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In Joshua 2 we have a classic case of civil disobedience:

3 Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who 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, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. 5 And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. 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 that she had laid in order on the roof. (ESV)

What is an overview of how Catholics and Protestants (including Church fathers), have judged Rahab's actions? Did she sin by hiding the spies? Did she sin by lying?

Related: Did the midwives in Exodus 1 sin by disobeying and lying to Pharaoh? (Catholic/Protestant overview)

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Summary: Rahab is widely praised for protecting the Hebrew spies, despite her betrayal of her countrymen, but opinion among both church fathers and modern commentators is divided with respect to her false report.

Hiding the spies

Church fathers such as Gregory of Elvira and Cassiodorus praise Rahab's protection of the spies and see in her an image of the church.1 Augustine in particular says that she was rewarded by God because she was "merciful to God's people" and that she ought to be praised for putting herself in peril to host and hide the men of God.

Reformer John Calvin sees Rahab's hiding of the spies as "treachery to her country," but that she was "set free from the common rule" through her adoption "into the body of the Church." He finds proof that there was "no criminality in abandoning" her countrymen in the apostolic praise of her in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25.

Catholic commentator George Leo Haydock explains Rahab's actions by saying that "[s]he felt authorized by God on this occasion, to abandon those upon whom he had declared war." Маtthew Henry likewise sees Rahab as betraying her country, but says that in this special case she is justified because "she knew the Lord had given Israel this land" (v. 9).

Lying to the king

The church fathers are split on the morality of Rahab's lie. John Chrysostom goes so far as to praise Rahab's skill in lying, saying "O this good lie! O this good fraud, which does not betray the divine but safeguards the sacred!"2 John Cassian says that "for her lie alone [...] she deserved to share an eternal blessing with the people of God."3

Augustine, on the other hand, pointedly questions the assumptions of those who claim that the lie was necessary to save the spies, asking,

And where do we put the will and power of God? Or haply was He not able to keep both her, neither telling a lie to her own townsmen, nor betraying men of God, and them, being His, safe from all harm? For by Whom also after the woman's lie they were guarded, by Him could they, even if she had not lied, have in any wise been guarded.

Calvin follows Augustine, saying that those who excuse an officious lie "do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God." But one successor of Calvin, Charles Hodge, suggests that in cases such as this, there is no "violation of some obligation," which he sees is a requirement for considering a falsehood a sin.

Methodist Adam Clarke says that there is "no excuse" for Rahab's lie, "for God could have saved his messengers independently of her falsity." Jamieson et al. suggest that she might have "deem[ed] herself bound to do it by the laws of Eastern hospitality," but that ultimately, "her answer was a sinful expedient." Haydock calls it an "officious lie, which is a venial sin," noting that she did not intend injury to anyone, and in fact protected her countrymen by preventing them from murdering the spies and thereby incurring God's wrath.

Matthew Henry particularly struggles with the extenuating circumstances of this case, not seeing how the spies could have been saved if Rahab had told the truth or kept silent. He suggests that she "may be justified here" in the context of the impending judgment of Jericho, but nonetheless says that most theologians consider it a sin.


References:

1 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament, IV, pp. 9-10

2 Chrysostom, Homilies on Repentance and Almsgiving 7.5.17; cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

3 John Cassium, Conference 17.17.1-2; cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

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Rahab is commended in the New Testament more for her faith that God was going to enable his people to take the land and for her welcoming the spies into her home rather than for her act of lying. (James 2:25, Hebrews 11:31) In Joshua chapter 2, her motivation for lying was mainly out of self preservation- that of saving herself and her family from the coming destruction of the city. Her newfound faith in Yahweh was in its beginning stages. She was convinced that God was going to bring the Israelites into the land and did not want to stand in the way herself. Her lie was a moral wrong, but like any other sin a person commits, it is one she needed to seek forgiveness for. Even if a situation turns out for our benefit and in hindsight brings about God's plan- that does not mean it was an act God approves of in the moment.

In Genesis when Joseph tells his brothers that "what you meant for evil, God meant for good", he is not saying that his brothers were morally right in selling him into slavery. Likewise, when Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of the birthright, even though Jacob was the favored son through whom God would bring about the people of Israel, Jacob still sinned in doing so. Scripture is full of examples where people's acts of deception were part and parcel to the story moving forward as God intended, but that does not imply that their individual acts were morally right in themselves.

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    Welcome Jim! This post is helpful particularly because you use the Bible to build your case. Unfortunately, the specifics of the question ask for how different groups of Christians have dealt with this text, so strictly speaking, this post doesn't directly answer the question (since you don't show that your analysis is shared by any Christian groups). Still, thanks for contributing. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. – Nathaniel Nov 12 '15 at 21:14

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