You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Exodus 20:16
Witnesses in Old Testament days, as now, were vitally important. The Jewish Law reads, “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (Deuteronomy 19:15). In other words, conviction of a crime based on the account of one witness would not stand. There had to be at least two witnesses to testify against the accused. The Law goes on to deal with a false witness, saying, “If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other” (Deuteronomy 19:18b-19a). As such, a false witness received punishment equal to the consequences for the accused, had the accused been found guilty. If a witness testified falsely against another, and the punishment for the accused behavior was death, the false witness would be killed.
The contemporary term for bearing false witness in a legal proceeding is perjury, which continues to be a very serious offense. The ability to apply justice in a fair and impartial manner is dependent on receiving truthful testimony from witnesses. Although the Old Testament Law is formal and bears resemblance to judicial proceedings today, the ninth of the Ten Commandments has a practical and daily implication – do not lie about others.
Lying goes beyond making a false statement about another in a court of law. It includes making false statements about others in social situations, including implying something untrue about another, such as occurs in gossip. Our legal system assumes a person is innocent until proven guilty, but social situations have no such protection. In Biblical times, two or more witnesses had to agree a person was guilty for a charge to stick. Today, one careless post on the internet, or a few careless words overheard by the wrong ears can tarnish a person’s image for years, even when there is no factual basis for what was written or said. Some people counsel us not to respond to false accusations; but sometimes when a person does not respond to an accusation, others assume the accusation has merit. Being falsely accused causes all sorts of complications. It is like asking a man if he is still beating his wife. There is no good answer, once the charge has been made. Similar to trying to cram toothpaste back into the tube, our words cannot be easily retracted. For these reasons and more, we must speak the truth. Speaking the truth is especially important when we are speaking of others.