I received a phone call this afternoon from a concerned Brocker asking if I’d seen the discussion at Isaac Brock about whether it was ok to lie to the bank on the various self-certification forms. Specifically he asked my opinion about the ethics of lying. He said of course that the nuns at his parochial school said one should never lie, not even to save the world! But of course, as a theologian, the story of Rahab the Harlot came to my mind. She lied, and for that both Jews and Christians consider her a great heroine. Here is the main story of her boldfaced lie (Joshua 2.1-6; RSV):
1 And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” And they went, and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there. 2 And it was told the king of Jericho, “Behold, certain men of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.” 3 Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring forth the men that have come to you, who entered your house; for they have come to search out all the land.” 4 But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them; and she said, “True, men came to me, but I did not know where they came from; 5 and when the gate was to be closed, at dark, the men went out; where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.” 6 But she had brought them up to the roof, and hid them with the stalks of flax which she had laid in order on the roof.
Now the New Testament remembers Rahab in Matt 1.5, as a great-great-great-great etc. granny of King David and Jesus; and as a woman of faith in Hebrews 11:31: “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.” James 2.25 also says, “And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?”
So it would seem that the Bible, as one the great foundational texts of both law and ethics in the Western world, has no problem with lying under certain circumstances. She lied to save the lives of two men who would soon become her new compatriots. Moreover, she’d seen that God was with the Israelites and Joshua, and she thus knew her city, Jericho, was doomed. So to protect herself and her family she decided to relinquish her Jericho citizenship under INS 349 (a) (7)–and become a daughter of Israel. She exercised her universal human right to change nationalities.
Yes, the King of Jericho would have severely punished her if he had found out her lie. And the homelanders of Jericho would have considered her a liar, traitor and tax cheat. But they didn’t write the history of the battle. Rahab had to do what was best for her family, and for that both Old and New Testaments praise her.
Hard times create unconventional heros.