September 17th, 2018

“By faith the prostitute Rahab was not killed with the disobedient” (Hebrews 11:31)

Joshua 2:1-24


More than just facts

Years or even decades from now, you will tell stories of Hurricane Florence. Your stories will be more than just facts. They will be colored by your own experiences. Did you live in flood ravaged areas or know someone who did? Did you own property that was damaged? Did your power go out? Did you host refugees fleeing the storm? How did this storm change your life?

We don’t just hear stories or have experiences. We interpret their meaning based on our connection to the story. This is also true of Bible stories in general, and so it is true of the story we read this morning from Joshua 2. How you hear that story probably depends on how familiar you already are with the story, who told it to you, and whether you have any personal connections to its details and themes.

I want to tell you the story the way I have come to read it this week, based mostly on the biblical account with some additional background from my study and conversations this week and occasional inclusions of my own imagination.

Geography and history

The story takes place mostly in Jericho, located ten miles north of the Dead Sea and five miles west of the Jordan River. Because Jericho boasts one of the largest freshwater springs in the area, Jericho was inhabited as early as 9000 B.C. In the time of our story, it was apparently a relatively small city, about ten acres – roughly the size of Corinth’s property, minus the West Campus. It was surrounded by a double wall, with some homes built between the two walls.

The exact date of the story is hard to determine. Some think it was 1250 years before Christ, others a century and a half earlier. What’s important is that it’s been 40 years since the Israelites, descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, left Egypt after centuries of slavery. God’s miraculous intervention had sprung them from Pharaoh’s grip through the ten plagues, then had created a path through the Red Sea on dry land.

According to the Bible, about two million Israelites received the Ten Commandments and other laws from God through Moses, then camped at various sites in the Sinai Peninsula on their way to the land God had promised to Abraham for his descendants. The ex-slaves were terrified when twelve advance explorers reported fortified cities inhabited by giants. Instead of moving ahead in faith, they recoiled in fear, saying, “We’re all going to die!” Die they did, but not in an invasion. An entire generation died in forty years of wilderness wandering as punishment from God.

Now the next generation has taken their place, and once again they are poised to invade and conquer their new homeland. As Moses lead them north on the east side of Dead Sea, they requested permission from two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, to pass through their land.[1]  All they wanted was to use the main highway. They promised not to drink water from the wells or take crops from the field. Sihon and Og not only refused permission, but sent an army to fight Israel. That entire region was then conquered and dedicated to God. The Israelites settled there temporarily, but three of the twelve tribes asked if they could remain there as their permanent home. Moses gave them permission if they would assist the other tribes in their conquest.[2]

Moses died, and Joshua assumed leadership. Last week we learned that God met with Joshua and told him to be physically strong and mentally alert and bold as he led the people into Canaan. God would be with him and would give him success in his mission.

Now the people are poised to cross the Jordan River. Their current headquarters are in Shittim (“Acacia,” named for its trees), only about 13 miles from Jericho.

Beautiful, savvy, and convinced

Everyone over the age of 20 at the time of the rebellion had died in the desert. All the survivors had grown up since their youth not with the narrative of powerlessness as ex-slaves, but with a different narrative. The stories their parents had told them were stories of deliverance, of lessons learned from disobedience, of expectation that they would occupy the land of Canaan. This time they were confident and ready.

On the other side of the Jordan River, a generation had grown up with a very different narrative:  fear. During those forty years an oversized[3] baby girl was born. As she grew into a young woman, she was uncommonly beautiful[4], and soon learned that her sensual appeal drew not only admiration from virile young men, but from men of power. One tradition says that she had slept with most great men of her day.[5]  She was also savvy. She pioneered the hospitality industry in Jericho, positioning her home between the outer walls of the city and using it as a lodging place for travelers. Rahab was one of the most well-informed citizens of Jericho, due both to pillow talk with the king and local leaders, but also with traveling merchants and leaders.

We don’t know much about what caused Rahab to engage in this “business,” but it seems clear that she was a survivor and a protector – not just for herself but for her parents and siblings. She had natural assets, but she wasn’t just going to be used by men; she was going to use them in return. She became well-informed about everything.

She was well-informed about the Israelites. It had been forty years since the plagues, the Passover, the exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea. There may not have been a Weather Channel for 24/7 hurricane updates or cable news for dramatic pictures of floodwater rising, but word of mouth was a powerful conveyer of information in a pre-media age. Everyone in Canaan, everyone in Jericho, but especially the innkeeper/prostitute[6], knew the stories well. She knew not only the stories from forty years ago; she also knew how the Israelites had completely destroyed Sihon and Og.

Rahab responded differently from the other citizens of Jericho to these stories. The religion of Jericho and the surrounding territory was polytheistic, and had been for centuries or even millennia before and would be long after. Gods were assigned specific responsibilities or territories. They also had a hierarchy. The chief god was Ba’al, the storm god. In an agricultural society, the god who controlled nature controlled life and death. Had we lived in Canaan in the time of our story, we would have attributed Florence to Ba’al and prayed to Ba’al for relief.

Rahab heard about the God the Israelites worshiped. Yahweh moved with his people. He altered nature and gave victory on the battlefield. He overcame the gods of Egypt and Ba’al in Moab. He provided manna in the desert and water from the rock. Yahweh, she concluded, is “God in heaven above and on the earth below.” As the stories spread around Canaan, most people trembled, even her own king. Rahab believed. She realized the gods of her people were not only comparatively powerless, but were not gods at all. She knew that in order for her and her family to come out of the impending crisis alive, she must attach herself to Yahweh and his people.


Her opportunity arrived in the form of two travelers who entered by the eastern gate of Jericho and found their way to her inn. During this nervous era, travelers attracted attention, and these two were quickly identified as belonging to the Israelites.

Nothing in the text suggest the two men engaged her for illicit services that night, and as trusted envoys of Joshua, my sense is that they did not. They were looking for “inside information,” and a place to stay. Rahab’s hostel inside the city gates would provide them protection from wild animals outside the city but also, according to custom, protection from any residents who might want to harm them.[7]

Word traveled quickly to the king of the small city-state, and in a very short time he came personally to Rahab’s inn to inquire about the rumor that she was harboring Israelite spies. He demanded she release them. In her business she had learned when to tell the truth, a half-truth, or an outright lie.

She looked the king eye-to-eye and threw him completely off. “Yes,” she lied, “Two men arrived here, but I have no idea where they were from. They stayed a while this afternoon, but when it was time to shut the city gate, they headed out of town. They never said where they were going. If you’re right that they’re from Israel, send some detectives on the road to the river. I bet you’ll catch them.”

The city gate closed for the night, which meant that no one else could enter or leave. Rahab went up to her attic, her private quarters where she had hidden the spies under stalks of flax, another indication of her business savvy. Flax plants can be eaten as grain, ground into oil, or woven into fiber for linen. Up until now, there had apparently not been much conversation directly between her and the men. Now she talked, and her speech to them is one of the longest in the Old Testament by a woman. She said she believed in their God and their destiny. She bargained with them to save not only her life but that of her parents and her siblings. She asked them to consider them part of their covenant family.[8]

“Deal,” they answered. “You protected us, and we’ll protect you. If you don’t inform on us, we promise to treat you as part of the family.”

There was no door to the outside of her home, but there was a window, and one would assume that many a man had come in or out of her home using the red rope she hung there. The “scarlet cord” has become legendary, and it is, indeed, intriguing. Some scholars believe it marked her house as both inn and brothel to those who traveled by the city. Perhaps every night she dropped that red rope after the gate to the city was shut. It’s quite possible this was normal for her house.

The spies made her promise that the rope would be hung prominently on the day of the invasion. If not, their promise of protection would be voided. For her part, she sent them south into the Judean hills and caves where they could hide, the same hills where her descendant David would hide, and where a millennium later, the Qumran community would hide the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s an easy place to disappear. “Wait three days,” she said. “Then you’ll be safe to return to your camp.”

And that’s what happened. The two spies returned to Joshua and informed him of the remarkable reversal of the story from forty years earlier. When Joshua was a spy, the Canaanites were confident and perhaps oblivious of the threat, while the Israelites were terrified. Now the Canaanites were petrified, and the Israelites could take courage that even their enemies knew that Yahweh is God and would give them the whole land.

Faith like Rahab’s

How you hear this story depends so much on your story. Jews historically have been somewhat embarrassed by it, and prefer to see Rahab as an “innkeeper” rather than a “prostitute,” since she is a direct ancestor of King David. Moderns of almost any background or faith are troubled by the extermination stories in Moab and those about to come in the book of Joshua. If you have a military or intelligence background, you’re intrigued by spies and the anticipation of invasion. If you’re a therapist, perhaps you’re wondering what childhood trauma would have led Rahab to her life of prostitution. Christians love this story. Let me tell you why.

It’s a story of conversion. Canaanite religion was not just inadequate or inferior. It was dead wrong. Rahab learned of the truth and believed it. In New Testament language, if you confess the truth about God (and Jesus), that means you truly believe it, and this is the way of salvation.[9]

It’s a story of reversal. The Bible loves these stories where those on top of the social order are brought low and those excluded and marginalized become heroes. The greatest of such stories is the story of Jesus himself – God becoming poor and then being exalted to the highest place. Thus, when Rahab not only foils the Jericho king but appears in the genealogy of King David – and through him, the genealogy of Jesus himself – we love that!

It’s a story of grace. No one I know of defends prostitution. Some defend Rahab’s lie as justified in the circumstances; others try to construct from it a theory of when lying is acceptable. She has mixed motives. She believes – but her confession saves her life. We in the church struggle with accepting people who are different – racially, morally, religiously. Instinctively we also know this is at the heart of our faith. We’re all messed up, all broken morally and spiritually. We don’t deserve God’s grace. So we like it when a self-serving, lying, prostitute is “in.” Her faith is accepted as real, and she is welcomed into the covenant family. Though we sometimes forget, we really do believe that it’s okay to belong, then believe and behave. The fact that she’s brought into the Israelite camp and then becomes a different person is all about God’s grace.

It’s a story of faith. While Jewish tradition is mixed between “prostitute” and “innkeeper,” Christian tradition is unambiguous. Both the writer of Hebrews and James call her “Rahab the harlot (prostitute).” But Hebrews 11 says she’s a great model of faith, which is defined as “the evidence of things not seen” (1). She “welcomed the spies” (31), believing but not seeing the end of the story. In James 2:25, Rahab is the model of a faith that changes behavior. James says if you say you have faith, you’re no better than the demons. Rahab believed, but she acted on that faith when “she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction.” I want faith like Rahab’s.

It’s a story of God. I said last week that the story of Joshua is not about Joshua; it’s about God. As evidence I note that Joshua is a very minor character in chapter 2. Rahab and the spies take center stage. But even their story is not about them. It’s about God. You can get caught up in all the wrong distractions about the morality of this or that part of the story. I’d much rather you get caught up in the Lord, who is the God of heaven above and of the earth below. Amen.


[1] Numbers 21:21-35.

[2] Numbers 32.

[3] “Rahab” means “large” or “wide.”

[4] The Jewish Haggadah calls her one of the four most beautiful women in the world.

[5] Encyclopedia Judaica, XII, 1515.

[6] The Hebrew word translated “prostitute” in Joshua 2:1 can mean “innkeeper.”

[7] Compare Genesis 19. Hospitality included protection.

[8] The word “kindness” (NIV) used by Rahab twice in verse 12 is the Hebrew chesed, indicating kindness within a covenant.

[9] Romans 10:9-10; 1 John 4:15.

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