The Ninth Commandment

false_witnessExodus 20:16 is often advanced as a divine command against lying. Accordingly, the verse is often generalized (and taught in Sunday school) as “Thou shalt not lie”.

On the other hand, I can find no English Bible that translates the verse this way.  Almost all of them render the verse along the following lines:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

One exception is Young’s Literal Translation which translates the text as

Thou doest not answer against thy neighbour a false testimony

In all cases, though, the text of the commandment is much narrower than a general prohibition against telling falsehoods. A better understanding of the ninth commandment would be to simply take the words at their face value. Here we have a prohibition against deceiving people with whom you have some sort of relationship. We can see this by examining the underlying Hebrew starting with its literal translation. Let’s begin by not translating the two key words of the passage, anah and reia:

שָׁקֶר

עֵד

בְרֵעֲךָ

לֹא־תַעֲנֶה

deception

a-witness-of

against-your-reia

Not-will-you-anah

Putting this into conventional English (with the exception of the transliterated Hebrew words), we have

Do not anah against your reia [1] [as] a deceiver[2]

The most common translation of the Hebrew reia is ‘neighbor‘, but it can also mean ‘friend‘, or ‘companion‘. Reia can also mean ‘another‘ as in Genesis 15:10 in which God prepares the Covenant sacrifice. The KJV renders the phrase

And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece against reia: but the birds divided he not.

In this verse, the relationship is spatial. In general, then, reia can mean familiar relationships as with friends and neighbors; spatial relationships as in Genesis 15:10 (above). But, it can also mean antagonistic relationships such as the slave who was killed by another slave (Exodus 2:13) or a man murdered by his companion (Exodus 21:14). Significantly, strangers or people in general are not included in this list[3].

To my way of thinking, the phrase “someone you know” accurately, if generally, captures the sense of reia, here. Substituting (and slightly rearranging the words) accordingly, we can write,

Do not anah[4] as a deceiver against someone you know.

So, what about anah?

Many English Bibles translate anah in this verse as ‘bear‘ as in “bear a burden” (see example above).  The only other place in the Bible where anah is translated as ‘bear’ is in the ninth commandment’s counterpart in Deut 5:20[5] and in Samuel’s farewell address (1 Sam 12:3)  in which Samuel says,

Behold! You anah against me before the LORD…

Everywhere else (approximately 275 times), anah is translated most frequently as ‘answered’, replied’ and less frequently as ‘testified’. On the whole, anah connotes speech elicited in response to something. Were general speech in view the divine author would more likely have used אָמַר (= said[6]) or דָּבַר (= spoke or talk[7]). Instead, the author was attempting to convey the idea that when we are asked a question about (or from) someone of whom we are aware we must be truthful. Accordingly, I would translate the ninth commandment this way:

When asked about someone you know, do not respond with a falsehood.

Under this understanding, God commands us, among other things, not to gossip. In more formal situations (a court of law, for example), we are not to deceive — not even half truths. What it is not, however, is a generalized prohibition against lying.

Now, go and study,

 

  1. [1]Strong’s 07453
  2. [2]Where  I’ve used ‘deceiver’ in place of “witness of deception”
  3. [3]While negatives can not be proven, it is nevertheless instructive to note that reia is never used to refer to a stranger, a man or person, or people.
  4. [4]Strong’s 06030a
  5. [5]You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
  6. [6]Strong’s 0559 
  7. [7]Strong’s 01696 
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