The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Ten Essential Words.
A cursory reading of other ancient law codes would indicate that laws against giving false testimony in a legal case were not as common as other laws, which is not to say they were absent. This may be the result of the ancients having a more holistic view of the trustworthiness of a person’s words: if a person was trustworthy, then it did not matter if their testimony was part of a legal proceeding, a business transaction, or simply part of casual conversation. Contrast this to our practice today of swearing in a witness as part of a legal proceeding, almost as if to say, “You can say what you want out there, but in here you must tell the truth!” In fact, witnesses in ancient Israelite and Greek trials were not usually placed under oath. There does not seem to be any Hebrew text in which a witness is said to have been sworn in, as we might conceive of it. Similarly, in ancient Athens most witnesses were not placed under oath, and prosecution for false testimony did not depend on whether a witness testified under oath. In essence, we might say that in ancient times, a person was continually under oath.
If you recall, this entire topic of oath-taking was also covered under the Third Commandment regarding taking Yahweh’s name in vain. In some sense, the Third and the Ninth Commandment are almost redundant. To revisit the topic, an oath was similar to making a covenant, but could have a lesser, informal meaning of simply buying something or making a promise – but binding none-the-less. Oaths usually involved invoking the name of a deity as a witness as well, hence the prohibition against using the name of Yahweh in this fashion. While oaths were the language of treaties and contracts between people, and breaking an oath had serious consequences, giving false testimony was the language of the legal system and referred specifically to the credibility of the witness. In essence, with this Ninth Commandment, Yahweh was protecting the integrity of the legal system that had just been put into place.
So with its original inclusion into the Ten Commandments, this commandment had an unmistakable legal undertone to it. Yet, as with many of these commandments, the Hebrew Scriptures continue to broaden their application beyond the legal realm and into everyday life. Turning again to the book of Leviticus, where the Ten Commandments are reiterated and expounded upon, the Law expands on this commandment prohibiting the giving of false testimony, “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 19:11-12). So the broader concept, “Do not lie,” associated with this commandment is not off the mark. While we can see a wide range of dishonest activities associated with lying included here, we cannot miss that last statement, “I am Yahweh.” With that simple addition, God was constantly reminding the people, “I am Yahweh … who brought you out of Egypt. I am Yahweh … who has led you this far. I am Yahweh … who will make you into a great nation.” These commandments are the righteous standards of Yahweh, and when we deviate from these standards, we stray from the righteous life Yahweh desires of us.