The story in Joshua 2 of Rahab the harlot hiding the Israelite spies stuck out to me recently when I was reading it and I found a lot of interesting things in it.
1 And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into an harlot’s house, named Rahab, and lodged there.
Keep in mind that in Numbers 13-14, Moses first sent the 12 spies to look at the land and 10 brought back an evil report and 2 (one of whom was Joshua) were excited to go in. The people were intimidated and refused to go into the land to possess it, so the Lord declared they would not live to inherit the land.
It is now 40 years later and here Joshua sends in two spies to view the land, but he sends them secretly, concealing their mission from the rest of Israel. It is possible that he didn’t want the people to know, lest they be scared again if they heard of scary conditions.
It is really interesting to me that Joshua decided to send the two spies in the first place. His reason for sending them out is “Go view the land, even Jericho.” What did he want them to see? What did he want them to find out? We can’t really tell. Again, this sending of spies is odd because Joshua himself had been sent as a spy throughout the land 40 years before. He knew the land was good. He had seen it. So why send spies again? Some have called this doubt or over-caution, but I suspect that he acted according to spiritual impressions that someone needed to be sent into the land. I think it shows how Joshua didn’t lean on his own understanding, but trusted in the Lord. He did not know why or what would come of it, so this could be why his directions to the spies were so vague. “Go view the land, even Jericho” would hopefully circulate them around enough that whatever they needed to be there for would become more obvious as time went on. And we see what came of it. Somehow the spies found one person who believed, and that led to her and her family being saved out of all the people of Jericho.
Now, why did these two men go to a harlot’s house and stay there? Israel was supposed to stay pure, right? Perhaps staying with a harlot was a strategic measure designed to conceal their real motive for being there--viewing the land. If they stayed with someone else, people might ask all kinds of questions, but if they stayed with a harlot, everybody would just assume the usual reason for strange men visiting a harlot. And remember just because they visit her doesn’t mean anything has to happen.
2 And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, Behold, there came men in hither to night of the children of Israel to search out the country.
If the two Israelite men had hoped to escape notice, it seems that they failed. Someone saw them come in, identified them, and passed that info up the chain of command to the king of Jericho. It is interesting to me that the purpose for the Israelites being there was known as well. The front of visiting a harlot didn’t fool whoever was watching, or.. there may have been a spy in the Israelite camp for the king of Jericho.
If you look at it another way, Rahab’s house was located on top of Jericho’s wall (v15) and it is possible that there were soldiers stationed on the wall as well who happened to notice the Israelites coming in.
How is the king of Jericho going to react to the news of Israelites in his city? Probably not well.
3 And the king of Jericho sent unto Rahab, saying, Bring forth the men that are come to thee, which are entered into thine house: for they be come to search out all the country.
4 And the woman took the two men, and hid them, and said thus, There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were:
5 And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them.
6 But she had brought them up to the roof of the house, and hid them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order upon the roof.
7 And the men pursued after them the way to Jordan unto the fords: and as soon as they which pursued after them were gone out, they shut the gate.
At this point we will have noticed that Rahab has unexpectedly taken the side of the Israelites (whom she’s never met) instead of that of her own people (whom she’s lived among all along). We should be asking ourselves why she is doing this. What motive would she have? We’ll find out.
A lot of commentators come down on Rahab for lying to king’s messengers, but if you check everything she says, she tells the truth, but with such broad strokes that the specific information about the spies’ location is concealed.
“There came men unto me” – Very true.
“but I wist not whence they were” – This is also true; she wouldn’t have known where they came from before they told her.
“about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark,…the men went out” – Yes, the men went out--they were outside on the roof. And because the Jericho men run outside Jericho to search and shut the gate, the statement that they went out about the time of the shutting of the gate becomes true too.
“whither the men went I wot [know] not” – If she told them to go up to the roof and hide, then she might generally know where to look, but she wouldn’t know exactly where they went, so this is true too, broadly speaking.
Okay, so this gets rid of the hostile men of Jericho, but it causes another problem—the gate is shut and the spies can’t get out through the gate now.
There is something else that I want to bring up that might give us an additional clue about Rahab. Notice it says she hid the men with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order upon the roof. She has all this flax. It isn’t a roofing material; it’s a food-and-fiber agricultural product. (Flax fiber is used to make linen, and flax seed is a very good grain to eat.) And there is enough flax on the roof that two men can hide among it. And it’s all organized, laid in order. Where did she get all this flax? It is possible she had a little side business going on of growing flax and she had just harvested a crop.
The other possibility is that the flax could have been the brought to her by her customers to pay for her…um.. services. But then she’d still have to do something with that flax—either process it herself or sell it. And that’s still a side business.
The fact that the flax is laid in order on her roof and there is so much of it is what makes me think this was a side business of hers. Laying it out in order could be part of drying it or exposing it to the elements (which is called “retting” and it breaks down the outside of the plant so the fibers can be more easily processed). This means she knew what she was doing with it, which further suggests it was a side business. Usually retting is done in the fields, and the fact that she is doing it on the roof of her house makes me think that it was her way of securing her crop. The whole city was shut up because of the Israelites, expecting to be put under siege, so she would definitely want that flax with her.
Yep, that flax really makes me wonder.. was she a harlot growing flax on the side, or was she a flax farmer who had turned to prostitution just to stay alive?
8 ¶And before they were laid down, she came up unto them upon the roof;
9 And she said unto the men, I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you.
10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.
11 And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.
12 Now therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the Lord, since I have shewed you kindness, that ye will also shew kindness unto my father’s house, and give me a true token:
13 And that ye will save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.
It must have really floored those Israelite men to hear a harlot bearing testimony to them that she knew their God was the God of heaven and earth. And just think, out of all the people they could have stayed with, they found this one woman who believed. (It really makes you wonder how they decided upon her. Was her place most convenient? Did she find them? How did they connect? We may never know.)
As a prostitute, Rahab heard from her customers about Israel and their victories. She saw how frightened the people around her were. Rahab hadn’t actually seen any of the miraculous events happen that they told about, but she believed them. (This showed faith in things not seen which were true.) In spite of her harlotry she recognized that Israel’s God was the God of the whole earth and that God had given Israel the land. She realized that her people’s time was coming to an end and that they would eventually be destroyed. She could have fought this conclusion--it seems that just about everybody else around her were in denial about it--but she seems to have decided to honest with herself. And too, consider that Rahab had this house on the top of the city wall, in what seemed to be a very safe place. She could have put trust in the strength of the city wall, yet instead she took it for granted that the Israelites were going to win because God would help them.
(It is so odd too that Jericho’s inhabitants were so afraid of Israel and they told these stories about Israel’s God and yet they didn’t believe enough to join Israel or surrender to them.)
So here’s where we see Rahab’s motive for taking the side of the spies against her own people. She believed in the power of the God of Israel, so it was right to protect those who were His people and there was the possibility of finding favor with God thereby. Her belief was strong enough that she essentially was willing to put her life on the line to conceal them.
It is touching that she asks for her family to be saved as well, even though she lives separate from them. And notice that she asks for an oath (a covenant) to make it sure.
Now, this is where we might wonder how Rahab would live after being saved. If she lives among the Israelites afterward, they aren’t going to let her continue her prostitution. That side business with flax is going to become really important to her.
Did she know about Israel’s standards of morality when she asked for that covenant that she and her family be saved? We don’t know for sure. I’m going to speculate some here. Among the other things that we know she heard about Israel, she may have heard about Israel’s strict commandments as well. Keep in mind, the Canaanites practiced a form of idolatry that sacralized prostitution, so to them, hearing of the Israelites’ penalties of death for immorality would be incredibly shocking and disturbing. But maybe Rahab was open to those commandments and wanted to live them.
If she did know about those commandments, her flax side business might represent some major faith to find some other way of making a living so that she would eventually be able to live with the Israelites. If she didn’t know about those commandments, then her flax side business was a very very lucky thing to have.
14 And the men answered her, Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business. And it shall be, when the Lord hath given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee.
15 Then she let them down by a cord through the window: for her house was upon the town wall, and she dwelt upon the wall.
16 And she said unto them, Get you to the mountain, lest the pursuers meet you; and hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers be returned: and afterward may ye go your way.
The spies have pretty strong faith too, as you can see by their assured reply, “when the Lord hath given us the land” (emphasis added).
How lucky that Rahab lived on the top of the city wall so that she could help the spies get outside the gates by going out the window and down the wall with a cord. If she had lived anywhere else, this might have been a different story.
Having obtained the promise from the spies, she is now highly invested in their safety. If they don’t get back to Joshua safe so they can inform him of the token of the scarlet cord, she still dies.
17 And the men said unto her, We will be blameless of this thine oath which thou hast made us swear.
18 Behold, when we come into the land, thou shalt bind this line of scarlet thread in the window which thou didst let us down by: and thou shalt bring thy father, and thy mother, and thy brethren, and all thy father’s household, home unto thee.
19 And it shall be, that whosoever shall go out of the doors of thy house into the street, his blood shall be upon his head, and we will be guiltless: and whosoever shall be with thee in the house, his blood shall be on our head, if any hand be upon him.
20 And if thou utter this our business, then we will be quit of thine oath which thou hast made us to swear.
21 And she said, According unto your words, so be it. And she sent them away, and they departed: and she bound the scarlet line in the window.
The sign of binding the scarlet cord in the window makes this story Rahab’s version of the Passover. (And it just so happens that the Israelites celebrated Passover themselves in between the time the spies return to Joshua and when the Israelites conquer Jericho, so there is more than a symbolic connection here.) I notice that Rahab put the scarlet cord in the window immediately. She didn’t wait until she saw the Israelites surrounding the walls to do it. I like how she didn’t procrastinate.
Also notice that she had to persuade her parents and her siblings to stay in her house with her to be safe. She seems to have succeeded convincing at least part of her family, since Joshua 6:23 says that her father, mother, and brethren were saved. Compare Rahab’s story with that of Noah, who built an ark and saved only his immediate family. Also, compare her story to the story of Lot, who was only able to save himself and his two daughters, even though he warned his sons-in-law, and his wife turned back.
Think about how much faith Rahab’s family had to have to listen to her warning and instructions. They sacrificed everything they had and were for the chance of being saved, and they had to come live for a time in the house of a harlot and live under that association in order to be saved. And they had to be very patient because it took time for the Israelites to conquer Jericho. (It took far less time than a siege would have, but it still took time.) They had to wait about 19 days in her house for the Israelites to conquer Jericho. I tallied what the Israelites did during that approximate 19 days:
· 3 days for spies to hide from pursuers (Joshua 2:22)
· 3 days to for Israel’s officers to muster the host (Joshua 3:2)
· 1 day for the spies to return
· 1 day for the Israelites to sanctify themselves (Joshua 3:5)
· 4 days for the Israelites to heal up after newly circumcising themselves and to keep the Passover (Joshua 4:19-10)
· 6 days for the Israelites to circle Jericho
· 1 day for the Israelites to circle Jericho, blow their horns, and have the walls come down
That last 7 days may have been very difficult for Rahab and her family, to watch Israel marching around the city without attacking. It would be a style of battle preparation that they had never seen before. It would be hard for them to take seriously.
Through all of this, Rahab and her family had to have great faith not just in the trustworthiness of the spies, but also that Joshua and the Israelites would honor the agreement as well.
Since she and her family stayed in her house, which was on top of the Jericho’s wall, we know their part of the wall had to stay up when the walls came tumbling down, otherwise they would have been injured in the wall of it.
22 And they [the spies] went, and came unto the mountain, and abode there three days, until the pursuers were returned: and the pursuers sought them throughout all the way, but found them not.
23 ¶So the two men returned, and descended from the mountain, and passed over, and came to Joshua the son of Nun, and told him all things that befell them:
24 And they said unto Joshua, Truly the Lord hath delivered into our hands all the land; for even all the inhabitants of the country do faint because of us.
In terms of a reconnaissance mission, the spies’ visit to Jericho might be said to be unsuccessful, since the two men hid most of the time. They might have been worried after their 3 days hiding from pursuit. They could have been concerned about how the Israelites would take Jericho with its city walls, but fascinatingly they tell Joshua, “Truly the Lord hath delivered into our hands all the land, for even all the inhabitants of the country do faint because of us.” They certainly get points for enthusiasm.
It seems to me that the spies’ mission was intended by the Lord to find Rahab and to save her and her family more than achieve any real military objective. That can tell us something about the Lord’s care for the one and how He can save people who we would not think would be receptive to the message of the gospel.
So how is Rahab remembered? Interestingly enough, when Rahab’s name is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is usually with distaste.
4 I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; this man was born there.
5 And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her: and the highest himself shall establish her. (Psalms 87:4-5)
Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; thou hast scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm. (Psalm 89:10)
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? (Isaiah 51:9)
Because Rahab had that association with harlotry, I think the prophets used her name as a symbol or stand-in to refer to those who were unfaithful to the Lord. Rahab was not actually “broken in pieces” or “cut,” but the wicked cultures from which she came definitely were. It’s kind of sad that they used her name like that.
On the other hand, Rahab is cited the New Testament as a woman of faith!
By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace. (Hebrews 11:31)
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? (James 2:25)
Consider these manifestations of her faith:
--She had confidence in an unconfirmed reality of the power of the God of Israel. Her belief was based merely on reports, which may even have been exaggerated on the negative side, and yet she believed. (That’s like someone joining the church even when the only thing they have read is ‘anti’ literature.)
--She extrapolated from these points of faith that her and her people’s days were numbered. This was a very unpleasant notion to think about, yet she did not shy away from it. This was faith that events not yet seen would happen. And yet she did not despair. She had the faith to take whatever chance she could find of avoiding destruction.
--She was loyal to an unverified relationship. Even though Israel’s God would not be pleased with her profession as a harlot (and she may or may not have known this), she believed and saved the spies (representatives of that God) in order to create an obligation that might allow her to seek safety God’s people.
--She had faith in an unsubstantiated promise. She had no way of knowing whether the spies would keep their promise to save her and her family, but she did her part to extract that promise and to qualify for salvation under its conditions.
Can you think of ways that our faith may be similar to hers?
When I read this story, I can see lessons from the different perpectives of the characters.
- When we look at it from Joshua’s perspective, it is about following spiritual promptings and seeing how it leads to the salvation of a family.
- When we look at it from the perspective of the two spies, this story is about doing what you can to fulfill a mission from a prophet and then seeing how the Lord provides help from unexpected directions.
- When we look at it from the perspective of Rahab, this story shows us that God reaches out to save individuals who choose to have faith in Him, even when those individuals are some of the lowest of the low, even when their destruction is a mere 19 days away. God’s arm is stretched out all our lives long and it is never too late to be saved. (And of course, the sooner we lay hold on His salvation, the better!)