Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 19:16 both say: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
When we think of false witness, several events in Scripture should come to mind:
- Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of rape (Genesis 39);
- Many people bore false witness against Yeshua (Mark 14:55-59);
- Many people bore false witness against Stephen saying he spoke blasphemous words against Moses and God, and against the holy place and the law (Acts 6:8-15);
- Paul was falsely accused of teaching the Jews to forsake Moses, not to circumcise their children, and not to walk according to the customs despite the fact he walked orderly and kept the law (Acts 21:20-24).
The results of false witness in these Scriptural accounts were terrible. Joseph and Paul were put in jail, and Yeshua and Stephen were put to death. I think the serious consequences of false witness for the victim are why we are commanded not to commit false witness.
As these men discovered, there is practically nothing you can do to convince anyone that false witness has taken place. A victim of false witness is helpless and indefensible; they feel hopeless and often do not have any recourse unless they have a provable alibi or unless what they did can be interpreted differently. Defending oneself against false witnesses is often dependent on what one is accused of in the first place as well as the type of evidence presented. Often, a person is considered guilty unless he can find a way to prove himself innocent. It should be the other way around.
In Joseph’s case, the evidence was against him. Potiphar’s wife had his garment and the men in the house probably heard her scream. Circumstantial evidence was against him and it was believable. It was her word against Joseph’s. Despite the righteous life Joseph lived, the people listened to the lie of Potiphar’s wife and assumed she was telling the truth. Proverbs 25:18 says, “A man who bears false witness against his neighbor is like a club, a sword, and a sharp arrow.” I’m sure Joseph felt the enormous pain of that blow for years to come while he was in prison.
I often wonder why God allowed this to happen to Joseph; I’m sure he wondered the same thing. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was because parts of Joseph’s life were intended to be a type of Yeshua who was also falsely accused of something. It was also a trial that was used to shape Joseph into what YHVH wanted him to be. This does not mean that YHVH approved of the false witness; on the contrary, He always hates lying lips no matter the reason.
As we’ve seen above, sometimes false witness is very deliberate; other times false witness is a result of misinterpreting reality. The false witnesses against Joseph, Yeshua, and Stephen were very deliberate. The false witness against Paul could have been deliberate and/or a result of misinterpreting reality. The problem with Paul is that the false witness against him was not short lived; it has been passed down for hundreds of years primarily because we’ve lacked information about the culture of the day and we’ve listened to the lessons we’ve been fed without investigating the teachings of the church. People are finally waking up to reality, trying to learn and understand the culture of Paul’s time, and seeing that Paul’s writings have been misunderstood and misinterpreted. This shows us just how long lasting the effects of false witnesses can be. This is another reason false witness should be detected and dealt with.
Let’s explore this idea of false witness that is the result of a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation of a situation. I recall an episode from “Little House on the Prairie” called “The Monster of Walnut Grove” that aired on TV in 1976 ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0633110/ ). On a Halloween eve, when Laura was still a child, she was outside the window at the Oleson’s place. Mr. Oleson was playing with his sword in the house while he was talking; all of a sudden he chopped off the head of a mannequin with his sword. Unknown to Mr. Oleson, Laura was listening and watching. If memory serves me correctly, the view of the room Laura had was through a drawn curtain with a lamp and the mannequin situated in front of the window. Based on what she saw, Laura assumed Mr. Oleson had killed his wife. The next morning, Mrs. Oleson went out of town. Laura eventually tried to convince a few of the other children that she had seen Mr. Oleson kill his wife. Fortunately, Mrs. Oleson finally came home proving she was very much alive. At the end of the show, Mr. Oleson had enough sense to explain himself and show her the mannequin so Laura could understand what had really happened. If you want a good laugh, be sure to watch the episode on-line.
This was a very laughable episode yet what if an event in real life is misinterpreted when someone’s reputation is on the line? Recall that Laura definitely saw something, but how she interpreted what she saw was not reality. She bore false witness based on what she thought she saw; this is still slander. Slander is very serious. In this episode, should Mr. Oleson have borne the blame for Laura misinterpreting what she saw? No. Likewise, in situations today, a teaching moment should take place to explain that things are not always as they appear; the victim of false witness should not be blamed for someone’s incorrect perception. People, especially children, need to learn that we often mistakenly interpret reality based on our cultural backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs, and that if we are to get along with others, we need to understand and be careful of that. We need to give people the benefit of the doubt and understand that most people are not even aware that their behavior is being misinterpreted unless an issue is made of the situation.
Have you ever seen or heard anything in your inter-personal relationships that could have been improperly interpreted? I think we all have. We often misinterpret body language and what people say for various reasons; sometimes we are actively looking for a problem that doesn’t even exist in another person. We improperly believe people don’t change; we believe, once a _____, always a _____. We interpret how a person behaves based on our beliefs about them. We also read body language, speak, and hear others through the lens of our own cultural backgrounds; personal experiences; and our moral and/or religious beliefs and values without taking into account those same but different things in other people. Because of this, we don’t always connect with people accurately and serious false witness or slander can be a result of that. We often fail to connect because despite the accused explaining their backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs, we reject that vital information and continue to process the event through our own lens of reality. We’ve got to get past that. We also need to realize this sort of thing is an unfortunate part of life that is not 100% controllable.
Committing deliberate false witness is 100% avoidable, but as I’ve demonstrated, inadvertent false witness is a bit more difficult to avoid. Sometimes we need to give people the benefit of the doubt when the evidence is based on things that could be possibly misinterpreted or when the evidence really is not as sufficient as we think at first. We may need to seek clarification and start listening and believing the accused; more evidence may need to be required before passing judgment on someone.
Consider Deuteronomy 19:16-20: “If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, 17 then both men in the controversy shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. 18 And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, 19 then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you.”
Any person who has witnesses against him should be allowed to face these witnesses to fully know the charges against him so that an adequate defense or explanation, and investigation can be made. If the evidence is only circumstantial and can be interpreted in more than one way, doubt should dismiss all witnesses until more definitive evidence can be brought forth. Two or three witnesses are not always sufficient if their interpretation of the situation is not completely based on reality or if they share a world view different from the victim. Often times, only YHVH can see the true heart of the victim; false witnesses based on faulty perceptions can improperly interpret that.
The reason we need to be so careful in judging testimony against others is because the damage of a false witness is so bad that Proverbs 6:16-19 lists it as one of the seven abominations that YHVH hates. In fact, Proverbs 19:5, 9 and 21:28 says a false witness will not go unpunished; he will perish.
Proverbs 12:17,20 says, “He who speaks truth declares righteousness, But a false witness, deceit. 18 There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health. 19 The truthful lip shall be established forever, But a lying tongue is but for a moment. 20 Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, But counselors of peace have joy.”
We need to pursue truth and righteousness which lead to life, peace, and joy while avoiding false witness and deceit which is in the heart of those who are evil.
If it’s possible that you have misinterpreted an event you have witnessed and thereby caused emotional pain and suffering to another individual as a result of it, go and make things right. If it’s possible that you have listened to and believed this kind of false witness, go to the victim and try to make things right. The victim of false witness has that against you. Remember Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”