Rahab, Spies, and Lies

The Old Testament heroine Rahab (pronounced “Raw-KHAWB” in Hebrew) is mentioned in glowing terms several times in the New Testament. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read:

 “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.”  

Hebrews 11:31

In the Letter of James:

“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?” 

James 2:25

In the beginning of Matthew’s gospel she is described as the great great grandmother of King David and thus a direct ancestor of Jesus.

In the second chapter of the Book of Joshua we read that Joshua sent two spies into Jericho to check the place out in preparation for an invasion by the Israelite army.  Rahab the prostitute took the spies into her family’s home, hid them under some stacks of flax on her roof, and later helped the to escape by lowering them down the walls of Jericho with a rope.  In return for this help, the spies promised that Israel would spare her and her family from harm during the invasion.  Those were the “works” mentioned by St. James.  When speaking with the spies, Rahab said, “the Lord your God is he who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”  That’s the faith mentioned by the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews. 

But there’s something that has bothered theologians and thoughtful Christians about her story.  You see, when the King of Jericho sent men to her house to ask about the spies, Rahab said, 

“True, men came to me, but I did not know where they came from; 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.” 

Joshua 2:4-5

She lied in order to save the spies.  Let’s step aside to talk a little bit about lying.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: 

“A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

CCC 2482

Fr. Dominic M. Prummer, O.P., in a book published in 1957 entitled “Handbook of Moral Theology,” states:

A lie is intrinsically evil, so that no reason whatsoever can justify its use.

(Prummer O.P., 1957, 292)

While we might never be in the position to have to save men from some murderous thugs, there are times when we have to hide or conceal the truth from people who have no right to know it.  Take for example, a man and woman who are rebuilding their marriage after some infidelity.  Revealing past sins in this case could cause great harm.

Are there any morally acceptable ways to conceal the truth when necessary, short of remaining silent?

Prummer mentions something called “broad mental reservation,” that is, speaking equivocally, or in words that might have more than one meaning, and letting our listeners deceive themselves.

If we were hiding insurgent spies on our roof like Rahab, we could tell the King’s men, “Yes the men you seek were here, but they’re not here now.”  The King’s men might think that “here” meant the whole house, but we might really mean the room that we are in.

Prummer says that in order for broad mental reservation to not be sinful, a prudent man should be able to discern the meaning of your words.

Broad mental reservation would also be a sin if the listener had the right to know the truth, or if there was no just cause for concealing the truth.

There is a type of mental reservation that is sinful, however. It is called “strict mental reservation,” and occurs when one says something that’s false, but thinking something in your mind only that would make the statement true.  For example, a man telling his girlfriend, “I will marry you!”, but thinking in his mind, “if nobody else better comes along”.  There is no way for his girlfriend to discern the true meaning of his words.

Let’s get back to Rahab.  

Prummer also says in his Handbook of Moral Theology:

As contrary to the virtue of truthfulness lying is a venial sin, but it may become gravely sinful if contrary to other virtues, such as justice, religion, et cetera.

Almost all of our lies are contrary to another virtue, but in Rahab’s case, her lie was not contrary to any other virtue.  

St. Augustine addresses Rahab’s lie in a letter he wrote to his friend Consentius, so perhaps we should listen to his words:

But, as for that which is written, that God did good to the Hebrew midwives, and to Rahab the harlot of Jericho, this was not because they lied, but because they were merciful to God’s people. That therefore which was rewarded in them was, not their deceit, but their benevolence; benignity of mind, not iniquity of lying. For, as it would not be marvelous and absurd if God on account of good works after done by them should be willing to forgive some evil works at another time before committed, so it is not to be marveled at that God beholding at one time, in one cause, both these, that is, the thing done of mercy and the thing done of deceit, did both reward the good, and for the sake of this good forgive that evil.

(CHURCH FATHERS: To Consentius, Against Lying (St. Augustine), n.d.)

St. Augustine acknowledges that Rahab lied and indeed committed evil with her words, but that God forgave that evil for the sake of the good she did by harboring and hiding the spies.  God could forgive the sin she committed simultaneous with the good she did, just as easily as if she committed the sin and good act at different times.