by Lois Tverberg
So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out
and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Then the
LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, `Will I
really have a child, now that I am old?’ – Genesis 18:12-13
The Jewish sages of Jesus’ time up until now have sought wisdom about how to live by God’s law. In certain situations two biblical commands might contradict each other, and deciding which takes precedence determines what priorities we ought to have. For instance, a principle called Pikuach Nephesh says that any command of the Law (except idolatry, incest, and murder) can be violated if a life is at stake. It shows the preciousness of human life that it should not be lost over ceremonial law.
A question we might ask is how the two commands “Love your neighbor” and “You shall not lie” should be compared. If we are in a situation where telling the truth would hurt a person, should we say it knowing it would hurt them? Or is honesty always the highest value no matter what? The rabbis found an interesting answer in this story from Abraham’s life.
When Sarah heard that she was going to have a baby, she laughed that this could happen when her “master was so old.” God heard her thoughts, but when he quoted her, he didn’t reveal that she was laughing about Abraham’s age. Instead, God left those words out and said only that she was thinking of how old she was. If God would have quoted her exact words, it might have caused hurt between her and Abraham. The rabbi’s comment was, “How great is peace, that for its sake, that God Himself would modify the truth” (Talmud).
This observation in no way suggests that telling an untruth is fine in any situation, but it points out that sometimes brutal honesty just hurts people and is not as good as remaining silent or carefully saying things so as to preserve a person’s feelings. Sometimes we feel that others have a “right to know” about something said about them that would needlessly hurt their feelings.
But as Jesus says, the greater command is “Love your neighbor” and all other values that we have must be weighed against that one.