Rahab an example of faith in Hebrews 11:31 By Jack Kettler
The goal of this study is to protect the integrity of God’s Word and find an apologetic answer to a difficult case that is highlighted in Scripture. The possible apologetic solution dealt with in this study is a hypothesis.
“By faith, the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not when she had received the spies with peace.” (Hebrews 11:31)
“But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And 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.” (Joshua 2:4-5 ESV)
“Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers and had sent them out another way?” (James 2:25)
Was Rahab warranted in lying when she said the spies had departed from her house? James tells us that Rahab’s actions justified her. Specifically, what actions, lying, or receiving the spies with peace? The ninth commandment says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” It seems convoluted to limit Rahab’s faith to only receiving the spies and not also hiding them and giving them advice on escaping.
Is the Bible contradictory here? It seems that the Bible is saying that lying sometimes can be justified. First, Rahab lied; second, she is listed in Hebrews as an example of faith. How do we understand these texts from Joshua, Hebrews, and James? Because of what James tells in verse 25 about Rahab’s faith and her lying to protect the spies seemingly is inseparable.
The traditional viewpoint on Rahab is that she lied in violation of the ninth commandment. God forgave her for the lie and commended her as an example of faith despite her sin, much like David’s adultery with Bathsheba, which is recorded in 2Samuel chapter 11. Despite David’s sin, he was still a man after God’s heart.
What about the midwives in Egypt?
Another case of lying is in Exodus 1:15-22, there is the story of the Hebrew midwives. Pharaoh commanded the midwives to kill the newborn male Hebrews. The midwives disobeyed the command. The midwives lied when questioned concerning their actions. The midwives “feared God” (Exodus 1:17) “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives…” (Exodus 1:20) God approved of the midwives course of action.
In contemporary history, we have a similar example of lying to save lives:
For example, the Corrie ten Boom family’s activity in the Dutch resistance is relevant. They risked their lives harboring those hunted by the Gestapo. Some fugitives would stay only a few hours, while others would stay several days until another “safe house” could be located. Corrie ten Boom became a leader in the “Beje” movement, overseeing a network of “safe houses” in the country. Through these activities, it was estimated that 800 Jews' lives were saved.
The ten Boom family lied to the Gestapo, and many lives were spared from certain death. In modern-day evangelicalism, Corrie ten Boom has always been viewed as a hero who acted on her faith.
What about Jacob’s lie?
“Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau your firstborn; [a lie] I have done as you told me. Get up, please, sit and eat of my game, that you may bless me.’ And Isaac said unto his son, How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son? And he said, because the LORD thy God brought it to me [a lie]… And he said, Art thou my very son Esau? And he said, I am [a lie].” (Genesis 27:19-20, 24 KJV)
In the bigger picture, Isaac was standing in the way of God’s sovereign election. God overruled Isaac’s will, and God's will is fulfilled. (Romans 9:11–13)
David feigned himself mad:
“So he changed his behavior before them and pretended to be insane in their hands and made marks on the doors of the gate and let his spittle run down his beard.” (1Samuel 21:13 ESV)
A solution to the dilemma that the story of Rahab presents us:
Is there a biblical standard that can excuse men for lying in the time of war?
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Deuteronomy 5:20)
“Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
Is the enemy in the time of war your neighbor? See John Gerstner’s answer to this question under the for more study section.
Are soldiers in captivity suppose, to tell the truth endangering other soldiers or be tortured as a result of not telling the captors the truth? Other situations that can be contemplated are just as horrific. Then there are cases of a whistleblower or undercover narcotics detectives. Both examples involve a level of deception against evildoers.
R.C. Sproul in dealing with the case of Rahab admits she unequivocally lied. Sproul’s solution, in essence, argues:
“There are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth.” (1)
Is Sproul correct? Is this a solution to the seeming contradiction in Scripture?
Consider Sam Storms’ answer to this dilemma:
“Falsehood vs. Lie
It appears, then, that there are occasions when deception is ethically permissible. But note: not all falsehoods are lies. A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. So the question is not whether it is ever morally permissible to lie, but “What is a lie?” A lie is the intentional declaration or communication of a falsehood designed to deceive someone who has a moral and legal right to know the truth. A lie is telling an untruth to someone to whom you are morally and legally obligated to speak the truth. There are, however, certain occasions in which you are not under obligation to tell someone the truth (e.g., in times of war, criminal assault, and so on.).
A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth.
I want to be certain that no one responds to this article with anything less than a fervent commitment to truth-telling. In arguing, as I have, that there may be occasions when the communication of a falsehood is ethically permissible, I am not suggesting Christians that should become lax or casual in their treatment of the truth. The truth sets us free (John 8:32).
Our goal should never be to wiggle our way around the truth or search for an ethical loophole. When the psalmist describes the person who is privileged to “sojourn” in God’s tent and to “dwell” on his holy hill (Ps. 15:1–5), among the qualities cited is speaking “truth” in his heart, refusing to “slander with his tongue,” and being the sort of person “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” “He who does these things,” David insists, “shall never be moved.” (2)
The Bible seems to endorse the concept of a hierarchy of ethics, in which one rule may take precedence over another rule.
Example 1. The Scripture forbids working on the Sabbath. “Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. (Exodus 35:2 ESV) There does not seem to any wiggle room here.
However, Jesus made exceptions for healing and doing good.
Example 2. It is wrong to kill someone. “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13 KJV)
However, if an aggressor or thief breaks in and is killed in a struggle, there is no penalty. “If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account.” (Exodus 22:2 NASB)
Example 3. “And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Deuteronomy 5:20 ESV) “A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall perish.” (Proverbs 19:9 KJV)
Nevertheless, the Hebrew midwives were blessed by God Exodus 1:20. Jacob lied and yet God blessed him Genesis 27:19-20, 24.
In addition, the Old Testament case laws endorse this hierarchy of ethics when distinguishing between first-degree murder, manslaughter, and legitimate self-defense. It certainly seems that Scripture allows leeway for some level of deception against evildoers.
There are three ethical possibilities to resolve this dilemma as Sam Storms develops a possible solution to the case of Rahab:
“Typically, people align themselves with one of three possible positions:
(1) Conflicting absolutism or “the lesser of two evils” approach – According to this view, sometimes two or more absolute principles will conflict and there is simply no way to avoid sinning. One must choose the lesser of two evils. In this case, lying is a sin, but it is less evil than allowing the spies to be killed. So, Rahab was wrong to lie, but she would also have been wrong to tell the truth. It was impossible for her to avoid sinning so she simply chose the lesser of two evils and should throw herself on the mercy of God.
(2) Hierarchicalism or “graded absolutism” – On this view there is an ordered hierarchy of moral values in which some have priority over others. When one cannot avoid making a choice, one should choose the higher of the two. In doing so, the other choice is no longer regarded as sinful. Rahab was exempt from telling the truth in order to save the lives of the two Israeli spies. She communicated a series of falsehoods, but did not sin in doing so.
(3) Non-conflicting absolutism – This is the view which says that it only seems or appears to be the case that two moral absolutes conflict. In reality, they don’t. In such situations, there will always be a third way or another option that does not entail committing a sin. In Rahab’s case, she should not have lied but should have trusted God to provide for her a way to protect the spies that didn’t involve sinning. On this view, Rahab was right to have hidden the spies, but she should then have refused to respond to the king or to have answered the question concerning their whereabouts. She could have said, “Come in my house and look around,” all the while praying that God would conceal their location from those searching for them.
I tentatively embrace view (2).
We must remember that communication of truth or falsehood can also be non-verbal, through our conduct or actions. So, for example:
Is it ethical for a Christian to post a “Beware of the Dog” sign on your fence or door to deter a burglar, even when you don’t own a dog?
Is it ethical for a Christian to give the impression that one is at home by leaving on the lights, again to frighten off would-be intruders or thieves?
Is it ethical for a woman, when attacked by a rapist, to fake a heart attack or to pretend to faint or to call out to her husband as if he were close by when in fact he is not?
Were the Allies in WWII justified in deceiving Hitler concerning the location of the Normandy invasion?
Is it ethical for the police to operate radar in unmarked cars?
Is it ethical for the police to conduct undercover, plain-clothes investigations which by definition demand that they deceive people concerning their identity and intent?
Is it ethical for those in the military to wear camouflage uniforms in order to mislead their enemies concerning their location?
Let’s add to these examples the biblical case of the Hebrew midwives, who misled Pharaoh when he demanded that they kill any new born male babies:
“But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and let the male children live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ 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” (Exod. 1:17-21).
When it comes to Rahab, we must reckon with two references to her in the NT:
“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).
In James 2:25 the author cites Rahab as an example of someone whose works proved the reality of her faith, “when she received the messengers [the spies] and sent them out by another way.”
Rahab is praised for welcoming the spies into her home and for sending them out safely and away from the men who sought their lives. This was accomplished through verbal deceit. How could the NT authors speak of her in this way, praising her faith, if they believed her guilty of the sin of lying? How could they praise her for a goal she attained through illicit and unethical means?
My point is this: There are occasions when deception is morally permissible. Not all falsehoods are lies. A lie is an intentional falsehood which violates someone’s right to know the truth. But there are instances in which men forfeit their right to know the truth. A lie is the intentional declaration or communication of a falsehood designed to deceive someone who has a moral and legal right to know the truth. A lie is the telling of an untruth to someone to whom we are morally and legally obligated to speak the truth.
And there do appear to be instances when we are not under obligation to tell a person the truth: in times of war, on those occasions when someone has criminal intent, or when a person’s life is at stake. Because of his intent to break into my home and steal what does not belong to him, a thief has forfeited his right to know whether or not I’m in the house. By their unjustified aggression, enemies of the state forfeit the right to know the way in which our military forces intend to defeat them. Etc.” (3)
In the following abridgment of an article on lying, by author Jeffery A. Mirus who reaches a similar conclusion as Sproul and Storms.
Is Lying Ever Right? By Jeffery A. Mirus
“For convenience, let us put the case very precisely. Consider a man with a house guest whom a group of thugs wants to murder. The thugs come to the door. Because they don’t wish to create an outcry before they’re sure they’ve found their quarry (giving him time to escape, for example, from a neighboring house), they don’t force their way in to search. Instead, they knock on the door and simply ask whether their intended victim is within. Refusing to answer will almost certainly be interpreted as an affirmative response. So here is the dilemma: If you answer the door, and you don’t trust the thugs’ intentions, do you have to tell the truth? …
What Is a Lie?
Note that a solution to this conundrum could come in one of two forms. It may be that: (1) The immorality of lying admits of exceptions such that there is no objective evil, or at least no subjective evil (guilt), in lying to the thugs; or (2) a very careful definition of “lying” will show that speaking falsely to the thugs is not a lie at all. Great and holy thinkers have wrestled with both possibilities, but it is perhaps more logical to take up first the question of the definition of “lying.” By carefully defining our terms, will we find that there is a distinction between speaking falsely and lying, just as there is between killing and murder? Are some falsehoods not lies? What precisely does it mean to lie? ...
Regardless of definition, many others have suggested that the immorality of lying admits of exceptions. These argue, for example, that one is not obligated to tell the truth to an enemy, or that political leaders may speak falsely for reasons of state. Such exceptions may be permitted by the principle of double effect: Just as one can morally kill to defend someone’s life, so one can morally lie for a similar reason. The deception (or killing) is a secondary effect of a legitimate action. But with killing there is more at work than double effect. It is not moral to kill anyone whose existence threatens our own lives (consider the case of abortion to save the life of the mother, or cannibalism in a life raft). Rather, the one killed must somehow have the character of an unjust aggressor. Thus we commonly define murder as the taking of an “innocent” life (that is, the right to life has not been forfeited) and we distinguish murder sharply from mere killing. If the same is true of lying, the solution is not so much a matter of exception as of definition.” (4)
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Deuteronomy 5:20)
John Gerstner says:
“It is not a violation of the ninth commandment to lie to the enemy in time war.” (5)
The conclusion reached in this study contradicts the majority of many of the great men of the faith in their understanding of Rahab’s lying and still be included as an example of faith in the book of Hebrews.
In humble disagreement with the majority:
The Bible seems to endorse the concept of a hierarchy of ethics, in which one rule may take precedence over another rule. The hierarchy of ethics seems to be established by the three examples listed above where instead of being guilty of God’s law there is no penalty and in particular, the case of the midwives lying, there is a favor from God.
Moreover, the hierarchy of ethics, in reality, is how many Christians operate when it comes to examples set forth above as in times of war, law enforcement, and protection of innocent people from evildoers.
If a Christian must always tell the truth, then they could never be trusted in times of war if captured by the enemy to protect their fellow soldiers. A legitimate whistleblower could never trust a Christian.
Therefore, there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. Rahab was justified by her actions like the midwives in Egypt, and at the same time, she had true faith.
1. R.C. Sproul, Rahab’s lie, http://www.ligonier.org/rym/broadcasts/audio/rahabs-lie-july-2019/.
2. This article was adapted from Sam Storms’ book Tough Topics 2: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions (Christian Focus, 2015).
3. Sam Storms, Two Spies and a Shady Lady Joshua 2:1-24. https://www.samstorms.com/all-articles/post/two-spies-and-a-shady-lady-joshua-21-24.
4. Jeffery A. Mirus, Is Lying Ever Right? https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/is-lying-ever-right.
5. John Gerstner, The Ten Commandments (pt. 9) Handout Theology.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
See John Gerstner on the ninth commandment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s07-4z0OPT4&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0CtzdpkFPzZu2s6nEW9jcFL2JNbNRidKJOlXEFmLImRUx2Fz5ACN4CZeY