (Genesis 12:1-3, 7). But, on arrival there was famine in the land (v10), and Abraham temporarily relocated to Egypt. Now, Sarah was a beautiful woman, and Abraham feared that the Egyptians may kill him to take possession of his wife. So he devises a cover story: Sarah will say that she is Abraham’s sister, so that he will be spared, and treated well for her sake. But, on entering Egypt, Sarah is taken by Pharaoh’s men to his harem.

Keep in mind that Abraham had just received such great promises from God, and now Sarah was taken into Pharaoh’s harem – and the entire promise of God, and purity of the covenant bloodline was threatened. I doubt if Abraham even understood what was at stake. Abraham acted in fear and unbelief. Wanting to preserve his own life, the lie that he fabricated worked against everything that God was doing in Abraham’s life. Thus, God’s disapproval of the situation is clearly seen. If God had approved of it – as graded absolutionists would like to believe – then Sarah shouldn’t have been taken into Pharaoh’s harem.

In one sense, the lie “worked” as Abraham expected. When he asked Sarah to lie about their relationship, he assumed that he would be “treated well for her sake” and that “his life will be spared” on account of her (12:13). What drove Abraham to this state of mind was nothing but a desperate need for survival. We may find it hard to imagine that Abraham – who would later be called as the father of all those who believe (Romans 4:16) – is right now totally non-cognizant of the power of God to protect him and his wife. And what’s more appalling is that Abraham’s behavior is at odds with God’s promises and the very future of the Messianic bloodline was jeopardized.

Thankfully, God intervened before Pharaoh could take her, and struck Pharaoh’s household with serious diseases, because of “Abram’s wife Sarai” (12:17). Scripture takes special note to highlight in the end of verse 17, that Sarai was Abram’s wife – not his brother – and Pharaoh’s possession of her was illegal. Finally Pharaoh calls him and rebukes him for the deception, and asks him take his wife Sarai and leave the place immediately.

Does the concept of situational ethics find any support here? Abraham was certainly not acting in “love”- whatever that word means to the situationalist. He was acting in fear and unbelief, driven by a survival instinct, and not walking in the fear of God. Does “love” allow a man to place his wife in danger so that he can hide behind her to save himself? Is this what is called chivalry and honor? No situation – whether it is mundane or life-threatening – can rescind the absolutes that God has written on the conscience of every man. Not only was Sarah’s honor on the verge of being compromised, but Pharaoh and his household also suffered for Abraham’s sin.

Does the graded absolutionist think he can find any support here? God disapproves of Abraham’s action, and is actually has him rebuked by a pagan king! For Abraham to violate a lesser precept (lying about his marriage to Sarah) towards an allegedly greater end (preserving his life) not only jeopardized his marriage – and eventually God’s promises, which was to come through his marriage – but Pharaoh and his household as well. Thus, others had to suffer for Abraham’s sin. Violating a precept of God – and deliberately sinning – can never bring about blessing.

This first episode of Abraham’s deception is discouraging and even shocking – even the patriarchs acted in fear and unbelief, despite receiving such great promises from God. But, let us be charitable to Abraham, and assume that he was still learning about God, since he was just a new believer and had just walked out of the pagan beliefs and lifestyle in Mesopotamia (Acts 7:2). So his behavior, like Rahab’s fabrication can be explained – and NOT justified – on the basis that his character still lacked maturity and depth.

 

Abraham in Gerar

Surprisingly, in Genesis 20, Abraham repeats the same behavior with another pagan king called Abimelech, but with some technical finesse. Let’s get some more background here. In chapter 18, the Three Men had appeared to Abraham (a Trinitarian theophany), reconfirmed God’s promise to him, and gave further specifics of the promised son who was to be born. So, Abraham had a lot more details of God’s promise now (17:1) than he did 24 years earlier, when he had just left Ur, his homeland (12:4). So Abraham is not a rookie believer.

This time too, in deceiving Abimelech, the motive is for his life to be spared (20:11), but he adds all the necessary technical details to support his cover story. Though Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister (20:12, 11:29), and the cover-story matched the facts exactly, God still disapproved of Abraham’s behavior. God appears to Abimelech in a dream and warns him and shuts all the wombs in his household (20:6-7). Scripture again takes special effort to identify Sarah as Abraham’s “wife” (v. 14) and not as his half-sister – though that was technically true as well.

Where is the situationalist’s concept of “love” here? Read what Abraham says to Sarah: “This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’” (v 13). Abraham believed that Sarah should her “love” to Abraham by actually denying the marriage relationship! But God disapproves of Abraham’s conduct. The situationalist – with his private definition of ‘love’ – cannot find any support for his theory. Likewise neither can the graded absolutionist find any justification here, since God disapproved of the arrangement, and had Abraham once again rebuked by another pagan ruler.

 

Isaac in Gerar

Sometimes the sins of the fathers run in their children, and Isaac repeats this same behavior many years later. Genesis 26:6-11 details how Isaac too lied about Rebekah’s identity, in of an attempt to preserve his life. And this was right after he too had received great promises from God (v 3-4) assuring him of future blessing and protection. Again, God has Isaac rebuked by another Gentile ruler (v 9-10).

 

Thus, these three incidents clearly illustrate that God did not approve of the deceptive strategy espoused by Abraham and Isaac to hide the identity of their spouses. Psalm 105:12-15 mentions how God allowed no one to oppress them, and for their sake, he rebuked kings (a most likely reference to Pharaoh’s and Abimelech’s household being struck by God). God intervened and acted to rescue them not because they deceived, but despite their unbelief and unworthy conduct. Thus, God disapproves of lying – even if it is allegedly serving a higher end. A “white lie” is still a lie. Even if “the facts” are technically correct, God still didn’t approve of their deception. Neither the situationalist or the graded absolutionist can find support, and these events blatantly contradict those theories.

 

 

(iv) Jacob’s Deception to Receive the Blessing

Rebekah was barren, just like Sarah was. Isaac pleaded with God and in response, Rebekah conceived. She conceived twins, and as the children struggled together within her, and she “inquired of God” (Genesis 25:22). And “the Lord said to her” – not Isaac – about the future destinies of the twins and that the older shall serve the younger (v 23). Here, God’s decree is revealed in advance by special revelation to Rebekah. The family dynamics was polarized (v 28). Esau was a skilled hunter, and Isaac had a love for wild game. His affections naturally inclined towards his elder son and it was rooted in physical appetite rather than in spiritual reality. Rebekah on the other hand, loved Jacob, doubtless owing to the revelation she received from God on the destinies of the twins.

Isaac is now old, his vision has deteriorated, and the time has come to pass on the generational blessing (Genesis 27). He summons Esau and requests him to bring him some tasty meat – notice the emphasis on the appetite again – “so that” he may give him the blessing (v 4). Rebekah has been eavesdropping on this conversation and comes up with an elaborate plan to deceive Isaac to ensure that Jacob receives the blessing instead. Certainly what would have been foremost in Rebekah’s mind would have revelation that she had received earlier from God regarding the destinies of these two individuals. Isaac, admittedly, is still not aware of this, and one only wonders why Rebekah didn’t share this revelation with her husband.

Jacob brings the meal to Isaac, and when Isaac inquires about how he got the meal so soon, he replies: “the Lord your God gave me success” (v 20). Imagine that! He is in the thick of deception, and invoking God’s name in the process to justify his lies! Isaac correctly senses that the voice is like that of Jacob but the sheepskin covers resembles the hairy body of Esau. Rebekah is the master of disguise and ensured that no detail was left to chance: she made Jacob wear Esau’s clothes, and when Isaac smelled them, he falsely concluded that it was indeed Esau and gave Jacob the blessing, though the facts didn’t fit together.

Later when Esau finds out what occurred, Isaac trembles violently and says: “your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing” (v 35). Regardless of Rebekah’s motive – even if it was fueled by direct revelation from God – Jacob’s behavior is still classified as “deception.” There is no way anybody can edge around that fact. Esau nurses hatred for Jacob, and Rebekah advises him to flee to her brother’s place. Jacob arrives in Padan Arram, and falls in love with Rachel, and works for seven years to marry her. But on the wedding night, he is given Leah (Rachel’s elder sister) as his wife. The next day morning, he realizes that he has been deceived! God pays it back. Plus, there is no record that Jacob ever met his mother again, though she presumed that Jacob’s sojourn will only be for a short time (26:44-45).

This also brings us to another pertinent principle: the ends never justify the means. Rebekah, though having heard from God directly regarding the destinies of the twins, nonetheless erred in the means that she sought to achieve those ends. If she had told her husband about this revelation almost as soon as she had received it, or at least even during the moment when Esau had gone out to hunt, could things have been different? We need not speculate, but Rebekah ought to have known that the plans of man can never frustrate the counsels of God, and the ends don’t justify the means. Even if God has revealed His predestined plans in advance, we are still obligated to obey His precepts. As we obey Him, He will take charge of the situation and bring about His decrees.

 

 

(v) Saul’s Expediency & Justification

Saul was anointed as king, had reigned for two years, and now the Philistines drew up their battle lines against Israel. Samuel had earlier mentioned that Saul was to wait for seven days (1 Samuel 10:8), until he was to come and show him what to do. The command was very specific and not complicated to understand. But now the Philistines were gathering for battle, the Israelites were scattering. It was a demanding situation for Saul. In his desperation he took it on himself to offer the sacrifice. Saul, being a Benjaminite was not authorized to do so, something that was meant only those from the Levirate lineage.[6]

But when Samuel arrived, he remarked that Saul acted foolishly – though the situation was so demanding – and this resulted in the kingdom being torn from him (1 Samuel 13:13-14). The exigency or expediency of the situation does not justify disobedience to God’s command.

Two chapters later in 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul to go and “utterly destroy” the Amalekites, but Saul spares the Amalekite king Agag, and the best of the war booty. This too, is in blatant disobedience to God’s command. When Samuel goes to meet him after this, Saul even justifies his behavior saying that the best of the livestock was spared in order to sacrifice to God (v 15, 21)! His wickedness is of such an extent that he invokes the motive of service to God as a means to justify his disobedience! Of course, God didn’t accept that and Samuel pronounced the doom of Saul’s kingdom (v 22-29). Saul later confessed that he indeed transgressed the command, and acted out of the fear of the people (v 24).

Regardless of how urgent or demanding the situation is – the absolute commands of God always apply and are not nullified or negated by the situation. Saul disobeyed the commands, and as a result, lost the kingdom.

 

(vi) David as a Fugitive

David’s stunning victory over the Philistine giant brought him favor with the people and in Saul’s court. However, jealousy propelled Saul to seek to kill David. David fled for his life, and on several occasions, he deliberately falsified the information, and sometimes the consequences were tragic – not just for him, but for other innocent people involved along with him.

He fled to Nob, and lied to the chief priest that Saul had sent him on a secret mission, when in reality he was actually fleeing from Saul. Taking Goliath’s sword with him, he then fled to Achisch, king of Gath and feigned madness before him. Thinking him to be derelict, the king orders him to leave. Later, Deog, Saul’s chief shepherd who was present at that situation, reported this event to Saul, and Saul eventually slew eighty five priests and the entire city of Nob. (1 Samuel 21-22).

After another series of events, David assumes that someday he will “die by the hand of Saul,” (1 Samuel 27:1-2) and goes to the Philistine king and dwells with him, staying in Ziklag. It was his unbelief that drove him there. He maintains a double-standard of behavior, not truthfully reporting all of his behavior to the king of Gath (1 Samuel 27:8-12). Eventually, when the Philistines prepare to march in battle against Israel, David is, in fact, eager to go and fight against his own people – over whom he was anointed as king in the first place (chap 29)! When he returns Ziklag is burned (chap 30).

God burned David’s Ziklag. God did not approve of the dubious behavior exhibited by David, which was triggered by unbelief. We cannot violate one command to uphold another, because such a thing is never necessary in the first place. Heirarchialism is rooted in unbelief, and does not trust God for His intervention.

David’s behavior as a fugitive highlights that, even great men of God – can still stumble and not be sure of their callings and destiny. However, rather than exonerating their unbelief and sin, we ought to be more diligent and careful in our walk with God. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, ESV).

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So with these examples we wind up our first section of, and in all of them we see that neither situational ethics nor graded absolutism finds support and credence.

 

[b] Operational Concealment

Now we turn to other situations where ‘concealment’ – not deception – was used to achieve certain objectives, and were sometimes even authorized by God. It’s worth our time to define these terms before reviewing other case studies.

Deception: the act of causing someone to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid; the act of deceiving – resorting to falsehood and deception.[7]

Concealment: to prevent disclosure or recognition of; usually does imply intent and often specifically implies a refusal to divulge.[8] 

 

(i) Samuel Anointing David

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. (1 Samuel 16:1-5)

 

God had rejected Saul as king, and now sends Samuel to anoint David. Samuel knows the risk involved in undertaking such an event – Saul will most likely kill him. Believing in the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean that we are not concerned with the outcomes. But notice what Samuel didn’t do. He didn’t say: ‘Saul is going to kill me anyway; so I am not going to obey God’s command.’ Neither did he devise any other unlawful means to allegedly obey God and go and anoint David. Neither of those responses was necessary.

He simply asks God about it, and God gives him a cover-story and asks him to visit Bethlehem on the pretext of a sacrifice. Verse 4 says, “Samuel did what the Lord said.” In other words, Samuel obeyed God. He did not falsify any information. He did not deceive anybody. He did not pretend to be somebody he is not. He did not fabricate any false information. The sacrifice was real. The heifer was real. The visit to Bethlehem was real. There was no deception involved.

In this particular case, the objective of the mission was not meant to be disclosed – and that’s precisely why God tells Samuel how to go about accomplishing it. John Murray has some excellent comments on this passage, in his classic text on biblical ethics:

This incident makes it clear that it is proper under certain circumstances to conceal or withhold part of the truth. Saul had no right to know the whole purpose of Samuel’s mission to Jesse nor was Samuel under obligation to disclose it. Concealment was not lying. This instance gives us no warrant whatsoever for maintaining that in concealing the truth we may affirm untruth. It is the eloquent lesson of this incident, borne out by the plain facts referred to above that what was affirmed was itself strictly true. This passage is perhaps unique in the Scripture because there is the explicit authorization of the Lord as to the method of concealment. It is just for that reason that the precise conditions are to be observed; there is no untruth involved. It is necessary to guard jealously the distinction between partial truth and untruth. If we are not hospitable to this distinction, it may well be that we are not sensitive to the ethic of Scripture and the demands of truth. After all, this is not a fine distinction it is a rather broad distinction. But if we wish to call it a fine distinction, we must remember that the biblical ethic is built upon fine distinctions. At the point of divergence the distinction between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, is not a chasm but a razor’s edge. And if we do not appreciate this fact then certainly we are not sensitive to the biblical ethic.[9]

Keeping the above example in mind, we can also notice how God authorized the mission of the 12 spies to reconnoiter the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:1-2) and Joshua sent out 2 spies to observe Jericho before the assault (Joshua 2:1-2). In all these cases – including Samuel’s task – secrecy was integral to the mission, and any information leak would have compromised operational integrity. These examples also serve to illustrate how ethical issues in national security can be dealt with and planned accordingly.

In conclusion: when God gives you a task to do, and you are in a fix about it, you just need to ask Him, and He will guide you through the task (Psalm 32:8, Proverbs 3:5-6). It doesn’t matter how complicated the situation is, God will walk you through. And when He gives you specific directives, you don’t need to suspend any absolutes or violate any of his commandments. Obey Him and trust Him for the outcomes.

 

(ii) Joseph’s Concealment of his Identity

Joseph was the son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, and he was sold into slavery by the jealousy of his step-brothers, but through an amazingly providential twist of events, Joseph was raised to become the governor of the Egypt (Acts 7:9-10). God had given Joseph dreams about his future destiny when he was only 17 years old (Genesis 37:2, 5-11). Joseph was 30 years old when he stood before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46). The harvest lasted for seven years, and during that time two sons were born to Joseph. The names he gives them is actually an indicator of Joseph’s thought process. Manasseh, his first born, means ‘forgetfulness’ and he names him so because “God has made me forget all my toil and my father’s household” (Genesis 41:51). Being the governor of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient world, it wouldn’t have been difficult for Joseph to send a scouting team to get information about his father’s household, right? I wonder why he didn’t do it. The silence of Scripture does not warrant speculation, so let’s not probe that further. But from the name he chooses for his firstborn, we get a glimpse of his thinking. In Joseph’s mind – for whatever reasons – he had “forgotten” his father’s household.

After the seven years of harvest, the famine arrived, and was over all the face of the earth (v 56). This affected Jacob’s household as well, and he sends them to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph recognized his brothers when they came to Egypt, but they didn’t recognize him, because he was dressed in all the Egyptian regalia (Genesis 42:6-8). It was only when they bowed down in front of him, that Joseph “remembered” the dreams that he had about them, nearly 20 years ago, when he was 17 years old! Scripture emphasizes this for a particular reason. Thus, Joseph certainly was in a quandary about what to do now.

His father’s household is suffering due to the famine. Yet, what his brothers did to him was a grievous wrong: they sold him into slavery, took his coat, dipped it in goat’s blood, and took it to Jacob, making him believe that Joseph was dead. The mourning and despair that Jacob had been through was intense (Genesis 37:33-35). Thus, his brothers were guilty of two things: selling Joseph into slavery and subjecting their father to torment and grief. What would Joseph do? Forgive them anyway, and accept them immediately? Jacob’s household was suffering due to the famine, so if Joseph just had to follow the “ethic of love” – as defined by situational ethicists – he should have just brushed aside all their previous faults and welcomed them with wide open arms. But Joseph doesn’t do that.

He identifies himself as someone who fears God (Genesis 42:18). Notice that the fear of God is a consistent theme in Joseph’s life. In Potiphar’s household he resisted the appeal of the temptress precisely based on this principle (Genesis 39:7-10). So, Joseph’s strategy in dealing with his brothers was conditioned by the fear of God – he devised a test to bring them to contrition. Joseph cannot accept them back without genuine repentance on their part. Joseph was willing to offer forgiveness – and that’s precisely what he did – but not without a genuine change of heart and reckoning for their past sins.

He needs to make sure that his brothers realize the grief that his father was subjected to, and to ensure that they repent for it. To this end, he arranges for Simeon to be bound in other that Benjamin may be brought to him (Genesis 42:21-24). Jacob is subjected to further grief, and though initially hesitant finally agrees to send Benjamin (Genesis 43). Joseph then “frames” Benjamin for the theft of the silver cup so that he can have a valid reason for retaining Benjamin (Genesis 44:2, 17). This is ultimately to test his brothers’ reaction to the situation.

Joseph is trying to simulate a situation where the rest of his brothers would have to return to their father without Benjamin. Will they bear to see their father grieve, the way he mourned for the alleged death of his son Joseph many years earlier? This is the ultimate test, and his brothers are finally brought to the moment of truth. Judah speaks up now (44:18-34) and his speech gives clear evidence of contrition. And not surprisingly, it was Judah who advised his brothers to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelite traders 20 years ago (Genesis 37:26). The brothers – specifically Judah – have finally passed the test. Joseph now reveals himself, not being able to restrain himself any longer, and arranges for his father’s family to be brought to Egypt.

Love and forgiveness does not demand naïve and unquestioning acceptance. Joseph’s master strategy – note that he “fears God” (42:18) – was no doubt inspired by the wisdom of God. Whether he was revealed this by a dream or some other form of direct revelation, we are not told. But Joseph’s use of concealment served as an investigative technique and also achieved its intended effect. This is not deception. Joseph was not falsifying information, or trying to be something or somebody that he wasn’t. His brothers didn’t recognize him, and he used that as a natural advantage to devise his operational strategy.

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Though there are several other scenarios we can study to highlight these principles even further, constraints of space prevent us from doing so. Nonetheless, I believe that the exposition of these passages have helped to address the basic concerns that many believers may face in their daily decisions.

 

[c] The Sovereignty & Glory of God

God’s sovereignty and wisdom is such that, He uses the most unimaginable circumstances to bring about exceedingly amazing outcomes. Speaking about his brothers’ treachery, Joseph says: “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” (Genesis 50:20, NKJV). The actions of Joseph’s brothers were evil – both the intent and the actual act itself. But God turned it around for good. Just because God brought good out of it, it doesn’t exonerate the guilt of the brothers nor make their actions somehow righteous. This distinction should be observed at all times and God condemns those who blur the difference (Isaiah 5:20).

In the genealogy of Jesus, to the surprising exclusion of any matriarchal names, Mathew mentions four Gentile women (Mathew 1:3-6). With the exception of Ruth, the historical events associated with the other three women were anything but righteous. Tamar’s deceptive strategy to conceive her son does not even deserve a mention. Rahab was a former prostitute, and David forcibly took Bathsheba, and murdered her husband. But God takes care to mention these names. Why? This is to show that God can use even the worst events in history to bring about righteous outcomes.

Abraham, acting in impatience – and listening to Sarah – went into Hagar and fathered Ishmael. For nearly 13 years he believed that Ishmael was the promised seed, but God disagreed. When Isaac was born, God made it clear that Ishmael and Hagar had to go. A few millennia later, God used this very historical fact to prove a point about redemptive history – about the law and Christ (Galatians 4:21-31). Thus, God can “use” your mistakes in the future, and somehow even “redeem” it – so to speak. But this does not in any way justify the actual act of sin or unbelief. It only serves to illustrate the infinite depth of God’s wisdom and His clemency.

Hebrews 11 mentions several people who are commended for their faith. Abraham is extolled, so is Noah, and Moses, Samson and countless others. When we read the full narrative about them in the Old Testament, one makes us wonder how these characters even managed to enter the ‘Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame’ given some of their questionable conduct. But again, this too shows that God does not hold our sins against us forever and where there is faith – He responds and restores the man (Psalm 103:11-14).

But the one who uses the forgiveness of God as an excuse for compromising behavior, and justifies rebellion by cloaking it in righteous-sounding verbiage, cannot escape God’s judgment – both in this life and in the life to come. As we saw in the biblical examples, many of them experienced the reward for their actions during their life on earth. So, let us remember that “God is not mocked: a man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7).

 

[d] Outcomes & Responsibility

Both situationalism and heirarchialism are overly concerned with the outcomes of a given situation – that is, how a situation will turn out if they decide on any one particular course of action. The outcomes are primary and the imperatives are secondary in their thinking, and very similar to “the ends justify the means” philosophy. They forcibly assume that a particular outcome will inevitably happen, and then make a choice to precisely avoid that outcome, and violate one or more of God’s commands in the process.

The biblical position is that we are responsible for obeying God, and not for deciding how an outcome will turn out. Though we may temporarily suffer for obeying God, the eventual outcome will be one of glory and honor. Look at Joseph. Resisting the temptress did not win him applause from anyone. Instead, he was falsely accused and thrown into prison. But God had bigger plans, and from the prison, one day he was elevated to a position of greater responsibility and honor.

Consider the Magi. They were divinely warned in a dream not to return back to Herod, though they had initially agreed to report back to Herod on the location of the child (Mathew 2:8-12). The Magi returned by another route, Herod realized that he was outwitted, and ordered the slaughter of every male child, two years old and under. The Magi were responsible for obeying the dream given to them, to avoid Herod and return by another route. They were not responsible for the outcome. And the slaughter that ensued was actually prophesied by Jeremiah, at least 600 years ago (v 16-18). Thus episode illustrates that we are responsible for obedience to God’s directives and not for the outcomes that ensue.

 

[e] Universal Validity & Historical Exceptions

Biblical moral absolutes are binding and applicable across all cultures, times, and locations, since God is the creator of all of mankind, and all of humanity is accountable to Him. Though God has established universally binding absolutes, there have been very specific occasions in the biblical record where God had commanded otherwise.

Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. Though this was a test (Genesis 22:1), Abraham did not know it was so, until the end of the ordeal. He was fully prepared to sacrifice Isaac, and even believed that God will raise him from the dead, since God had earlier promised him that an entire nation would come out of him. God had rejected Ishmael, having specified that it is through Isaac that Abraham’s offspring would be reckoned (Genesis 21:12). Now, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham did not believe that God’s commands contradicted His promise. The command to sacrifice Isaac was so clear, and yet the promise that Abraham’s posterity would come through Isaac was equally sure. “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead,” and though Abraham’s was stopped right at the nick of time, “figuratively speaking, Abraham did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:19). This was symbolic of the future even when the Father would offer Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of His people.

God commanded Hosea to marry an unrepentant prostitute, just to demonstrate God love for wayward Israel (Hosea 1:2-8). The covenant relationship between God and Israel was likened to a marriage covenant. The Northern Kingdom was steeped in idolatry, following other gods and this break of covenant fidelity was viewed as adultery. The entire book of Hosea deals with God’s call for Israel to repentance.

Situations like these were exceptions – even during the Old Covenant period - and were intended to symbolically illustrate specific aspects of redemption. They cannot be used as proof-texts for prescriptive guidance today.

 

[f] God’s Commands & Legislation by Human Authorities

Following his resurrection, Jesus Christ has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Mathew 28:18). Psalm 2 mentions that even the kings of the earth are required to pay homage to the Son. God has also established human government, to enforce justice and maintain civil order and peace (Romans 13:1-4). However, when any human institution or government forbids the proclamation and propagation of the gospel, we are free to obey God’s commands and reject man’s authority. This is a very specific exception and cannot be used as an excuse for disobedience otherwise.

When Peter was forbidden to preach the gospel by the authorities in Jerusalem, he mentioned: “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When Daniel’s friends refused to bow down to the image of gold set up by Nebuchadnezzar, they were brought before the King who threatened to throw them into the fiery furnace. They explained:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18).

What an amazing trust in God, and such fearless witnesses for Him! They were not graded absolutionists, who were worried about the outcome. God is able to save us but even if not, we will not disobey Him! They were thrown into the furnace, and to everybody’s amazement they were totally unharmed, and what is more – everybody saw that “one like the Son of God” was walking with them in the furnace! Jesus was with them, and He will be with you regardless of whatever outcome you face, as a result of obeying Him.

In Daniel 6, Daniel’s situation too was a similar one, where a temporary legislation was enacted where people were forbidden to make petitions to anyone other than king Darius. Daniel, however, continued to pray to God. The law demanded that Daniel be thrown into the lion’s den, and Darius, very unwillingly did so, having signed the decree himself. But God sent His angels to shut the mouth of the lions and Daniel was unharmed. Most often, when obeying God, we might have to temporarily suffer more than just inconvenience. But God will be with us, and deliver us.

 

VII. Conclusion: “The Duty of all Mankind”

That brings us to the end of the discussion. We have reviewed the epistemological fact of divine revelation that makes biblical ethical theory possible – we can know right and wrong because God has given us special revelation in the Bible. Biblical ethical theory rests on the metaphysical foundation of God’s sovereignty over all creation. The anthropological fact that man is made in the image of God, enables him to understand God’s commands and respond accordingly. Thus, all facts of biblical ethical theory cohere together.

God’s absolutes are revealed in His word and we do not have the freedom to suspend them on a case-by-case basis in any situation. We do not have to violate one command to obey another one, because God’s commands do not contradict one another. The confusion exists in the minds of those whose thinking is muddled due to the ‘noetic effects of sin.’

2 Timothy 3:16-17 mentions that Scripture is authoritatively revealed by God and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, instruction, and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be complete. Our minds need to be continually renewed with the truths in God’s Word so that we may be able to test and prove His “good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). Sanctification is a progressive growth in holiness and righteousness, and 1 John 1:8 makes it clear that a sinless perfection is not possible in this life. But at the same time, those who have been born of God will overcome the world, and cannot continue to walk in darkness (1 John 1:6).

So, let us along with the Psalmist say: “I have come to do Your will, O God. Your law is in my heart” (Psalm 40:8), and “perfect holiness out of the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Like the Hebrew midwives, we need not fear any man – even if he happens to be the king of Egypt – but we are obligated to fear God and obey Him. With David, we can boldly say: “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1). God is an “ever present help in trouble” and we need not fear any situation no matter how catastrophic (Psalm 46:1-2). Let us call out to Him, and wait patiently for His intervention (Psalm 40:1-2). He will send help from on high and deliver us.

Let us also shine like lights in a dark world, even as we hold out the word of life in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:15-16), so that what Jesus said – “Be perfect as your Heavenly father is perfect” (Mathew 5:48) – may be reflected in our lives, and bring glory to our Father in Heaven. “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

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References



[2] The exclusivity and primacy of the Biblical worldview has been defended by several writers. Please visit www.biblicalwordlview21.org for an application of the Biblical worldview in several areas of modern concern.

[3] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, https://www.monergism.com/blog/christians-reasonable-service-indexed

[5] Breakthrough: Taking the Gospel Across Forbidden Borders,  https://www.amazon.com/BREAKTHROUGH-Taking-Gospel-Forbidden-Borders/dp/3906589048

[9] John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, 1957, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing  Co, p 215-216, ePub version, [https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/1144/principles-of-conduct.aspx]

 

 


 

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