I would like to thank Pastor Joel for asking me to give my perspective on Rahab in response to his post in which he argues that Rahab’s act of “lying” was sinful. It is always good to have a friendly discussion about Scripture and how it applies to us and it always good to remember that Christian can disagree with each other on non-central issues like this. I do not think Rahab“lied” because I define lying as a specific form of deception that is always wrong, but I do believe there are certain limited scenarios where deception is permissible and even good. In this post, I hope to explain and defend that position in light of Rahab's actions.
Now there is much debate about the incident where Rahab “lies” to conceal the Israelite spies. In fact, there is disagreement on the pastoral staff regarding this question. For that reason, Pastor Joel and I will be answering this question from two different angles on our blogs. You can read Pastor Joel’s answer to the question of whether or not Rahab sinned when she lied, here.
Some Christians believe what Rahab did was wrong and God merely used that wrong and turned it to good as he so often does. This is indeed a possible interpretation of that event and it is the view I used to hold myself. Recently, upon reflecting on this text and other similar ones, and based upon my study of ethics, I have changed my belief about Rahab’s that she did not lie, rather that she deceived her military opponents and therefore she did not sin in this action. In fact, I believe she acted in a morally praiseworthy manner which aligned with her faith and which was an altogether good action. How did I come to that conclusion?
Let’s zoom out for a second first. Let us ask the question, “Is deception in any form ever permissible? Is it ever a good thing to practice?” Now before we answer that question, I must stress that most of us do not face the problem of being too honest. In fact, far too many of us lie far too often, and if you are reading this article searching for an excuse to lie to your spouse, friend, neighbor, boss, etc. then I must inform you that you most certainly do not have a right to deceive them. But let us return to the question at hand.
Within Christianity there are three main camps when it comes to the question of whether or not deception is ever permissible or good. First, there are the hard-liners who say it is never permissible to deceive and all Rahab did was try to control the situation through her sin and God showed her mercy in allowing it to work. The second camp argues that some situations have two competing morals (tell the truth or let someone die) and our job is to choose the lesser sin (for Rahab that was lying). So Rahab still sinned, but not as bad as she could have. And third we have my camp, which suggests that in certain, very limited situations, deception is not only permissible but it is the morally good thing to do. Before addressing the question of Rahab, let us look at these three positions.
Let’s assume the first position is correct that all deception is always wrong. If this is indeed the truth then we must apply it to EVERY area of life without exception; and when we do that it soon becomes apparent that such a view is utterly absurd. Why you may ask? Think of these situations: is it wrong for a quarterback to fake a pass or a handoff in order to deceive an opposing team? Is it wrong for military personnel to wear camouflage in attempt to conceal themselves from their enemies and thus deceive them? According to this view, all deception is morally evil and a sin, and if this is true then we must say that all of the above actions are inherently sinful! This means we may, as Christians, have to withdraw from all sports, and even from military actions. Deception is a natural part of many athletic games and is inherently a part of military strategy. Military success is often determined by the ability to trick and deceive your enemy whether it is the use of spies, flanking your opponent, or using camouflage and disguise. Holding the position that says all deception is sin leads quickly to absurdity. I do not believe this position is even possible to live out, nor do I believe it is the position put forward in Scripture.
The second position holds that deception is sometimes the lesser of two evils and therefore we choose it in order to protect the higher good. For example, in Rahab’s story the higher good is to protect the lives of the Spies and to side with the will of God to give Israel the land, so Rahab chooses the “lesser” sin of lying. This position suffers the same problem as the first position, it descends into illogicality at an alarming pace because all deception remains a sin, it just may not be the worst sin in that situation.
Following the logic of this position means that if a Christian entered the military he or she must recognize that they will sin in service to their country no matter what by attempting to deceive their enemies. If this is true, it would be better for Christians to never join the military because they would knowingly enter a realm in which they would be required to sin against God at some level and Christ makes it clear that we are to battle against at all costs.
At least in the military individuals would be sinning to perhaps further a greater good. But if we apply this ethic in games and sports there is no “greater good” which would justify deceiving your opponent through a Quarterback faking a pass, a basketball player faking a shot, or a soccer player faking going one direction so that the other direction opens up. If this view is the correct one, Christians should not allow their children to play these sports because it would necessitate their children to sin by deceiving their opponents through fakes. Surely we would not subject our children to sin just to play a sport or to win a meaningless game? Both of the above two views, in my opinion, show how irrational they are as we attempt to apply them to everyday life.
Thankfully, there is a third position. This position asserts that there are limited situations where deception is expected, fair-game, and is the morally right thing to do. Generally, it is put forth that in such situations that people are not entitled to know the truth or they have lost their right to be told the truth and thus deception becomes permissible and even morally good. For example, in sports and competition, you know that your opponent will, within the rules of the contest, try to deceive and trick you. This is part of the game. But let us zoom in on the a more serious areas of life.
The major area where deception is permissible is the area of warfare. An enemy general could demand that his opponent tell him the truth; however, he has no right to make that demand. This is what we see in the Rahab episode. She, through her faith, aligns herself with Israel. She has in essence defected to Israel. In joining Israel’s side of the conflict, which is God’s side, she is no more obligated to tell the truth to her military opponents than the spies were in their act of spying or if they got caught by those in Jericho.
In fact, Rahab is morally obligated to help those spies in any way she can. This was a military exercise and what Rahab did was to submit to Israel and Israel’s God. In the process, she did deceive her opponents, but she deceives in the same way the Israelite spies attempt to deceive Jericho. The very act of sending spies both here and in the book of Numbers is a military act of deception but that does not make it a sin. Spy-work necessitates deception.
In fact, Rahab is praised for her actions and is granted access into the people of God, into the very lineage of Christ, and she is mentioned as an example of faith we should model (Heb. 11.31) despite being a Gentile prostitute. You may counter by saying, “Well everyone put forward as an example of faith is a sinner, so her being a model of faith does not make all of her actions morally good.” You would be correct that all are sinners, yet while others, like David, are put forward as examples of faith despite their sin we have chapters and chapters illustrating their faith. For Rahab all we really know of her comes from Joshua 2 (and her marriage to one of the spies later). We have this one story of her deceiving Jericho officials, and yet she is put forward as a model of faith for us to follow. You cannot say, Rahab is an example of faith and yet say the major act she did was not an act of faith.
There are other examples in Scripture where deception is treated the same way. In Exodus 1 the Hebrew midwives are commanded by Pharaoh to kill all the male children born to Israel. The midwives rightfully disobey (Exo. 1:17). The Pharaoh says to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?”(Exo. 1:18). A very straightforward question issued by the ruling authority of Egypt who had given them a direct command. So the midwives answer by saying, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exo. 1:19). So the midwives deceive Pharaoh. They trick him. What is God’s response to their deception? Exodus 1:20-21 says, “So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” So instead of God rebuking them for their deception or instead of God correcting their “sin”, he blesses them for their actions, just as we see with Rahab. How did the Midwives show that they feared God and not Pharaoh? They disobeyed Pharaoh and deceived him! There act of deceptions appears to be blessed by God. In fact in 1 Samuel 16:1-5, God instructs the prophet Samuel to deceive Saul as he is sent out to annoint David as King of Israel. It appears that God view deception, in limited situations, at the very least permissible if not a moral good.
I believe we can conclude that both the Hebrew midwives and Rahab acted in morally correct ways and they did as they should have done! Notice also that both of these deceptions were done for the morally correct side. It is a very different thing to deceive in order to help to further a wicked cause than it is to deceive to further a cause which is morally right.
So no, you do not have the right to deceive your spouse, neighbor, sibling, co-worker, boss, etc. Also, you need not worry about yourself or your children sinning by trying to trick their opponents at a sporting event (as long it is within the rules). Lord-willing you will never be put in a situation where you have to deceive in order to save an individual’s life from injustice like some were forced to do in Europe during World War II or some characters in the Bible. But if you do end up in such a regrettable situation, it is important to remember that sometimes it is morally upright to deceive just as Rahab and the Hebrew midwives did and perhaps you will also remember that the Lord blessed these individuals for acting in faith.