Did God Approve of Rahab's Lie?
Whereas many Bible passages in both the Old and the New Testament indicate that lying is sinful,1 critics of the inspiration of the Bible contend that the biblical teaching on this subject is contradictory. The most frequently cited example revolves around Rahab’s lie in the book of Joshua and two separate, favorable comments about Rahab in the New Testament (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).
Although some well-meaning Christians may creatively contend that Rahab did not lie in Joshua 2, a simple, straightforward reading of the biblical text indicates that she did. After Rahab hid the Israelite spies on her roof among the stalks of flax (Joshua 2:6), she told the messengers of the King of Jericho (who were pursuing the Israelites) that the men in question had already left, and exactly where they went she did not know (2:4-5). However, (1) the Israelites had not left, and (2) she knew exactly where they were. In fact, after speaking to the king’s men, she went back up to the roof to speak with them and to help them safely escape (2:8-21).
According to Bible critics, God is inconsistent in His condemnation of dishonesty. How can “lying lips” be “an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 12:22), while at the same time God spared Rahab from the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 2:9-21; 6:22-25). How is it that “all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” (Revelation 21:8), and yet Rahab be commended twice by New Testament writers?
By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace (Hebrews 11:31).
[W]as not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way (James 2:25)?
Is the Bible inconsistent on this subject? And do these verses not prove that lying is approved in some situations?
First, simply because the Bible commends an individual for a righteous act does not mean that God condones everything the person ever did. Just as husbands and wives can be faithful to each other despite their short comings, and just as children can be submissive to their parents and yet have fallen short of their parents’ expectations many times while growing up, every accountable soul has the potential to be faithful notwithstanding their regretful sins and imperfections.
Keep in mind that Jesus was the only accountable Person ever to live Who never sinned.2 Though Noah, Abraham, Moses, and many others were counted faithful (Hebrews 11:7-29), they occasionally disobeyed God’s will (Numbers 20:1-12) and acted foolishly or cowardly (cf. Genesis 9:21; 12:12-20; 20:1-18). The apostle Peter, who also served as an elder in the early church (1 Peter 5:1), was guilty at one time or another of having a lack of faith (Matthew 14:31), denying that he knew the Lord (Matthew 26:69-75), and hypocritically withdrawing himself from Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). Yet God chose Peter to be a preacher of the Gospel and to pen two of the New Testament epistles. He was not chosen because of his sins; he was chosen in spite of them (and because he repented of his sins and sought to walk in the light rather than wander habitually and rebelliously in the darkness—cf. 1 John 1:5-10). Every saved soul is a former coward, murderer, blasphemer, adulterer, thief, or liar, etc. Every faithful Christian who is walking in the light is tempted to sin, and sometimes (or far more often than we might like to admit) we think, say, or do unchristlike things. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). All faithful followers of God still make mistakes, have moments of weakness, and struggle in a variety of ways, yet they can still “do justly,” “love mercy,” “walk humbly” (Micah 6:8), and “persevere” faithfully (Revelation 3:10).
Second, keep in mind that Rahab was a Canaanite harlot. The people of Canaan were (generally) extremely wicked. They practiced “abominable customs” (Leviticus 18:30) and did “detestable things” (Deuteronomy 18:9, NASB). They attempted to cast spells upon people and call up the dead (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). They would “burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:30). They were so nefarious that God said they defiled the land and the land could stomach them no longer—“the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25). This statement summarizes the level of depravity in Canaan (of which Jericho was a part). Whether Rahab had fully embraced her culture’s debauchery or whether she was more of a victim of her circumstances (as many women have been throughout history), she nevertheless is described in Scripture as a “harlot” who lied (Joshua 2:1-8; 6:17,25). Such sinfulness in the life of a Canaanite woman should come as no surprise. But thankfully, the life of Rahab did not continue to parallel her pagan culture. She wanted out, and the Lord provided a way—which leads us to a third point to consider.
Rahab’s recorded words and actions in Joshua 2 reveal a woman in transition—from living like a pagan harlot to embracing the One true God and His ways. Notice her statements to the Israelite spies:
I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea…and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites…. And as soon as we heard these things our hearts melted…for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on Earth beneath (Joshua 2:9-11).
Rahab then coupled her confessed belief in the existence of Jehovah and His mighty works with action (Joshua 2:6-24). She courageously hid the two Israelite spies from the King of Jericho. She treated the spies kindly. She helped them escape the city. She gave them specific instructions on what to do after they made it out of the city (so that they would not be caught by the king’s men). Rahab and her family kept secret the Israelite plan to destroy Jericho. And, as directed, Rahab bound the scarlet cord in her window, and gathered her parents and other family members in her house (according to the spies’ commands) in order to be spared from Jericho’s destruction. Indeed, as the New Testament rightly recognizes, Rahab actively demonstrated her faith in Jehovah (however so uninformed, inexperienced, and flawed her faith still was).
Fourth, Rahab’s dishonesty is never condoned in Scripture. She was no more commended in the Old Testament or the New Testament for lying than she was for her harlotry. She was commended and graciously spared from the destruction of Jericho because of her overall faith and works at the time—despite the fact that her newly found, courageous faith (which was quickly emerging out of a heavily pagan culture) was still a work in progress. Yes, she lied to the king’s men, but she also (1) confessed belief in Jehovah, (2) appealed to Him for help, (3) showed kindness to the Israelite spies, (4) courageously hid them and helped them escape, etc. There is no logical or biblical reason either to deny Rahab’s lie or to criticize her overall, emerging faith in God. If we would rightly commend a newly recovering alcoholic, pornography addict, or covetous individual who has a temporary set-back in a moment of trying temptation in the midst of a grueling attempt to repent and live a righteous life, could the merciful and gracious God of the Bible not rightly commend Rahab for her overall faith and works in her newfound walk with the Lord?
Can We Ever Lie to Protect Others?
Scripture reveals that everything about God is true. His Spirit, Son, law, commandments, judgments, and works are all true—100% true.3 The simple fact is “God…cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). “It is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). His perfectly truthful nature will not allow Him to lie. Furthermore, throughout God’s truthful Word honesty is commended, while dishonesty is condemned.4 So, if God is always truthful, and if His Word teaches us to be honest, then how can a faithful child of God ever believe we have a God-approved license to lie, even if a lie is told for the purpose of trying to help others? A person may feel like he or she is doing a good thing, but no God-given authority exists for lying (for whatever “noble” reason).
One important lesson that we can learn from God is that we can be perfectly honest and yet not reveal everything we know. God is omniscient (Psalm 139) and has obviously not told us “everything.” We don’t even know everything about the 33-year life of Jesus on Earth (John 21:25). Most of what God knows He has not shared with mankind, but those things that He has truthfully revealed to us are for our eternal benefit (Deuteronomy 29:29). Similarly, whatever situation that we are in, we are to be truthful, but we do not have to say everything that we are thinking or everything that we know about a particular matter. Parents should show maturity and wisdom if their five-year-old son asks them where babies come from. Children’s Bible teachers should show discretion if they are asked point-blank questions about sensitive, sinful matters such as pornography, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, or even bestiality (Leviticus 18:23). We may struggle with the best way to address a sensitive topic (which may “get us in trouble” with various ones), but we have no right to lie. We may tell children to ask their parents at home in private. We may speak in broad, truthful generalities. We may let children know that we will plan to talk with them about various matters on a different occasion (i.e., years from now). We may attempt to distract the questioners and pray that God will providentially deliver us from the uncomfortable situation. Whatever course of action the Christian takes, it should be done (1) honestly, (2) wisely (Matthew 10:16), and (3) with sincere and loving motivations (Matthew 6:1-4; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
But what if a person’s life is at stake? What if you could save a life by lying? Answer: Although human life is an extremely valuable gift from God (Genesis 1:26-27), the most important thing in this life is not merely to live, but to be faithful to God, regardless of the situation. Jesus could have lied and worked things out to spare His own life, but He died (and rose) for a higher purpose. He submissively fulfilled His Father’s will. Jesus and His inspired spokesmen could have instructed the early church to avoid persecution and death by lying for each other or by denying their own faith in Christ, but they didn’t. In fact, to those first-century Christians who were suffering (or were about to face great tribulation), even to the point of death, Jesus declared, “Be faithful until death [“even to the point of death”—NIV], and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
Whether a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a saintly sister in Christ or a spiritual shepherd at a local church, in whatever dire situations people may find themselves, we can creatively attempt to protect families, friends, neighbors, and churches by saying and doing all sorts of things (even by remaining silent), but we should be willing even to die before sinning against the holy God of heaven. Like Samuel, who, with God’s blessing, only told a part of the reason why he traveled to Bethlehem in tumultuous times (in order to protect his own life—1 Samuel 16:1-13), we may truthfully only tell some of what we know about a particular matter in order to save our lives or the lives of others. But, we must be resolved to “be imitators of God as dear children” in all things at all times (Ephesians 5:1). We must be resolved to put away lying (Ephesians 4:28) and to be honest all day, every day.
The story of Rahab should not be used as a license to lie. Instead, we should retell Rahab’s story to show the greatness of Jehovah over the false gods of this world and to inspire God’s people to courageous acts—similar to many of those works demonstrated by a woman from the pagan city of Jericho some 3,500 years ago.
1 Exodus 20:16; Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 6:16-19; Ephesians 4:25; Colossians 3:9; Revelation 21:8.
2 Romans 3:23; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22.
3 1 John 5:6; John 14:6; 2 Samuel 7:28; Psalm 119:14,151; 19:9; Daniel 4:37.
4 Leviticus 19:36; Psalm 15:2; Proverbs 16:11; Ephesians 4:28.