Rahab was classified by her society as a “publican” which is to say she was at the bottom of Jericho’s society. In some ways, she could be thought of as powerless, forever branded by the city’s people as disreputable, no matter how badly she wished to change. In other ways, she could be seen as powerful. She knew many powerful men, but when they came to visit her, she was the one with the power. She had what they wanted, and she knew how to use that to her advantage.
She owned her own home, nestled up against Jericho’s outer city wall. She not only entertained locals, but travelers visiting the city or passing by it in caravans. This kept her aware about what was going on, both in town and around the region. She was probably among the first to hear about the Israelites crossing the parted Red Sea. She would’ve heard how they defeated the armies across the Jordan River. She knew these Israeli men were even more powerful than the Canaanite men she dwelt among. She knew from hearing them talk that the Canaanite men feared them and their God.
Their God had told them, “Everywhere you go, you will be on land I have given you … No one will be able to stand their ground against you as long as you live. For I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you” (Joshua 1:3, 5). Rahab knew this. She tells the spies in Joshua 2:9, “I know the LORD has given you this land.” Then she utters the statement that reflects the faith that I believe saved her (and her family): “For the LORD your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below” (2:11).
Its interesting that Jesus later points out in Matthew 21:28-32 that harlots were quicker to repent, believe and enter the Kingdom of God than the pious religious leaders were.
So, we’ve established that Rahab was a woman well accustomed to dealing with men, including foreign men. She was good at negotiating a mutually beneficial arrangement with them. And she had concluded on her own that Israel’s God was the one, true God. Sounds like she perfectly fits the job description for what is about to happen in our story.
When the two spies arrived in Jericho, they went to Rahab’s house to stay the night. At first, it seemed odd to me that the men of God would head to a harlot’s house to stay but this was a place they would’ve been welcomed without much question. They would be viewed by others as just another male traveler staying with Rahab. Plus, God was leading them. He had promised He would not abandon them or fail them so we know that He was with them.
Only someone – the book is silent on whom, or how they knew – knew what the spies were up to and told the king about them. The king sent soldiers to go get the spies from Rahab. I once read that the law of the day prohibited men from entering a woman’s house without her permission. The soldiers were ordered to tell Rahab to “bring out the men.” It’s not entirely clear from the text if Rahab hid the spies and then allowed the soldiers in, or if they never in came in but only spoke with her at the door. I think that they never entered her home, much less searched it or her roof.
The spies, for safe measure, were hidden on the flat-topped roof in the dark, under the drying bales of harvested flax. Rahab claims to the soliders (meaning she lies) that she did not learn who the men were and she says they left the city just before dark. She effectivley sends the king’s men on a wild goose chase.
This is a spot in the story that bothers some Christian readers. Rahab lied. Isn’t lying a bad thing in God’s eyes? And it seems that is how the spies - God’s people - were spared. Did God want Rahab to lie in this instance?
I don’t think God wanted Rahab to lie. I’m certain that if He can cause the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down in order to deliver the city to the Israelites, which He did, He could’ve gotten those two spies out of there safely without Rahab lying. As we’ve concluded a few times already with the women from Genesis, God will use the free-will actions of people – both good actions and bad actions – to accomplish His ultimate will.
Rahab lies and throws the king’s men off the spies’ trail. Then she negotiates a mutually beneficial deal with the spies. In return for her hospitality, protection, city information, and belief in their God, they will spare her and her family when they come to take the city. A scarlet red cord hanging from the window of her house will be the sign to the Israelites to spare that household during the seige. Both parties remain true to their words and she is spared destruction.
Finally, Rahab is free from the society that branded her “Rahab the prostitute.” She is free to live a different life, and she chooses to live one that honors the one, supreme God. She married Salmon, a prince of the tribe of Judah. Then she gave birth to Boaz, who is the father of Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of King David.
So there is a former prostitute, a Canaanite harlot, in the family tree of Christ. That’s been a disturbing fact for some people. In fact, some religious scholars over the years have tried to redefine Rahab as an innkeeper rather than a prostitute. While she may have sometimes housed people without having sex with them, like in the case of the spies, the Bible is clear that she was a prostitute. For me, it is comforting to know that Jesus’ lineage contains a pretty racy sin nature. After all, the fact that Christ came from a long line of imperfect people gives me hope for overcoming my own imperfect family history.
God made an honest woman out of a lying harlot. He transformed this bad girl and gave her a good rep. I think that should give all of us a lot of hope!