Does God Condone Situational Ethics?
Specifically in reference to the apparent ethical dilemmas found within the narrative of Rahab protecting the spies who were sent to scout Jericho, I am not sure that there is actually an issue. While the spies lodged at the harlot’s home, according to Howard in the New American Commentary on Joshua, the construct of the text is specific to indicate that sexual relations are not implied or insinuated on behalf of the spies. So, while the commandment forbidding adultery was not broken by the spies themselves, it is interesting that the vocation of Rahab is mentioned. Perhaps her vocation is listed to show that no one is beyond the saving reach of God. Here is a lady who is in clear violation of Exodus 20:14, but yet because of her willingness to recognize the messengers of God’s people (the spies) and protect them, she and her family are ultimately spared. It is also interesting that she is eventually the mother of Boaz who married Ruth and who was her “kinsmen redeemer.”
In any event, regarding the apparent ethical dilemma regarding the violation of the commandment prohibiting adultery, that commandment was given to the Israelites as God’s people. Not that the commandments were not binding on others as that would apparently limit the scope of God’s rule, but that it was the Israelites who knew of the forbidden nature of adultery. Rahab may have violated the commandment in her profession, but the spies who she hid did not.
In reference to the lies Rahab told, the ethical dilemma there seems to have a biblical precedent. In Exodus 1 when the midwives were told to kill the male children of the Israelites, they hid them and then lied to the Pharaoh about doing so. Could it be that the lies they told to Pharaoh and the ones that Rahab told to the king were ways to protect the lives of God’s people? Yes, other people died (in Jericho) as a result of the victory that God eventually gave over the city, but God’s people and (more importantly) God’s promise and plan continued. Rehab’s lies protected the lives of God’s children.
As far as the question of whether God blessed Rahab’s lies, I think we must evaluate the sovereignty of God to an extent. Romans 8:28 tells us that God works things out for good for those who love him and are called according to His purpose. However, the question then becomes is it God’s plan or will for someone to violate His commandments (lying, adultery) OR does God’s sovereignty supersede the choices made by fallen humans? If the answer is the former, then the character of God is in question. If the answer is the latter, then the sovereignty of God means that God accomplishes His purposes using humans. This is seen in Daniel 2:21 where we see that God raises up and removes leaders. He is sovereign even when man is sinful. So, does that mean it is right for us to not be truthful in certain situations? Not necessarily. What it means is that God accomplishes His purposes through fallen and sinful humans. Some may argue that Rahab was accomplishing the “greater good,” but the problem with that logic is that it may open the door for humans to attempt to define what the “greater good” is. Lying is a sin. Does this give approval to situational ethics? Not necessarily. The situation with Rahab shows us that God will accomplish His purposes, and He will (or can) even use a harlot to do so; no one is beyond His reach. To make a blanket “no” is not appropriate here either. There are times there the Bible DOES condone situational ethics. For example, in the Song of Solomon, there is a three-fold refrain to the young girls of Jerusalem to not awaken love before its proper time. Many see this as a warning for young girls to not engage in love and sexual relations before the proper time (marriage), yet after marriage, sexual relations should be the norm between husband and wife, even the Apostle Paul reinforces this in 1 Corinthians. There is one situation when such is wrong, and one when it is right and commanded. So, to say the Bible NEVER approves of situational ethics is also wrong.
In order to maintain strict ethical standards, there is a need to honestly evaluate the Scripture and address what it actually says rather than what we have been taught it says. Not that everything we have been taught is wrong, but as mentioned above with the example of marriage, there are times when a situation is correct and another when it is wrong. Our ethical standards must be based on the character and goodness of God and His overall plan (which is found by reading the metanarrative of Scripture rather than pieces of the whole) rather than the convenience of men. Rahab is mentioned in Hebrews 11:31 as being justified by faith and again in James 2:25 as being saved by her works (which evidenced her faith) of sparing the spies. Rahab knew that the spies were representatives of Israel’s God, and she trusted in Him. Her (apparently sinful) actions, according to the authors of Hebrews and James, led to the salvation of her and her family and to her being included in the lineage of Jesus. So, is it ever right for us to be untruthful? If someone were outside our church with assault weapons looking for Christians to murder, I would be remiss if I led them into the building and allowed them to start shooting. I would think that I would do much of what Rahab did in attempting to hide and be less than truthful to save the lives of God’s people.