Is lying always wrong?
A brief essay I wrote on Rahab’s “bending the truth” in Joshua 2:
Rahab’s deception of the messengers sent by the king of Jericho in Joshua 2 is another issue that is frequently raised from this text. Assuming that the command to ‘not bear false witness’ addresses more than legal situations, how does one reconcile this command not to lie in Exodus 20 with Rahab’s actions here? A surface reading of the text seems to state that God used the deception of Rahab to further his plans in the conquest of the land. The following paragraphs will address different interpretations of Rahab’s actions, as well as a brief conclusion of what I believe is the best approach.
When Christian ethicists approach this passage, they generally interpret Rahab’s actions in one of three ways. Howard calls the first approach the ‘lesser of two evils approach.’
Under this interpretation, Rahab, faced with lying or the death of the spies, had to pick which was less wrong. After the situation has passed, Rahab must repent from her sin of lying. This approach is problematic in a number of ways, most primarily the doubt that God would hold one accountable for sin in which there was no other choice.
It seems that this is an unlikely interpretation of this passage and other passages in Scripture that are like it.
The second interpretation offered by ethicists is referred to as “graded absolutism” by Howard.
In this interpretation, one should seek the greater good, which in Rahab’s case was the preservation of the lives of the spies. Howard points out that this view has biblical support with other examples, both from narrative and didactic passages.
Yet this is a dangerous, slippery slope to ‘the ends justify the means.’ Clearly this approach has its problems as well.
Finally, Howard lists the approach that he prefers, that of ‘nonconflicting absolutes.’
This view suggests that the other two interpretations produce a false dichotomy–believers do not need to choose between two sinful acts but rather should trust God to provide an alternative way. As Howard writes, “To act otherwise shows a lack of faith in God’s ability to protect or provide, even in a desperate situation.”
Because God is truth, deception in any form is wrong.
Yet this approach seems to be overly naïve, and seems to make the other two approaches seem less Christian because they seem to leave God’s sovereignty out of the equation.
It is easy for someone to argue that Rahab made the wrong choice and should have trusted God in this situation, but those who argue for such a position are frequently in seminary classrooms where there is no immediate danger. Woudstra believes that this debate argues the wrong question. “In Israel truth […] means ‘loyalty toward the neighbor and the Lord.’ Thus viewed, Rahab’s words need not be called a lie.”
Unfortunately Woudstra’s approach seems slightly deceptive itself, and is not helpful in reaching a conclusion. In the same way, Halstad argues “not all forms of deception are necessarily immoral,” but this also seems to be skirting the issue.
I believe that a graded absolutist approach is the best approach, but it must be nuanced correctly. In order to prevent this from becoming an ‘ends justify the means’ approach, one must recognize that this graded absolutism must be case-based, i.e., every situation is different. The argument that God is truth is somewhat misleading. Verhey writes, “God is Truth, but when Scripture uses this image it does not refer simply to some correspondence between word and thought. […] The test for our speech and our lives, then, is not simply whether what we say or do corresponds with what we think, but faithfulness to covenant.”
In protecting the spies, Rahab was remaining faithful to her newfound covenant with the LORD. Finally, the aspect that is perhaps the largest proponent of this belief is that nowhere in this passage (or a similar passage concerning the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1) is there condemnation of Rahab’s actions.
It seems that there is good reason to believe Rahab did not commit a sin when she deceived the messengers from the king of Jericho. She remained faithful to the covenant which she had made with the Israelites and with their God. Yet even if she did sin from this deception, she has been justified through the blood of Christ Jesus.