I made a big boo boo when I preached on Rahab from Joshua chapter 2 last Sunday. I didn’t touch on the question of whether it is okay to lie for God. I guess the issue was not one the narrative surfaced, and I was so blown away by her conversion experience, and how a prostitute became a hero of faith in Israel (Hebrews 11:31; James 2;25). She even gets mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:5)! If she can get into the Kingdom there is a chance for all of us. But yes, Rahab told a bare-faced lie for God.
So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”
But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) (Joshua 2:3–6 NIV)
I have long classified this action of Rahab under the “lesser evil” exception in Christian ethics. This approach to Christian moral reasoning starts with the acknowledgement that we live in a fallen world where we face painful choices we wouldn’t have had to face if sin had not entered human experience. For example, God is pro life, but in a fallen world we may have to go to war to defend our countries from invasion and wars involve the taking of lives.
So lying is wrong. And so is surrendering God’s men to the soldiers. Rahab had to make a choice and she made a choice in line with her newfound allegiance to YHWH and to YHWH’s people and purposes. Rev Hwa Yung summarises this “lesser evil” approach in his book on bribery and corruption:
God’s various moral commands are absolute, but they are not all at the same level of importance. To tell a lie in order to save a life in certain (and not just any) circumstances is to recognise that life-saving is more important than truth-telling in God’s hierarchy of values. This does not mean that lying is right in and of itself. Neither does it mean that we are compromising God’s law that tell us “you shall not bear false witness.” But in exceptional circumstances, not telling the truth is the lesser of two evils! A “tragic choice” is involved. The right answer in such a situation can only be found through carefully weighing of the context and the consequences of each course of action, together with much prayer and wisdom. (Hwa Yung, Bribery and Corruption, [Singapore: Graceworks, 2010], 29.)
There are those who find such a position a betrayal of the Word. These folks would have expected Rahab to tell the truth, trusting that God will know what to do with the spies. My response is that if the Lord had specifically asked Rahab to do that she should have done so. But there was no direction from the Lord. A greater worry about the lesser evil approach is that the human heart is an expert in deceiving itself. We can justify just about anything and pass it off as a lesser-evil decision. Hence Hwa Yung’s concern that we make such decisions carefully, and, I would add, in the context of a mature and holy community.
It is interesting though that Rahab’s action receives no censure in the Bible. Perhaps we need to ask if the biblical understanding of truth is more nuanced. A biblical understanding of truth may go beyond “something that agrees with the facts”. The context of biblical ethics is the love for God and neighbour. These twin loves underlie our lives before God. Hence the Ten Commandments, with the prohibition of bearing false witness, are given to Israel to teach them how to experience life in its fullness — a life committed to the glory of God and the welfare of neighbour. When truth-telling results in the massacre of innocents, as when Christians were hiding Jews during World War Two, would the prohibition of truth telling still serve God’s purposes? Similarly, when Paul tells us in Colossians 3:9–10 (NIV) — “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” — he is speaking about how God’s people should relate to one another in God’s community. Would the same prohibition apply when a murderer asks you the whereabouts of a young child so that he or she can mutilate and kill him/her?
Our God is the God of truth (Revelation 15:3; Isaiah 65:16) and His people are expected to be truth tellers. In a world where truth is often seen to be subjective and in the service of some pragmatic agenda, we need to continue to tell the truth and live out the truth (John 3:21). But we do live in a fallen world, and in a fallen world there may be occasions when we have to make tragic choices. If we have to do so we do so reluctantly, free falling on the grace of God. Even the need to make such decisions wearies the soul. So we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus”. Until then we ask for the grace and wisdom we need to follow Jesus in the real world.