Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 27:45-56; 1 Corinthians 3:1-15; Psalm 78:34-39; Joshua 1-3
In Psalm 78:36 we read that even in returning to God, the Israelites lied to him and deceived him with their words. It is obvious that lying and deceiving are wrong. Yet in Joshua 2 we read a story that makes us question whether things are that straight-forward. Rahab deceives the king of Jericho by lying. As a result, the Israelite spies escape (we won’t address whether spying is inherently deceptive). God’s plan to attack Jericho can now move forward. Rahab is rewarded by the promise of protection for her whole family. She is later rewarded by a place in the great “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11:31) and is declared a righteous woman (James 2:25).
Is lying wrong? Or does it depend? And if it depends, what does it depend on?
Two important general principles must be taken into account as we grapple with Rahab’s actions. The first is that stories must be viewed in light of clear guidance on what is right and wrong. The Ten Commandments forbid giving false testimony (Exodus 20:16) and lying is prohibited (Proverbs 6:19). The Lord is a God of truth (Psalm 31:5) so that it is impossible for him to lie (Hebrews 6:18). Clearly, lying is wrong.
The second principle is that biblical approval of a person does not mean that every part of that person’s life or character was commendable. Abraham lied to save his life (Genesis 12; 20); David committed adultery and then had the woman’s husband killed to hide his infidelity; Peter denied knowing Jesus because he was afraid. Every praise-worthy biblical character was sinful.
We therefore need to look carefully at why the Bible praises Rahab. Both New Testament passages point to her hospitality towards the spies and her protection of them from the pursuing troops. These actions were based on her confident faith that the God of Israel was the God of heaven and earth and that he had given Jericho to Israel. She is not praised for lying.
That leaves us with the difficulty that God’s plans were furthered by a dubious act that went against his character. It seems to require all sorts of philosophical gymnastics (which some carry out) to claim that Rahab didn’t really lie or God’s purpose didn’t really benefit from the lie. We have a difficult passage here.
Perhaps we should reflect again on Psalm 78 for some balancing points. God was merciful and forgave Israel’s defiant lies because he remembered that they were human (Psalm 78:38-39). Following God does not mean we are perfect, but that we are forgiven. Faced with difficult decisions we sometimes can’t avoid doing what, in an ideal world, is wrong. Sometimes lying is the lesser of two evils. But note that the lies recorded in the Bible that seem to be justifiable (Rahab’s and the midwives’ in Exodus 1) were told to save lives, not avoid embarrassment or cut corners. Abraham is not praised for lying to get out of a tight corner. The Bible is clear that lying generally is wrong. When forced into life-and-death situations, it can be the better option. Thank God that the men and women he commends are praised for committing their lives to following him as faithfully as possible, not for living perfect lives.