The story of Rahab is an interesting but often overlooked one. Joshua is, of course, the person most recognized for his role in the battle of Jericho. But Rahab is one of the most pivotal characters in the whole story.
So, how does she fit in?
The Israelites have been on a long, long journey out of Egypt and into the promised land of Canaan. They have kind of taken the long way around and are actually approaching the land from the east side of the Jordan river. This places Jericho as one of the main settlements that poses a political and military challenge to them.
But from the other point of view - the people of Jericho have heard stories about these incoming foreigners. The Israelites, apparently, had a God who could perform incredible signs and wonders - so that they could cross the Red Sea by foot, on dry ground, or defeat several other nations in combat on their way into Canaan.
In light of all this, Rahab, a local sex worker in the city of Jericho, would explain the atmosphere in her city to two Israelite spies who came to the town:
“I know that the Lord has given you this land 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. 10 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. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
12 “Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign 13 that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—and that you will save us from death.” (Joshua 2:9-13 NIV)
The Israelite spies gave her their word, that she and her family would be spared during their attack on Jericho. In exchange for this, Rahab had hidden them from the city guards, and sending her own people's military forces on a wild goose chase into the wilderness for two men who had been hiding right under their noses.
Rahab had apparently weighed her options and realized that Jericho was the wrong side for her to take in this upcoming conflict. There are some interesting clues that the text gives us to tell us that she had truly changed sides. Most obviously, she betrays the city of Jericho by hiding foreign spies and misleading the city guards. Most subtly, though, it's worth noticing in verses 9, 10, 11, and 12, Rahab consistently refers to the God of the Israelites not by a generic name, or as "your god," or by a Canaanite name for "god," but by the Divine name, the personal, covenant name of Israel's God - YHWH or Yahweh." Rahab seems to have already been convinced that there was something unique, something special about this God, and therefore decided to take his side.
Because her home was built into part of the outer wall of the city, Rahab allowed the spies to escape by lowering them down from her window with a red rope. She then left that rope in the window of her house as a sign - so that the Israelite army would know which household to spare during their attack.
The two spies made good on their promise several chapters later.
22 Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.” 23 So the young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother, her brothers and sisters and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel.
24 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the Lord’s house. 25 But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.
Interestingly, verse 23 specifies that when Rahab and her family were brought out from the city of Jericho, they were also kept separate, outside of the Israelite camp. This is likely because of concerns about ceremonial uncleanness associated with non-Israelites. This seems to have been temporary, since verse 25 tells us that Rahab went on to live among the Israelites until at least the time that her story was written down.
One question that inevitably arises is whether or not Rahab did the right thing. After all, there is the commandment in Exodus 20:16 to not give false testimony against a neighbour. The question really comes down to whether or not Rahab's lie to the guards constitutes a violation of that commandment.
Bible commentators are divided on this issue; there's no real consensus. Some suggest that Rahab was spared in spite of the fact that she sinned by lying to the guards. Others suggest that because of the context, her act of deception doesn't qualify as "false testimony against the neighbor," but instead, an act of protecting life, and so they interpret her actions as inherently good and correct. Other's still offer the explanation that her lie to the guards functions more like her way of participating in Israel's warfare, and that if the war against Jericho and the Canaanites was a just cause (a topic unto itself!) then Rahab was simply participating in that.
You may feel free to read the story in any of those ways. But, what is not possible is to read Rahab' story as a categorical, universal justification for lying. That much is very clear. What happened here was circumstantial. Moreover, this is simply a story about things that happened, not necessarily an example for us to follow. It's important to distinguish between prescriptive passages - parts of the Bible that are telling us what to do - and descriptive passages - which are simply telling us what happened.
Certain parts of the New Testament, however, make this a little bit more complicated. Rahab is listed explicitly as one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5), as an exemplar of faith (Hebrews 11:31), and as someone who was "considered righteous" because of her act of helping the spies (James 2:25). Perhaps the most important thing for us to acknowledge is that ethical decisions can be complex. Sometimes, an action that might seem wrong in one context actually seems reasonable in another. This can be a dangerous line of thinking, but we have to also keep in mind that ethical decisions exist in an extremely difficult and tense context in the book of Joshua. The conquest of Canaan is a controversial passage that raises many questions for many people. And those questions can be troubling.
It's important to remember that not every passage in the Bible is telling us what to do. Not every character is an example to follow in every action they take, even if some parts of what they do are admirable. Rahab, by her very profession, is a morally complex character. And yet, God was willing to let her be one of the key players in the story of his people and his plan of redemption for the world.
What areas in your life feel morally complex or even convoluted? What actions would constitute a step in the right direction for you? How could you clearly choose God's side in that area of your life?
- Read Joshua 6:15-27. Notice the different dimensions of the fate of Jericho. Take note especially of Joshua's curse in verse 26.
- Compare the curse in Joshua 6:26 to the events that take place in 1 Kings 16:29-34. Do you think that Joshua's curse was a good thing or a bad thing? Do you believe that it was God's power that made this curse come to pass in the time of Ahab? Why or why not?
- One more point about Jericho, Joshua's curse, and God. Read Mark 10:46-52. Does Jesus seem to acknowledge the cursed nature of a rebuilt city of Jericho? Luke 19:1-9 records what happens immediately after healing blind Bartimaeus. Read that passage. What interesting parallel is there between Jesus' visit to Jericho and the two spies? What does God's treatment of Rahab and Zacchaeus say about God's character, and his attitude towards people who are considered "sinners?"
- Watch this video by The Ten Minute Bible Hour about how to differentiate between when the Bible is giving you instructions vs. when it's just describing things that happened: