Rahab the harlot, or prostitute, dominates Joshua 2. Such a woman would hardly seem worth mentioning. Indeed, the whole story hardly seems necessary to the overall plot of the book.
Jump directly from the end of chapter 1 to the beginning of chapter 3. Then continue reading the rest of the book, skipping some verses in chapter 6. Doesn’t the narrative make perfect sense without Rahab?
If she doesn’t matter to the narrative of Joshua, she matters a great deal in the narrative of grace. For one thing, the outcome of her story fulfills the blessing of Abraham that in him all nations would be blessed.
What’s more, she matters enough to be mentioned three times in the New Testament.
So who is Rahab in the Bible? Why does she matter?
Was Rahab really a harlot?
While Israel was encamped across the Jordan from Jericho, Joshua sent spies to look it over. Joshua’s secrecy prevented a rerun of the disaster of his public report as a spy 40 years earlier. They would report only to him.
They entered the house of a prostitute. That fact has caused commentators a great deal of embarrassment. Why would the spies, presumably God-fearing Israelites of a heroic generation immediately visit a whore?
Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century, describes Rahab as an innkeeper. The Hebrew consonants can refer either to a prostitute or a woman who provides food and shelter.
If she just kept an inn or tavern, it would seem to let everyone off the hook. But the New Testament refers explicitly to Rahab the harlot. The Greek word (porne) can only mean a woman who indulges in unlawful sex—if not for money, then for lust. So we must understand Rahab as a sexually immoral woman who probably operated an inn.
In Genesis 15, God told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land until the sin of the Canaanites was complete. Even in Abraham’s time, their sin included sexual debauchery.
Since Canaanite worship involved ritual prostitution as part of their fertility rites, I wondered if perhaps Rahab was a temple prostitute in Jericho. The Hebrew word that describes them is different from the one that labels Rahab. She was nothing more than a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession.
Surely an innkeeper who sold sexual favors on the side would not scandalize Canaanites. It certainly did not cause her family to disown her.
And when Jesus told the Pharisees that prostitutes would get into heaven before they would, every one of them knew the story of Rahab the harlot.
Rahab and the spies
The text of Joshua 2 allows no hint that the spies went to Rahab for illicit sex. An inn would give them food and lodging. It would also be a good place to gather the information Joshua wanted. As strangers, they would be safer there than elsewhere in the city.
Rahab told them an earful. Hers is one of the longest uninterrupted speeches of any woman in the Bible.
Everyone in Jericho knew the history of the Israelites beginning with the flight from Egypt. They knew God had dried up the sea for everyone to walk across it. They knew he had drowned the Egyptian chariots. And they knew that Israel had lately destroyed two kingdoms that opposed them.
As a result, terror had seized everyone in Jericho. Except for Rahab. Instead of fear, she responded with faith. She decided to change her allegiance to the God of Israel. She hid the spies, sent the king’s agents out of the city to chase them, and sent the spies in the opposite direction. In other words, she committed treason against her own society. She endangered her own life to help Jericho’s enemy.
But treason against evil is good. She turned against a city doomed to destruction to serve the living God. Everyone else in the city had the same opportunity. If fact, if anyone repented in their heart and didn’t do anything about it, they died for Jericho’s sin but went into God’s presence saved.
She told the king’s agents “I don’t know” where the men are. Then she told the spies “I know” God had already given the land to Israel.
Rahab and covenant love
Then she pointed out that she had shown kindness to them and wanted kindness in return. Not only for her, but her father, mother, sisters, and brothers. The word she used, hesed, is exactly the same word used to describe God’s covenant love for his people.
As Noah alone was righteous in his generation and saved his family, so Rahab alone was righteous in Jericho and saved her family.
Throughout the entire narrative in Joshua 2, Rahab drives the narrative. Everything that happens is at her initiative. The spies essentially remain passive. When she asked for kindness, the spies readily agreed but had some stipulations.
First, they required that she keep quiet about it. It seems mostly a formality. After all, she faced immediate death if anyone in Jericho knew what she had done.
Second, everyone had to be inside that house. If anyone was out in the city, they would die. If anyone in the house died at the hands of Israelites, the spies pledged to forfeit their own lives.
Third, she had to display a scarlet cord out the window to identify the house. Neither the spies nor Rahab could know that God intended to collapse the city walls supernaturally, rendering the sign unnecessary. But the color certainly recalls the blood on the doorposts that when God slew the firstborn of Egypt 40 years earlier.
Her house was in the wall. She let the spies escape through the window. As for the cord, it could have been the same or different from the one the spies climbed down.
As for anyone getting suspicious, a cord hanging out the window might have been like a sign announcing to travelers where to find the inn. And in any case, the city soon shut its walls so no one would come in or go out day or night.
The fall of Jericho and rescue of Rahab’s family
Most people probably know most of the odd story about the fall of Jericho.
Israel crossed the Jordan. Only when they were on the same side of the river as Jericho did God remind them they hadn’t been circumcised in the wilderness.
Then their armed men marched around the city with the ark of God in their midst and priests blowing trumpets. No one spoke a word. That happened for six consecutive days. Then on the seventh day, they marched around the city seven times, still silent except for the sounds of trumpets and footsteps. At Joshua’s signal, everyone shouted. The walls collapsed. The army rushed into the city and killed everyone who had not been crushed by the falling walls
All Jericho was devoted to the Lord. The people of Israel got no spoils of war. Everything of value went into God’s treasury. All the people, all the cattle, all the crops and gardens, all the property had to be destroyed.
What, then, of Rahab the harlot and her family?
She had devoted herself to the Lord in her decision to turn against her own evil culture. She was already in God’s heavenly treasury. In New Testament terms, the old Rahab died and a new Rahab was born again.
According to the Tyndale commentary on Joshua, Joshua 6 devotes 102 words to describe Jericho’s destruction and 86 words to describe Rahab’s rescue. Implicitly, one part of the wall did not collapse: Rahab’s house.
Joshua told the two spies to go into the harlot’s house and bring everyone out according to their oath. They brought the whole family out of the house and took them to a place outside the camp of Israel.
Rahab in Israelite society
Why outside the camp?
Some people might object that it was pretty shabby treatment. But according to Mosaic law, ritually unclean people had to remain outside the camp for a certain time.
For example, in Numbers 12, Moses’ brother and sister (Aaron and Miriam) opposed him and claimed to be his equal. The cloud of God’s presence descended and he rebuked them. When it lifted, Miriam had leprosy.
13 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “Please, God, heal her!”
14 The Lord replied to Moses, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back.” 15 So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back. – NIV
Remember: Rahab the harlot had renounced allegiance to Canaanite culture and chosen to follow the God of Israel. She ceased, in other words, to be a pagan outsider and became part of the community. Her whole family would have to make the same choice. A temporary time of ceremonial uncleanness, and very likely instruction in God’s ways, would accomplish that.
From then on, they became indistinguishable from any other Israelite. Again in New Testament terms, they became part of God’s family by adoption—the same, really, as everyone else.
Rahab the harlot in the New Testament
James 2:25 declares Rahab the harlot righteous for what she did in protecting the spies.
Hebrews 11:31 enshrines Rahab the harlot in the faith hall of fame. She shares membership in it with Abraham and Moses. That chapter doesn’t even mention Joshua by name. By faith, she was not killed along with the rest of the city.
And in Matthew 1:5, she is part of the genealogy of Christ himself. It’s the only New Testament passage that doesn’t explicitly identify her as the harlot. She married someone named Salmon, often supposed to be one of the spies. She became the mother of Boaz, the great-grandfather of King David.
The story of Rahab in the Bible demonstrates God’s grace to anyone who will receive it. Who would expect a whore to become a heroine? Of all the heroes of faith in the Bible, she was surely the lowest of the low in human eyes.
Isn’t it wonderfully encouraging that God has such low standards for whom he will accept?
An immoral woman in an immoral society, Rahab in the Bible illustrates the line in Fanny Crosby’s “To God Be the Glory”: The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.