to lie or not to lie?
Introduction: Sandwiched within the story of Joshua 2 is an ethical land mine that has stumped Bible students for
centuries. In Josh. 2:4-5, Rahab lies in order to protect the two Israelite spies. Later, in Heb. 11:31 and Jas. 2:25,
Rahab is commended enthusiastically for her faith. How, then, are we to interpret her lie and the apparent lack of
censure for her falsehood? In the heat of the moment, Rahab was forced to choose between two moral absolutes:
1.) one should always protect human life, and 2.) one should always tell the truth. Rahab chose to follow the first
and ignore the second. Therefore, does her deception provide a biblical precedent for situation ethics?2 Was there a
right and wrong decision under the circumstances? Did she make the right decision? When trying to decide what
Rahab should have done, one must remember that it is easy to criticize her decision three and a half millennia
removed from her situation (hindsight is always 20/20) and surrounded by the comforts our modern world.
Nonetheless, there are biblical principles that can guide our decision-making in the heat of the moment.
Concerning this story, ethicists usually offer one of three possible explanations. On the surface, each has its
advantages and disadvantages; closer examination and careful study, however, point us to the right decision.
• Conflicting Absolutes: In a fallen world, one must sometimes choose the lesser of two evils, even though
that decision will cause him to sin. Thus, it was a sin for Rahab to lie, but it would have been an even greater
sin to endanger the lives of the scouts. Likewise, when two moral absolutes conflict, the Christian should
choose the greater absolute and seek forgiveness for being unfaithful to the lesser one. This may not seem
fair, and it may not be God’s ideal, but it is “realistic.” On the other hand, Jesus was tempted in every way
that we are (Heb. 4:15), yet he remained sinless. If Jesus was tempted with conflicting absolutes, and sinned
in a small way to avoid sinning in a big way, then this would mean that he was not sinless.
• Graded Absolutes: This explanation argues that there is a hierarchy to moral absolutes, and one must
choose the highest moral absolute when two conflict. Choosing the higher absolute “exempts” one from
breaking the lower absolute and no sin is committed. Given this option, Rahab did not sin when she lied
because she chose the highest moral absolute—protecting human life. For justification, proponents of this
position point to the deception of the Hebrew midwives (Exod. 1:15-21), Jesus’ command to choose
discipleship over family members (Luke 14:26), and his inference that some commandments were less
important than others (Matt. 23:23-24). But one still wonders who determines the hierarchy of moral
absolutes. Nowhere in Scripture are these values systematically prioritized so as to guide our decisions. At
the end of the day, a greater or lesser sin is still a sin. If this position is acceptable, Judas was justified in
betraying Jesus, since the death of the Son of God meant salvation for the world (cf. Matt. 26:24).
• Non-conflicting Absolutes: Finally, this alternative advocates that moral absolutes never conflict, but only
seem to conflict. It is incomprehensible to believe that God would establish moral law, but then allow a
scenario where it was impossible to obey two absolutes simultaneously. Paul vehemently criticizes the “end
justifies the means” attitude of the two above positions (Rom. 3:7-8); elsewhere, he affirms that God will
always provide a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). It cannot be denied that God is, by his very nature, truth
(John 14:6; 1 John 5:20). He is the source of truth (Psa. 43:3) because his word is truth (John 17:17). He
cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18) and abhors those who do so (Lev. 19:11; Prov. 12:22; Eph. 4:25). In other
words, Rahab should have been as honest as necessary about her concealment of the spies and trusted
God’s power to protect. This alternative might seem naïve to some, but only to those who do not take
seriously the biblical call to unconditionally trust God. Faith is the foundation of any relationship with God;
without it, our house of cards collapses. Perhaps Rahab’s sin was not in lying, but in her failure to trust God.
What Should I Do? There will be times when a Christian is in a no-win situation. If limited to one of two
decision, and both are sinful, then what should the child of God do? Simply keep watch, be prayerful, and trust
God (Matt. 26:41; Isa. 26:3). There is always an escape route; we must patiently wait for God to provide it.
1 cf. David M. Howard, Jr., Joshua (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 106-12.
2 Situation ethics is a belief developed by Joseph Fletcher that claims morality is determined by circumstances, rather than absolutes.
Jersey Village Church of Christ — March 13, 2011