Rahab's Lies

by Prof. Herman Hanko

"By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace (Heb. 11:31)."
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? (James 2:25).

A reader of the News asks, "Why [in these passages] is Rahab commended for lying about the Hebrew spies?"

This is an interesting question, which has generated a lot of debate. The debate centres in the question: Does Scripture approve of lying in some circumstances? Particularly, when the cause of God is being threatened?

The history of Rahab, briefly, is this. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the nation of Israel was poised to begin the conquest of Canaan. Jericho, just west of the Jordan, was the most difficult city in Canaan to capture, for it was a mighty fortress with thick walls and iron gates. It was the key to the whole land. If Israel could not capture Jericho, its efforts to conquer the land were futile. If Jericho fell to the Israelites, this would be a token from God that He fought for them and would presently give them the land He had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In preparation for war against the city, Joshua sent two spies to enter Jericho and learn the state of the city, the strength of its walls, and anything else which would be of value for the Israelites in their proposed campaign.

The spies entered the city and made their way to the house of Rahab, a prostitute, who lived on the wall of the city. Their presence in the city and their entrance into Rahab’s house were noticed, and the police were sent to capture them. Rahab admitted that they had been there, but that they had already left and were headed for the River Jordan, where, if soldiers were immediately sent, they could be captured. However, she had hidden the spies on the roof of her house under some flax. After sending the police away on a wild goose chase, she spoke with the spies and helped them escape from the city by letting them down the wall with a scarlet rope. Her reason for aiding the spies, and also for lying to the police was her determination to cast her lot with the people of Israel. (The entire narrative is found in Joshua 2.)

There are other instances of such lies in Scripture. David feigned madness when he was in the land of the Philistines during his flight from murderous Saul. He was brought before Achish, the king of Gath (I Sam. 21:10-15). David writes of this and God’s deliverance from the hand of Achish in Psalm 56.

More familiar is the lie which the midwives in Egypt told Pharaoh’s servants. Pharaoh had commanded that all the male children of the Israelites be killed. The midwives did not obey Pharaoh, for they feared God. When questioned about their failures, they lied by telling the police that the Hebrew women were not very long in labour and that the children were born before the midwives could get there. God dealt well with the midwives because they feared Him (Ex. 1).

In ordering the murder of all the male babies Pharaoh sought to destroy Israel as a separate people and force the nation to amalgamate with the Egyptians, for the daughters of Israel would be forced to marry Egyptian men. Behind that plot was the plot of Satan to destroy Christ, for Christ, Satan knew, was destined to be born of Israel.

These and other instances in Scripture have led some to conclude that under certain circumstances God permits His people to lie. Usually, so it is argued, such a lie is justified when the welfare of God’s people is at stake. Such a concern for the cause of God led Rahab and the midwives to resort to lies to cover their deeds.

Many argue that in times of war, when a nation is threatened by an aggressor it is legitimate to tells lies to help defeat the conquering power. This argument was used, for example, during the Nazi occupation of mainland Europe. Downed aviators and Jews were hid by those who were willing to risk their lives to save others. If Gestapo agents came to the doors of such homes in which refugees were hidden, it was considered lawful to lie to them to save those they were hiding.

There is agreement among Christians that ordinarily lying is forbidden by the ninth commandment and by other injunctions in Scripture such as Ephesians 4:15. The question is: Are there circumstances in which Scripture permits lying?

While the questioner, quoted above, says that Scripture condones the lie of Rahab, this is not really true. Nowhere in Scripture does one find approval of any lying at all. Exodus 1 does not approve the lie of the midwives; it expresses approval of their fear of God (17, 20-21). Hebrews 11:31 does not express approval of Rahab’s lie, but commends her faith by which she received the spies in peace. That is, because of her faith that God was with Israel and that Israel would ultimately prevail against Jericho, she cooperated with the spies rather than turning them over to the police. Nor does the narrative in Joshua 2 say one word of approval of Rahab’s lie.

The same is true of James 2. Rahab is said to be justified because she received the spies and sent them out another way. By this act she cast her lot with God’s people in whom lived the hope of the coming of the Messiah.

I do not know of a single place in Scripture where a lie is condoned. In other words, that Scripture approves of the lie of Rahab (and the lie of the midwives) is an argument from silence. Scripture does not condemn her lie in so many words. Rather, Scripture speaks of her faith manifested in her works. From Scripture’s silence concerning the sin of the lie, one concludes that Scripture approves.

"Why is Rahab commended for lying about the Hebrew spies?" The fact is that, if one consults the passages and the narrative in Joshua 2, one can actually find no evidence of Scripture’s approval of Rahab’s lie. Scripture approves Rahab’s faith in hiding the spies, but does not approve of her lie.

The problem is that Scripture does not condemn the lie either. If one, therefore, argues that Rahab’s lie was approved by God from the fact that no condemnation is mentioned, the argument rests on Scripture’s silence. This is not a strong argument, simply because there may very well be other reasons why Scripture is silent on the question. And, indeed, this is the case.

It is not surprising that Scripture does not explicitly condemn Rahab’s lie, if we consider that Scripture’s purpose in narrating this history is to demonstrate the power of Rahab’s working faith by which she clung to the promise God had given to Israel.

Rahab is listed among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Here faith is described as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (1). That is, faith is considered in this chapter as a powerful subjective assurance of the truth of God’s promise, the contents of which could not be seen, but were hoped for by all believing Israel. The contents of that promise were the coming of the seed of the woman and salvation from sin and death in Him.

Believing that promise, the faithful in Israel did things which seem on the surface to be inexcusably reckless. They left home to wander in a strange land which was nothing but a barren wilderness—as Abraham did. They exchanged riches, honour and fame, for slavery—as Moses did. They walked around a city fourteen times—confident that in this way an impregnable fortress would be captured. They submitted to imprisonment, torture and death when they were forced to stand alone—as Jeremiah did.

Rahab had that faith. She was a prostitute. She belonged to a city which was humanly impossible to capture. She was known throughout the city. But she cast her lot with a group of foreign invaders, a strange people of whom she knew almost nothing, and those who were a threat to her own city. The only reason she did this was because she believed that Jehovah God was with that people and that her salvation, also from her sin of prostitution, was with that people. This is an amazing faith. And out of this faith flowed the works of which James speaks, for faith is bold, confident, willing to pay any price, willing to suffer any loss; it is the work of God!

The account of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 is for our instruction: "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:1-2)."

But Rahab lied! How like us! Her faith was strong and overcame almost impossible obstacles. But it was also weak. It clung to Christ, but it was not immune to fear. It trusted firmly in God, but it wavered at a critical moment.

Is that so strange? Are we unable to identify with Rahab? We who also have faith?

Rahab was confronted with a serious problem, and it was not difficult for her to justify the telling of a lie. If she told the truth, the spies would be captured and the plan of Joshua to learn as much as he could about the city would be frustrated. The easiest course of action, and one seemingly good for the cause of God, was to lie and hide the spies until she could help them escape. And, besides, if the spies were found in her house, she herself would surely be put to death as a traitor to the cause of her city.

Yet, it is not difficult to see that her lie demonstrated a weakness in her otherwise strong faith. Cannot the Lord prevent the police from discovering the spies? Supposing she would have told them the truth. Is the Lord unable to help her and the men to whom she showed hospitality? Of course, He could. He made the walls of Jericho fall!

There is no need for Scripture to make a special point of condemning Rahab’s lie. Scripture is crystal clear on the whole question of lying. It simply enjoins the believer to tell the truth—always! Scripture does not say: "Speak the truth, but if things get too dangerous it is all right to lie." Nothing of the kind. The three friends who were thrown into the fiery furnace could have lied to escape Nebuchadnezzar’s threat. Daniel could have lied when he was kneeling in prayer by his window facing Jerusalem, and thus escape the lion’s den. But they told the truth! And God saved them.

The point is this. We must always tell the truth. But telling the truth is more than admitting something. If Rahab had told the truth when the police came to her door, she would not merely have said: "Yes, I am hiding the spies from Israel." But she would also have said: "I am keeping the spies in my house, because they are sent from the people whose God is the Lord. He alone is God. Our gods are idols. We must forsake our sin, turn to the living God, and make peace with Israel." That was the truth.

That is what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did. And that is what Daniel did. And, more importantly, that is what Christ did before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate.

That requires the courage of faith in great measure. Daniel’s three friends did not know that God would save them from the fiery furnace. They told Nebuchadnezzar that even if they would be killed, they would not bow before the image which the king had made. To tell the truth is, under some circumstances, very dangerous for the child of God. But he must speak the truth anyway, for that is his calling.

God had given Rahab a remarkable faith. It was also weak. We are like she was in so many ways, although it is frequently doubtful whether our vacillating and frightened faith can rise to the levels of hers. Rather than question her faith, we do better to take courage from her in our own walk and calling in the world.

Prof. Herman Hanko

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