Liar, Liar!

Being a co-teacher of an adult Sunday School class this quarter on the Larger Catechism, I was confronted with the Hard Question of Rahab’s lying: sinful or not? As best as I can tell, Westminster does not address that question; I can see no provision in LC144-145 for lying to protect life, and there is no reference to Joshua 2 in any scripture proof in those questions or anywhere else. As I can’t imagine the Westminster Divines being unaware of the question, I guess this silence explicitly says that there is no answer to the question that they were willing to confessionally bind Christians to.

I went looking for other answers, and found a few interesting ones. Calvin, in his commentary on Joshua 2, takes up two questions: “first, Was treachery to her country excusable? Secondly, Could her lie be free from fault?” To the first, he has a good answer (note the invokations of Natural Law):

We know that the love of our country, which is as it were our common mother, has been implanted in us by nature. … It is not wonderful, then, that when the Lord condescended to transfer a foreign female to his people, and to engraft her into the body of the Church, he separated her from a profane and accursed nation. Therefore, although she had been bound to her countrymen up to that very day, yet when she was adopted into the body of the Church, her new condition was a kind of manumission from the common law by which citizens are bound toward each other. In short, in order to pass by faith to a new people, she behooved to renounce her countrymen. And as in this she only acquiesced in the judgment of God, there was no criminality in abandoning them.

I.e., Rahab had faith in Jehovah’s power to destroy and faith in his power to save (which faith was justified by her work of allegiance to Jehovah (Jas 2:25)), so by faith she was acting as a new citizen of Israel, and an ex-citizen of Jericho.

As to the lying, Calvin can’t find a way to excuse it:

As to the falsehood, we must admit that though it was done for a good purpose, it was not free from fault. For those who hold what is called a “dutiful lie” to be altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God. Therefore, although our purpose, be to assist our brethren, to consult for their safety and relieve them, it never can be lawful to lie, because that cannot be right which is contrary to the nature of God. And God is truth. And still the act of Rahab is not devoid of the praise of virtue, although it was not spotlessly pure. For it often happens that while the saints study to hold the right path, they deviate into circuitous courses. … Rahab does wrong when she falsely declares that the messengers were gone, and yet the principal action was agreeable to God, because the bad mixed up with the good was not imputed. On the whole, it was the will of God that the spies should be delivered, but he did not approve of saving their life by falsehood.

Seems like weasel-words to me. Couldn’t we use this same logic to say that “Because the principal action of Christ’s crucifixion was agreeable to God, the bad was not imputed to Judas?”

Casting my net a little wider, I found an interesting analysis by Kline, who applies the principle of Intrusion to run with the ball from where Calvin left it:

When information was requested of her concerning the enemy spies, it was, according to ordinary ethics, her duty to supply it. Nevertheless, by faith she united herself to the cause of the theocracy and so played her part as an agent of the judgment-conquest which was typical of the final judgment, denying to the obstinate foes of God that respect for their authority which was their due under common grace. For so doing, Rahab receives inspired approbation (Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25). The enemies of the theocracy lost the ordinary right to hear the truth as that is guaranteed by the ninth commandment. Insofar, therefore, as the theocratic agent did not deny God (or, to put it differently, did not violate the immutable principles of the first three laws of the Decalogue), he might with perfect ethical propriety deceive such as had hostile intent against the theocracy.

So that, I think is a pretty good case that Rahab was in the clear, and this is a useful distinction for other biblical data; quoting article author Jeong Koo Jeon (who is summarizing Kline), “This same understanding may be applied to the episode of the Hebrew midwives’ deception against Pharaoh (Ex. 1:15-21) and Samuel’s deception against Saul (1 Sam. 16:2).”

But What About Anne Frank?

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4 Responses to Liar, Liar!

  1. Joe Branca says:

    I think Kline is spot on. Rahab’s “lie” never seemed very troubling to me. A lie generally means false statements for mere selfish gain, false accusations which impugns character of another, etc. That is not the same thing as deception-as-military-tactic. Rahab’s used a deception tactic as an act of allegiance to Yahweh, an allegiance which by faith was more fundamental than her commitments to that city marked for destruction.

    Isn’t it also true that God himself, the God of truth, made use of deception tactics to achieve a favorable outcome? Striking enemies with confusion, blindness, sending forth a deceiving spirit, etc.

  2. David Cronkhite says:

    What was the real question Rahab was being asked?

    “Rahab, are those spies still available (so that we can kill them)?”

    “No, (they are not available so that you may kill them)”

  3. I had previously concluded on the basis of both the stories of the Hebrew midwives and Rahab that it was justifiable to lie for the specific purpose of saving a life. I also appealed to Hebrews and James commendations of Rahab. Now that you add the extra information regarding their new allegiance to the Israelites nullifying their commitment to their previous peoples, upon rereading the NT passages, I notice it was in Rahab’s reception of the spies, rather than in her deception to assist their escape that she was commended as acting on her faith in the God of Israel.

    Thanks for helping me understand it more thoroughly.

  4. RubeRad says:

    Actually, if you read the text, there was no question, but a command: “Bring out the men who have come to you.” And her response was not as evasive as yours, but a direct lie. She had hidden them on her roof, and she said they had gone out the gate. And yes I realize you are saying it is not a question of lying, but rather a question of conspiring to murder, but that misses the point.

    What if, today, spies (or terrorists) from country X were sheltered by a citizen of country Y? We would not blink an eye if the traitor were to be executed for treason (even the U.S. has a death penalty for treason). So why does Rahab get a pass? Only because of Israel’s special status as God’s holy people.

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