FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice.
Question: Why would God tell Abraham to lie about his wife Sarah?
Question: Why would God tell Abraham to lie about his wife Sarah?
The Bible record tells us that God blessed Abraham despite his action
Some ask, "Why God would encourage Abraham & Sarah to lie in Abraham 2:24? Isn't lying a sin according to the 10 commandments? Why did God tell Abraham and Sarah to lie when 2 Nephi condemns liars to hell?"
The Bible tells us that Moses did what God told him to do. Is it so surprising that Abraham might have been told something similar to prevent death to the righteous? The Pharaoh would sometimes kill a husband then take their wives for themselves. The Bible record tells us that God blessed Abraham despite his action. The Book of Abraham simply makes it clear that Abraham did not choose this path on his own, but like Moses was obeying a direct command from God, who may grant exceptions to His Laws if He pleases.
The Bible records Abraham's lie to Pharaoh, and then God rewards the lie
The Bible records Abraham's lie to Pharaoh, and then God rewards the lie (see Genesis 12:17). This seems a strange action if God disapproved their action.
There are times in the Bible and other extra-biblical accounts when God has commanded His prophets to protect the innocent by giving the wicked less than the whole story
In the ancient Genesis Apocryphon text, Abraham has the same motives described in the Pearl of Great Price as delivered by Joseph Smith. He tells Sarah that God has given him a dream in which she saves him from being killed. He then tells her:
[Say to them] of me, 'He is my brother,' and because of you I shall live, and because of your my life shall be saved...'
And Sarai wept that night on account of my words..." 
How did Joseph produce this authentic ancient detail, with this text not available until 1948?
The first Bible example of divinely approved deception
The first example involves Pharaoh's murderous instructions to the Egyptian midwives:
16 And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.
17 But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.
18 And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive?
19 And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Exodus 1:16-19
The midwives are confronted with a command from the head of state which offends their personal/professional morality. They decline to participate, and actively deceive the Pharaoh--they even lie to him or his officers so that the deception may continue, as well as to (one assumes) spare themselves his punishment. The subsequent verses indicate God's approval of their action. (See Exodus 1:20).
Honesty to the wicked is not the primary moral value: obedience to the will of God is.
A second Bible example of divinely approved deception
The second example comes from the prophetic call of Moses. The Lord speaks to Moses and says:
17 And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.(Exodus 3:17)
The Lord announces His intention to liberate the Israelites from slavery. But, in the very next breath, He tells Moses what to tell Pharaoh—what the "public story" should be, if you will:
18 And they shall hearken to thy voice: and thou shalt come, thou and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt, and ye shall say unto him, The LORD God of the Hebrews hath met with us: and now let us go, we beseech thee, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.(Exodus 3:18)
The "public stance" of Moses and the Israelite leaders is to be that they only want to go three days' journey to sacrifice. So, here the Lord is advocating some degree of deception. This extends to even deceiving their Egyptian neighbors:
21 And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty:
22 But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.(Exodus 3:21-22)
Because they are just going to make sacrifices, in the public version, the Israelites are to "borrow" valuable goods from the Egyptians. But, the true intent is clearly spelled out: they are to "spoil" (i.e. "loot") the Egyptians.
Pharaoh is, of course, nobody's fool. He seems to strongly suspect that there is more to the story than Moses is publicly admitting. He offers all sorts of compromise positions, seemingly designed to assure that the slaves will return after fulfilling their duties.
Things proceed to the point that Pharaoh threatens Moses' life despite the plagues and signs. The people are finally freed, but once they have left Pharaoh and his councilors decide to resort to violence and slaughter:
5 And it was told the king of Egypt that the people fled: and the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned against the people, and they said, Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?
6 And he made ready his chariot, and took his people with him:
7 And he took six hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over every one of them.
8 And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.(Exodus 14:5-8)
We are not told why the Lord instructed Moses to deal with the Egyptians in the way that he did. It is significant that Moses did not take such an approach on his own; only a direct command motivates his less-than-forthright behavior.
One can speculate, however—it is certainly reasonable to think that the Egyptians would have murderous intent toward their slaves who presumed to leave. They are willing to act on such inclinations, despite the plagues, when it becomes indisputable that Israel has left for good. If Moses had announced that Israel was leaving, what would the reaction of Pharaoh's court have been? Moses' failure to tell the whole story may well have saved Egyptian life, as well as Israelite. To be sure, God could have used another way. But, in this instance, deception was the specific tactic which He commanded.
Anti-Moses authors could doubtless exploit this situation to great rhetorical effect--they could mock Moses' "ethical lapse" here, and insist that he did it all for monetary gain. They could contrast his behavior here with the "thou shalt not covet," "thou shalt not bear false witness," and "thou shalt not steal" commands given later at Sinai, and point out that "borrowing" when you don't ever intend to come back looks a lot like "stealing."
- Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Press, 1997), 453–454. See also: ( off-site.)