This post was written by Josh Bondoc, Director of Young Adults Ministries at EBC.
Last Sunday, we looked at Joshua 2 and how Rahab lied to the soldiers of Jericho about hiding the Israelite spies to protect them: “‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.’ But she had brought them up to the roof and hid them with the stalks of flax that she had laid in order on the roof” (Joshua 2:4-6).
Many well-meaning Christians have landed on different sides regarding this passage, so what I’m about to propose here is more of a suggestion for you to consider as opposed to a “Thus saith the Lord” statement. While I will try to argue as biblically as I can (since this topic requires some logical insight), I hope that we can shake hands and recognize God’s Word as the absolute authority of our life and convictions—whether we agree or disagree at the end of this blog!
First, let’s talk about what we should agree on: God is truth (John 14:6; 1 John 5:20), so He cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18). Therefore, God desires His people to be truthful like him (Ephesians 4:25; 1 Timothy 3:15; Revelation 21:27). On the other hand, lying for selfish gain and unjust outcomes are clearly and explicitly condemned as sin throughout Scripture (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 12:22). Now, the question remains: Is it ever morally permissible for God’s people to tell a lie? Or are we required to tell the truth in every circumstance—no matter the cost?
In light of Joshua 2, let’s rephrase the question: Was Rahab’s lie justified by pointing the soldiers the other way to protect the spies? Or should Rahab have told the truth and trusted God to deliver the spies himself? Let’s examine Joshua 2 and other passages throughout Scripture to help answer this.
Righteous People Lying to Wicked People…
In Joshua 2, notice that Rahab lied to the soldiers (2:4-6) of wicked Jericho (2:1) who sought to kill the Israelite spies (2:7), in order to protect them. Because of this, Rahab is rewarded for her faith in God: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies” (Hebrews 11:31). While some Christians argue that Rahab was commended for her faith as opposed to her lie, one cannot deny the fact that Rahab’s “works” were an act of betrayal against the king of Jericho and, in turn, a pledge of allegiance to the King of Israel—which included her lie to protect the Israelite spies. In a sense, we could summarize this by saying that Rahab lied to the wicked soldiers—in good faith.
Another example of this is found in the God-fearing Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 who disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to kill all male newborns. When asked about why they disobeyed, they lied to wicked Pharaoh by saying that “Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19). If these God-fearing midwives sinned by lying to the wicked Pharaoh, then it would be a really good opportunity to hear about God’s disapproval of them immediately. Instead, we find out that “God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (Exodus 1:20-21).
In both of these situations, the main detail we need to notice here is that righteous people lied to wicked people with wicked desires—and God rewarded them for their actions. This begs the question: why?
…for God’s Greater Good.
We hear about this principle of God’s greater good when Jesus criticizes the religious leaders in his day: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). When the Pharisees sought to accuse him for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus—who was fully aware of what the law says about the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:12-14)—said to them: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath’” (Matthew 12:10-12). In short, we see that Jesus deems the law’s intent to be weightier than its specific prohibitions, and thus doing good on the Sabbath is more valuable than a strict obedience to the command to refrain from activity.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of this principle being applied is seen in Jesus’ confrontation of the Pharisees regarding the temple bread: “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:3-6). While David clearly violated the Law (Leviticus 24:5-9), nowhere is he condemned for it in the Scriptures—not even by Jesus Himself—because he broke that specific law for the greater good of staying alive as he fled from Saul.
It is through this principle that we can understand the “righteous lies” in Exodus 1 and Joshua 2. In Exodus 1, we see that the lie of the midwives was used to protect the Hebrew babies—which leads up to the birth of Moses (Exodus 2:1-10), the one whom God would use to call His people out of Egypt. In Joshua 2, the same thing is at work: Rahab’s lie ensured the safety of the spies and the success of their mission. The kicker? Nowhere in Scripture are the midwives or Rahab condemned as sinners. In fact, James says that Rahab was counted as righteous like Abraham: “‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God… and in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified?” (James 2:25).
For God’s Greater Good, Not Ours
To sum up so far, we have seen that there are occasions in the Bible where righteous people lying to wicked people for God’s greater good is not condemned as sin. However, we have also agreed that God is truth and lying for selfish gain or unjust outcomes is sin. Therefore, I want to be clear that the only exception for a “righteous lie” is God’s greater good, not ours. Any lie is sinful unless it is done to protect an innocent party from a wicked person with wicked motives. As Sam Storms describes it, “A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth.”1Sam Storms, “Perplexing Passages: Do Exodus 1 and Joshua 2 Permit Christians to Lie?,” The Gospel Coalition, January 2018. Retrieved from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/perplexing-passages-do-exodus-1-and-joshua-2-permit-christians-to-lie/
And so I want to be clear that this article is not a propaganda for Christians to be complacent in telling the truth at all times. We must never lie for selfish gain.
But did Rahab lie to the glory of God by protecting the spies from the soldiers of Jericho? My answer is yes. She told a lie to wicked people to save the righteous, for God’s greater good, not her own.
In conclusion, I’ll offer a more modern example. If I lived in Europe during WWII and was hiding Jews in my house, and a Nazi soldier came to my door in search of them, I would (like Corrie Ten Boom) tell a lie to save their lives—much the same way that Rahab did so many centuries earlier.