rahab’s exchange: the lie

image courtesy of reverendmom


Rahab was a woman accustomed to exchanges. First it was sex for money.  Later it was her Canaanite nationality for an Israelite identity.  In the middle, though — and where we’ll focus our time — she exchanged a lie for the lives of two spies.

Here’s the scenario in brief:

Joshua’s just been commissioned by God to lead the Israelites into the promised land.  He sends a couple of spies to case the land, and especially the city of Jericho.  They head to a prostitute’s house; her name is Rahab.  Somehow the king of Jericho gets wind of the two Israelites staying at Rahab’s place and sends his thugs to rough them up a bit (or to knock them off, rather).  Rahab admits that, yes, the spies did come to her house, but they left late in the afternoon and she doesn’t know where they were going — other than out the city gate.  If the henchmen leave quickly, they might catch them.

What actually happened, though, was that Rahab hid the spies on her roof under some of that season’s harvest.  And lied to the king’s men. After saving the lives of the two reconnaissance officers, she made a deal with them:  As a result, when the Israelites took the city of Jericho, she and her family were spared.  [More on that deal in a future post.]

The Hebrew writer memorialized Miss Rahab in 11:31 of his book:

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

James was rather fond of the prostitute as well (2:24-25):

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.  In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?

It turns out that Rahab was even the great great grandmother of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  (Matthew 1:5)

So here’s the big question?  Was Rahab right to offer a lie in exchange for the lives of these two spies? She’s clearly commended for her faith by the Hebrew writer.  And she’s certainly praised by James for the actions resulting from her faith.  But neither writer explicitly states that she was right to lie in this situation.

We know from scripture that lying is a sin (I won’t waste our time listing all those verses).  But is it ever right to do so? Was Rahab right to do so?  If not, what should have been her response?

Or perhaps the deeper question… are we sometimes expected (or forced) to choose between the lesser of two evils? Or, in these situations, does one of these “evils” cease to actually be evil — and instead become good?

I’m throwing the questions out there today and in my next post will share my thoughts on the subject — as well as some of the snobby theologian lingo used to describe it.  I also intend to explain why this subject has been of particular interest to me of late.


For other posts in this series on famous exchanges in the Bible, see:
adam and eve’s exchange
jacob and esau’s exchange




Filed under exchanges

26 responses to “rahab’s exchange: the lie

  1. that is such a fantastic question. I think you got it right that the lie, in this case, was the lesser of two evils. Obviously in that situation rigorous honesty meant death. I think the short answer is that, well, it depends. More often than not lying is a destructive, terrible thing that leaves a trail of wreckage, and I think you will seldom find a situation where it is the preferable and best option.

    • well, charlie, i hate to disappoint you… but i’m not in the camp that says rahab’s lie was the lesser of two evils. i suggested it as an option, but i don’t buy it. i’ll explain why tomorrow.

      and i hope you’re right that we seldom find situations where lying is the preferable and best option. i think you are. i think.

  2. This is not only a fantastic question but a tough one. You are basically asking (least in my mind i think) whether the “end justifies the means.” This is certainly more than your garden variety lie i.e. “do you like my dress?” Part of me says there is nothing wrong with what she did but then am i opening myself up to justifying other lies? So, here is my answer: i want to say yes in this case because of a higher purpose (plus she was an unbeliever at the time) but also i honestly don’t know and *baited breath* can’t wait for your answer. How’s that for a cop out?

    • thanks for the comments, bill. and, just for the record, if you say what rahab did was okay i’m going to say you are opening yourself (and others) up to the opportunity (or expectation even) to justify other lies.

      but a nice cop out for sure. bill, does this blog make me look fat?

  3. That is a great question. I can’t wait to hear what sparked this in you. Sometimes, my wife buys a new outfit. I watch her spend time in front of the mirror as she primps and gets ready for some outing or date. I can see in her eyes how happy she is, feeling beautiful and fresh in her new clothes. She some times says to me, “Do you like my new outfit?” Regardless of it the outfit is “my style” or not, I always respond, “Yes.” Some might say that deep down I’m lying, I prefer to think that I’m making room for her uniqueness and essence. My wife looks beautiful in everything, but I’m not about to take her moment and “ruin” it because I prefer a different style. There are much bigger battles to face together than that one. Anyway, maybe not a great example, but something I thought of.

    I read Rahab’s story the other day as well. Happened to hit that on my chronological walk through the Bible. Her story is fascinating and even more impressive as you mentioned, listed as an ancestor to Jesus Christ.

  4. well, stan, a little preview of what sparked this in me: tanzanians “lie” all the time. it’s completely acceptable. and totally expected. [i put quotation marks around the word lie above, because i don’t think it’s necessarily considered a lie here. but we would define it as such.]

    do we consider it lying when others answer “fine” to our question, “how are you?”

    • We don’t consider it a lie to say, “Fine,” to that question. We consider it polite. I think because people assume we are asking out of politeness, not because we actually want to know how things are going. So we guard ourselves with, “I’m fine.” People would look at you funny if they asked and you started in on a 30-minute dissertation about how awful your life is. Very interesting about Tanzania though. Interested to hear the second part.

      • i think tanzanian lies are relatively similar to answering “fine.” they seem much worse to our western minds, but if we’re going to allow intent to determine how we judge whether something is dishonest or merely polite, then the two kinds of lies are very similar. but i’ll get to that in a couple more posts…

  5. This is a tough one, but I’m content to think that Rahab acted on faith that the God of Israel was the true God of all Creation and both capable of and intent on destroying her people.

    The part of the story I don’t get is how her house was built into the wall, but the walls fell.

  6. Eagle

    I look at the issue from another perspective. In my mind when I read about the conflicting approach to lying (ie it being sinful vs. Rahab being commended) it shows how flawed the Bible is and that it can’t be trusted let alone used. There are issues such as this which can’t be reconciled thus showing the errors of the Bible. This is coming from a guy who almost converted to Mormonism and is a recovering fundegelical…but when I look at situations in the Bible like this…it shows me that the Bible is as flawed as the Book of Mormon.

    • eagle, i appreciate your candidness. though i think your perspective is unfair.

      i could buy what you’re selling if every (or any) other system or theory of ethics didn’t run into the same conflict. but if, at the first sign (or second or third, etc) of conflict between moral laws and/or ideas, you’re going to jump ship and name the system flawed and done with… then you’re not going to be able to accept any system of ethics.

      but i’m fairly sure you live your life according to some ethical structure.

  7. Great question. I’m eager to see your thoughts behind it.
    Without giving this more than two minutes worth of thought, the first thing that comes to my mind is that this excellent story is witness to the fact that life is not simply black-and-white, right-or-wrong, good-or-bad. It really drives me crazy when people take any Bible story, assign the roles of “good guy” and “bad guy” to the main parties involved, and then say whatever the “good guy” does is clearly the ethical model that God has prescribed, and whatever the “bad guy” does is sinful. While there are many concrete examples of universal, ethical truths in the scriptures, I don’t think every story is so clear cut. I think part of the beauty of the Bible is that it depicts real people engaging in real life. Real life is messy and complicated. That doesn’t mean God intended for our lives to be so messy and complicated, but the Bible bears witness to the fact that, even in those messed up moments, God is there.

    It turns out that Rahab was even the great great grandmother of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. (Matthew 1:5)
    I think you might need a few more “great-“s in there to get all the way to Jesus. Right now your stuck at David, but that is a great point that I hadn’t noticed before. Not only was David’s great-grandmother Ruth an “outsider” with questionable practices, his great-great-grandmother Rahab was a prostitute from Jericho.

    • david, i’m with you on the assigned good / bad guy roles — as if everything done by an old testament character of faith was condoned or even desired by God. it’s a very lowest-common-denominator approach to acting as God would have us.

      and life is never
      rarely as black and white as many would like for it to be. thanks for commenting.

  8. Daniel

    I think Rahab’s lie here is incidental. Maybe it was not the best option, but it is what she chose and God worked with it. I’m sure there was a more clever way of misdirecting the king’s men, but we’re not all clever. Considering she was not rebuked by the NT writers (James and Hebrews) and certainly not by the spies themselves, it seems that her faith in the one true God completely overshadows the lie that saved their lives and aided God’s people in carrying out His plan. Whether or not that gives us license to lie in certain situations is sticky. We certainly do not want to plan to lie or make a habit or lying, but in a situation such as hers, it may be the best thing to do. I would not have turned them in ; nor would I have turned in the Jews I was hiding from Hitler, or the runaway slaves from cruel masters, or the Christians I may be hiding with in future generations when we are persecuted by a “tolerant of everything but Christianity” government.

    • are you, daniel, in some way suggesting that i’m not clever?

      i’m in full agreement that we don’t want to plan to lie or make a habit of it. but i also think that’s an argument many make against ever lying — that it will only enable us to lie more if we say it’s okay at times. the slippery slope theorem… i hate that thing. i’m convinced much good and honest joy is lost from life because people worry too much about what will happen next. [i’m not suggesting you were making this argument, though.]

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  10. Daniel

    actually I was suggesting that you probably would come up with some clever solution while most of us would have to resort to a simple big fat lie.

    • i’m thinking i’d just go with the lie. although you better believe i would’ve hid the spies somewhere better than under some flax. what kind of hiding place is that. might as well hide them behind a door or under a bed….

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  13. I look forward to reading your snobby theologian lingo 😉

    Good post. It’s always good to question – and I think it’s even better to question when it comes to matters of our Faith…and especially even more important to question when it comes to what we’ve grown to believe & accept over the years (from being taught) regarding our Faith….

    Questioning is not doubting or disagreeing – it’s looking deeper, seeking truth, and revealing Christ. It’s what Thomas did…and Jesus loved every minute of it.

    I look forward to reading more….

  14. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: a cultural argument for lying? | aliens and strangers

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