Is there ever a good reason to lie?
Can God use a falsehood or deception for our good?
Every pastor at some point in their ministry faces this dilemma. I faced mine many years ago when a battered wife came to me for refuge with her two small children. Her husband had become very violent after a horrific argument, so she fled to me for safety while she worked out something more permanent.
That Sunday, as she and the children remained sheltered in my home, her husband suddenly walked down the aisle just as worship was about to begin and stood and addressed the congregation. He cried and pleaded with us to tell him where his “deranged wife had hidden his children.” He claimed that he knew it was someone in the church and he demanded the truth. Anyone harboring his children was evil, he shouted. He looked straight at me as he made his speech, knowing that I would be one of the places where she should flee. As he turned to leave, he asked me directly if I knew where his family was. I looked him straight in the eye and said “no” in front of the entire congregation.
Thus I told a blatant untruth in the sanctuary on the Sabbath, and I would do it again.
In this wonderful story from the second chapter of Joshua, we see a woman look a man straight in the eye and tell a lie:
Joshua 2 (Common English Bible)
2 Joshua, Nun’s son, secretly sent two men as spies from Shittim. He said, “Go. Look over the land, especially Jericho.” They set out and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab. They bedded down there.
2 Someone told the king of Jericho, “Men from the Israelites have come here tonight to spy on the land.”
3 So the king of Jericho sent word to Rahab: “Send out the men who came to you, the ones who came to your house, because they have come to spy on the entire land.”
We have to interrupt this message to remind ourselves of the importance of hospitality in this ancient culture. The Jewish Virtual Library says this about Old Testament hospitality:
In ancient Israel, hospitality was not merely a question of good manners, but a moral institution which grew out of the harsh desert and nomadic existence led by the people of Israel. The biblical customs of welcoming the weary traveler and of receiving the stranger in one’s midst was the matrix out of which hospitality and all its tributary aspects developed into a highly esteemed virtue in Jewish tradition. Biblical law specifically sanctified hospitality toward the ger (“stranger”) who was to be made particularly welcome “for you were strangers in a strange land” (Lev. 19:34 and see Ex. 12:49). Foreign travelers, although not protected by law (Deut. 15:3; 23:21), could count on the custom of hospitality.
So Rahab is complying with the expectations of hospitality in ancient Israel that dictate that strangers in your house come under your protection. But then she takes that one step farther:
4 But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. Then she said, “Of course the men came to me. But I didn’t know where they were from. 5 The men left when it was time to close the gate at dark, but I don’t know where the men went. Hurry! Chase after them! You might catch up with them.” 6 But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the flax stalks that she had laid out on the roof. 7 The men from Jericho chased after them in the direction of the Jordan up to the fords. As soon as those chasing them went out, the gate was shut behind them.
Why did Rahab lie? Why risk getting caught in this blatant untruth in order to save two strangers from her fellow countrymen? Did Rahab know something else?
8 Before the spies bedded down, Rahab went up to them on the roof. 9 She said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land. Terror over you has overwhelmed us. The entire population of the land has melted down in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Reed Sea in front of you when you left Egypt. We have also heard what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites on the other side of the Jordan. You utterly wiped them out. 11 We heard this and our hearts turned to water. Because of you, people can no longer work up their courage. This is because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.
Rahab’s lie was based on a larger truth. It was the truth that the Lord God who had brought the Israelites out of Egypt through the Reed Sea was the same God who had sent the two spies into her home that night. She knew of God’s might and power, and so she aligned herself with these men in order to barter for the protection of her family:
12 Now, I have been loyal to you. So pledge to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal loyally with my family. Give me a sign of good faith. 13 Spare the lives of my father, mother, brothers, and sisters, along with everything they own. Rescue us from death.”
Rahab’s cunning and quick thinking saved the lives of the two men, and they in turn protected her family. A lowly prostitute outwitted the authorities by leveraging what she had for what she needed.
14 The men said to her, “We swear by our own lives to secure yours. If you don’t reveal our mission, we will deal loyally and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”
Sometimes we need to go to extremes to protect the ones we love. Sometimes, especially in the face of violence, we are called to lie, deceive, and leverage what we have in order to provide safety and sanctuary for the weak and vulnerable.
God protects those who protect others in the name of the Lord. The truth of God’s divine power and might wins out every time.