by Paul Anderson
Rahab didn’t plan to be a prostitute. She no doubt dreamed as other girls dreamed. She had hopes for a happy future. But somewhere cold reality replaced a child’s idealism, turning a dream into a nightmare. It doesn’t always take much-a violation by a relative, a relationship turned sour, wrong choices on our part.
When we meet her, she is identified as Rahab the prostitute (and she still bears that description in the New Testament). She was known for her life style, but we don’t know how she got there. Neither do we know why a Jewish man named Zacchaeus became a tax collector. Prostitutes and tax collectors ran in the same crowd. Neither of them were welcome participants in the flow of public life. Tax collectors were considered thieves by their fellow Israelites-and they usually deserved the title. What would make a man embrace a profession that brought sure rejection from his countrymen? And what would cause a young woman to decide to sell her body for profit?
Did Rahab try to hide her life style? She perhaps needed business to stay alive, so she may have not tried to keep her vocation private, and the Bible certainly didn’t. Her extended family all lived with her. Perhaps this was her way of supporting them. We know her livelihood; we don’t know her heart-until it is revealed in an unusual way.
She is visited by two spies from Israel. Spying is not a practice invented by the modern world. It is as old as war. How did these two spies happen to pick a prostitute to launch their espionage? Would the entrance of two men into her home go unnoticed? Did God simply reveal to them His plan? Their job was to “look over the land,” and especially Jericho (Joshua 2:1). We are told that “they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there” (2b).
Whatever the case, their entrance did not go unnoticed, and the plot intensifies. The king of Jericho (bigger cities in Canaan were like city-states, each with its own king) was told of the spies and sent a message to Rahab to deliver the men. So this house of prostitution was becoming a house of intrigue-of a very different sort. Men now knocked on her door not for entertainment but for investigation. Listen to her response to the Jericho police: “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” Why did she risk her life? The accomplice of spies normally receives the same sentence as spies themselves. She was endangering herself and her family.
After she sent the pursuers on a wild goose chase, she spoke to the spies on the roof where she had hid them. In this conversation she delivered one of the most remarkable testimonies in the Bible. She starts out, “I know…” This woman, whom some people would call unstable and irrational, whose testimony in court might even be denied, says confidently, “I know…” There were many things she didn’t know. She didn’t know what constituted the good life. She didn’t know how to treat men or herself in a proper fashion. What did she know? She said, “I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:9-11).
End of expedition by the spies. What they needed to uncover regarding the upcoming military campaign was just revealed through the mouth of a harlot. God had sent them to the one person in all of Jericho who not only could release all the information they needed in less than a minute but who also had come to believe in the same God as the spies trusted. Amazing, since she was a living in a heathen culture, one that sacrificed children to their Canaanite deities, one that worshipped a plethora of gods. What caused her to turn to the living God? We don’t know. Maybe her life, her pain, or her disillusionment with it all had opened her spirit to the true and living God. She testified powerfully that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” God had revealed Himself supernaturally to this Jericho woman, and without human assistance. When she heard what was happening through this God to the children of Israel, she came to trust in Him as the true Lord of heaven and earth. So when the spies came to her home, it confirmed in her heart what she had come to believe in, and she was prepared to protect them from the pursuers. What a glorious intrigue. What a divine unraveling. God wrote this mystery story. Her straightforward witness was so simple, so bold, so truthful! And it was exactly what the spies needed to hear.
Rahab went onto the roof where she hid the spies, not for her normal business, but to take part in a plan of heavenly origin. She revealed her heart to these men like she had not done before. It put the same confidence in the spies that God had put in her own soul. And in turn, it put confidence into the whole army of Israel-one testimony from one unlikely lady, so that the spies were able to say several days later to all of Israel, “The Lord has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us” (Joshua 2:24). God used Rahab to prepare His people to march on her city, and the city of her family, and the city of her ancestors. But it would not be the city of her descendants, because God was about to bring her into a whole new destiny and into a city whose builder and founder was God. Before she spoke to the spies, God had already spoken to her, revealing His divine nature and enough of His eternal purpose to put faith in her heart.
Her witness to the spies revealed several truths:
The word was out about the God of Israel. “Bad news travels quickly,” like the country western says, and incidents from Egypt had been transmitted accurately to Canaan, and people had not passed them off as myth. They had struck terror in the hearts of the inhabitants, which put the Israelites at a distinct advantage.
The land belonged to Israel. What God had promised long before to Abraham, Rahab powerfully confirmed, that “the Lord has given this land to you…” No matter that the people living there had occupied it for centuries. The one who is God in heaven above and on the earth below has the only vote concerning real estate, since He holds the title deed.
The enemy was melting in fear, not mounting in faith. Fear is a great inhibitor of victory. Give the odds to the Israelites. Courage makes people do the impossible, while fear causes them to shrink before minor threats.
Rahab’s action brought deliverance to her whole family, and the harlot is now a hero. Furthermore, she found her way into the messianic line of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). She was the mother of Boaz, making her the great, great grandmother of King David. She is listed with three other women as unlikely as herself. Tamar had a child out of wedlock, Ruth was from Moab, a country forbidden from fellowship with Israelites, until God brought her to Israel following three family deaths. And Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon after an adulterous relationship with King David. God’s gracious truth is declared through this line that He is the God of the second chance, and third, and fourth, and four hundredth. The grace that forgives is the grace that empowers and changes. And the scarlet chord that let the spies down and brought safety to Rahab’s family symbolized another scarlet chord, the blood line through which God would bring a yet more powerful deliverance to all who trusted in the blood of His Son Jesus.
A second truth surfaces in this marvelous Old Testament gospel story: God can use anyone submitted to His purposes. It doesn’t call for a special kind of history or talent or I.Q. or charisma or stature in society. God uses ordinary human people, broken by their own sin and healed by His divine mercy, open to be crafted into vessels of honor.
The writer of Hebrews accords Rahab a place in the hall of faith: “By faith the prostitute Rahab…” Notice that she doesn’t escape her past in this designation. But there is no shame in the identity, just the reminder of God’s overpowering grace. God loves to take losers and make them winners. God takes shorties like Zachaeus and makes them giants of generosity. He takes shifty Simons and makes them rocklike Peters. And He will do the same for you and me. “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Hebrews 11:31). How did she hide the spies? She did it “by faith.” She was exercising faith in the God of Israel, and she is linked up with Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Deborah, and others who like Rahab acted in faith and saw the power of God released in their lives. They are mentioned with her in the faith hall of fame. Call her Rahab the prostitute-or call her Saint Rahab! She was a woman of faith, as James also points out (2:25), and she acted with courage.
A broken past, a rich destiny. It is more important to know where you are headed than where you have been. Where you have been need not keep you from where you are going, but it will if you let it. Peter’s denial could have kept him from significance had not Jesus intervened. After Satan did a number on Peter (and Rahab), then God did a number-and it was an impressive one. Had we known the people of Jericho, we probably would not have picked Rahab as the key witness of truth, but God’s ways are not our ways. Our past does not define us. We are not just who we were-the harlot, the divorced person, the klutz, the failure, the person without a job, the one who denied Jesus. We are where God is taking us, the child with the destiny, the one God has chosen to use in His kingdom, the child with whom the Father is fascinated, the beloved one. Because of the grace of God, a marred past does not disqualify us from a marvelous future. In fact, it may only serve to make God’s mercy all the more remarkable. St. Paul testified, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy…the grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 1:13,14).
That scarlet cord threaded its way through Jewish history until it met another lady, this one without any men in her life, younger and more innocent, but with the same openness to the God of Israel, open to letting God use her for His redemptive purpose. “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:1,16). The mother of Jesus, like her ancestor Rahab whose name is found in the same genealogy, gave powerful tribute to the eternal God: “For the Mighty One has done great things for me-holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:49,50). And the truth of God’s power and love are passed on from age to age, from woman to woman, from believer to believer.
Any impossibilities you are dealing with today? Any shame clouding over your confidence and telling you God won’t use you? Any crosscurrents threatening to pull you under? Any circumstances robbing you of hope? Look to the same God that Rahab and Mary did and discover afresh what they found out-that God delivers those who put their trust in Him-against all odds, against a pagan culture, even against a shameful past. May we be connected to that same scarlet cord and live boldly for the truth-as Rahab and Mary did!