Rahab: Courageous Faith


Week of June 2, 2019

The Point:  The power of God that leads us to fear Him also leads us to trust Him.

Rahab Hides the Spies:  Joshua 2:1-14.

[1] And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” And they went and came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there. [2] And it was told to the king of Jericho, “Behold, men of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.” [3] Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land.” [4] But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. [5] And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.” [6] But she had brought them up to the roof and hid them with the stalks of flax that she had laid in order on the roof. [7] So the men pursued after them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. And the gate was shut as soon as the pursuers had gone out. [8] Before the men lay down, she came up to them on the roof [9] and said to the men, “I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. [10] For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. [11] And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. [12] Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign [13] that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” [14] And the men said to her, “Our life for yours even to death! If you do not tell this business of ours, then when the LORD gives us the land we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.”   [ESV]

“Rahab: A Horrible Life Redeemed. When Rahab first appears in the biblical account, she is one of the most unsavory characters imaginable. In fact, she is introduced as a prostitute [2:1]. If you had met her before the great turning point of her life, you might have instantly written her off as completely hopeless. She was an immoral woman living in a pagan culture that was fanatically devoted to everything God hates. The culture itself was on the brink of judgment. Their long descent into the abyss of moral and spiritual corruption had been intentional, and now it was irreversible. As far as we know, Rahab had always been a willing participant in her civilization’s trademark debauchery. She had personally profited from the evil that permeated that whole society. Now that God had called for the complete destruction of the entire culture because of their extreme wickedness, why shouldn’t Rahab also receive the just desserts of her own deliberate sin? As far as the record of her life is concerned, there were no redeeming qualities whatsoever about Rahab’s life up to this point. It is hard to imagine a more unlikely candidate for divine honor than Rahab. Yet in Hebrews 11:31, she is specifically singled out by name for the greatness of her faith, and she even appears in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1. Extraordinary? That word is an understatement in Rahab’s case.

An Unlikely Background. Rahab lived in Jericho at the time of Joshua. Her house was not in some back alley of town, but perched right on the famous wall [2:15]. This was almost certainly a prime location in the high-rent business district. It is fair to assume, then, that Rahab had enjoyed phenomenal financial success in her trade. Unfortunately, her “trade” was prostitution. She regularly sold herself to the most wicked men in that already-wicked city. Jericho was part of the Amorite kingdom, a grotesquely violent, totally depraved, thoroughly pagan culture so hell-bent on the pursuit of everything evil that God Himself had condemned them and ordered the Israelites to wipe them from the face of the earth [Deut. 20:17]. Rahab therefore epitomized the vileness of the Amorite culture at a point when they had collectively filled the measure of human wickedness to its very brim. Her whole life had been devoted to the profane pursuit of carnal self-gratification. Her livelihood was totally dependent on consensual evil. But divine grace redeemed her and liberated her from all of that, plucking her as a brand from the fire. Here is the historical setting for Rahab’s story: Moses had died. The generation of Israelites who had come out of Egypt were all dead too because of their persistent unbelief. There were two significant exceptions: Joshua and Caleb. Those two men had scouted the Promised Land together for Moses. They had returned enthusiastic about the prospects of Israel’s new homeland. They affirmed what God had said about the land. But when ten other spies returned with a conflicting report, discouraged, warning of the dangers that lay ahead, the people of Israel balked at entering the land. They listened to the unbelief of the pessimists rather than to the promise of Yahweh. Then and there, the entire nation staged a mutiny against Moses and against God. That was the final straw. That is why Israel was made to wander for forty years. It was a divine judgment against them because of their unbelief. Thirty-eight years had now passed since that rebellion at Kadesh-Barnea. The book of Joshua starts with the Israelites situated again on the doorstep of Canaan. Joshua had been appointed as leader over the whole nation in Moses’ place. In Joshua 1, the Lord reinforced Joshua’s courage and resolve with a series of promises, and Joshua prepared the people to enter the land. The day this generation had hoped for all their lives was finally here. Wisely, just as Moses had done years before, Joshua sent spies ahead to gather military and strategic information about what lay on the other side of the Jordan. This time, however, Joshua sent only two men, saying, Go, view the land, especially Jericho. And they went and came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there [2:1]. Thus Rahab is the very first person Scripture introduces us to in the Promised Land. By God’s gracious providence, she would become one of the linchpins of Israel’s military triumph. Her whole life, her career, and her future would be changed by her surprise encounter with two spies. Joshua 2:1-7 tells what happened. Joshua deliberately kept the work of the spies secret. Apparently, even the Israelites did not know of their mission. The scouts were to report back to Joshua, not to the whole nation [2:23-24]. Joshua wasn’t asking them for feedback so that the people could discuss among themselves whether to go across the Jordan or hold back in fear. He wasn’t about to make that mistake again. Joshua was taking the role of a decisive commander. He would assess the spies’ report personally and decide how his armies would proceed. Jericho was in a strategic location, at the openings of two vital pathways through the surrounding mountains, one leading southwest toward Jerusalem, the other leading northwest toward Ai and beyond, toward Bethel. Conquering Jericho would give Israel an important foothold into all the Promised Land. No wonder Jericho was so heavily fortified. The task of the spies was to assess those fortifications and report back to Joshua. Jericho was located seven miles west of the Jordan River. The spies would need to enter the walled city by some means and find lodging for the remainder of the night – all without arousing suspicion. Jericho was a large town, and visitors came and went all the time. The spies managed to get into the city before the gates were closed for the night [2:5]. Once inside the city, the ideal place for lodging would be an inn or a house on the wall itself. From there they could assess the city’s defenses. A good way to avoid arousing suspicion or attracting undue attention would be to find some seamy district where everyone would understand the need for discretion. Their search led them to Rahab, a harlot, who was prosperous enough to have a house in a prime spot on the wall. Both she and her business were probably well-known in Jericho. Here was an ideal situation for the spies. She would have opened her door to them without any questions about who they were. In her business, the strictest confidentiality was essential. She would have welcomed them and invited them inside quickly, just as she did all her clients. The Israelite spies did not seek her out to take advantage of her for immoral purposes, of course. Perhaps that very thing is what first won them her trust. They were obviously not there to use her or abuse her, unlike virtually all the other men she ever saw. They were serious and sober, but they did not seem to have frightened her in any way. Presumably, they treated her with patient dignity and respect while they made their careful reconnaissance. No doubt they explained who they were, which meant they would have almost certainly told her something about Yahweh. Mostly, they went about their business, perhaps making measurements of the wall and recording details about the battlements and the landscape. Rahab’s house was perfect for their purposes. The position afforded a close-up look at the wall, which was the city’s chief defense. But the location also made possible a quick escape if necessary. City walls are designed to keep out intruders, of course. But a person on the wall with a long enough rope can easily get out. By God’s sovereign providence, everything they needed was in place. Also, by God’s sovereign design, Rahab’s heart was ready to believe in Yahweh. Somehow, it appears, the presence of the spies was known almost as soon as they entered Rahab’s house. Of course, everyone in Jericho certainly already knew that the entire Israelite nation was camped across the river, within walking distance. All of Jericho had heard about Israel’s miraculous escape from Pharaoh across the Red Sea and the drowning of the entire Egyptian army [2:10]. The story of Israel’s subsequent wanderings in the wilderness was also well-known throughout the region. Rehab herself tells the spies that all the inhabitants of the land were fainthearted because of what they had heard about Israel and God’s dealings with them [2:11]. Still, aside from Rahab herself, the people of Jericho do not seem to have been sufficiently fearful of Yahweh’s power or Israel’s military might. The residents of Jericho were obviously too smug in the security of their walled fortress. Perhaps someone from whom the spies had asked directions turned them in, or maybe sentries near Rahab’s house spotted them and recognized them as Israelites from their clothing. In any case, their presence was quickly reported to Jericho’s king. The information he received included exact details about where the spies had gone, so the king sent messengers to check out Rahab’s house. Here’s where Rahab utterly surprises us. Remember, she made her living by selling herself for evil purposes. There was probably a handsome reward in it for her if she had turned in the spies. But she didn’t. She hid them. She misdirected the officials and saved the lives of the two spies, even though this put her at considerable risk. Obviously, the king’s representatives knew the spies had been in her home. When they were unable to find any evidence that the men had really left the city, they would probably be back to question Rahab again. She had put her own life in jeopardy by protecting these strangers. Her sudden expression of faith, therefore, is not only unexpected; it seems to run counter to every instinct that normally would motivate a woman like Rahab. Rahab’s actions in protecting the spies involved the telling of a lie. Was that justified? By commending her for her faith, is Scripture also condoning her methods? There’s no need for clever rationalization to try to justify her lie. Scripture never commends the lie. Rahab isn’t applauded for her ethics. Rahab is a positive example of faith. At this moment, her faith was newborn, weak, and in need of nurture and growth. Her knowledge of Yahweh was meager. She most likely had no understanding of the value He put on truthfulness. Meanwhile, she was a product of a corrupt culture where ethics were virtually nonexistent. Lying was a way of life in her society – and especially in her profession. The way she responded is just what we might expect from a brand-new believer under those circumstances. The point is that Rahab’s faith, undeveloped as it was, immediately bore the fruit of action. She not only hid them, but also implicitly embraced their cause. She thereby entrusted her whole future to their God. And the proof of her faith was not the lie she told, but the fact that she received the spies and sent them out another way – when she might have handed them over for money instead. Nothing but faith could have made such a dramatic, instantaneous change in the character of such a woman. She had obviously developed a great curiosity about Yahweh from the tales of His dealings with Israel. Now that she had met flesh-and-blood people who knew Him and worshiped Him, she was ready to throw her lot in with them.

An Amazing Expression of Faith. Rahab’s quick thinking saved the spies. The narrative suggests that she quickly hid the men after the king’s messengers knocked on her door and inquired about the spies. The speed and ingenuity of her scheme to hide them suggests that she was experienced in this kind of thing. Apparently the stalks of flax [2:6] were there for precisely that purpose, in case a jealous wife came looking for a client. Rahab had a long rope handy too [2:15]. No doubt she had arranged similar escapes, but for different reasons, in the past. Presumably, the king’s messengers searched Rahab’s house quickly and failed to find the spies before heading off in pursuit of the phony trail – which took them all the way to the fords of the Jordan. After it was clear that the king’s messengers were gone for the night, Rahab went back up to the roof to speak with the spies. She gave them an explicit testimony of the faith that motivated her [2:8-14]. Notice that Rahab’s faith was accompanied by fear. There is nothing wrong with that. In Rahab’s case, fear is partly what motivated her faith. She had heard powerful evidence of the Lord’s supremacy over Egypt. She understood that it was the Lord’s might that had triumphed over Sihon and Og, two fearsome Amorite kings. She probably understood something of Yahweh’s sovereign authority over Israel from the tales of their forty years in the wilderness. Her’s was a healthy kind of fear. It had convinced her that Yahweh was indeed the one true God. The spies swore an oath to deal kindly with her when they conquered her city. But they gave her one condition. She was to hang a scarlet cord from the window where she let them down [2:17-18]. This would mark her house in the sight of all Israel, and anyone inside the house would be spared when the city was overthrown. After making their solemn agreement to safeguard Rahab’s household and sealing their pledge with an oath, the spies descended under cover of darkness via the rope into the valley outside Jericho’s walls. Rahab had advised them to hide in the mountains for three days until the king gave up the search [2:16], and they did so. When the men finally returned to Joshua, their report contrasted sharply with the report the ten unfaithful spies had brought to Moses nearly forty years before. It was exactly what Joshua hoped to hear: Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands. And also, all the inhabitants of the land melt away because of us [2:24].

An Enduring Legacy. Rahab is a beautiful example of the transforming power of faith. Although she had few spiritual advantages and little knowledge of the truth, her heart was drawn to Yahweh. She risked her life, turned her back on a way of life that did not honor God, and walked away from everything but her closest family members (whom she brought into the community of God’s people along with her). From that day on, she lived a completely different kind of life, as a true hero of faith. She has a place of honor in Hebrews 11 alongside some notable names in that great cloud of witnesses who testify to the saving power of faith. After the account of Jericho’s destruction in Joshua 6, Rahab is never again mentioned by name in the Old Testament. Apparently, she lived out her life in quiet dignity and grace amid the people of God. She was wholly changed from the kind of woman she once had been. She was, and is still, a living symbol of the transforming effect of saving faith. This is the primary message of her life. In fact, when we do meet Rahab again on the pages of Scripture, it is in the New Testament. Her name is mentioned there three times. Two of those honor her for her remarkable faith [Heb. 11:31; James 2:25]. She is held up as an example of faith for both men and women. James, in particular, cites her case to show that faith produces action. Indeed, Rahab’s faith did not lie dormant long. Remember, it was only after she hid the spies that she verbalized to them her belief that Yahweh was the one true God. Her faith was seen in the fruit of her works before she even had an opportunity to verbalize it on her tongue. James says genuine faith is always active and fruitful like that. The most amazing occurrence of Rahab’s name, though, in the New Testament is the very first time it appears there, on the very first page, in the very first paragraph of the first gospel. Matthew began his account of Christ’s life with a lengthy genealogy tracing the entire lineage of Jesus from the time of Abraham. Matthew’s goal, of course, was to prove by Jesus’ pedigree that He qualified to be the promised Seed of Abraham, and that He is also rightful heir to the Davidic throne. There, in the list of Jesus’ ancestors, we unexpectedly find Rahab’s name: and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse [Matt. 1:5]. It is highly unusual for women to be named in Hebrew genealogies at all. Yet Matthew mentions five women, and all of them are notable: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. At least three of them were Gentiles. Three of them were disgraced because of their own sin. In fact, all of them, for various reasons, knew what it was to be an outcast – to have some infamy or stigma attached to their reputations. Collectively, they illustrate how God is able to work all things together for good. From a human perspective, the whole genealogy is checkered with outcasts and examples of failure. The women, in particular, underscore how scandal colored so much of the messianic line. It was filled with foreigners, outcasts, and those who were pariahs for various reasons. Still, they nevertheless all found a place in the plan of God to bring His Son into the world. Rahab is a living reminder that even the worst of sinners can be redeemed by divine grace through faith. The disturbing fact about what she once was simply magnifies the glory of divine grace, which is what made her the extraordinary woman she became.”  [MacArthur, pp. 51-67].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Compare Joshua sending out spies to Moses in Numbers 13. What did Joshua do differently? Why do you think he chose to be different from Moses?
  2. Describe the historical setting for Rahab’s story.
  3. How does MacArthur describe Rahab? What brought about the extraordinary change in Rahab’s life? How is Rahab described in the three New Testament passages where she is mentioned?
  4. Where do you see the hand of God active in this story?


Joshua, James Boice, Baker (ebook).

Joshua, Dale Ralph Davis, Christian Focus.

Twelve Extraordinary Women, John MacArthur, Nelson.

Joshua, David M. Howard, Jr., NAC, B & H Publishing (ebook).

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