[K:NWTS 21/2 (Sep 2006) 37-44]

Salvation and the House

of a Harlot

Joshua 2

Steven Wright

She was a lady of the night. They were spies who had penetrated the defenses of this enemy city. They came to her home for refuge, but it seemed that refuge was to be short-lived. Soon after their arrival, a knock sounded on the door. Government agents had come looking for them. What would happen next? Would they be betrayed? Their fate lay in the hands of a harlot.

This may sound like the plot from a John LeCarre novel. It surely is a tale of espionage and intrigue. But this tale comes not from the pages of modern fiction, but from the annals of history. Indeed, the story of Rahab is part of redemptive history, that grand story of God's acts of revelation and redemption. As her story unfolds, we will be called to look back to God's previous acts and promises and also to look forward to promises later to be fulfilled. The theme of the story is salvation. We will see that theme developed at several levels as we consider salvation and the house of a harlot.

I. Salvation In the House of a Harlot (vv. 1-7)

Joshua could look back over forty years of wandering in the desert wilderness. Forty years ago the children of Israel had been perched on the edge of the Promised Land. From Kadesh Barnea, twelve spies had been sent out to survey the land and its inhabitants. Their report about the land was glowing: "it truly flows with milk and honey" (Num. 13.27). But ten of the spies brought back an evil report about the inhabitants: "We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger then we" (Num. 13.31). Joshua and Caleb had pled for faith in Yahweh to deliver the inhabitants of the land into their hands, but the people would not listen. And so, in punishment, that unfaithful generation had to pass away before the next generation would inherit the land.

And now, at Shittim, they are once more perched on the edge of the Promised Land. Moses has died and Joshua is the leader. He sends out spies again, but this time their number would be that of the faithful few who had gone before: "Now Joshua the son of Nun sent out two men from Acacia Grove [Hebrew, Shittim] to spy secretly, saying, `Go, view the land, especially Jericho' (v. 1)."

They came to the house of a harlot named Rahab. We are not told why they did so. Had they received some word that she might be sympathetic to their cause? Or was the house of a harlot simply a place where a few foreign men might blend in without being noticed? The text is silent on this point. What becomes clear is that Yahweh's sovereign hand is guiding them.

While the spies enter the city successfully, they do not do so in complete secrecy. Word quickly reaches the ears of the king of Jericho that men of Israel have entered the city on a mission of espionage. He sends agents to Rahab's door demanding that she surrender the men. It is a moment of vulnerability for the spies. They are trapped and at the mercy of a Canaanite prostitute.

Rahab had already hidden the men under stacks of drying flax on her roof. Now she concocts a tale designed to deceive the king's agents. "Yes," she admits, "those men came here, but I didn't know where they were from. They left about the time of the shutting of the city gate." Rahab proceeds to send the king's men on a wild goose chase: "I'm not sure where they were going, but if you hurry you can overtake them." They took the bait and sped off toward the fords of Jordan, where they expected the spies would try to cross back to their camp. With the city gates just closing behind them, they must have thought they were hot on the trail. Surely, the spies couldn't have gotten far.

Of course, the spies hadn't gone any farther than Rahab's roof! It had been a close call. Their fate had been in the hands of a foreign woman. But Yahweh had seen to it that the spies from his people found salvation—the saving of their physical lives—in the house of a harlot.

II. Salvation To the House of a Harlot (vv. 8-22)

Rahab had risked her life by lying to the king's agents in order to save the lives of the spies. Why had she done so? We learn that her motives were not entirely altruistic. The one providing salvation was also in search of salvation.

When the king's men have gone, Rahab joins the spies upon the roof and makes a remarkable confession:

I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. For 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 the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. (vv. 9-11)

This confession is remarkable on several counts. First, it demonstrates that Yahweh keeps his promises. Hear some of the prophetic words of the song of Moses after the Red Sea passage:

All the inhabitants of Canaan will melt away. Fear and dread will fall on them; by the greatness of Your arm they will be as still as a stone, till Your people pass over, O Lord, till the people pass over whom You have purchased. (Exodus 15:15-16)

Yahweh, through his prophet Moses, had declared that the peoples would hear of his great redemptive acts and would fear before the children of Israel. He had said, "Fear and dread will fall on them;" and Rahab reports, "the terror of you has fallen on us." Moses had sung, "all the inhabitants of Canaan will melt away;" and Rahab declares, "our hearts melted." Using the very language of Moses, Rahab's confession is remarkable, in the first place, because it demonstrates Yahweh's faithfulness to his prophetic promises. Just as he foretold, the nations were in fear as his people advanced.

Second, Rahab's confession is remarkable as it reveals her to be a good history student. Consider how the Israelites had failed repeatedly in this regard. They had seen with their own eyes the miraculous parting of the waters of the Red Sea and they had passed through those waters themselves. Then they witnessed Yahweh's judgment upon the pursuing Egyptians as he caused the waters to crash down upon them with all their drowning fury. And yet, having experienced that deliverance, they murmured at Marah (Ex. 15.23-24). In the wilderness of Sin they cried out in unbelief, "Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full!" (Ex. 16:3). Though Yahweh had cleansed the waters at Elim and provided quail and manna in the wilderness of Sin, the people complained once again about a lack of water at Rephidim (Ex. 17:1-3). We've already reflected upon the failure of faith at Kadesh Barnea, when they believed the evil report of the faithless spies rather than heeding the call to believe and conquer issued to Caleb and Joshua. What was wrong? The children of Israel knew the facts of history. Indeed, they had been participants in that history, again and again experiencing Yahweh's gracious deliverance and provision. Yet they failed to interpret history faithfully and, thereby, to trust in the God whom that history revealed.

Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, did understand. She looked at the drying up of the waters of the Red Sea and at the victories over the Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, and she drew the proper conclusion. Yahweh had done these things, and it would be fearful and foolish for anyone to try to stand up against him. Before the onslaught of Yahweh, the appropriate response of his enemies was melting hearts and draining courage. Rahab had learned from history.

Third, Rahab's confession is remarkable because it portrays her as a believer in Yahweh. After rehearsing and properly interpreting the facts of history, Rahab concludes, "the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath" (v. 11). This is an amazing concession coming from a Canaanite. The Canaanites believed in dozens of deities. Rahab was supposed to believe that Baal and Asherah were the greatest of these gods. But now she takes on her lips an Israelite confession of faith. Let us glance back again to hear the call to faith issued by Moses in Deuteronomy 4:39: "Therefore know this day, and consider it in your heart, that the Lord Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other."

In making this confession her own, Rahab is transferring her allegiance from the false gods of the Canaanites to Yahweh, the true God of Israel.

Rahab's confession has revealed Yahweh as a faithful promise keeper and Rahab as a good history student and a believer in Yahweh. Because she recognizes Yahweh as the true God, she recognizes these spies as his messengers. Indeed, the spies are called "messengers" elsewhere in Scripture (Josh. 6:25, Jam. 2:25). Rahab saw the spies as emissaries from Yahweh bringing a message of salvation. Just as Jacob had wrestled with a divine messenger until he received a blessing, Rahab now "wrestles" with these messengers:

Now therefore, I beg you, swear to me by the Lord, since I have shown you kindness, that you also will show kindness to my father's house, and give me a true token, and spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death. (vv. 12-13)

Rahab's "wrestling" is effectual. She extracts from the men an oath of protection for her and for her family when the Israelites take the city. It is a deadly serious oath: "our lives for yours" (v. 14). The spies personally promise to protect all who are within her house when the attack comes: "whoever is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head if a hand is laid on him" (v. 19). This personal covenant did have obligations for Rahab to fulfill: (1) she was to tell no one of the spies' business; (2) she was to mark her house with a scarlet cord that her attackers could recognize; (3) she was to be certain all her family remained in her house when the attack came. With this agreement made, Rahab helped the spies escape through her window and directed them on a safe course to elude their pursuers.

The sequel shows that Rahab fulfilled her obligations and the spies kept their oath. When the attack is launched, Joshua directs the spies personally to deliver Rahab and her household. They proceed to do so:

And the young men who had been spies went in and brought our Rahab, her father, her mother, her brothers, and all she had. So they brought out all her relatives and left them outside the camp of Israel…. And Joshua spared Rahab the harlot, her father's household, and all that she had. So she dwells in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. (Josh. 6:23, 25)

In saving this Canaanite prostitute and her household, Yahweh demonstrates that his grace and mercy were never intended to be limited to Israel. He had promised Abram, "I will bless those who bless you, I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3). Rahab blesses the God of Abraham and her family is blessed—a token of God's grace to the Gentiles. Yes, the story of Rahab is a story of salvation to the house of a harlot.

We have learned of salvation in the house of a harlot and salvation to the house of a harlot. But that is not the end of the story. Joshua 2 begins with Joshua sending out the spies and it ends with Joshua receiving their report. But we have not understood this story of Rahab fully until we look ahead to a second Joshua, a greater Joshua who was to come.

III. Salvation Through the House of a Harlot

In Joshua 6, we see that Rahab and her family are ultimately incorporated into the people of Israel as Gentile converts who have received the grace of Yahweh. Rahab is a celebrated proselyte. She is held up as an example of one who demonstrated her faith by her works in James 2:25: "Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?"

Rahab also receives New Testament praise in Hebrews 11:31: "By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace." Here in this great chapter celebrating the heroes and heroines of faith, Rahab finds her place alongside the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. What an unlikely place to find the name of a Canaanite prostitute! And yet, we would have to say it is not the least likely place we find Rahab's name.

For the least likely place, we must turn to Matthew 1 and its genealogy of our Lord. In verse 5, we learn that Boaz was a descendant of Rahab (a Canaanite). Boaz married the Ruth (a Moabitess). The line descending from them included Obed, Jesse, and David, the King of Israel. Not only was Rahab incorporated into Israel, but she became a forebear of King David! What a distinction for a sinner from among the Gentiles.

But, of course, that is not the greatest distinction, for if David descended from her then so did the greater David, the anointed Messiah, Jesus himself. Rahab's story is not some isolated event from Old Testament history. It is a story that continues to unfold until the coming of Christ. In highlighting foreigners like Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth in his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew wants his Jewish readers to be absolutely certain that the gospel was never intended to be the unique property of the Jews. The promise to make Abraham a blessing to all nations is evident in the fulfillment found in the lineage of Jesus. Salvation has come through the house of a Gentile harlot.

What majesty and mystery we find in the gospel. Through Rahab's descendants came the Savior, Jesus Christ. Yet, this same Christ was the object of Rahab's faith and the source of her salvation! She knew of Yahweh's deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt and through the wilderness. The apostle Paul tells us that Christ was the Rock that gave the Israelites spiritual drink in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:4). Faith in Yahweh was faith in the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and faith in his promises, including the promise of the Messiah. What Rahab knew in shadowy form, we know clearly in the light of the glory of Jesus Christ.

Oh, it is a mystery. Christ was with Israel in the wilderness. Christ brought to the Israelite spies salvation in the house of a harlot. Through Joshua's men, Christ brought salvation to the house of a harlot. And Christ is the beginning and end of the salvation that came through the house of a harlot.

Be encouraged, this day, by the message of salvation and the house of a harlot. God used the faith of a Canaanite prostitute as part of his plan to bring salvation to all nations through the work of Jesus Christ. What is the final chapter of Rahab's story, the story of God's grace flowing to Jew and Gentile alike? We can see it through the eyes of John on Patmos:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … and crying out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"(Rev. 7:9-10)

May our voices join the chorus of Rahab, and all the other recipients of God's grace throughout history, in praise of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. How great is the salvation that has come to us through the house of a harlot!

—Clinton, Mississippi