This Sunday morning I'm preaching from Joshua 2:1-21. It's the familiar story of the Israelite spies encounter with Rahab. One of the interesting pieces of the story that I won't be dealing with at all on Sunday is Rahab's lie. When the king of Jericho sends men to find the spies, she tells them the spies had just left and if they hurry, they can catch up with them. This is a bold face lie, as the text makes clear. She was hiding the spies, determined to help them because she was convinced that the LORD God of Israel was the one and true God. In the end, her and her family are spared from the destruction Israel brought upon Jericho. She winds up settling in with the people of God, is in the lineage of David and eventually the Messiah. She finds her way into the hall of faith of Hebrews 11 and James commends her faith - a faith that leads to action.
But, should Rahab have lied. It seems there are three main positions on this question (and others related to it). David Howard explains these three positions well in his commentary on Joshua (NAC). First, some hold what is termed a "conflicting absolutes" or "lesser of two evils" position. Basically, Christians holding this position argue that in our fallen world, sometimes two or more principles of moral behavior will conflict absolutely and there is no option in such situations but to sin. If that is the case, the Christian should weigh in the balance the two options, choose the lesser of the two evils, and then 'sin boldly', but repent later. So, Rahab should have lied to protect the spies, but she should confess it as sin.
The second position is sometimes labeled "hierarchicalism". Those in this camp hold that there is an ordered hierarchy of absolutes, "such that some values have priority over others." When these values conflict and it's impossible to follow both absolutes, one should act according to the higher norm. Sounds a lot like the first, except that those who hold to a hierarchical view don't see the violation of the lesser norm as sin, not when it is in conflict with a greater norm. So, Rahab should have lied but she should feel no guilt and shouldn't feel the need to confess it as sin.
The third position is one of "nonconflicting absolutes". Proponents of this view argue that even when absolutes seem to conflict, in reality there is always a 'third way' out of the situation that avoids sin. Not to opt for the third way is sin. Rahab, on this view, should have done something other than she did. Maybe she should have invited the king's men to search the home and pray that God would conceal them. Maybe she should have refused to answer the question. At least one option was open to her, on this view, that wasn't sinful.
Each position has it's strengths and weaknesses. The first is certainly counter intuitive - that God would hold someone as guilty of sin when they were constrained by the situation to commit a sinful act. The second position runs into the problem of a lack of biblical support. Nowhere do we encounter a hierarchy of sins or of norms, or any clear teaching that God will exempt us from the guilt of sinning if a higher good was in view (Rom. 3:7-8). Furthermore, that is certainly a slippery slope to Machiavellianism. The third position seems naive, but, as Howard points out, seems to line up with the biblical data best. He argues that to deny this third position, the "non-conflicting absolute" position, raises questions about God's ability to provide and about our faith in God's provision. Additionally, there is the biblical witness that God will provide a way of escape from sin/temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). Most importantly, there's the WWJD question. I know, but yes, I'm being serious. The first position ("conflicting absolutes) raises questions about Jesus' sinlessness. If Jesus was tempted like we are, and if some of our temptations put us in situations where sin is inevitable, how can we maintain Jesus was sinless. The second position avoid this by saying that even in situations like Rahab's, had Jesus chosen as Rahab did, he wouldn't have been sinning.But, as seen above, this seems to rest on dubious groups biblically.
Here's my answer, and it's a combination of position one and three. I believe God does provide a way of escape from sin/temptation. I believe there is a 'third way' and Jesus is pretty good proof of it. So I agree with those who hold to position three - the 'nonconflicting norms' view. However, in this fallen world, our intellects aren't as sharp as they should be. We aren't as wise as God would have us be. We don't stay in step with the Spirit as Jesus did. So, we are sometimes faced with decisions where there doesn't seem to be a 'sinless' way out of it - where norms conflict. What should we do? Here I think position one is correct - we pick the lesser of the two evils. We lie to save a life, or two in this case. (Though, as Howard points out, we can't absolutize this either - should we lie to save our own life? Maybe? Should we lie about our faith, deny we're Christians to save our life? Like Peter. No!) But ignorance isn't an excuse to sin - trust me, I've tried it with traffic cops before - "sir I didn't know the speed limit was 35 here" or "sir, I didn't see the stop sign". So, in such situations where we've chose sin to avoid a greater sin, we should still confess it as such and trust in the free provision of God's grace for sinners.
One last word: these cases don't come up often. Rahab. Hebrew Midwives. Any others you can remember? And exceptions to the rules don't make for good theology or ethics.