(Reprinted from The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1 [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973], 594–598.)
Leviticus 19:16–17 is usually cited as that instance where gossip is condemned by the law, and is often read as a denunciation of gossip rather than court-related law. An examination of the text makes clear that, while gossip is condemned, the courtroom is in view:
Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of they neighbour: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.
The first part of verse 16 can be rendered, “Thou shalt not go about slandering …” The word is translated as slander in Jeremiah 6:28, 9:4, and in Ezekiel 22:9 marginal note. True witness must be given both in and out of court: the circulation of slander anywhere is prohibited. According to Ginsburg,
This dangerous habit, which has ruined the character and destroyed the life of many an innocent person (I Sam. xxii. 9; Ezek. xxii. 9, &c.), was denounced by the spiritual authorities in the time of Christ as the greatest sin. Three things they declare remove a man from this world, and deprive him of happiness in the world to come—idolatry, incest, and murder, but slander surpasses them all. It kills three persons with one act, the person who slanders, the person who is slandered, and the person who listens to the slander. Hence the ancient Chaldee Version of Jonathan translates this clause: “Thou shalt not follow the thrice accursed tongue, for it is more fatal than the double-edged devouring sword.”1
Ben Sirach spoke strongly against slander, declaring,
Curse the whisperer and double-tongues: for such have destroyed many that were at peace. A backbiting tongue hath disquieted many, and driven them from nation to nation: strong cities hath it pulled down, and overthrown the houses of great men. A backbiting tongue hath cast out virtuous women, and deprived them of their labours. Whoso hearkeneth unto it shall never find rest, and never dwell quietly. The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones. Many have fallen by the edge of the sword: but not so many as have fallen by the tongue. Well is he that is defended from it, and hath not passed through the venom thereof; who hath not drawn the yoke thereof, nor hath been bound in her bands. For the yoke thereof is a yoke of iron, and the bands thereof are bands of brass. The death thereof is an evil death, the grave thereof were better than it. It burned with the flame thereof. Such as forsake the Lord shall fall into it; and it shall burn in them, and not be quenched; it shall be sent upon them as a lion, with thorns, and devour them as a leopard. Look that thou hedge thy possession about with thorn, and make a door and bar for thy mouth. Beware thou slide not by it, lest thou fall before him that lieth in wait (Ecclus. 28:13–16).
A folk proverb once popular with children has it that, while sticks and stones may break our bones, words can never hurt us. This is mere bravado: words do hurt us; it is only because we are so scarred by the malice of gossip that it provokes only a sad and wry humor.
But the law of God never sees gossip as an idle matter: hence the concern of the law with all slander. Verse 16 states “neither shall thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour.” According to Micklem, this means “to seek to get him put to death (cf. Exod. 23:7).”2 Ginsburg commented on the variety of implications of this statement:
This part of the verse is evidently designed to express another line of conduct whereby our neighbour’s life might be endangered. In the former clause, “the going about” with slanderous reports imperiled the life of the slandered person, here “the standing still” is prohibited when it involves fatal consequences. The administrators of the law during the second Temple translating this clause literally, thou shalt not stand still by the blood, &c., drowning, attacked by robbers or wild beasts, &c., we are not to stand still by it whilst his blood is being shed, but are to render him assistance at the peril of our own life. Or if we know that a man has shed the blood of his fellow creature, we are not to stand silently by whilst the cause is before the tribunal. Hence the Chaldee Version of Jonathan renders it, “Thou shalt not keep silent the blood of thy neighbour when thou knowest the truth in judgment,” Others, however, take it to denote to come forward, and try to obtain a false sentence of blood against our neighbours, so that this phrase is similar in import to Exod. xxiii, 1, 7.3
All these meanings are certainly implied, but it is better to look at the simplest sense of the text. There is an obvious parallelism drawn between slandering someone and standing against his blood, i.e., seeking his death. Slander is a form of murder: it seeks to destroy the reputation and the integrity of a man by insinuating falsehoods. The reason why the rabbis regarded it as worse than idolatry, incest, and murder was because its moral consequences are fully as deadly if not worse, and it is a crime easily committed and not too readily detected. Moreover, slander, because it passes from mouth to mouth quickly, involves far more people in a very short time than does idolatry, incest, or murder.
Gossip is thus forbidden by law; this is not merely moral advice; it is criminal law. Because the Puritans took Biblical law seriously, they did punish the gossip by court action. Slander and libel today are matters of civil suit, not normally of criminal action, and the result is the widespread liberty for malicious gossip. Irresponsibility has been given a privileged position.
In verse 17, the proper course of action is described. If a “brother” or “neighbour” is actually guilty of wrongdoing, we must go to him and seek to dissuade him from his evil course. Otherwise, we “suffer sin upon him,” or “so thou bear not sin on his account,” i.e., we become an accomplice to his evil by our silence. The “brother” here clearly has reference to a man of the covenant, not a reprobate who will not respond to godly counsel. We must speak to the brother; we may, depending on the situation, speak to the ungodly, but we are not required to do so. This meaning is clearly confirmed by the use of this law in Matthew 18:15–17.
Thus, the negative formulation of this law forbids slander: we must not bear false witness. The positive formulation, however, clearly requires more than true witness. Our witness must not only be true but requires more than true witness. Our witness must not only be true but responsible. By our speech, we must not only avoid slander but rebuke and discipline it, and, in a godly society, bring it before the courts of church and state. The law positively requires us to promote, not an anarchistic freedom of speech which permits slander, but a responsible speech which works to preserve and further integrity, industry, and honesty. The commandment has reference to social order, not merely personal moral counsel, as Calvin read it.4 It is moral counsel, but it is first and last God’s law for His Kingdom which all must obey. Calvin took for granted the Christian law structure which Geneva had inherited from the centuries; his Puritan followers were wiser when they stressed the importance of that law.
If God’s absolute law is replaced with anarchistic freedom, then meaning is withdrawn from the world, and a responsible witness ceases, because there is no one to be responsible to, no God who can absolutely require man to be responsible to Himself and to His world of men. Colin Wilson has stated the implications of this anarchism: “I thought I had seen the final truth that life does not lead to anything; it is an escape from something, and the ‘something’ is a horror that lies on the other side of consciousness.”5
If life becomes “an escape from something,” then it is an escape from truth, because truth is related to reality, whereas a lie is related to fantasy. Reality is anathema to men interested in escape, and as a result the “necessary” lie is cultivated by such men, as Nietzsche evidenced in his own life and philosophy.
But freedom too is related to reality rather than to fantasy, and thus to seek escape from reality is also to escape from freedom. Thus, for the surrealists, living with the reality is a compromise. For them, liberty means denying “the world and man’s flesh and blood existence.”6 The surrealist prefers dreams to reality; he demands a totally man-made world; such a dream cannot be realized in the real world. The totally man-made world is therefore sought in dreams. Surrealism believes “in the omnipotence of dreams” because this is the area of man’s supposed power.7 It prizes a dream world where “the heart reigns supreme.”8 This is comparable to mysticism, for, “to a mystic, absolute liberty goes hand in hand with the destruction of the contingent world.”9 There must therefore be a perpetual revolution against the real world in terms of the dream world. A surrealist statement declares that “Not only must the exploitation of man by man cease, but also that of man by the so-called ‘God,’ of absurd and provoking memory … Man, with his arms and equipment, must join the army of Man.”10
Whenever man, institutions, and societies forsake God, they forsake reality. They cease to bear true and responsible witness and begin to live a lie because in the world of the lie, they can play god. The church which believes it can live in the world and neglect the problems of the world is living in a realm of dreams. By failing to relate the law-word of God to the whole world, they are living a lie, however formally correct their religion. They may boast of being “evangelical” or “orthodox,” but they are in reality irrelevant and are liars, because there is nothing irrelevant about God. Because God is the Lord and Creator of all things, there is a total relevance of all things to God and a total subordination of all things to the law-word of God. The church which fails to speak to the whole of life in terms of the total Word of God will soon be a savage liar with respect to any man who seeks to shake it out of its world of dreams. The truth is not in such a church or such men, and we cannot expect the truth from them.
When responsible witness ceases, then man has neither the ability to face reality nor the ability to be free. He becomes chained to the false witness of his own imagination. The ultimate end of all false witness is that it lives in a world of its own imagination. Living a lie, the unregenerate man ultimately has no world but his lie. This is true of all unregenerate men, as epistemological self-consciousness takes them to their logical conclusion. The Marxists are trapped in the dream world of their lie; they live in hell and call it the gate of paradise. The believers in democracy are also prisoners of their lie; they create deep and savage class and race hostilities by law and call it peace and equality.
The rabbis were right about false witness: it is death to the man who utters it and lives by it, death to the society which tolerates it, and it breathes out murder against its neighbor. To avoid false witness, a society must first of all avoid all false gods. False gods breed false men and a false witness.
1. C. D. Ginsburg, “Leviticus,” in Ellicott, I, 424.
2. N. Micklem, “Leviticus,” in Interpreter’s Bible, II, 96.
3. Ginsburg, 424.
4. Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, III, 183–185.
5. Colin Wilson, Religion and the Rebel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 16, cited in Herbert S. Gershman, The Surrealist Revolution in France (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), 133.
6. Gershman, 12.
7. Ibid., 35.
8. Ibid., 46.
9. Ibid., 132.
10. Ibid., 109.