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On Lying: A Moral Guide Based Upon Lombard’s Sentences. Part VII: To Err is Human, But is Jacob a Liar?

March 16, 2009

Part I                                                                        Part II
Part III                                                                     Part IV
Part V                                                                       Part VI

Being mistaken about something and proclaiming what one believes about it is not a lie, which shows that not all who speak in error are necessarily sinning. But we must not think all mistaken beliefs are of equal value. Some people are culpable in their ignorance, some are not. Indeed, some people might never be able to come to know the truth due to an inability out of their control, making them invincibly ignorant: they will be judged accordingly. We will only be held accountable for those aspects of truth which we can and should come to know (one who gives up on their pursuit of truth too early will be judged differently from one who does not give up, even if the first comes to know more of the truth than the latter). In this light, Lombard addresses the issue of being mistaken, of being in error.[1]  While they are not lies, they must be examined alongside lies, because we often equate the two; moreover, it is a serious concern, because an error can (but not necessarily will) cause great harm to those who believe it. “But as to those matters in regard to which our belief or disbelief, and indeed their truth or supposed truth or falsity, are of no importance whatever, so far as attaining the kingdom of God is concerned: to make a mistake in such matters is not to be looked on as a sin, or at least as a very small and trifling sin.”[2]

To make an error requires more than ignorance, but requires one to make a false assumption based upon that ignorance; one errs when one has a mistaken belief.  Thus, when talking about errors, to err is to have a wrong understanding and to assume it to be correct, while having no position, no understanding, is ignorance and therefore not an error. Now the kind of error one makes is very important; if the error involves some serious matter, then the danger is great, but if it is trivial, the likelihood is one will not be harmed by it. When we know very little about a thing, it is better not to form an opinion of it, than it is to assume something our limited knowledge is enough to make a worthy judgment. For some things, we must be willing to accept ignorance, and leave it at that; for there are things which it would be better for us not to know, here and now, then it would be for us to know.  Lombard shows this through a quote from Augustine, “For there are points on which ignorance is better than knowledge. And in the same way, it has sometimes been an advantage to depart from the right way-in traveling, however, not in morals.”[3] What could Augustine mean by this? Let us reason out idea by the implied analogy. If someone is traveling from point A to point B, and there are two different paths which will get there, C and D, with C being short and direct, but rather treacherous looking at first, and with D being long, twisty, and cumbersome, but looking pleasant at first, which path should a person take? Now if one knows these facts about C and D, they might take path C. But others, including bandits, might know about C as well and use it as well to waylay people who use that path. If one were ignorant about C being the shortest, quickest route, it is likely they would take D, and be saved. In this way, knowing more, but not enough, can get one in trouble, while not knowing anything might, in some occasions, save someone. But this is not to say ignorance is best. If one knew that bandits were in path C, that kind of knowledge would be more beneficial than knowing which path is normally the easiest to take. So the issue is not in knowing or not knowing, but in what one knows. And some kinds of knowledge, while helpful, can easily give a false sense of security, while, their lack, might lead one, through ignorance, to salvation. But Augustine makes it clear, this analogy should not be used to suggest that ignorance of morality is best; for the one who is ignorant of the good would, by analogy, be one who is ignorant of the two paths: they would likely end up getting lost in the wilderness before arriving at point B.

After addressing what it means to err, Lombard returns to the question of lies, and he asks a rather difficult question: should one say Jacob lied when he went to his father and pretended to be Esau? Here, we find, like his discussion on the Jew who says Christ is God but does not believe it, a difficult text for us to interpret; the Master of the Sentences himself finds the question important but difficult, if not impossible, to answer. He does not want to claim Jacob is a liar, and so in the end, declares it to be a mystery. What he provides, however suggestive, leaves it up to the reader to take his idea forward and to develop it, to see if they can find a coherent response to this question, or, perhaps, to reject his answer.

The issue in question relates to the following passages from Genesis: 

Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food, that I may eat it, and bless you before the LORD before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my word as I command you. Go to the flock, and fetch me two good kids, that I may prepare from them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” But Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse upon myself and not a blessing.” His mother said to him, “Upon me be your curse, my son; only obey my word, and go, fetch them to me.”  [...]  So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your first-born. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that you may bless me.” But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the LORD your God granted me success” (Gen. 27: 6-13; 18-20).

It is clear that Jacob had several obligations which he had to fulfill; it was when they apparently contradicted each other one finds him having to deceive his father. The problem came out of the fact that Jacob and his mother had not properly handled God’s intention for Jacob before Isaac lay on his deathbed, and this meant Rebekah had to do something quick before Isaac died, so that Jacob could receive his proper inheritance. Jacob, as the Lord told his mother, was the one meant to possess the Esau’s birthright (Gen 25:23), and Esau had even sold it to Jacob for food, so that Esau had already accepted God’s plan  (Gen 25:29 – 34). It appears that in this tangled mess, no one had told this to Isaac (who had Esau as a favorite son). Therefore, when, at his deathbed, Isaac wanted to impart a special blessing upon Esau, Rebekah knew it should be given to Jacob, and, instead of directly handled the situation, determined that Jacob should get it through an act of deception. Now Jacob, when commanded by his mother to deceive his father, was given a moral quandary: on the one hand, he was to obey his mother, and to disobey would be a sin, but on the other hand, if he obeyed, he would have to deceive his father, which makes it seem that he would have to lie. Whichever path he chose, he would find himself guilty of some sin.[4]

Lombard suggests that Jacob did not actually lie, once again citing Augustine as his authority. “Touching Jacob, however, that which he did at his mother’s bidding, so as to seem to deceive his father, if with diligence and in faith it be attended to, is no lie, but a mystery.”[5] Looking to Augustine in context, he suggests that this is not a lie because the truth is hidden in an obscure, prophetic parable, so that, by the signification of the event, a greater truth was being revealed than what at first appears to the exterior circumstance itself.[6] Lombard picks up on Augustine’s idea, and suggests that the one who is making the prophetic utterance would be Rebekah, and Jacob would be her instrument, so that Jacob could not be said to have lied; and since the Spirit directs Rebekah, she also cannot be said to have lied. “For he intended to obey his mother, who had known the mystery through the Spirit. And so, because of the familiar counsel of the Holy Spirit which his mother received, Jacob is excused from lying.”[7] At best, it appears that we have here an uneasy application of double-effect going on: Jacob’s intention was not to lie, but to obey his mother; yet, in order to obey his mother, he had to deceive his father.  Even if some figurative, prophetic value could be had from his actions, how would he have known that? He would have to act in hope, trusting his mother, even if what she told him to do appeared to be wrong.

Why had it come to this? Again, is it not because Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob were, at least in this instance, a dysfunctional family? Isaac and Rebekah played favorites with their children, and pitted their destinies against each other. The situation was caused, therefore, by Isaac and Rebekah, and their lack of discernment as to what God wanted them to do. Jacob had little, if any, blame in the matter, since he did not cause his parents to put him in this situation; he was required to do as he did as a consequence of his parents’ faults. God’s will could have been done and accomplished, and should have been, without such deception. But because it was not done in good measure and worked out in its proper time, but left to Isaac’s deathbed to be accomplished, Jacob was put in the difficult moral situation, one which, it appears, caused him to choose one wrong (lying) against another (disobedience towards his mother). Thus, he had to discern, through prudence, what it is he was supposed to do, which of the real or apparent evils he would have to follow. Is this not similar to the kinds of situations we all find ourselves in, where, due to our own fault or not, we must, through prudence, act, even if all the available options appear to contain some element contrary to that which is good.[8] In this way, one could even say that Jacob lied, but the act was pardonable, and when we find ourselves in similar quandaries, if we choose the right action, we too can find the mediating circumstances affects our guilt.


[1] Peter Lombard, Sentences. Book III, dist XXXVIII, c6.
[2] St. Augustine, Enchiridion, c21.
[3] Ibid., 17.
[4] Certainly there was no idea at this time that an unjust command should not to be obeyed, which might, in the modern era, be the way one could reason out of this quandary – although, if they did, they would have gone against the will of God, for he desired Jacob to receive the blessing, so that through Jacob’s lineage, the messiah can be born.
[5] St. Augustine, “Against Lying,” 24.
[6] I’m sure most who lie could, if they want, find some sort of “greater truth” contained in their lie, and use that to exonerate themselves as well. Nonetheless, one weakness here is that there still is a kind of deliberate deception going on, even if there is some greater truth proclaimed, and as such, it does not really help us find an answer.
[7] Peter Lombard, Sentences. Book III, dist XXXVIII, c6.
[8] Is that not the case, for example, in any election, within democracy? No political party will present a platform which is perfectly acceptable, and yet, to not vote, is itself to go against our civic duty, making such an act also sinful. One will have to choose which course of action (not vote, or vote) that one believes produces the greatest good and the least amount of evil; but to believe that we can find an option which is pure within the political situation we currently find ourselves in is to deceive ourselves, and can only come from a utopian understanding of politics.

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  1. Res & Explicatio for A.D. 3-16-2009 « The American Catholic

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