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Miss USA, Rahab, and the ethics of lying

Sheena Monnin Miss Pennsylvania 2012 in her Sherry Hill preliminary opening number dress (Credit: Sheena Monnin via Facebook)Sheena Monnin competed in the recent Miss USA beauty pageant.  After she failed to make the top 15, she charged that the outcome was rigged, claiming that another contestant saw a list of the top five finalists before the contest began.  She also resigned her crown as Miss Pennsylvania.

Pageant organizers claimed that Monnin actually resigned because of her opposition to the inclusion of transgendered contestants.  Donald Trump, the co-owner of the Miss USA and Miss Universe Pageant, has vehemently denied her allegation that the contest was fixed, and promises to sue her.

Who is lying?  Why does it matter?

Lying is a pervasive problem in our culture.  According to a nation-wide survey, 91% of Americans say they lie regularly.  On average, men tell six lies a day, while women average three lies a day.  College students admitted to lying twice a day.  83% of America's teenagers admit that they have lied to their parents about something significant; 64% admit to cheating on a test.  One out of four even admitted to lying about their responses to the survey!  What was the last lie you told?

Who was Rahab?

Let's explore this issue in light of Joshua 2 and Rahab's deception.  Joshua sent two spies to Jericho, the most fortified city of the day.  Here we meet one of the most famous—and infamous—people in Scripture.  Joshua 2 calls Rahab a "prostitute."  The NIV footnote states that the Hebrew can also be translated "innkeeper," but Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 call her "the prostitute Rahab."  She either worked at a pagan temple or was self-employed; either way, she sold sexual favors for a living.

The narrative in Joshua presents us with two moral dilemmas.  First, why did the Jewish spies enter her house?  If you were sent by your church to explore a city or area of ministry, would you stay in the red-light district?  In this case, practicality won out over impropriety.  Strangers would be less unusual entering a prostitute's house than other homes or businesses.  And Rahab's house was easily accessible; verse 15 says "the house she lived in was part of the city wall."

Rahab took the men in and gave them shelter.  Now comes the larger question: was she right to lie when she chose to protect the men from her fellow Canaanites?  The king of Jericho sent a messenger ordering her to bring them, but she said, "Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from" (v. 4).  This was her first lie.  In verse 8 she told the spies, "I know that the Lord has given this land to you."  She clearly knew that they were Jews sent to spy out Jericho and the land of Canaan.

Then she told the king's messenger in verse 5, "At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left.  I don't know which way they went.  Go after them quickly.  You may catch up to them."  This was her second lie.  Verse 6 states, "She had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof."  As a result of her lies, according to verse 7, "The men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut."

Was Rahab right to lie?

Her deception was partly motivated by self-protection.  If the king's messengers found the spies, she could not have claimed ignorance and would have been killed along with them.  But her lie was also essential for the spies.  They would have been captured and likely tortured and executed if she had not lied to protect them.

Nonetheless, Rahab clearly broke the ninth commandment, "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16).  Yet Hebrews 11:31 commends her: "By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient."  James 2:25 adds, "Was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?"  And her deception was rewarded: when the armies of Israel captured Jericho, they spared Rahab and her family.

How should we understand Rahab's deception?

What does Rahab's example say to us today?  Three facts may help.  One: the Bible never commends her deception.  The book of Joshua describes her behavior but does not prescribe it for us.  There is much sin described in the Bible, such as David's sin with Bathsheba; never does the Bible teach us to practice the immorality it describes.  In Rahab's case, the New Testament commends her faith and protection of the spies, but not her lies to the king's messenger.

Two: Rahab did not know the Jewish law.  Deception was common in her pagan culture, especially as an act of self-preservation.  God has revealed himself progressively through Scripture and time.  You learn arithmetic before learning geometry, before learning calculus.  Polygamy, while never God's perfect will, was permitted in the Old Testament but rejected in the New Testament.  God judges us according to the light we have.

Three: Rahab chose the higher value.  Sometimes we must choose which commandment to break.  If she had kept the ninth commandment prohibiting lying, she would have broken the sixth commandment against murder.  Corrie ten Boom and her family kept Jewish refugees during the early days of Nazism in Holland.  When German soldiers asked if they were protecting Jews, they had to make Rahab's choice.

Is lying ever justified?

Three ethical models are common today.  The most popular is called "intuitionism"—do what seems right to you.  Next is "situation ethics"—do what seems right at the time.  Neither is biblical.  Intuitionism explains the escalation of sexual immorality in our society; "situation ethics" were followed by Hitler and the 9-11 terrorists.

The third is called "deontological ethics"—do the right thing because it's the right thing.  Obey Scripture regardless of the circumstance.  On very rare occasions we will be forced to choose between two biblical commandments.  In that case, choose the one that most glorifies God and values life.  Shakespeare said, "Honesty is the best policy.  If I lose mine honor, I lose myself."  He was right.

Redeeming Rahab

Despite her vocation, Rahab was used greatly by God.  In fact, she became an ancestor of the Lord Jesus.  Her son Boaz would marry Ruth in one of the greatest love stories in all literature (Matthew 1:5).  He would continue the line from Abraham to David, making her part of the royal family.  And that line would lead to the birth of Jesus the Christ, making Rahab part of the Messiah's family line.  In a very real sense, everyone who has made Christ their Savior is part of her family.  Rahab is a spiritual ancestor to us all.

It's been said that God "hits straight licks with crooked sticks."  He can use anyone who is willing to be used, for he redeems all he allows.  How is he using your life today?

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