Last Monday, I began this series on the Women in the Lineage of Jesus with the story of Tamar. She was a childless widow who risked everything to find justice, hope and restoration. If you thought Tamar’s story was racy, wait until you read about Rahab’s occupation! Tamar’s story can be found here.
“A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 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. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, …and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” Matthew 1:1-6, 16 [highlight mine]
Like Tamar, Rahab was also a Canaanite woman. Her name can mean “ breadth, wide, or broad.” Don’t you wonder why her parents chose that name for her? I do. I wonder if they hoped she would have a full life or if Rahab was a big baby girl. According to rabbinical tradition, Rahab was considered one of the four most beautiful women in the ancient world. Perhaps, she was too beautiful for her own good. We are first introduced to Rahab as the Israelites are on the verge of crossing over into the land God had promised them. They had left the Promised Land (Israel) during a drought and had moved into Egypt for roughly four hundred eighty years with the past forty years spent wandering in the Sinai desert led by Joshua. The story of Rahab begins when the Israelites have set up an encampment seven miles east of the Jordan River and situated across the river from Jericho near the Acacia Grove. (Joshua 2:1; 3:1)
“After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “ Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them -to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses… Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said,“ especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.” Joshua 1:1-3; 2:1
Jericho, known as the “City of a Thousand Palms,” is one of the oldest cities on earth dating back to the 8th millennium BCE. At that time, the city was located in a fertile area in the southern portion of the Jordan Rift Valley. This location placed Jericho approximately four miles from the Jordan River and one mile northwest from the present day city of Tell es-Sultan which situated the city in a trade route zone. Jericho was part of the Canaanite nation and part of a group of nations that God wanted Israel to drive out of the land because of their pagan influences. The Canaanites worshipped the gods of Baal and Asherah which were primarily pagan gods of fertility and closely linked to sexuality. They performed sexual acts in their worship of nature. This culture and these people were Rahab’s everyday experience.
Her home was built into the city wall.(verse 15) Archaeologists say the double walls of Jericho were built 12-15 feet apart. A dwelling placed on or near the gate to this wall would provide prime real estate for commercial traffic and an opportunity for a business like Rahab’s to give a client easy access. Rahab’s life was filled with seeking and fulfilling sexual gratification. The biblical text doesn’t tell us why she was in this line of work. We don’t know if she was widowed and forced into prostitution to provide for herself or if she chose it. But Rahab was defined by her occupation. She would’ve lived on the fringe of society. Women wouldn’t have sought her out for friendship. Rahab was well acquainted with men and knew how they operated. Living on the city wall, Rahab would’ve been well informed of the news happening in other places as the crowds came and went. She would’ve heard secrets, speculations, and concerns from the clients that graced her home. But perhaps, Rahab had grown weary and lonely living the life she had because she makes a choice that turns her life in an unexpected direction.
“The king of Jericho was told, “Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.” But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly, you may catch up with them.” (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.” Joshua 2:2-7
Confidentiality was important in Rahab’s line of work and maybe the two spies chose her dwelling for that reason. They also might have chosen her house in order to not draw attention to themselves and for its location on the wall. From her house, these spies would have been able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the wall and the city. Their presence, though, didn’t go unnoticed. The men’s appearance and clothing would have distinguished them as different and all would have been able to see the Israelites’ encampment across the river. So, the king was alarmed and alerted to their arrival. Rahab reacts to the king’s inquiry quite unexpectedly by lying to the king’s men. She chooses to put her life in jeopardy to protect these strangers by concealing them and sending the king’s men in the wrong direction.
“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
She didn’t just welcome the spies or give them a place to rest for the night. She embraced their cause and many years later, James writes that her actions were considered righteous. Rahab risked everything for these men and on what she had heard about their God.
“Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.” “ Our lives for your lives!” the men assured her. “If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land. “” Joshua 2:8-14
The Israelites were part of the world news of the day. Rahab tells them that everyone is scared to death of what Israel will do. Then, she makes a stunning proclamation of belief about God based solely on what she had heard. Amazing! I wonder if Rahab protected these men, that she realized were Israelites when she saw them, because she wanted to know more about their God. Her heart had been pricked by the knowledge of the things she had heard about Him and she longed to know more.
“So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall. Now she had said to them, “Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.” The men said to her, “This oath you made us swear will not be binding on us unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house. If anyone goes outside your house into the street, his blood will be on his own head; we will not be responsible. As for anyone who is in the house with you, his blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on him. But if you tell what we are doing, we will be released from the oath you made us swear.” Agreed,” she replied, “Let it be as you say.” So she sent them away and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.”Joshua 2:15-21
The Hebrew word for cord is quite different from the word for rope. This cord was more for decorative purposes like a ribbon. Some scholars have suggested that the cord’s scarlet color is reminiscent of the blood sprinkled on the doorposts at the first Passover. (Exodus 12) While others have even suggested that the color symbolizes the blood of Jesus which covers and protects believers from the wrath of God just as Rahab’s cord will protect her house from the wrath against Jericho.
“Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in. Then the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, … March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. … On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.”… When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. … Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her. So the young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel. Then they burned the whole city and everything it it … But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho and she lives among the Israelites to this day.” Joshua 6:1-5,20,22-25
The walls came tumbling down except for the portion protecting Rahab and her loved ones. Rahab and her family would’ve heard the destruction, the cries, and the chaos as the city was destroyed and plundered. Joshua sent the men she had protected to protect her as she and her family were escorted out. He knew she would’ve only trusted them and they were to honor their vow. Rahab and her family were placed outside the camp yet close enough to be safe. They had to be placed there because they were Gentiles and spiritually unclean to the Israelites. Rahab along with her family would have to become proselytes in order to be allowed into the community. From the genealogical list found in the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that Rahab did become a part of the community. She left her old life and chose a new one for herself and her family. James MacDonald states that Rahab became “a living symbol of the transforming effect of saving faith.”
“By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” Hebrews 11:31
Rahab is not given accolades for her actions and her behavior but for her faith. She is one of only two women listed in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews which details the faithful deeds of some of God’s chosen leaders. Keeping her promise to the spies reaped blessings, not only physical but spiritual as well, in Rahab’s life. Her life reveals that God can and will use anyone with a willing and open heart to Him for His purposes.
For the whole story, read Joshua 2, 6.
Questions to Consider
- In the New Testament, writers continue to refer to Rahab with the label, prostitute. Why is the label still attached to her? What purpose does it serve?
- Does my past determine my future?
- Have I or do I judge others because of their past? Have I avoided them because they are “one of those kind of people”?
- What names have I been called because of my past?
- Did Rahab have true faith or did she tell the spies what they wanted to hear in order to spare her life? Why or why not?
- What impresses me most about Rahab?
- God rescued Rahab. Do I believe he can rescue me?
- Was Rahab’s choice to tell the lie justified? Is lying acceptable when done for a greater purpose?
- Based on the story of Tamar and knowing that Rahab also marries into the same lineage, do I think this family line was more accepting of women with unusual backgrounds and stories? Was her transition into the family eased by the knowledge of the difficulties Tamar had faced?