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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Christian journalist: Liar liar pants on fire, #3 (Joshua 2:1-24)

Joshua 2: 1-24. “So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.  . . .  So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab, ‘Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.’ But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, ‘Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went.”

Exegesis and Application

Rahab lies robustly to the governmental authority (the king) and the Bible approves her lies (Joshua 6:25; Heb 11:31; James 2:25). There is the common attempt to separate Rahab’s actions of hiding the spies (approved) from her lying (disapproved.) However, there is not biblical warrant for such a splitting of hairs. She is commended and rewarded for her actions and her lack of truthfulness. As David Clyde Jones so succinctly puts it, “The false lead is justifiable on the same grounds as providing aid and comfort to the spies: the king of Jericho had no right to know the truth of their presence inside the soon to be tumbling walls of his city.” Rahab, had she told the truth, would have been an accessory to the death of the two Hebrew spies (Rousas Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law).

This notion of “rights” in truth talk really begins in the modern era with the great Dutch Christian jurist, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) who wrote that “a falsehood is a lie in the strict sense of the word only if it conflicts with a right of the person to whom it is addressed. . . The right in question is that of liberty of judgment, which is implied in all speech; but it can be lost if the listener has evil intentions… certain lies are morally acceptable and bring no blame to the liar” (On the Law of War and Peace). Grotius is considered the father of international law and one of the fathers of Arminian theology. His view countered Augustine’s (354-430) absolutist view that lying is always wrong and is always blameworthy.
Grotius left us with the idea that truthfulness rested on the correlation of rights and responsibilities in interpersonal relationships. Following the Augustinian argument, many Christians argue that one must always tell the truth, regardless of the circumstances and let God decide the outcome of the truth-telling, perhaps even to deliver the truth-teller from unpleasant results. The murder, robber, rapist at the door, indeed anyone who would do us harm all deserve to be lied to because they have broken human fellowship with us. Following Matthew 4:6-7, the absolutist view that all lies are sins and God will protect us from harm and we have no responsibility to act prudently is tempting God and thus forbidden.

Having said all this, the Bible still condemns the lying tongue and heart.

Christian journalist, what to make of this important and controversial passage?

1) If you find yourself in a situation where the people around you are intent upon doing you harm, you are not obligated to tell them the truth because normal human relationships of mutual flourishing and beneficence have been destroyed by them.

2) If you find yourself doing a story in which by lying you can physically protect another person, you are not obligated to tell the truth.

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One Response

  1. Bob;
    You are like the Hindu mystic that can tread on burning coals with bare feet and not get burned. Most people cannot easily discern the appropriate critical circumstances that demand a “morally justifiable” lie. I can think of the president of a certain country who rarely has a clue that he is lying, he lies so much–and I’m sure he has strong moral justification for that. As you are aware of John Murray’s arguments, it is a touch dangerous to use the Rahab pericope to justify the circumstantial bearing of false witness. It is equally dangerous to categorically write off the Rahab narrative as entirely exclusive of moral instruction. Most ethical discussion is presented as a two-option decision tree. Must I list the Rahab story, the Corrie Ten Boom story, etc. I have never seen a three or multiple option decision presentation as a moral alternative.
    Evangelical moral theory such as with Jones demands that such circumstances could have been a situation that Christ while incarnate was presented with. Would Christ have lied to the Jericoans or Nazis? I don’t think so. Neither would he have told the truth. He would have presented a “tertium modus (??)” answer. So, our moral thinking must explore alternatives besides answering straight forward truth vs. lie.
    Ken F.

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