Rahab and the Spies

“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 on the earth beneath.” (Joshua 2:11)

Throughout the Book of Joshua we read of God commanding the Israelites to destroy the nations that occupy the land of Canaan. Some people think God is unfair to demand the destruction of nations who had never heard of Him. But God gave the people of Canaan four hundred and twenty years to repent. If that were not enough, God extended that period for another forty years while His people wandered in the wilderness.

In addition, God did not destroy a people who did not know about Him. They had heard how He delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. One of the very first things Rahab tells the spies is: “We have heard.” Not only had the whole city of Jericho heard about the God of Israel, they knew that what they heard was true. Even so, one turned to God.

While some claim the Book of Joshua to be a book of harsh and utter judgment, the very first story we encounter is not one of God’s wrath; it is one of mercy. It is the story of Rahab.

Surrounding Rahab was an awesome environment. Jericho was a mighty fortress with great walls that had stood for hundreds of years. Rahab may have heard about this powerful God of Israel but, visibly, she was still surrounded by a powerful city. She could see nothing with her eyes that would indicate any change was going to take place. And yet, she declares, “I know that the Lord has given you this land; the Lord, your God is God in heaven above and in the earth beneath.” She renounces her past for the sake of her new faith in the God of Israel.

Rahab’s Great Disadvantages

Rahab’s life is a story of great mercy because humanly speaking Rahab had nothing going for her. First of all she was a Gentile. All the advantages of true religion were in Judaism. Paul asks in Romans 3 “What advantage is there in being a Jew?” He answers his own question saying that the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. (Romans 3:2). Paul lists the advantages of the Jews in Romans 9:4, writing that to them was “the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises.” Rahab had none of those things. She was a Gentile and was, therefore, a foreigner “to the covenant of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

Rahab was not only a Gentile, but she was also an Amorite. The Amorites were not the only tribe that occupied the land of Canaan during the time of Joshua. Still, among all of the tribes listed, God singled out the Amorites for particular condemnation for their sin. God told Abraham in Genesis, and Moses in Deuteronomy, that the land of Canaan would not be destroyed until the sin of the Amorites was complete and at its fullest. The Amorites were a corrupt, vile people sacrificing their own children in their depraved wicked religious practices.

In addition, Rahab was a prostitute. There have been attempts to excuse Rahab from the full implication of that word. Some suggest that she had come to believe in Israel’s God before the spies ever arrived to her home. They say that she reformed from her earlier life’s occupation. Ancient historian Josephus claimed that Rahab was only a keeper of a house of entertainment for travelers. Arthur W. Pink tried to prove that Rahab was an honest woman engaged in an honest occupation. While it is true that Rahab knew many things about the God of Israel, it is also true that she is nevertheless identified throughout the Bible as a prostitute. Here we see the great and marvelous grace of God reaching out to save a person lost in her sin. That being the case, Rahab was really no worse than any of us who were once lost in sin, yet found of God. It is not the righteous but sinners whom Christ redeems.

Rahab’s One Advantage

In spite of all the great liabilities that Rahab had, this pagan woman did have one thing going for her. She had heard about the God of Israel. As a result of that hearing she believed in the true God. Paul writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). This is where the great confession of Rahab comes in. Rahab confesses the majesty of God. Rahab, the pagan, Amorite harlot had an Israelite confession on her lips. She declared the sovereignty and supremacy of Israel’s God. She declared Jehovah as the only ruler over all of heaven and earth.

There was, no doubt, much about the faith and history of Israel that Rahab did not know. She probably had not heard about Abraham or about the covenant. It is doubtful that she knew anything about the Law, Israel’s sacrificial system, or the way God demanded He be worshipped. She knew nothing of the promises.

Even so, she had heard enough. She had heard of God’s mighty acts in delivering the Israelites from Egypt. She had heard about the great victory given to the Israelites over the two Amorite nations east of the Jordan River. She had heard what God had done and as a result she believed on Him.

That may be offensive to some. We think, “We can’t have that. The church is only for respectable, clean, middle-class folks.” That is like saying the hospital is only for doctors, nurses, and Xray machines instead of sick people. Who should be in the church but sinners saved by grace? The church is not a club; it is a refuge for sinners who have been touched by the grace of God. It is for those who have had their sins washed by the blood of Jesus Christ. As long as that can happen we can never despair about anybody nor need we despair about ourselves. We, too, are sinners dead in our trespasses and sins, but we too, like Rahab, have been saved by grace.

That is the one thing that Rahab had going for her. And the wonderful thing is that she heard about God not only with her ears but also with her heart. Here was this immoral pagan woman, who in the midst of her prostitution had heard about the true God of Israel and believed that the God she heard about was the true God.

Rahab is held up as a model of faith twice in the New Testament. She appears first in the list of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:31 where it is said of her: “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, after she welcomed the spies in peace.” The book of James tells us, “In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers, and sent them out by another way?” (2:25).



Rahab’s Confession

So often we focus on the fact that Rahab lied to the Jericho guards about the spies. We even go so far as to use her lie as an example to excuse our lies. Let us be clear that Rahab was not saved because of her lie. Rahab was saved by the grace of God. She was saved not by her own righteousness because, like us, she had none. God saved her not because she was good, but that she might become good through His power in her life.

Neither Hebrews 11:31 nor James 2:25 tell us that God commended Rahab’s falsehood or any of her other sins. These passages instead point out her faith, which was manifested by the works that followed—not the lie—but her testimony concerning God and her action in putting down the scarlet cord. Unfortunately, we get so caught up in Rahab’s lie that we never get around to hearing Rahab’s truth. We are like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We want to point out what Rahab did, but we forget all about what God did in Rahab’s heart. Rahab expressed her belief that Jehovah was and is the one true God and that He would give the Israelites the land of Canaan. Rahab asked that when—not if—the Israelites came to take possession of the land that her life and the life of her family would be spared.

This confession was totally unexpected. Rahab was a pagan. There was no accounting for her faith as it came to expression here before the spies. The spies, after all, were in a city that was totally hostile territory for them. They had no reason to believe that they would find anyone in Jericho who would befriend them, let alone acknowledge their God as God.

This shows us again the sovereign control of God over all things. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this was the very reason why the spies were sent into Jericho in the first place. Joshua did not need to know any information about Jericho. He knew that God would give the city to them. The battle plan of marching around Jericho did not require any great knowledge of the city. But there was a child of God in that city. All the while she had been living her sinful lifestyle God was preparing her heart. He had those spies sent into the city in order that arrangements could be made so that she, along with her family, would be saved.

Genuine Faith

Genuine faith never rests content with being convinced only of the reality of God. It must take refuge in God. Rahab must not only know the clear truth about God, she must escape the coming wrath of God. Faith is not just a matter of correct belief; it is one of desperate need. Rahab not only trembled before the terror of the Lord, she also sensed that there might be mercy coming from God.

The spies agreed to spare her life and her family if she would tie a scarlet thread, or scarlet cord, in her window. Rahab agreed immediately. There is a tradition that goes back to the early church fathers that claims that the scarlet cord represents the blood of Jesus Christ. That may be reading into Scripture more than Scripture says. Still, even if Rahab’s scarlet cord does not specifically represent the blood of Christ, there is a remarkable parallel between this cord that marked her house and the blood of the lambs that was spread on the doorposts of the Israelite homes in Egypt when the angel of death passed over their homes and spared their families. When the walls of Jericho came crashing down, the section of the wall where the scarlet cord hung was spared destruction. It was passed over, kept safe from the judgment of God upon the rest of the city.

However you view the scarlet cord, one thing remains true: The way of salvation has always been the same. If we are to understand Joshua 2, we must see ourselves as Rahab. We were not at all part of the family of God. Instead, we were part of a corrupt degenerate society in which each one of us had our own reprehensible sins. But God set His hand on us. He made His great saving act in history known to us and then brought us into contact with His messengers and His representatives. He called forth faith in us.

Now we live in a foreign land, giving up our citizenship in a world we can see for the promise of a heavenly kingdom where Jehovah is acknowledged as King. We live between the moment of our commitment of faith and the moment of the final judgment when the walls of this world will collapse. That will be the time of our full deliverance.

In the meantime, we are like Rahab, called by God to stand amongst God’s people in opposition to the surrounding godless culture. May our testimony be made in the same confidence as that of Rahab: “For your God, He is God.”

Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the pastor of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is also the editor of The Outlook.