Series: Joshua

By Rosie Moore

“By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Heb 11:31).

Have you ever considered someone impossible to save? Too far gone in their sin? Beyond redemption?

Yet, who would have anticipated that a Canaanite prostitute, from a wicked culture, that practised detestable acts in their idolatry (Deut 20:16-18), would be included in the great hall of faith in Hebrews 11?

The name of this former prostitute appears alongside Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses, David, Samuel, Daniel and the prophets who risked their lives to obey God.

Not only that, God used Rahab in his plan to bring His sinless Son into this world. Matthew records her name in the genealogy of “Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham”:

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of King David (Matt 1:15-6).

While I was reading the book of Ruth one day, it suddenly occurred to me that Rahab was Boaz’s mother! Before the foundations of the earth were laid, God planned for this Canaanite prostitute to become Ruth’s mother-in-law, and the great-great grandmother of King David. In all likelihood, Rahab’s influence over her family had something to do with her son’s kindness to a young Moabite widow in Bethlehem, and the living faith that percolated through generations after her.

Although Rahab is a unique thread in salvation history, her story has much to teach us about God’s love for the outsider, the true nature of saving faith and the lengths to which God will go to adopt sinners into his family.

Please read Joshua 2:1-24.

Go, view the land, especially Jericho.

When Joshua sent the two Israelite spies to the city of Jericho, a harlot living in a house on the city wall hid them among the flax stalks on her roof. Then she helped the spies escape by lying to the authorities and sending them in the opposite direction.

In doing this, Rahab disobeyed the Canaanite king and demonstrated faith in the King of heaven and earth instead. Because she put her faith in the God of Israel, Rahab and her whole family were saved, while the city of Jericho was annihilated in judgment (Joshua 6.) The battle of Jericho took place in about 1400BC.

One can only imagine the depravity of the culture in which Rahab was raised to be a prostitute. We know that it was on account of the wickedness of the nations in Canaan that the Lord drove them out of the land (Deut 9:4-5). The Canaanites even sacrificed their children to the god Molech (Lev 18:21).

Most of us are familiar with Rahab’s story. As a child, my dad read it to me often. I remember staring at an illustration of the battle of Jericho, with walls crumbling and a red cord suspended from a perfectly preserved house in the wall of the city. In my childish imagination, I often wondered what the inhabitants of that house looked like. I pictured them as dusty, shell-shocked figures emerging from the ashes and rubble. I imagined them being led out by one of the spies into the safety of the Israelite camp.

I also wondered about the reasons why Rahab had become a prostitute and what had convinced her that Israel’s God could save her– a foreigner to His promises. Who told her stories about the Lord’s miraculous rescue of his people from bondage in Egypt? Who was Salmon, and how did his marriage to Rahab come about? The text doesn’t give us these details.

But somehow I guessed that Rahab’s red cord was connected to Jesus’ death and his power to rescue even the most unlikely of people. From a very young age, I knew that I needed that red cord, just as Rahab did.

Rahab’s story is a remarkable picture of God’s grace in the midst of divine judgment on a wicked culture. Like the lamb’s blood on the Israelite doors at the first Passover, Rahab’s scarlet cord is a symbol of what Jesus would do to rescue the world from sin’s slavery and death.

We aren’t told who the spies were, but Jewish tradition says that they were probably Caleb and the high priest Eliezer. The people of Israel were told to wait on the banks of the Jordan for three days while God worked out his purpose in saving Rahab’s household. I cannot help but think of the three days between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, surely the most momentous rescue mission in history!

Rahab’s profession.

“They entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.” The KJV calls Rahab a ‘harlot’ (Josh 2:1)

Embarrassed by Rahab’s profession as a harlot, some Bible scholars prefer to identify her more diplomatically as an ‘innkeeper’. However, the text does not depict Rahab as an Airbnb host, but clearly as a prostitute.

It’s true that she welcomed the spies, but she was not just being hospitable by hiding them among the flax stalks on her roof. She was risking her life and livelihood to protect these enemy soldiers from death. Since the writer clearly identifies Rahab as a harlot (even in Hebrews 11:31), it is surely not an irrelevant detail.

Rahab’s lie.

Another source of embarrassment is Rahab’s lie. Some Christians argue that God forgave her lie, just as He forgave her sexual sins. But a straightforward reading of the text says that Rahab lied blatantly to the authorities to protect the Israelite spies. In the New Testament, there is no hint of condemnation of her actions, only commendation.

She told the messengers of the king of Jericho that the men had already left and then sent them off on a wild goose chase (Josh 2:2-5). She said that she didn’t know where the spies were from, nor where they were going, whereas she knew exactly who they were and where they were hiding (Josh 2:4). She also knew that their God was about to destroy her city and that the spies were treasonous enemies.

To top it all, Rahab went back to the spies and actively helped them escape to the hills, to hide there for three days (Josh 2:8-21). She defied the authorities at every turn, at great risk to herself. But the Bible commends Rahab’s actions as acts of faith. In fact, James specifically mentions Rahab’s lie (in diverting the Canaanite pursuers) as an example of how true faith responds in active obedience to God. James writes:

“In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?” (James 2:25).

Why does God condemn lying lips (Prov 12:22) and tell his people to be truthful like him (Eph 4:251 Tim 3:15), while sparing and even commending Rahab? (Josh 6:22-25) Should Rahab have rather told the truth and trusted God to deliver the spies himself?

I think Rahab’s actions, including her lies, were righteous acts for two important reasons:

  1. Firstly, the authorities had wicked intent.

The messengers of wicked Jericho clearly intended to kill the Israelite spies (Josh 2:174-6). Rahab’s lie effectively protected the spies from death and actively promoted the success of their mission. She is like the God-fearing midwives in Exodus 1, who disobeyed Pharoah’s command to kill all male newborns by blatantly lying to Pharoah.  God commended the midwives’ brave actions to protect innocent babies from Pharoah’s genocidal edict (Ex 1:19-21).

Sam Storms sums it up:

“A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth.”

Like the Hebrew midwives, Rahab’s lie was an act of righteous disobedience to a wicked king, born out of allegiance to the God of Israel (Josh 2:9-14).

2. Secondly, Jesus taught that the law’s intent is more important than its specific prohibitions.

For example, doing good on the Sabbath is more valuable than strictly obeying the command to refrain from activity. Jesus discussed a time when David violated the law by eating temple bread, but God did not condemn him, as he broke the prohibition in order to promote his life and the lives of his men as they fled from Saul (Matt 12:3-6).

The same principle applies to the more modern example of Corrie Ten Boom and her Christian family, who hid Jews during the years of the holocaust in the Netherlands. Knowing what the Nazis intended to do to Jews, it would have been wicked for Corrie to have told the truth about their hiding place if a Nazi soldier had knocked on her door. Telling the truth would have made her complicit in their murders. Like Rahab, Corrie lied to save innocent lives from wicked powers. She lied for God’s good cause and to his glory.

Rahab had many sins, but her lies to the authorities are seen as evidence of her faith and obedience to God.

Rahab’s profession of faith.

Rahab’s declaration of faith in Joshua 2:8-14 is a beautiful confession which teaches us about the simplicity of saving faith that is acceptable to God. She didn’t have perfect faith based on perfect knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, but knew enough about who God was and who she was—a helpless sinner living in a wicked city.

Rahab trusted God entirely for her life and her family. She wanted to leave her sinful life and evil culture, and cling to the Lord and his people. She wanted to adopt a new identity and a new culture. When she confessed that only the Lord can “deliver our lives from death” (Josh 2:12-13), Rahab was literally throwing herself at the mercy of God (Josh 2:12).

This was the spies’ response:

“Our life for yours even to death! If you do not tell this business of ours, then when the Lord gives us the land we will deal kindly and faithfully with you” (Josh 2:14).

Isn’t this pledge an amazing preview of the gospel? Jesus pledged his life for sinners like us, even to death! He has dealt kindly and faithfully with us, even though we are faithless people. Rahab’s scarlet cord points us straight to Jesus.

Rahab’s scarlet cord.

The means of Rahab’s salvation is the most stunning detail of the story, set 1400 years before Christ was born (Josh 2:15-20). The scarlet cord was the signal to the Israelite army to spare everyone in Rahab’s house. God’s judgment passed them by, only because of her scarlet cord.

Even if Rahab had longed to join the Israelites and resolved to leave her life of sin and prostitution, without the red cord in her window she would have perished along with all the inhabitants of Jericho. The red cord was her only means of rescue.

Rahab simply obeyed, “According to your words, so be it.” Then she sent them away, and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window (Josh 1:21).

What an act of trust and obedience! Rahab could have questioned the spies’ promise or asked for another sign, but she didn’t. Submissively, she put her faith in God’s plan of salvation and He proved true to his pledge. The rescue mission was accomplished.

Strangely, if you read Joshua 6, you will see that the reconnaissance mission contributed nothing to the outcome of the battle. God had his own unique plan to destroy Jericho– a plan which involved a big walk and the blowing of trumpets.

But God had a bigger purpose for sending the spies to Jericho. His purpose was to rescue Rahab and her family from their wicked culture; to graft them into God’s people; to make a faithless harlot into the wife of a faithful Israelite called Salmon; to give Rahab a new profession, a new identity, a new people and a new name, to free her from bondage. What a rescue mission to save one unlikely Canaanite and her family!

And these were precisely the types of people that Jesus went out of his way to seek and save:

The Samaritan woman at the well, who had five consecutive husbands, but an empty heart. An unnamed prostitute, who wet Jesus’s feet with her tears and an alabaster flask of ointment (Luke 7:37-43). “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” But like Rahab, this harlot knew her debt of sin, and Jesus rewarded them both:

“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:47-48).

You may know someone like Rahab who is ‘impossible’ to save. You may be like Rahab yourself—knowing just how sinful you are and longing for freedom from a life of slavery. Rahab reminds us that God’s hand is never too short, nor unwilling to save those in need of rescue–faithless men and women like you and me. Jesus is the scarlet cord that leads us back to our Father, time and time again.

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