Q:Was Rahab justified in lying when she said the spies had already departed?
—Randy Bishop, Lombard, Illinois

A: Rahab lied. That's the simple truth. The Bible condemns deception. That, too, is the simple truth. Even so, when Rahab's story is told in Joshua 2, and when she is celebrated for her faith in Hebrews 11:31 and for her works in James 2:25, the Bible—while not justifying her lie—does not condemn it. The same is true of the midwives' lie (Exod. 1:1521) and Elisha's lie (2 Kings 6:19). The fact is, Scripture offers no subtle philosophical distinctions to justify or to excuse such lies.

Many Christians, like Augustine and Calvin, have condemned Rahab's deception. Her lie, even though told "for a good purpose," Calvin says, is "contrary to the nature of God." Similarly, Augustine praised the midwives and Rahab for "the benignity of their intention" but condemned them for "the iniquity of their invention." Their point: It is necessary to condemn this and every deception because God is Truth. Other Christians, however, have been less ready to condemn Rahab's lie—or all other lies. Luther defended "a good hearty lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian Church, a lie in case of necessity, a useful lie." Such lies, he said, "would not be against God."

We are right to worry about Luther's readiness to accept deception. At the same time, two observations keep some Christian ethicists (including myself) from adopting Calvin and Augustine's rigorous rejection of all deception. First, God is Truth, but truth is not a second god—just as love is no god though "God is Love," and life is no god though God is "the Life." Devotion to God should lead us to speak the truth, to love the neighbor, to serve life. In this sad world, however, sometimes we find ourselves in situations where to speak the truth may harm a neighbor, or where a lie (as in Rahab's story) may be necessary to preserve the life of a neighbor. (Even the instruction not to "bear false witness" in the Ten Commandments is put in the covenant context of not harming one's neighbor.) We live the truth not for its own sake, but for God's sake and for the neighbor's sake.

Second, God is Truth, but when Scripture uses this image it does not refer simply to some correspondence between word and thought. It refers, rather, to something like troth, as in the trustworthiness and faithfulness that come with betrothal. When we read, for example, that "grace and truth came through Jesus Christ," the point is that, through Jesus, God is faithful to God's covenant promises. The test for our speech and our lives, then, is not simply whether what we say or do corresponds to what we think, but faithfulness to covenant. This test requires of our speech more than simply "telling the truth." The Devil may be the father of lies, but there is also, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "a truth which is of Satan." For example, when we pass along the gossip that injures a neighbor, we are not excused simply because it is true.

Sometimes covenants are broken by the demand that the truth be told. Consider a story Bonhoeffer told: "A teacher asks a child in front of the class whether it is true that his father often comes home drunk. It is true, but the child denies it." Bonhoeffer says the child is not wrong to lie. He suggests that it is the teacher who is at fault here rather than the child by abusing the relationship and the expectation that the truth be told within that relationship. The teacher exploits the obligation to tell the truth to force the student to reveal his father's weakness in front of the class and to violate his covenanted identity.

Consider Rahab. She covenanted to hide the Israelites from the tyrant who threatened to harm them. That same tyrant put her in a position of having either to break that covenant or to tell a lie. The tyrant was at fault here, not Rahab. A kind of violence had been done here, putting her in a situation of either violating covenant or telling a lie—and her lie, another kind of violence, may be permitted as a form of covenanted self-defense.

It is easy, however—and dangerous—to drift too close to Luther's approval of the "good hearty lie." We must remember that a covenant cannot be built on deception or sustained by it. A lie is parasitic on the expectation that the truth will be told, that it can destroy that expectation of truth telling, and that no community can exist without trust. We must remember our capacity for self-deception when we start justifying our lies as "harmless" or "necessary" or "useful" or "loving." As Christians we make decisions, including decisions about our words, not simply as rule keepers, and surely not simply as utility calculators, but as people disposed to truthfulness, prepared to regret even the justifiable lie as a mark of the "not yet" character of our life in the Spirit of Truth. In a broken world, sometimes a lie is justifiable, but every lie, even the justifiable one, is a sad reminder of our brokenness. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Allen Verhey is professor of religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

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