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Saving Lies: Schindler and the Hebrew Midwives

Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece motion picture, Schindler’s List, is a true-life chronicle of the German Nazi, Oskar Schindler, who used his connections with the Nazi regime in the Second World War to preserve the lives of hundreds of Jewish prisoners. When Hitler set his unstable mind on the annihilation of the Jews he had them sent to concentration camps where the prisoners did hard labor until they were executed en masse in gas chambers.

Schindler, even as a Nazi himself, grew to find this reprehensible. But he couldn’t just come out and say so. To resist Herr Hitler was to risk finding yourself in a concentration camp, or dead.

So, Schindler used his entrepreneurial acumen as a ruse to save the lives of the condemned Jews. He procured a steelworks factory that had formerly produced pots and pans and converted it into a munitions factory, cranking out countless casings for bullets and bombs.

 

He then “convinced” the Nazis (i.e. bribed them) to let him select Jews that would leave the concentration camp and work for him for no pay as slave labor. Unbeknown to the Nazi authorities Schindler had specifically told his factory foreman that he would be highly disappointed if a single working bombshell was ever produced in this factory. His intention was never to assist the Nazis in their sinister genocidal efforts, but rather to subvert their cause and save the Jews.

When I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, I found the tree which the Jews had planted as a memorial to Oskar Schindler in the “Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.”

But were Schindler’s deeds righteous or not?

  • He illegally bribed government officials.
  • He purposefully lied to the authorities.
  • He willfully undermined his government.
  • So, did he do the right thing or not? Good question. Let’s see if we can learn any lessons from Exodus 1.

 

When to disobey the authorities

Exodus 1: 8-16 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” …. Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”

Schindler’s survivors at his grave

What makes something right or wrong is not what the government says, it’s what God says, but God puts authorities there to be his ministers.

Romans 13:14 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. …for he [the ruler] is God’s servant for your good…

But what happens when the government doesn’t adhere to God’s word? What happens when the government instructs you to sin against God?

Pharaoh instructed Shiphrah and Puah to kill newborn boys and to allow the girls to live, and so this infanticide was perfectly legal. But did that make it right? Obviously not.

Exodus 1:17-21 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

These women chose to obey God, and in so doing they disobeyed Pharaoh – their behavior in disobeying the ruler was not sinful. They could not follow an instruction which would cause them to sin against God.

We must obey the law, but only until the law requires us to sin. That’s when we need to disobey the government.

Acts 5:28-29 “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

So, what the Hebrew midwives did, their behavior, their decisions, their siding with God and his people, was the right thing to do no matter what the consequences. You always protect the baby, even if you get fired or killed. You always side with God and not his enemies. And God rewards them for this behavior.

But, does that make their lying righteous? Was God rewarding their lie?

When to lie

So the midwives do the right thing in obeying God and not man, but then they lie about it to avoid the consequences. So, is it okay to lie sometimes, when there is a greater good at stake? That is how some read this passage. But if you look closer you will see the Bible doesn’t say that God rewarded them for lying. He rewarded them for disobeying the wicked law and doing the godly, biblical, ethical thing: saving the lives of the baby boys.

They did this selflessly and simply out of a love for their neighbors. So God rewards them. But then the Pharaoh calls them to account and they squirm out of responsibility by lying to him. They are basically saying, “we agree with your policy, but we aren’t able to carry it out physically because those Hebrew ladies have mighty quick labor.” That’s simply not true. The reason they let the babies live is because they disagreed with the law, they disobeyed the law, but they didn’t want the consequences.

The lying isn’t what saved the babies, the lying is what saved the midwives.

It was good for them to disobey the King but the way they did it was not good. But God, in his mercy, rewarded them for their faith and action, despite their human way of doing it.

What should they have done? Lying seems like a more understandable response than saying outright “We defied you.” But remember this is a narrative. It is describing what the people did, it is not saying we need to do the same thing. Every passage in the Bible that is prescriptive about deception states clearly that we are not to lie.

Proverbs 6:16-19 There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

Lying is on the same list as killing babies. Only lying appears twice.

Ephesians 4: 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

So let me be clear: it is always a sin to deliberately deceive someone by telling a lie.

We need to be willing to resist authorities who tell us to sin, and we need to be willing to take the unjust penalty that resistance attracts. That is what Peter did when he boldly told the authorities that he would not obey men rather than God.

If a lie will save a life, I’ll leave that up to your conscience and God will sort that out at the Bēma Seat.  As for me and my household we will strive to always tell the truth, even when that leads to unpleasant consequences.

But if you take the Hebrew midwives as the reason you lied to you wife to keep the peace at home, or lied to your boss to avoid looking bad, lied to a traffic cop to avoid a ticket, then you are missing the point of the text.

Oskar Schindler performed a noble and courageous act when he sacrificed his wealth and his own safety to save the lives of strangers. Did he have to lie and deceive to do it effectively? Yes. Does that make lying okay for us? No. If I was a Jew in Nazi Germany would I want him to lie to protect me? Yes.

I’m not saying this sin-cursed world isn’t fraught with conundrums; I’m just trying to avoid looking for a loophole to justify sin when God’s word says we will never be tempted beyond what we are able to withstand, and that with every temptation to sin there is a legitimate way of escape (1 Cor 10:13).

And I certainly am glad that judging souls is not my job. It’s easy to play armchair philosopher about what the midwives did; it’s much trickier to live out the gospel of truth every moment of every day in our own lives.

I thank God for a Savior who was perfectly obedient and who lived the perfect life I could not live, so that even though I try to live out the gospel of truth every day, I know that when I fail, Jesus has paid the price for all my sin.

 

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