What should we make of Rahab’s lie?
Was is sinful for Rahab to lie? Did she actually lie at all?
The problem of Rahab’s lie to protect Joshua’s spies is a popular query in the study of Christian ethics. Was it sinful for Rahab to lie? Was her lie justified?
Admittedly, my answer in this article does not deal with all the passages that relate to bearing false witness or speaking truth in love. Rather, it seeks to understand how we might read Joshua 2 at the textual horizon and inform our ethical discussions with faithful biblical interpretation.
My twofold answer to the question is that, first, the text leads us to focus on the truth she confessed, rather than the falsehood she (may or may not have) told. Second, the answer is not wholly apparent. The text conceals her motives, even as it reveals her faith. In this way, I do not believe Joshua 2 is written to answer this question.
That said, it is an important question and one that we should consider. With those caveats in place, let’s consider Rahab’s faithful actions and whether or not we should see them as a “lie.”
Proposition 1: In Joshua 2, the focus should reflect the faith Rahab confessed, not the truth she concealed.
When the gate shuts in verse 7, all eyes are turned to Rahab and the spies. The king is no longer in the picture and neither are his henchman. Instead, the rest of the chapter focuses on the words of Rahab and the spies—two of the longest speeches in the book.
Critically, the main point of the chapter focuses on Rahab’s confession of faith (vv. 8–14) and the spies promise of salvation (vv. 15–21). In this dialogue, the focus should be on Rahab’s knowledge of Yahweh, her plea for mercy, and the establishment of a covenant mediated by the spies. Interestingly, Joshua 2 sets a contrast between what she doesn’t know (vv. 4, 5), namely the spies whereabouts, and what she does know (vv. 9–10), the power of Israel’s God and the gift of the land to Israel. Notice the use of the word “know”:
Speaking to the Jericho police, she said:
“True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.” (vv. 4–5)
But to the spies, she said: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. (vv. 9–10)
While much can be made about Rahab’s deception, more should be made of her confession of faith. This is where the author trains us to look, and this is what the Bible remembers. James 2:25 and Hebrews 11:31 both commend her because of her faith, which resulted in her (deceitful?) actions with the spies.
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. (Heb 11:31)
And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way. (James 2:25)
It is astounding that Rahab knew of Israel’s God, his works of redemption for Israel and his promises of the land to Israel. It is equally astounding she would turn her back on her people to join him. Certainly, she could have plied her trade to (attempt to) thwart Israel’s efforts. That is how Balaam led Israel into sin in Numbers 25. But instead, she confesses Israel’s God as true and seeks refuge from the spies. As a result, she is saved with her family, even as her city is destroyed.
This is the main point of the chapter and we should focus here. Joshua 2 does not directly answer the question of her lying, and maybe that’s because like the Hebrew midwives, the author of Joshua does not consider her words unethical.
Proposition 2: Rahab’s words (recorded in Joshua are meant to) reveal and conceal the truth.
The question remains. Did Rahab lie? What follows are a few ways to think about her words, what they reveal and what they conceal, and what we might learn from Joshua 2.
The first possible answer to the question of lying is that Rahab boldly lied in order to show her newfound allegiance to Israel’s God. If this is the case, then she did so as a newfound “believer.” She used an illicit method to achieve a noble end. The rest of the Bible does not highlight this fact, but stresses her faith in action. This could be because she did not lie (see below), or because as a new believer, she sought to honor God in a way accustomed to her old way of life. If this “the-ends-justify-the-means-approach” is the case, the motivation that impelled her to action was faith that pleased God. And her lie was forgiven because of her faith.
Alternatively, (and I believe this is a better option than the first), Rahab rightly saw the conflict between her people and Israel’s God. When she acknowledged Israel’s right to this land, she sided with Yahweh and the truth of God in the world. In keeping with the war about to break out in her land, she did not release the position of Jericho’s enemy—i.e., her newfound compatriots. In this way, she did not divulge information demanded of her in a hostile situation.
Analogously, the king’s demand for information was not that of a simple peace-time request (Romans 13-style). This was more like enemy operatives demanding information from a hostage. Are we to believe that it is immoral for soldiers to give false information in times of war? The answer to that question goes beyond the scope of this blogpost, but that is the context here—not the simple dialogue between friendly neighbors.
More angles could be explored here, but the military nature of Joshua encourages us to see Rahab’s act of faith as fighting with Israel and turning against Jericho. This may have required lying, but in warfare, giving away military information is treason. Moreover, in receiving spies, she was following the directions of Joshua, who had previously entered the land as a spy and was now sending two spies to do the same.
In this way, “lying”—if we must call it that—followed the lead of those who were rescuing her. Rahab was not lying in order to excuse or exalt herself. Her words invited risk and the threat of her own death. This is why Hebrews and James commend her, and why I believe she is not “lying” in its simplest sense.
Third option: Did she really lie?
So, the third option, and the one which I am inclined to believe, is that Rahab did not lie. Rather, she spoke true words that concealed the truth. Indeed, Jesus himself spoke in parables in order to reveal and conceal, and thus it is not necessarily immoral to withhold information or speak so as to hide information.
For instance, when Nazis come demanding the Jews you are hiding in your attic, it is (in my estimation) permissible to use words to protect those endangered. If that means providing false information, so be it. Again, the context of warfare applies. Yet, in such instances, lying is often the result of insufficient wisdom. It is conceivable, that if someone had infinite wisdom in such situations, they could hide the truth with the truth.
In fact, this is exactly the kind of actions Jesus engaged in when he came to earth and called his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). In his own life, we find Jesus hiding his identity in one instance from his two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Was this deceitful? Not at all; it was part of the way he instructed them at the right time. Similarly, in instances where Jesus was silent in the face of hostile enemies, is he being deceitful? Clearly not!
In Jesus’s case, we know he did everything correctly, but we also know that he often did not disclose all he knew. John 7 has Jesus refusing to go to the Passover publicly, but immediately he goes in private. All of this factors into the way in which he used his words. Everything Jesus said was true, yet he did not disclose all truth—especially, in front of his enemies.
Might something like this be true of Rahab as well?
Scripture only affirms her faithfulness and commends her actions for protecting the spies. Again, she might have done a noble deed with deceitful words, or she may have used true words to direct the Jericho police in the wrong direction. Certainly, this is the kind of activity the faithful midwives performed when they were asked to hand over baby boys to Pharaoh (Exodus 1).
In Rahab’s case, we find something similar. Notice a few key words.
The words for hidden (v. 4) and hide (v. 6) are not the same. Instead, the first word is the word used in Exodus to describe the way Moses’s mother hid him (Exod. 2:2, 3); the second word is used of Moses to describe the way Moses hid, or buried, the Egyptian he killed (Exod. 2:12). Maybe this ordered usage is coincidental, or maybe these two words suggest a parallel with Moses and his mother. The context of hiding the innocent from a murderous king is in view with respect to Moses’s mother, and in some ways Rahab is being portrayed like one of the faithful Israelite women who stood against an edict to hand over Israelite males.
The word for know in verses 4–5 is a word that is often used in sexual relations. Given the location of this discussion (in a prostitute’s house), we cannot eliminate off hand the possibility that when Rahab said, “She did not know where [the spies] were from,” she was honestly saying she did not know the men in the way that prostitutes usually “know” men.
If she had slept with the men, she would have known them, known their money, and seen their circumcision, hence she would have had such knowledge. Though it might have been odd that a prostitute did not know these things with the men in her inn, it also reflects the location of her home. Located in the side of the wall, this inn was likely a place where strangers congregated. Moreover, her family apparently lived there too. So the denial of her services would not be implausible, especially if these men had already come and gone. (This denial would also confirm the innocence and purity of these men—a question raised by their lying down in her inn in verse 1).
Confirming this subtle reading are the sexual connotations that flood the first 6 verses of Joshua 2. As Kenneth Mathews reminds us (Joshua, 20), “The terms ‘entered’ (bo’) and ‘slept’ (shakab, ‘to lie down,’ NIV: ‘stayed’) can be describe sexual relationship (e.g., Gen. 30:15–16). What is more, the sexually charged expression ‘the men came to me’ is spoken by Rahab (2:4), which can be idiom for sexual relations (e.g., Gen. 6:4). However, when ‘stayed’ means sexual contact, it includes the preposition ‘with,’ . . .. and the contact is usually explicit.”
Put all this together, and it is conceivable that Rahab’s speech is doing two things at once—(1) she is revealing the purity of the spies; she had not known them or had sexual intercourse (resolving the concern of v. 1), and (2) she is concealing the whereabouts of the spies, through her denial of having sexual relations with them.
Perhaps this is reading is too subtle. But if it is subtle, its subtlety fits the “secret” mission (2:1) of the spies and the announcement that Israel would conquer the city in three days. In this context, the author of Joshua is showing how a prostitute turned from her wicked ways and found mercy and salvation in the God of Israel. And thus, the sexual innuendos in her words are actually part of her confession of faith — not just double entendres for the sake of being racy.
The rest of the story
As the rest of the story goes, we know Rahab became a member of Jesus family (Matt 1:5), and this would only happen through faith in God and a turning away from sexual sin. Do we find that in the pages of Joshua 2? Perhaps. And certainly, we see how her kind actions, which are the thing remembered in Hebrews 11:31, protected the spies and led to the salvation of her own family. Her turning to God and his mercy stands at the center of Joshua 2, and it magnifies a pattern of salvation that runs throughout the Bible.
For all these reasons, I am persuaded that Rahab did not lie, but used her words to reveal her newfound allegiance to God, even as she concealed the whereabouts of the spies.