The writer of Hebrews had begun with the pioneers of faith, the patriarchs. Then, the writer had moved on to the one—Moses—who pioneered the nation. Now came those two who represented pioneering in the Promised Land. First was Joshua the Hebrew, and now came Rahab the Canaanite
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.Hebrews 11:31 (NRSV)
As Rahab stood in the foothills of Canaan, watching Jericho burn, she was seeing everything she knew, her whole life, and what should have been her story, going up in smoke. But for the grace of God . . . that would have been her. She may have wondered to herself, so many years later, “How is it that God saved me? How is it that my life story took such an unexpected, wrenching, and yet ultimately beautiful turn, loved as I am by God, and by God’s, people, and by this amazing man Salmon, who has given me these precious sons and daughters?”
In just the first few verses of Joshua 2, we discover Rahab as a high-profile person of interest in one of the most prominent city states in Canaan.
Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there.
The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.”
Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.”Joshua 2:1-3 (NRSV)
Later in the story we find out she had enough flax on the roof of her establishment to successfully hide two men, and already had woven a rope of flax thick enough to lower them down from the city wall. This rope was also dyed a brilliant scarlet, which would be visible for miles.
So who was this woman?
Rahab by Profession
In Hebrew most words, both nouns and verbs, have a three letter root, all consonants. The consonants that make up the word “prostitute” in Hebrew are znh (זנה), the same three letters that make up the Hebrew word for a female who gives food and provisions. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, asserted that Rahab kept an inn (katagōgion in Greek).
Nevertheless, both James and the writer of Hebrews uses the word “porne” to describe Rahab’s profession, which means prostitute, though it can also figuratively mean idolater.
Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute (he porne) also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?James 2:25 (NRSV)
By faith Rahab the prostitute (he porne) did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.Hebrews 11:31 (NRSV)
Rahab, a canny business woman, either an innkeeper or prostitute (but probably both), a weaver and purveyor of luxury dyes, ran a prominent establishment near the palace, located in the casement of the Jericho’s wall, prime real estate. Her place was apparently well-known to the king as a first stop for international travelers. And she was wealthy enough to have a robust enterprise in textiles, which involved lucrative trade in luxury dyes.
Rahab by Personality
With confidence and courage, Rahab misdirected the king’s men and hid Joshua’s spies on her roof.
The woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said [to the king’s men], “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.”
She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords.
As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.Joshua 2:4-7 (NRSV)
Knowing the city’s gates had been shut behind the spies’ pursuers, Rahab employed quick thinking and creative problem solving to get the spies out of Jericho and back to their commander. She lowered them from her window, down Jericho’s massive bulwark, with a promise to keep their visit and Joshua’s plans secret.
Fear is the enemy of faith.
Throughout her story, Rahab portrayed keen intelligence, valor, and bold certainty. Knowing the king’s military’s tactics, she gave the spies reliable strategy for evading capture. Foreseeing the outcome of the battle, she secured a binding oath that she and her family would be spared God’s judgment.
She sent them away and they departed. Then she tied the crimson cord in the window.Joshua 2:21 (NRSV)
Rahab, Profession of Faith
How could a Canaanite idolater even know about YHWH, let alone abandon the gods of her people to follow the God of Israel? Well, it had been forty years since God’s mighty contest with all the gods of Egypt, God’s astounding victory over the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, and the Israelites’ subsequent conquests in their journey through the wilderness.
Rahab described the general response in Jericho, and presumably the rest of Canaan,
Dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you . . . As soon as we heard [about God’s invincible triumphs], our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you.Joshua 2:9, 11 (NRSV)
Yet Rahab had a heart attuned to God, for she told the spies,
I know that the Lord has given you the land . . . The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.Joshua 2:9, 11 (NRSV)
Rahab spoke with prophetic certainty, giving the spies an oracle from the Lord: the Lord has given you the land. Not just Jericho, but all of Canaan. And Rahab spoke from a personal knowledge of God, Who is sovereign over the entire cosmos and everything in it.
When the time came, she gathered her family into her home, and throughout the entire battle kept her family there. What must that have taken, hearing the screams of the people, the crash and thunder of collapsing walls, and their own room rattling and quaking?
Unshakeable assurance in God.
Just as the Hebrews had painted their doors with the blood of the lamb, so Rahab’s scarlet cord hung from her window, and just as God spared all who remained inside those blood-marked homes, so God spared Rahab and her family, inside her crimson-marked home.
Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her family has lived in Israel ever since.Joshua 6:25 (NRSV)
In a way, Rahab and her family can be seen as a picture of every believer, turning away from the old and godless life of sin, placing unswerving faith in Christ, and being welcomed into God’s family forever.