Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor: Rahab's Ruse (Josh 2:4-5)


(If you did not hear the sermon from Sunday, you can read the passage covered here, or listen to the sermon here.)
One thing cannot be denied about Rahab in Joshua 2: she lied.  Even though she had hidden the Israelite spies on her roof, she told the king’s messengers, "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."
So what are we to make of this?  The passage presents Rahab as a model of faith, an interpretation corroborated by the New Testament (Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25).  The Lord used her actions to preserve the lives of the spies and to assure Israel that Yahweh had indeed given them the land and victory over their enemies.  And yet, that preservation was based on a lie. 
There are three main ways that Christian ethicists have tried to deal with this.  The first position is called “conflicting absolutes.”  This can also be described with the old phrase “the lesser of two evils.”  This position argues that in a sinful world, there will occasionally be circumstances that require one to commit the lesser of two sins.  Rahab had the option of lying to the king’s men, or compromising the lives of the spies.  Lying, a real sin for which Rahab needed to seek forgiveness, was more desirable than giving up the lives of the spies. 
The second position is called “graded absolutism,” which argues that there is a hierarchy of absolutes, so that some have priority over others.  When two absolutes conflict, making it impossible to obey both, one should choose the greater good and is exempted from the lower absolute.  In such circumstances, an action that would normally be considered a sin is not a sin.  In Rahab’s case, saving the lives of the spies was a greater good than telling the truth.  Therefore she did not sin in telling a lie since she was exempted from it by the higher good of preserving life. 
The third position is called “nonconflicting absolutes”.  According to this argument, in any set of circumstances, absolutes that seem to conflict really do not.  Absolutes are absolutes and God does subordinate some to others.  He expects us to keep them all.  In situations where two absolutes seem to conflict, one should look for a “third way” which avoids sin.  After all, 1 Cor 10:13 tells us that No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.  Therefore, Rahab should not have lied, but should have looked for another way to avoid deception while also providing safety for the spies. 
So which position should we hold?  There are strong theologians and ethicists on every side.  My preference is the third option, however I believe that to probe this too deeply is the abuse the text and to draw inferences from it that were not intended to be the point of the story.  
My inclination is not to take the story beyond the point of the text.  Certainly, it cannot be denied that Rahab lied.  However, the point of the story was not to make an ethical case that lying is okay in certain circumstances, nor that Rahab did the wrong thing.  The point of the story was her example of faith, as the New Testament attests.  Careful reading though will show that both New Testament references to this story do not commend her for lying.  Heb 11:31: By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.  Here she is commended for her hospitality to the Israelite strangers.  James 2:25: 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?  Here she is commended for giving the spies lodging and by sending them west away from where the pursuers were looking for them.  Neither reference commends the lie.  In fact, neither reference even broaches the subject of the lie.  Why?  Because the lie was not intended to be the point of the story.  Both New Testament reference show that the main point of the story is Rahab’s faith in God.
Scripture’s silence on Rahab’s lie should not be taken as an endorsement of it.  This Old Testament narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive.  In other words, the text is describing a story in order to make a theological point.  It is not intended to be a primer for ethical decision-making.  We should take from this passage neither that sin is sometimes inevitable, nor that sometimes lying is okay.  This passage is not intended to address that ethical issue, therefore we should not try to force it to. 
We have plenty of other texts that are meant to steer our ethical decision-making.  We know that lying is a sin (Eph 4:25; Col 3:9), and we are never forced to sin – God promises to provide a way of escape (1 Cor 10:13).  We should strive to interpret various texts according to their proper genres and purposes, letting each text make its own point and not forcing it to address something for which it was not intended.

Some will still say, "Okay, the lie wasn't the point of the story, but that doesn't change the fact that she did lie and God did use that lie." I willingly admit that my explanation above will not satisfy this objection, but there is an element of mystery here with which we need to try to be comfortable.  Joshua 2 is certainly not the only place in Scripture where God is seen using deception by a moral agent to accomplish His plan (Ex 1:15-21; 1 Sam 16:2; 1 Kings 22:19-23; 2 Thess 2:11-12).  God meticulously controls and uses evil, yet the Bible everywhere affirms the moral purity of God.  We shouldn't ignore such things, but rather humbly acknowledge that His ways are higher than our ways, and we are incapable of comprehending the Incomprehensible (Rom 11:33-36).

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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