Rahab: Her Fib and Her Faith

Does the story of Rahab’s lie provide a biblical basis for situation ethics? Must Christians always tell the truth? Or is it sometimes right to lie?

Years ago Joseph Fletcher wrote a book called “Situation Ethics: The New Morality” ((Westminster Press, 1966). Fletcher died in 1991, but his “new morality” is still embraced by many Christians today. Fletcher proposed that it was sometimes right to break the moral law of God to accomplish a higher purpose. If someone comes to your door with a gun intending to kill your wife and kids, you should rightly lie about their location to protect them, placing the sanctity of truth below the higher value, the sanctity of life.

Following Fletcher’s thinking some Christians have appealed to the story of Rahab in defense of a righteous lie. After hiding the two spies under stalks of flax on her roof, Rahab told the king’s men that the Israelites had left the city and she did not know where they went (Josh. 2:5). Rahab knowingly lied. Does her lying provide us with biblical justification for lying? This question never fails to generate lively discussion in the seminary classroom!

Several key hermeneutical principles are helpful in responding to this question. First, it is important to remember that the Bible often records what God does not necessarily approve. Second, divine approval of an individual in one aspect or area of life does not mean there is divine approval in all aspects of character or conduct. Third, application should be made on the basis of what the Bible obviously blesses or commends, not every detail of the passage.

Putting these principles into application, is it possible that the Bible recorded the story of Rahab without implicit approval of her lying? There is no evidence in the text that God approved or blessed her lie. Yes, Rahab’s life was spared because she protected the spies. But does that mean that God blessed her lie?

What the Bible clearly commends is Rahab’s faith, not her falsehood! Hebrews 11:31 records that it was “by faith” that Rahab did not perish along with the rest of the Canaanites at Jericho. We shouldn’t be surprised that Rahab lied, she whose very occupation centered on immoral behavior. She must have lied regularly to the men she entertained in her bed. But what the story of Rahab and the spies highlights is that although she was a Canaanite harlot, Rahab came to believe in Yahweh, the God of Israel! She declared her faith to the Israelite spies when she said, “Yahweh, your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath (Josh. 2:11).

As a new believer from a very immoral background, Rahab told a lie. But her example at this point does not provide a legitimate ethical basis for telling a lie. We serve a “God of truth” (Psa. 31:5) who exhorts us to “speak the truth” (Zech. 8:16, Eph. 4:15,25). To justify lying in order to save a life implies that God has so few resources at his disposal that He needs our lie to rescue someone from a difficult situation. Did God need Rahab to lie in order to protect the spies? Could He have protected them in some other way? God does not need our lies in order to accomplish His good and sovereign purposes. Certainly our God is greater than that!

Jesus called for constant honesty, without hedging or modifying the truth (Matt. 5:33-37). This does not mean that we must tell all that we know. I need not tell a crazed man with a gun that my wife and children are hiding in the closet! At the same time, there does not appear to be a biblical justification for lying. Joseph Fletcher got it wrong. Because God is truth, He regards all lies as sinful–contrary to His character. Believers should speak the truth always and trust in God’s protective care.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).

3 thoughts on “Rahab: Her Fib and Her Faith

  1. Thanks Carl. I think you have convinced me, but I have two follow-up questions:

    (1) In James 2:25 it says that Rahab was justified before God when “she received the messengers and sent them out by another way”. I had always taken the phrase “another way” to indicate that she sent them out by a different way than they direction she sent the guards in. My question is: how should “another way” be understood in James 2:25?

    (2) This is only slightly related, but I have always taken the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” to refer to testifying against an innocent man in court, and not to our modern idea of “lying”. Am I interpreting the commandment correctly?


  2. This arguement presupposes the possibility of man living in a sinless world and obeying God’s law as if this were heaven. I agree 100% that lying(sinning) is always wrong. God has chosen to magnificently work in, through, and around our sin to achieve His purpose. I think of Isaac lying and decieving Jacob for the inheritence God had already pre-ordained for him.
    These accounts are to be marveled at in how God works through our sinfulness and never, ever taken to justify our own misdeeds. It helps me to view these stories, not as an isolated case, but as a thread in God’s redemptive metanarrative.

  3. Dr. Laney,

    Thanks for stimulating our thought about the vital importance of truth. I agree with you that lying is never acceptable, but I wonder if all deception is considered “lying” and if in certain contexts–not to say “situations” (since Fletcher has poisoned the word for evangelicals)–it might be acceptable to deceive.

    For example, when I am on vacation I put timers on the lamps, leave a radio on in the back room, and halt delivery of the paper–all of this to give the impression that I’m still home when I’m not. When the quarterback fakes a handoff or the poker player bluffs that he has a winning hand, he is deliberately “lying” by some people’s definition of the word. The problem, as I see it, is that in these contexts the possibility that one might not be telling the truth is all a part of the game and according to the rules.

    So in the “war and espionage” context of Joshua 2, shouldn’t we expect (and allow) deception? Does the enemy of God have any reasonable expectation that those who are about to invade his land will broadcast their presence? Surely the two spies–if they were any good at spying–were just as guilty of deliberate deception as their harlot host! Does the prospective killer of my wife have any reason to expect that when I say “she’s not here” that I am telling the truth?

    I know that these observations do not settle the case, but I wonder is Rahab ever rebuked for her “fib” as Abram was for lying about his marriage to Sarai (Gen 12, cf. Gen 20)? Is there even any implied disapproval as there may have been in Abe’s case? Did anything bad come of it (such as the jeopardizing of Sarah’s purity or the plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt)?

    Given the options of telling the King of Jericho, “they’re on the roof under the flax,” keeping silent until she was either tortured to death or finally spilled the beans (thus forfeiting not only her own life, but the lives of the spies and her father’s household who by virtue of her act were spared), or doing what she did (I won’t call it lying), I think Sister Rahab made the right choice. The same one that I make when I go on vacation and the same one that Peyton Manning pulls off on a regular basis. In the context of war, espionage, and imminent invasion, she was under no obligation to tell the king’s men where the spies were–to do so would have put her on the “wrong team.”

    Fortunately, most of us are hardly ever in such a context–and we ARE expected to be truth tellers. We must not use Rahab’s extraordinary case to rationalize the lies we may be tempted to tell in the mundane affairs of life. Such “rationalizing,” it seems to me, is what Abe did and why he was roundly rebuked.

    Thanks again for causing me to think. I’d appreciate a response from anyone who sees a hole in my logic.

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