1. Joshua 2:4–5 (ESV)
  2. Exposition

Was Rahab's lie sinful?

Joshua 2:4–5 (ESV)

4 But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.

In Joshua 2, there appears to be a conflict of two absolute principles of moral behaviour.

  1. It is wrong to lie (9th commandment, Exodus 20:16).

  2. One must do what you can to protect human life (6th Commandment, Exodus 20:13).

Historically, there have been three ways in which Christians have tried to understand what should be done in situations such as the one in which Rahab found herself.

  1. Conflicting absolutes

    • When there is a conflict of absolute principles, we must choose the lesser of two evils. This choice, however, would still be sinful, and it is just a sad reality of life in a fallen world that we come into such circumstances.

    • For Rahab, this meant that her decision to lie to the king of Jericho was a sin. Lying is always wrong. However, her lie was the lesser of two evils.

    • The problem of this position is that it does not consider Hebrews 4:15. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was tempted to sin in all ways just as we are and yet he was without sin. He managed to live in this fallen world without ever having to commit a lesser sin in order to avoid a greater one.

  2. Graded absolutism

    • There is a hierarchy of absolutes whereby some moral principles have greater significance than others (as seems to be the case in Matthew 23:23). Where there is conflict such that it is impossible to obey both commands, the Christian must act according to the higher principle. In such a case, the action would not be sin.

    • For Rahab, her decision to lie was therefore not sinful since she chose to act according to the higher principle (preservation of life). If she did not tell a lie, then the spies would have been killed.

    • The problem with this position is that it relies on a very subjective evaluation regarding which principles are higher and which we ones are lower. How do we know which moral principles have greater significance apart from clear biblical directives? The Bible does not provide us with an ordered hierarchy of values or exceptions; therefore, the decision regarding a higher and lesser principle is often very subjective.

  3. (3) Nonconflicting absolutes

    • In a situation where there appear to be conflicting absolutes, there is always another option that avoids sin.

    • This means that Rahab should not have lied. God is truth (John 14:6; 1 John 5:20) and he does not lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). Therefore, Rahab should not have lied. She should have trusted God to provide for her and protect the spies in another way. Perhaps she could have remained silent in response to their question, inviting the king to search her premises while at the same time praying for God to keep the spies hidden.

    • This position seems to be one that is most biblical. If God is sovereign and he does not want us to lie, then he can intervene in this world to protect human life in another way. Also, according to Romans 3:7–8, the ends do not justify the means, and 1 Corinthians 10:13 also reminds us that God promises deliverance from the necessity of sinning. The moral norms articulated in the Ten Commandments are absolutes. For some of them the Bible gives no exceptions (e.g., lying) whilst for others there are some God-given exceptions (e.g., capital punishment, as in Exodus 21:12–17 or Genesis 9:6).

  • Conclusion

    • In evaluating Rahab, it appears we must render a mixed verdict. We should condemn her lie and momentary lack of trust in God but we must also commend her faith both in word and deed.

    • Calvin summarized her response as follows: “Those who hold what is called a dutiful lie to be altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God. Therefore, although our purpose be to assist our brethren, to consult for their safety and relieve them, it never can be lawful to lie, because that cannot be right which is contrary to the nature of God. And God is truth. And still the act of Rahab is not devoid of the praise of virtue, although it is not spotlessly pure. For it often happens that while the saints study to hold the right path, they deviate into convoluted courses."1