Rahab the Harlot and the Gospel

Although we’re told very little about Rahab the harlot, she is one of the unsung heroines in the Old Testament, and one of even fewer who are mentioned in the New Testament.  Although Deborah was a judge and leader of Israel, prophetess and a woman of faith; although Esther was one of the  Hebrew Diaspora who became queen of the largest empire the world had ever seen up to her time, a woman of great faith and courage, and who was humanly responsible for saving the lives and existence of the whole Hebrew nation; although Leah, was a woman of great faith and gave birth to the patriarchs of six of the twelve tribes of Israel; and, no doubt, the reader can think of other women they would include here; none of these great women, heroines of faith and of the nation of Israel, are mentioned outside their own story.  Yet Rahab, forever known to us as “the harlot”, and a gentile whose whole nation was under God’s curse and judgment and whose city of Jericho would soon be totally destroyed and every inhabitant put to the sword, not only trusted God completely, but was destined and chosen by God to be an ancestor in the genealogy of Jesus, the Saviour of mankind (Matt 5:1); a genealogy which included every king who reigned from Jerusalem.

But Rahab was not simply a woman whose house was randomly chosen by the spies, although it may have seemed like that to them all at the time.  Rachel had a divine appointment with these men.  They had come to gather any information about the city of Jericho to take back to Joshua who was planning an invasion to utterly annihilate the city and its inhabitants – and, were it not for God’s sovereign choice and mercy, Rahab would have been one of them.  Yet it would seem that getting the information was not God’s purpose in sending the spies, because just before the battle he gave Joshua specific and very unusual instructions, i.e. the army was to march around Jericho blowing ram’s horns once a day for six days and on the seventh to do it seven times, and then the whole army was to shout and the walls would fall down (Josh 6:1-21).  So any information with which the spies came back to Joshua was irrelevant and useless.  It seems that the spies’ true mission, known only to God, was to save Rahab and her family.

Rahab had not only been chosen by God to become one of his people (Eph 1:4-5); she had been chosen to be the mother of kings and an ancestor of the Messiah, her Saviour and ours.  She was, in a real sense, one of the significantly influential women of history.  What an astonishing pedigree for a gentile, a common prostitute, and a woman!

Was Rahab Really a Prostitute?

There are some pious people, sensitive souls, who balk at the fact that a woman who is mentioned in the bible as having saving faith, and especially a woman who was an ancestor of Jesus, was really so bad as to have been a harlot.  A story has been circulating ever since the time of Josephus, who may have been the instigator of it, which says that Rahab was just an innkeeper and not really a prostitute.  The truth is that Rahab really was a prostitute.  She may have been a shrine or cult prostitute i.e. a woman who had sex with men as part of the worship of Baal and his consort Ashtoreth; or she may have been a common street whore who had sex with any man who would pay her for the privilege; but either way, she was a prostitute.

But I think it unlikely that she was a shrine prostitute because as such she would probably have lived in the temple; whereas Rahab lived in a house in the defensive wall of the city.  And in the two NT references to her, both of which call her “the harlot”, the meaning of the Greek is a common whore who accepted money for her favours.  But it doesn’t really matter if she was a prostitute; and if she was, what kind of prostitute she was.  She was a prostitute at the time she met God and put her faith in him; immediately following which, she put that profession aside.  And it is possible, even probable, that she had a family business as well.  The passage tells us, “But she had brought them up to the roof of the house, and hid them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order upon the roof” (Josh 2:6).  She and her family probably made linen from the flax on the roof and sold it.  Whether her prostitution was her main source of income we’re not told – but she is known as Rahab the harlot, not Rahab the linen weaver.  But we don’t have to worry that she was a harlot because God saves sinners of all stripes, and the blood of his Son covers them all.  When the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth and referred to various kinds of sins, especially sexual sins, he reminded them, And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).  Rahab was a harlot but God saved her, washed her, and sanctified her, and she immediately left that profession.  It’s just as well that she did though, and responded to God by faith, because in just a few days’ time the entire city – buildings, livestock, and population, would be utterly destroyed.  Rahab and her family were saved in the nick of time.

Rahab’s New Identity

Rahab is still known even today as “Rahab the harlot” because this is what the bible calls her.  No doubt, this title is how she defined herself, and how she was defined by her community.  Her profession, her occupation, her trade, was to sell her body to men for sex.  In her society her profession was more acceptable than it would be in ours, we like to think, but even then she would have been looked down on – women who are easy with their favours or who sell them are despised by all, no matter what period of time or what culture they live in.  Even today, men who have sex with as many women as they can are smiled upon benignly as just sowing their wild oats.  But when a woman is sexually active she is called a slut and/or a whore, even by the very men who have sex with her.  Some kinder or less vulgar souls may refer to her as “a fallen woman”; but whichever term one uses, none of them are respectful or kind.

But when Rahab put her trust in the God of Israel, her identity was no longer in her sinful lifestyle and trade, or her sexuality, but in her relationship to God.  “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor 5:17).  Rahab feared God, therefore her sins were forgiven her; and just as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, he likewise said to Rahab (but in her heart by way of conviction of sin): “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (Jn 8:11).  And she went and sinned no more. 

Rahab’s Remarkable Faith

The first time we meet Rahab she is lodging the two spies sent by Joshua (Josh 2:1).  They would have been the second generation of Hebrews after the Exodus from Egypt and were described as young men (Josh 7:23).  Because of that first generation’s great sin in refusing to trust God and obey him, that first generation of Israel which had escaped Egypt, every single person except for Caleb and Joshua, were forbidden to enter Canaan, the Promised Land.  When the twelve spies were sent by Moses into Canaan on a fact-finding mission to see what the inhabitants and defences were like, upon their return, ten of them tried to dissuade Moses and the people from entering the land because they were afraid of the giants there.  “Then all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.  And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron” (Num 13: 31-33; 14:1-4). 

However, Caleb and Joshua pleaded with Israel not to listen to them and assured the people that God would give them the land as he had promised; but they tried to stone Caleb and Joshua (14:6-10).  As a result, God vowed that not a single man of that generation in all Israel would enter Canaan (Num 14:22-34).

That these two spies were the second generation is evidenced by the fact that as soon as Israel had crossed the Jordan River, after the Lord had miraculously stopped its flow to enable the nation to cross over into Canaan, the first thing Joshua did was to circumcise every male because during the forty years wandering, all the males during that time had not been circumcised.  “And the LORD said unto Joshua, This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you” (Josh 5:4-9).

So when these two spies lodged at Rahab’s house, no doubt they told her about their God and the great things they had seen or heard of him doing.  But Rahab had already heard about him.  When she was hiding them on the roof of her house, she told them, “I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you.  For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did upon the two kings of the Amorites that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.  And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath (Josh 2:9-11).  What a statement of faith!  She knew nothing about God except for what she’d heard of his great power.  But it was enough for her to believe that he was the true and living God.  The ancients all believed that the nation with the most powerful gods would defeat those whose gods were weaker or inferior (e.g. 1 Kings 20:22-28; Jer 44:15-19).  So Rahab’s faith in the God of Israel was according to the light she had, however feeble we Christians who have the full light and glory of the gospel might think that light was.  The important consideration is that she followed that light with all her heart, even to the extent of separating herself from her people and her country, as did Ruth, another gentile woman and forbear of the Messiah (Ruth 1:16-17). 

The fear that Rahab and the citizens of Jericho experienced was justified and in the plan of God.  Forty years before this, when God was in the midst of devastating Egypt with the Ten Plagues, he announced to Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron: “For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou may knowest that there is none like me in all the earth….for this cause I have raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and  that my name may be declared throughout the earth (Exod 9:14-16; see also Num 14:14; Josh 4:24).  So, unlike the rest of Jericho, Rahab cast in her lot with the people of God; consequently her life, and the lives of her whole family, were saved, and they lived to tell the tale.  “By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace” (Heb 11:31).  The other inhabitants of Jericho had the same light as did Rahab but they rejected it and tried to destroy those who did believe. 

The Development of Rahab’s Faith

From the time the spies lodged in Rahab’s house, Rahab was growing in faith and putting it into practice.  As James, the Lord’s brother, discussing the relationship between faith and works, writes: “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and sent them out another way?  For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (Jas 2:25).  Rahab demonstrated her faith by her works. 

The king of Jericho had heard that the spies had entered Jericho and he found out that they had stayed at Rahab’s house.  So he sent messengers to her, demanding that she hand them over to him.  This was big.  Rahab, a common prostitute, had attracted the king’s attention.  Rahab, a powerless woman, had the king’s messengers, with all his power and authority delegated to them, breathing down her neck.  She could have handed them over; they were, after all, right there in her house.  And she was rightly expected to do so; or, if they had already departed, she would be expected to tell the messengers where they had gone.  It probably wouldn’t have occurred to the messengers that she would protect them; after all, Rahab was a citizen of Jericho; as such, she would suffer the same fate at the hands of the Israelites that the rest of the city would suffer.  It would be in her interest to do all she could to help the king’s messengers to find them.

But Rahab was no longer a citizen of Jericho; she was now a citizen of heaven.  And she protected the spies, even at the risk of her own life.  If she had been found to be hiding them, she would have been justifiably killed as a traitor.  But Rahab’s faith in God was sufficient to enable her to brave the danger; so she hid them and lied to the messengers, sending them on a wild goose chase.  But the inbuilt desire to preserve her own life and her family’s, was also very powerful, as powerful as her faith.  And she bargained with the spies.  After hiding them, and the departure of the king’s messengers, and after her declaration of faith to them, she said to the spies, “Now therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the LORD, since I have shewed you kindness, that ye will also shew kindness unto my father’s house, and give me a true token: And that ye will save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death” (Josh 2:12-13).  Rahab had risked everything and put it all on the line.  She had turned her back on her city and her friends and cast in her lot with a people she didn’t know, and a God she hadn’t experienced.  She was taking a huge gamble – and yet it was a surety.  Rahab wasn’t taking this dangerous risk on a whim.  She believed in the God of Israel, and her faith was not of herself; as with Lydia, God had opened her heart (Acts 16:14).  Her faith enabled her to stake her life on the faithfulness of God and the men who served him. 

In those days, to swear by the gods was binding, whether pagan or Israelite; people did not want to offend the gods lest the gods get angry and punish them.  So she bound the spies by oath that she and her family would be delivered from death.  She also asked for something tangible – a token of some kind – so that it would serve as a reminder and a comfort to her that she would be safe.  And the spies responded in kindness and sincerity, giving her everything she asked of them.  “Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business.  And it shall be, when the LORD hath given us the land we will deal kindly and truly with thee” (Josh 2:14).

Before departing, the spies gave explicit conditions which bound both Rahab and themselves, as well as God and the Israelite army, assuring her that as long as she did what they required, she and her family would be delivered from destruction.  They did, in fact, make a covenant with her; a covenant with such certainty of Rahab’s security that they covenanted to give their own lives if anything happened to her while she kept the conditions of the oath.  “And the men said unto her, We will be blameless of this thine oath which thou hast made us swear.  Behold, when we come into the land, thou shall bind this line of scarlet thread in the window which thou did let us down by: and thou shalt bring thy father, and thy mother, and thy brethren, and all thy father’s household, home unto thee.  And it shall be, that whosoever shall go out of the doors of thy house into the street, his blood shall be upon his head, and we will be guiltless: and whosoever shall be with thee in the house, his blood shall be on our head.  And if thou utter this our business, then we will be quit of thine oath which thou hast made us swear” (Josh 2:17-20).

Rahab was now content.  She had bound the spies, and Israel, by their own God, whom now she would also serve.  Her reply to this oath was, According unto your words, so be it.  And she sent them away, and they departed: and she bound the scarlet line in the window” (Josh 2:21).  The spies weren’t bound by vague statements or baseless assurances; they were bound by specific words in the form of specific and definite promises and conditions.  And Rahab immediately tied that scarlet cord to her window, as the first part of keeping her side of the bargain, and as a visible pledge which bound the spies.  That scarlet thread was the promise of God made visible.  And Rahab’s binding it to her window was her faith made visible.  She could look at it at any time of day; her family could look at it at any time of day.  And each time they did, they would be reminded that God was bound to deliver them from the destruction soon to be unleashed on Jericho.

Is not this scarlet cord applicable to us today?  However, while we don’t have a piece of thread, what we do have is infinitely better – we have the bible – the Word and words of God.  We have the promise of salvation, not only from physical death but spiritual death as well.  From the Fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden and God’s promise to send a Redeemer (Gen 3:14-15) to the coming of Jesus Christ to die as the Substitute for sinners as the fulfillment of that and all the other promises (Heb 10:7), we are assured that “the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in the earth beneath” (Josh 2:11); and when he comes to judge the earth with fiery destruction (2 Pet 3:7), we will be delivered.  The terrifying but deserved fate of this earth and its inhabitants will not harm us. Just as Rahab and her family were miraculously saved from the destruction of Jericho while all around was death and destruction, so we likewise will be delivered.  And we will be clothed in the righteousness of Christ, just as Rahab is now.  Rahab trusted that scarlet cord because it was the word and promise of God to her; it was all the bible she had but it was every bit as good as the Bible that we trust today. 

“So the two men returned, and descended from the mountain, and passed over, and came to Joshua the son of Nun, and told him all things that befell them (Josh 2:23).  Rahab may well have been intimidated when she found herself noticed by the king of Jericho; but she also knew that his days were numbered very shortly.  But, unbeknown to her, she was now known about by Joshua, leader of Israel and commander of its armies.  If she did know, would she have been overawed?  I like to think not because she seemed pretty calm and cool-headed when dealing with the king’s messengers; men who had the power of life and death over her.  And she made the spies swear an oath to guarantee her safety; men who also had the power of life and death over her.  So she would probably be just as unfazed by Joshua and his power and authority.  These were all men, after all; and she was used to dealing with men – they were her livelihood – and she knew her way around them.  But the spies were good men; Joshua was a good man.  They did not forget Rahab and what she had done for them, and they made sure that the whole of Israel would know of her also. 

The Destruction of Jericho and its Aftermath

The army of Israel didn’t appear at Jericho immediately.  They first had to cross the Jordan River (Josh chs 3 and 4). Then they had to circumcise the males and allow time for healing (Josh 5:2-9). And then they had to organise the troops and march to Jericho – it may have been about a month after the spies left Rahab before they showed up in front of Jericho.

Can you imagine what Rahab and her family would have seen on the seventh day of Israel marching around the circumference of Jericho?  Perched on the top of the city wall they had a bird’s-eye view of everything that happened on that fateful day.  They were in a journalist’s and photographer’s paradise if this was a modern war.  On the first day they would have seen the forward section of the army of Israel (the vanguard) following seven priests blowing ram’s horns who were, in turn, leading the priests who were carrying a golden box on poles slung between their shoulders, who were then followed by the rear guard of the army as they walked sombrely and quietly, except for the blowing of the ram’s horns, around the walls of her town.  Then they went back to their camp.  Rahab may well have been puzzled.  What was this?  Had the priests decided the time wasn’t right?  Had God told them to go home and come back the next day and try again?  What was going on?

The next morning they would have observed the same strange occurrence; then the next, and the next, until the seventh day.  But on this seventh day the priests and the army before and behind them didn’t stop after the first circumference of Jericho; nor the second, or the third….until the end of the seventh circuit.  She knew something was different this time; something was going down.  This, she knew, was the end of her city, the death of her friends, her acquaintances, her clients – this was the day her world would change totally and forever.   

Her entire family was gathered with her in her home.  They were all watching intently at the events transpiring below.  They, too, knew that this was the end; and how glad they were that they had heeded Rahab’s urging to stay with her in her house for fear of their lives.  They, too, knew of God.  They had heard the same reports about him that she had.  So when she warned them of the wrath to come, they believed her because they, too, believed in the God of Israel.  And they all huddled in her home, watching the end of their city and the beginning of the end of the whole of Canaan.  But what they didn’t know was that immediately before the command to Israel to shout and then attack the city, Joshua was placing them under his protection.  In his address to the troops, he said to them: “And the city shall be accursed, even it, and all that are therein, to the LORD: only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all that are with her in her house, because she hid the messengers that we sent” (Josh 6:17). 

As they watched below from high up in their house on the wall, on that seventh circuit on the seventh day, the silence was suddenly broken by trumpet blasts, and then a mighty shout as the whole Israelite army, facing the city walls, shouted.  The sound must have been deafening.  The walls on either side of Rahab’s house crumbled, falling down flat, as the margin of the KJV tells us.  But Rahab’s house stood firm, unmoved, unshaken.  They were being held in the palm of God’s mighty hand, protected from all danger.  While death and destruction raged all around and beneath them, they stood safely, securely, watching in awe at the scene playing out below.  “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword” (Josh 6:21).  It was carnage and pandemonium.  The noise of battle and clashing of swords and spears and shields, sounds of screams, the smell of blood and of death. 

But although it is so foreign to our sensibilities today who are not used to being close up to death, it was an inevitable part of life for people in those days, and it was accepted that summer was the season when kings went to war; Rahab and her family knew this.  Even so, this time it was their turn to be invaded, and it was very much harder for them to bear.  And let us remember that this was Holy War; or Jihad as some call it today.  This city and the seven nations specified by God were all under his curse because of their horrendous sins.  Not only were they idolaters who worshipped their god through sexual intercourse, both same-sex and opposite-sex sex acts, but children were sacrificed to Baal and Ashtoreth, deities to the people who worshipped them, but demons in reality.  And God had had enough.  He’d given them hundreds of years to change but they had only continued and grown worse.  They no longer had the right to their land or to life itself.  Israel was now God’s instrument of judgment and Jericho was the first to feel his wrath – well, Sihon and Og were the first but they weren’t part of the “official” campaign.  They were destroyed because they wouldn’t allow Israel to pass through their domains and they blocked Israel with their own military forces.  And these forces were no lightweights.  The Amorites were a formidable people, their most famous son being Hammurabi, king in Babylon during the first Babylonian empire, and the most influential and significant king of Mesopotamian history; but he reigned about 300 years prior to Joshua.  In the meantime, Sihon and Og, a giant, were two local but powerful Amorite kings who opposed Israel, preventing them from passing through their lands.  If they had let Israel pass, they would have had a bit more time for life and living.  But they pre-empted the programme, as it were, and were slain before their time. 

So Jericho was the first battle in the campaign; the first city to be given by God to his people; it was notice to the nations of Canaan that Israel was no longer just a threat but was now on the march, and they would be fighting for their lives.  “And it came to pass, when all the kings which were on this side Jordan, in the hills, and in the valleys, and in all the coasts of the great sea over against Lebanon, the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, heard thereof; That they gathered themselves together, to fight with Joshua and Israel, with one accord” (Josh 9:1-2).

When Jericho was defeated and captured and every living thing destroyed, we’re told, “But Joshua had said unto the two men that had spied out the country, Go into the harlot’s house, and bring out thence the woman, and all that she hath, as ye sware unto her.  And the young men that were spies went in, and brought out Rahab, and her father, and her mother, and her brethren, and all that she had; and they brought out all her kindred, and left them without the camp of Israel…..and she dwelleth in Israel even unto this day; because she hid the messengers which Joshua sent to spy out Jericho” (Josh 6:22-25).

God is faithful.  He keeps his promises. And the least soul is precious to him.  Rahab and her family experienced the faithfulness of God and they would soon learn of his love and his mercy, of the good laws that he had given his people, and of the sacrifices that made atonement for sin – sacrifices that did not require human blood or the cruel murder of children, and of worship that dignified men and women rather than degrading and corrupting them.  And Rahab would have learned that the kindness she had shown to the two spies was kindness shown to God himself.  “He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me” (Matt 10:40-42).

The text says that Rahab “dwelleth in Israel even unto this day” (Josh 6:25).  If it were not for the New Testament, we would never have learned what became of Rahab after she settled in Israel.  But in just a single verse, we discover something huge about Rahab.  Yes, she was commended in Hebrews 11:31 for her faith; and in James 2:25 that she was justified by faith demonstrated by her works; this is really the most important thing for and about Rahab – she was truly a woman of faith and a heroine of courage inspired by her faith.  What greater commendation can be given any human being?  But there is more.  It is found in one of those obscure verses that hardly anybody ever reads; and if they do, they read right over it, not even noticing the tremendous story of faith and heroism underlying it.  The verse is “….and Salmon begat Booz [Boaz] of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; And Jesse begat David the king” (Matt 1:5-6).  What treasure is this!

Rahab and the memory of her didn’t just fade away into obscurity after she moved to Israel.  Firstly, she was known to Joshua as the woman who hid the messengers that Israel had sent.  He, in turn, spoke of her to the whole army, and placed her under his protection.  So she would have been known and highly regarded in the whole nation.  It could even be speculated that in the whole of Israel, only a handful of names would be known to everybody at that time – the high priest, Phinehas, Joshua, Caleb – and Rahab.  Rahab, an obscure and despised street prostitute in a small city became a legend in her own time, known by name to God and the whole population of his people.  Her faith and the kindness to the spies which resulted from it were known to the whole nation, and they would have loved and respected her for it.  And she was no longer a prostitute, no longer had to degrade herself and satisfy the lusts of vile men to make a living.  Rahab was a new person in a new nation and a child of God.  She was respected for the first time in her life.  She married a man of Judah named Salmon (pronounced Sal-mon) and the fruit of this marriage was the line of kings from David to Jesus.  Rahab truly was the mother of kings and forbear of the Messiah.  And who knows whether one of the spies whom she hid, and who came to bring her out of the ruins of Jericho, was Salmon, her future husband?