Lying Rewarded?

So I read the following passage in Exodus:
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiprah and the other Puah, "When you assist the Hebrew women in childbirth, observe at the delivery: If it is a son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she may live." But the midwives feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.

Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this and let the boys live?" The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women - for the Hebrew women are vigorous; they give birth before the midwife gets to them!" So God treated the midwives well, and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he made households for them. (Exodus 1:15-21, NET)
Why is this interesting? The way I read it, the midwives lied to the Pharaoh. They deliberately misstated their true intentions in allowing the boys to live. Granted, they were acting out of "fear for God" (another interesting concept) - but their actions directly contravened God's command not to lie.

Obviously, the conclusion here is not that they transgressed against God, because God rewarded them abundantly for their faith. So what is the conclusion?

I'm not sure; my first thought was that this was a direct rebuttal of deontological ethics. But, at the very least, any extremely legalistic view of the law must be flawed in some way. I'll think about it.


Spaceman Spiff said...

I've got a question. Can deontological ethics admit that some duties are higher than others? If so, I think it could be saved. I'm not terribly interested in defending it either way.

Anyway, it seems to me clear enough that you're right: a legalistic reading of the Torah is incorrect. Over and over, it's clear that the Torah is to be measured in some seemingly pragmatic ways. A good Law is recognizable by leading to a good society. The Law is supposed to lead to good human life.

This is neither utilitarian nor pragmatic ethics, but it reflects that God designed the world in a certain way. Wisdom and Law represented a way of life which is deeply in tune with that design. So yes, they have a value which comes from outside themselves, but this is demonstrated by a certain goodness for human beings.

In this way the Law can be sensitive to situations like this, where telling the truth would have cost many children their lives unjustly.

Speaker for the Dead said...

If the midwives had chosen to tell the truth, based on the "fact" that it is a sin to lie, would they have been punished? Would God have protected the children?

Is there always ONE (and only one) morally correct choice in dilemmas (dilemmmata?) such as these?