The Moral Questions

The spies going to the house of a harlot

Joshua 2 is one of the most vigorously debated chapters in the Old Testament because it raises some difficult ethical questions. 1) Why did the two spies, presumably devout worshipers of a God who hated immorality, take lodgings in the house of a harlot? 2) Having entered her house, how could they have kept themselves pure? 3) Why does Scripture say nothing in disapproval of Rahab’s use of a lie to protect the spies? Often in preaching and teaching, these questions are glossed over, but we will give them the extended and thoughtful consideration they deserve. We will take them in order.

First is the thorny question concerning why the spies went to the house of a harlot. A good many commentators seek to exonerate them by denying that they knew what she was. They suppose that they simply went to the first house they found. But that would have been a risky way to do spying. Moreover, they would have learned immediately what kind of a woman she was when she opened the door. The same difficulty besets the supposition that they went to her house thinking that it was an inn. In those days, it was not unusual for the business of harlotry to be combined with the business of inn-keeping. Perhaps she hung a sign or trade symbol outside her door to mark her house as a place of lodging. But again, her character would have been evident to them after they saw her.

A number of commentators argue that Rahab had come to faith in the God of Israel even before the spies arrived in her city, and that, under the conviction of God’s Spirit, she had already abandoned harlotry. They find evidence that she had undertaken another trade in the fact that she had laid stalks of flax on the roof. We can respect their interpretation as a possibility, yet it substitutes speculation for plain statements and creates improbabilities. The Bible says the spies went into a harlot’s house, with no suggestion that the woman had merely been a harlot at one time in the past. The presence of flax on her roof really proves nothing. Perhaps every woman in Jericho worked at making her own linen. Or perhaps Rahab was unusually enterprising and industrious. The chief difficulty in this way of looking at the story is to explain how Rahab harbored the spies and yet escaped suspicion of collusion. When the king’s agents watched her receive the spies, either at the gate or at her door, they saw nothing unusual. Nor did they question her story that the men had stayed only a short while before departing. It is evident that the whole town thought she was a harlot. If she had abandoned harlotry, no one knew about it. One more way of dodging the obvious remains. It might be thought that although she had forsaken harlotry, she continued to offer lodgings to wayfarers. Yet, as we have said before, it appears that she was still hanging a scarlet cord from her window, hardly the sign of an inn.

Our conclusion is that Rahab was a harlot when the spies came to the city. In the previous lesson we proposed that the spies went to Rahab’s deliberately, knowing what she was, because of the strategic advantages. Her dwelling was the one they could reach most safely, and it offered a way of escape. Another reason we gave was that they viewed her as a promising source of good information. We can add yet another reason. They thought that going to her house would help them avoid detection. The townspeople would view two strangers coming into town to see a harlot as nothing unusual.

But now we come to the next question. What did the spies say and how did they act after they went inside Rahab’s house? Scripture provides a hint to the answer. It says that they went there only for lodgings. So, they must have begun their conversation with Rahab by telling her frankly that they were interested not in her services, but just in finding a place to spend the night. Far from being annoyed at the two spies, she must have been deeply impressed by them. Their strength and goodness were well outside her own previous experience of men. Their moral purity was astounding. She was so impressed that by the time she learned their identity, she was ready to protect them at the risk of her own life.

It is very possible that in Canaanite society, she had entered her trade not by choice, but under compulsion. Meeting two men who were not interested in her services may have been a welcome relief. And when she realized who these men were—that they were ambassadors from the God of Israel—her relief may have risen to a much higher level, becoming hope of escape from moral bondage.

Getting Practical

The most important thing

The spies did not enter town undetected as they hoped. But although their work was weak in strategy and execution, in the end their character made the difference, as it does with us.

The spies probably did not wait long before they started recruiting Rahab to their cause. At the first opportune moment when the three were alone, they revealed who they were and presented her two options, either to die in the coming debacle, or to live by helping them. Having enough sense to defect to Israel’s side, she immediately proved her new loyalty by taking the spies to a hiding place on the roof.

Then we can imagine what might have gone through her mind as she sat alone in the house during the long evening hours before she went up to the roof again. Perhaps her heart felt torn between the claims of her own people and culture and the claims of Israel’s God. There was still time to hand over the spies to city authorities. Yet as she carefully weighed the two futures set before her, she firmly resolved to cast her lot with Israel. It was probably then that she put saving faith in God.

Rahab’s lie

Now we must deal with the hardest and most contentious question. In her effort to save the lives of the two men, Rahab certainly lied to the king. Is not lying always wrong? God says that He hates lying (Prov. 12:22). Thus, why does Scripture record her lie without condemning it? Indeed, Scripture has nothing but praise for Rahab.

Rahab’s lie raises ethical questions that are not merely theoretical. They are not like the contrived questions that public schools present to students in defense of situational ethics, such as the lifeboat dilemma. What do you do if there are six people in a lifeboat and there is food enough for only five? What a silly question! Who could possibly know how far the food would stretch? The question of how far it is right to use deception and lying in defense of human life is altogether different. It comes up often in the real world, and the way it is answered has serious consequences for those involved. Some years ago I received on my website the following urgent prayer request from a missionary in Kenya. He said that roving bands from a certain tribe who had been killing people and burning homes were headed toward his home. There, several Christians including some from the tribe the marauders wanted to kill were taking refuge. The missionary pleaded, "Please pray with us here in our church that when these thugs come and they will, that God will send his angels to circle our compound and protect us." Whether he used deception to protect his endangered guests, I do not know, because I never heard from him again.

How should he have determined the right course of action? By looking into the Bible, the book God has given us for moral guidance, and the most prominent Biblical record of when truth-telling would have meant death for the innocent is the one we are studying, the account of the spies’ mission to Jericho. Thus, for the sake of all others who will find themselves in Rahab’s role as a protector, it is crucial that we take the right view of Rahab’s lie. I will tell you my position right at the outset. Lying and deception are wrong, but sometimes they are necessary to save lives. Whenever they are used for that purpose, they are still sin, but the parties God will hold responsible will not be those who protected lives, but those who brought lives into danger.

Most commentators accuse Rahab of sinning. They argue that Scripture spares her from criticism only because she was a new believer in God—a spiritual babe who had not yet been taught the need for a higher standard of truthfulness than she had learned in her corrupt surroundings. Yet I have never heard or read a commentator who brought his scrutiny to bear not only on Rahab’s ethics, but also on the ethics of the spies. Who in the events of Joshua 2 was the first to practice deception? It was the men who walked into town pretending that they were something other than spies from Israel. Is there any moral difference between deception with words and deception without words? Of course not. Both are forms of lying. So, it was the lying behavior of the spies that forced Rahab to tell a lie in order to save their lives. It was the spies who started the deception. But not really them. The originator was Joshua, since he was the one who sent the spies on their mission.

Someone might protest that pretending to be somebody else is not quite the same as telling a lie in words. Really? When the spies entered the city, a guard might have stopped them and said, "Hey, I don't recognize you. Where are you from?" How would the spies have answered? We can be sure they would not have said, "Well, actually, we've come from the camp of Israel across the Jordan." No, they were spies. They were prepared to carry their mission to success even if they had to tell lies. They would have made no distinction between lying in word and lying in deed because, in fact, both are simply forms of the same evil, the evil known as lying.

Putting blame for Rahab's lie where it belongs—at the feet of Joshua—leaves us, therefore, with the question of whether Joshua was right in using deception. Before any of you hasten self-righteously to judge him, let me point out that the mission of the spies was Israel’s first act of war against Jericho, and the Old Testament clearly teaches that deception in warfare, if the war is waged by the godly against the godless, is altogether justified. A few chapters later in the Book of Joshua, God commanded Joshua to use deception in his assault against the city of Ai. He told him to set an ambush behind the city before he attacked it frontally with his main force; to lure out the defenders by having the attackers flee in the pretense of being beaten; then, after the ambush swept into the city and set it afire, to turn his other soldiers around and crush the enemy between two pincers (Josh. 8:1-8).

God’s instructions for that battle were nothing unusual. On many other occasions, He counseled the leader of Israel’s forces to use deception to defeat an enemy. He assured Gideon, for example, that he could rout over a hundred thousand Midianites with a mere three hundred men (Judg. 7:7-22). How? The method Gideon used by God’s leading was to trick the enemy into thinking that a host of thousands was descending on them in the middle of the night. In fact, it was merely the three hundred blowing trumpets and carrying torches as if each was the standard bearer of a whole regiment. Soon after David became king, the Philistines invaded Israel in the hopes of taking and killing him (2 Sam. 5:17-25). David stole the initiative by attacking them first, and he won a great victory. When they returned, the Lord counseled him to use deceit. Instead of engaging them head-on, as they expected, he crept around them and attacked from the rear, and again he overcame them. On one occasion God Himself used deception. When the Syrians were besieging Samaria, He caused them to hear a terrifying noise of chariots and of men suggesting that a great host was about to fall upon them, and they fled. But the noise was only an illusion (2 Kings 7:6-7).

Deceit or lying in warfare is therefore not wrong on behalf of a righteous cause. Why not? Because it may be the only means of saving lives. The goal of saving lives overrides other considerations.

Pondering a Question

Is this not a form of situational ethics? Are we not saying that right depends on the situation?

No, because we are not denying the absolute evil in lying and deception. It is a question merely of who is to blame for it. Suppose someone takes hostages and threatens to kill them. The police forces called in to handle the crisis may at length decide that the only way to save anyone is to attack, despite the risk that some of the hostages may get caught in the crossfire. Indeed, some may be killed while others are rescued alive. But who bears the blame for their deaths? Is it the policeman whose bullet goes astray from its intended target and hits an innocent hostage? No, the only one whom God will judge for that person’s death is the hostage-taker himself.

Some years ago, after terrorists had taken hundreds captive in a Russian theater, a large number of these helpless victims were killed by the same poison gas that the authorities used to subdue their captors. Many questioned whether the authorities used good judgment in their method of attack, but no one called them murderers. The terrorists were the only ones guilty of murder.

A similar case generally provokes discussion in a course on world history. At the end of World War II, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and killed perhaps 150,000 people. Here was an appalling act of wickedness, creating a vast host of victims, many of them innocent of any offense against the attackers. But who will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment? Who will suffer just payment of divine wrath? Not the American leaders who authorized the attack or the pilots who executed it, but the Japanese militarists who refused to surrender. The Americans foresaw that if they had to invade Japan, perhaps a million American soldiers would die besides a countless number of Japanese. They decided to drop atomic bombs because they would minimize the inevitable slaughter.

If it is right to take some lives to save even more lives, surely it is right to use deception as a life-saving measure. In either case, all blame for the means employed will fall squarely on the evil forces that made it necessary.

We conclude that when the men spying on Jericho used deceit, the deceit was evil, and when Rahab lied to save them, her deceit was evil, but the evil in both cases was charged to the account of the wicked Canaanites who were putting God’s people in jeopardy by opposing Israel’s right to occupy the land of Canaan.

Pondering a Question

Yet are we not saying that sometimes the end justifies the means?

Yes, sometimes it is necessary to use evil to fight evil. To lie is a lesser evil than to take a life, yet in defense of our country against wicked aggression, we do not hesitate to take many lives. But you may argue further that this way of thinking is a slippery slope that could be used to justify almost anything. Yes, it is. So where do we draw the line? The answer is, we don’t draw the line. God does. We must look to God’s Word for help in making such extremely difficult moral discriminations. The instances we have already examined show that God allows not only warfare in furtherance of a righteous cause, but also deception in warfare.

If we look elsewhere in Scripture, we find that the scope of permissible deception is even broader. Before Moses was born, an evil Pharaoh told the midwives of Israel to kill all the male children (Exod. 1:8-21). Yet not only did they refuse to carry out the order; they deceived the king by claiming that the women of Israel had short labor and bore their children before a midwife could come. They lied out of fear of God (Exod. 1:17), and God blessed them as a result (Exod. 1:20-1). He did not bless them for lying exactly, but for putting their own lives at risk to save others. Nevertheless, their scheme for saving the male children succeeded only because they lied, and Scripture makes it clear that what they did was right.

We conclude that God’s Word allows deception when it is necessary to save a life, whether or not a war is in progress. The Scripture that should serve as our guidepost whenever we see a life threatened appears in the Book of Proverbs: "If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain; If thou sayest, Behold, we knew it not; doth not he that pondereth the heart consider it? and he that keepeth thy soul, doth not he know it? and shall not he render to every man according to his works?" (Prov. 24:11–12).

It is my position that deception is justified not only to save a life, but also to prevent any victimization of a fellow human being.

The Issue Today

How Christians behaved under the Nazis

One commentator who outspokenly declares that Rahab should not have lied is Arthur Pink.1 But his discussion of a parallel case—relating to the Hollanders who hid Jews from the Nazis—shows how shallow his thinking is. He does not fault any Hollander for giving Jews shelter. How could he? But he clearly implies that under no circumstances should a Hollander concealing Jews have told lies. But what options did their protector have when German soldiers came to the door and started questioning him? To say nothing would be the same as admitting that Jews were inside. Therefore, the only way he could prevent tragedy would be to stoutly deny that he was harboring Jews.

When Pink imagines himself as a protector of Jews, his only comment is that he would trust God to spare him from the temptation to lie.2 Yet in the real world God has often not chosen to shield a protector from the probing questions of an enemy, determined to find and kill those under protection. So we can only conclude that if Pink actually faced such questions as he stood as the only shield of Jews in hiding, he himself would have told the truth rather than violate his conscience. Instead of telling a lie to save their lives, he would have handed them over. But this smacks of Pharisaism—throwing away a life just to preserve a kind of sanctity that is not really Biblical. It reminds us of the priest and Levite who passed by the wounded man on the other side of the road to Jericho so as to keep their robes clean (Luke 10:29–37). Does Pink really mean that if he took in a Jewish girl fleeing from the Nazis, he should not lie to save her from brutal soldiers who would rape her and drag her off to the gas chamber? If he failed to do everything possible to save her, that would be betrayal of a trust, for she had put herself under his protection. That would be cowardice as well, for by cooperating with the Nazis he would be protecting his own life at the price of delivering someone else to certain death.

A reader may protest that if he were sheltering Jews, he would tell the truth and trust God for deliverance. But that is not trusting God. It is tempting Him, for he would be demanding a miracle to save him from his own folly in consequence of ignoring the clear teaching of Scripture that he should tell a lie.

A sober look at the ethical dilemma a Hollander faced when he sought to help the Jews leads to an obvious conclusion. He had no right to offer refuge unless he was prepared to protect them by all means including deception. For any Hollander who really believed that trusting God forbade deception, the only option was to turn Jews away from his door, saying, "Trust God to deliver you as you wander alone." Yet such cold-heartedness reminds us of the hypocrite James condemns for refusing help to a needy brother (James 2:15-16).

One Hollander who had to decide the moral boundaries in helping people was Corrie Ten Boom. She writes that after she had served for more than a year as ringleader of a group protecting Jews from the Nazis, the day came when the authorities raided her house. At the moment they stormed into her bedroom and arrested her, several Jews were sheltering in the next room, a secret hiding place. The Gestapo agent demanded, "Tell me now, where are you hiding the Jews?" Without hesitation, she replied, "I don’t know what you’re talking about." Later she said, "There aren’t any Jews here."3 The result is that the Jews were never found, but Corrie and her whole family were taken to prison, and all but Corrie died under horrific conditions in German concentration camps. Throughout their ordeal they maintained a bold and warm testimony for Christ, yet never did they regret lying to save lives.

Others living under German occupation made the same decision. I recall reading a book about an English aviator who was downed in Holland during the Second World War. He survived by parachuting from the plane and finding refuge with a Dutch family. When the German soldiers looked through the house, as they did a few times, his hosts bundled him up in bed and pretended that he was a sick relative, both deaf and dumb. The family and the aviator were all devout Christians.4

What Scripture says about lying

We are dealing with such a thorny issue that we must pursue it further. The bottom line is this. Someone who seeks information that he intends to use for an evil purpose has forfeited his right to the truth. He has himself scorned truth and made himself a friend and follower of the father of lies. He has proved that his own fundamental allegiance is to falsehood. Therefore, if falsehood is what he wants, then falsehood is what he should get. In all justice, he should get no better than what he clearly prefers.

But the obvious and necessary objection is this. Does not Scripture, our ultimate authority, say lying is always a sin? If it prohibits lying under all circumstances, then lying to save a life is wrong however we reason otherwise. Thus, we will close by examining what Scripture says.

Two of the Ten Commandments deal with lying. The ninth forbids bearing false witness against a neighbor; that is, slander (Ex. 20:16). The third forbids failure to keep a solemn oath or vow made voluntarily and sealed with God’s name (Ex. 20:7). Other texts forbid false denials of sin (Prov. 28:13). God wants confession rather than cover-up. Still other texts condemn boasting, which is in essence a misrepresentation of self (Jer. 9:23-24; 1 Cor. 13:4), insincere flattery (Psa. 12:2-3), and dishonest business practices (Deut. 25:13; Prov. 11:1; 16:11; 21:6; Hos. 12:7).

Two prohibitions of lying are certainly comprehensive, yet they fall short of being absolute. An Israelite was commanded to tell the truth to a brother Israelite (Lev. 19:11), and a believer is commanded to tell the truth to a brother in Christ (Col. 3:9). Yet both dicta are designed to protect loving relationships between fellow members of God’s family. They have no bearing on how we deal with an enemy moved by malice. Whatever he may profess to be, his evil intent marks him as no kind of brother. Rather, he is an evil worker who cannot always be trusted with truth.

The Bible is full of warnings that liars incur the wrath of God and face fearful punishment (Psa. 5:6; 101:7; Prov. 12:19; 19:5; Rev. 21:8, 27; 22:15). For this reason, the godly are exhorted to shun the company of liars (Psa. 40:4). Yet by “liars,” these texts are presumably talking about those who lie habitually for selfish gain—about those who love a lie (Rev. 22:15). Someone who lies to save a life under extraordinary circumstances can hardly be considered the same as someone who always generates deceitful words from a corrupt heart.

The Bible stresses that the Lord views lying as an abomination (Prov. 12:22), and it exhorts the righteous to hate all manner of falsehood (Prov. 13:5). The mark of the godly is truthfulness (Prov. 12:19; Zeph. 3:13). Indeed, lying is hateful. In this lesson we have no desire to lessen anyone’s aversion to lying. It is an ugly bruise on the beauty of God’s creation. In vindicating Rahab’s decision to lie, we did not whitewash the lie itself. We merely asked who was responsible for it. It was a wicked thing, but it was her expedient to prevent a greater wickedness, the murder of two good men. Therefore, it was not she, but the men with murderous intent that God will judge guilty of her lie.

Getting Practical

A necessary balance

Men in the military or in law enforcement are morally justified in using deceit to combat the wicked. But they must be careful about using it routinely. The regular practice of lying will inevitably wear down their inhibitions against it. Instead of retaining a tender conscience that readily objects to falsehood, they will acquire a conscience deadened by being too often disregarded. Then it will be easy to lie when it is not necessary, when it merely promotes a selfish interest. Their own allegiance will slip almost imperceptibly from one side to the other in the cosmic war of good against evil.

Getting Practical

Future days of persecution

We are fast approaching that phase of history known as the Tribulation, when God will pour out His wrath on a wicked world. The inaugural event will be the Rapture of the church. Yet afterward the world will not be devoid of believers, for the Rapture will spark a revival leading to the salvation of a huge throng. As events proceed, the new Christians will face tremendous persecution, which will fall not only on them, but also on unsaved Jews. The principles we have developed in this lesson will then come into play. It will be important for the persecuted to understand exactly what God will sanction in their own defense. We assure them, based on the story of Rahab and many other Scriptural precedents, that they will be permitted to use lying and other forms of deception to save lives.


  1. Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in Joshua (Chicago: Moody Press, 1964), 57-59.
  2. Ibid., 60.
  3. Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1971), 120-121.
  4. If anyone can help me remember the author and title, I would appreciate it, for it is a most worthwhile book.