Point: Why Rahab's Lie Was Sinful

The book of Joshua contains some hard questions that we need to answer: questions about God, ourselves, and morality.  I’ve tried to answer one of those questions already, by addressing why, in the book of Joshua, we read about so much God-ordained killing and violence.  Joshua 2 raises another hard question from the story of Rahab and her lie to protect the spies that Joshua sent to scout out the land before the Israelites attacked Jericho.  The hard question is this: did Rahab sin by lying to protect the spies?  This particular question, and this particular story from Joshua, have been the subject of debate and disagreement for many years.  Some believe that Rahab sinned when she lied, some believe that Rahab was justified in lying.  In fact, there is disagreement on the pastoral staff regarding this question.  For that reason, Pastor Levi and I will be answering this question from two different angles on our blogs.  My answer to the question is below, and you can read Pastor Levi’s answer to the question of whether or not Rahab sinned when she lied, here.  But above all, let the Spirit lead you through God’s word to come to your own conclusion about this text and its implications in life.  

Before I give my answer to the question of the righteousness of Rahab’s lie, I think it is important to note that the purpose of the narrative in Joshua 2 is not meant to be a defense of righteous lying, nor is it meant to denounce Rahab’s behavior.  Instead, the focus of this chapter is to display the depth of Rahab’s faith, infantile as it may have been.  So as we attempt to answer this question, let’s do so without missing the forest for the trees!

Allow me to get straight to the point: Did Rahab sin when she lied to protect the spies?  Yes.  Why?  There are two primary reasons that I can see:

God hates lies and loves the truth.  

Scripture is replete with the reality that lying is contrary to God’s nature, and is therefore sin.  God hates lying (Prov. 6.16-19 – note that in this list of seven things the Lord “hates,” lying is mentioned twice).  Lying is such a serious offense to a holy God that its just punishment is an eternity in hell for all liars (Rev. 21.8).  “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord…” (Proverbs 12.22).  The ninth commandment forbids lying (Exodus 20.16).  These are just a few of the myriad of instances in scripture that denounce lying and falsehoods.  In addition to scripture’s denunciation of lying, it should also be noted that falsehood is contrary to the nature of God, which is truth.  God never lies (Titus 1.2Numbers 23.191 Samuel 15.29).  Nowhere in scripture is lying ever commended – not even in the case of Rahab or of the Hebrew women who lied to Pharaoh in order to preserve the lives of the Israelite children (see Exodus 1.15-21).  Instead, truthfulness and honesty are always commanded and commended.  The testimony of scripture is clear: God detests falsehood and loves the truth.

Lying exposes doubt and unbelief in our hearts.  

In spite of the perspicuity of scripture on the matter of lying, we are still tempted to justify lies like the one Rahab told in order to save the spies.   We look for justification for sinful behavior because we perceive that some actions (like lying) can sometimes bring about a beneficial outcome (such as the supposed saving of the lives of the spies, or the sparing of the lives of the Hebrew babies in Exodus 1).  Or in other words, we believe the ends justify the means.  For instance, the fact that the spies inJoshua 2 were not discovered and were therefore successful in their mission is a good thing, and we are tempted to think that whatever had to happen in order to achieve this successful result is worth it.  In other words, it’s the idea that obeying God is right when the outcome is good or beneficial.  But this pragmatic view of obedience is not biblical.  Rather, the Bible commands us to believe and obey God, and leave the outcomes up to him (see Esther 4.12-16).  

Instead, what pragmatic obedience does is leave it up to us to decide when we should obey or not obey based upon our perceptions of what might happen as a result of our obedience or disobedience.  This is what Rahab did: she determined that the only hope for the spies to be undiscovered and thereby successful in their mission was for her to lie.  This, to me, is the height of presumptuousness.  It presumes that God’s hands are tied unless we take matters into our own (usually sinful) hands.  It presumes that God is not sovereign.  It presumes that outcomes depend on my actions, rather than on God’s pre-ordained plan.  In short, it exposes doubt in the heart of the one who would compromise obedience for the sake of a desired outcome – doubt that God is sovereign and powerful enough to handle the situations we face.  

But the truth is contrary to this notion.  God doesn’t need a person to sin in order to achieve his desired result.  To think that sin is the only way to achieve a desired result, I believe, betrays the notion that one finds God to be trustworthy and powerful enough to achieve the result on his own.  This manner of thinking says that in order for things to turn out “right,” I have to sin.  No. 

Furthermore, such a pragmatic approach to obedience will force us to determine which situations in life warrant a “just” lie and which do not – a process for which there is no rubric, and for which the judgment would be utterly subjective and based on the individual’s own discernment.  How do I know which scenarios call for a justified sin, and which ones do not?  How can I tell for certain that lying is permissible in this situation, but not in that one?  By what standard do we judge when it is OK to sin?  It certainly can’t be the Bible, because the Bible always condemns lying.  So then, we are left with our best judgment, which is constantly manipulated by our selfish emotions and sinful desires – an unsteady guide, at best.

But some will say, “But what about the good that came from Rahab’s lie?  The spies would have been captured and probably executed if they were discovered!”  Perhaps.  We don’t know that.  I am inclined to believe that God would have preserved the spies regardless of what Rahab did or didn’t do (again, see Esther 4.12-16).  Certainly God was able to conceal the spies through means other than Rahab’s lie.  God did not need Rahab to lie in order to achieve his intended result – the spies would be saved one way or another.  When Rahab lied, it demonstrated a lapse of faith on her part, in that she didn’t believe that God could save the spies without her help.  

Then what do we make of Rahab?

The Bible commends Rahab for her hospitality and her faith (see Hebrews 11.31 and James 2.25).  But if Rahab lied, demonstrating a lapse of faith, how can she be commended for her faith?  While Rahab’s lie may have exposed a measure of unbelief in her heart, her other actions revealed the overall quality and fruit of her faith: that of welcoming the spies and making sure that they left the city safely.  

Believers lie sometimes, and they struggle with sin on a regular basis.  But they also battle their tendency for sin, and they grow through it and out of it by the power of the Holy Spirit, and move more from trusting in their own power (telling lies to get out of dangerous situations) to trusting more in the sovereign hand of God.  Rahab was at the beginning of the infancy of her faith when she was put to the test, and understandably, she failed.  But this does not remove her from the family of God, nor does it tarnish the legacy of her faith, as is evidenced by her mention in the “Hall of Faith” of Hebrews 11, and by the nod that James gives to her faith in James 2.  Again, the focus of Joshua 2 is not the lie that Rahab told, but the fact that she responded rightly to the testimonies of God: in faith.   

Did Rahab sin?  Yes.  Did her sin detract from the genuine quality of her faith in the one true God?  Not at all.  That being said, let us strive for faith that seeks to obey, and entrust the outcome of our obedience to the sovereign hand of God.