HEBREWS 11:31- “By faith the prostitute received the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.”
There’s no nice way to say it. Rahab was a harlot-in modern parlance, a hooker. At her home atop the wall that surrounded the bustling, ancient city of Jericho, Rahab took in strange men and gave out sexual favors.
Because of her prominent role in the story of Israel, a few prim and proper types have tried to improve Rahab’s image by engaging in a bit of revisionist history. “Maybe,” they’ve suggested, “she wasn’t actually a ‘lady of the night.’ Perhaps she was only an ‘innkeeper.'”
It’s a nice try, a kind and understandable gesture; however, it can’t change the truth that the Bible repeatedly calls Rehab a “prostitute.” This is how the Bible introduces her when we first meet her in the book of Joshua (see Josh 2:1; 6:17). It’s likely her home was less a motel and more a brothel.
Fully appreciating Rahab’s remarkable story takes some historical and cultural background. After forty years of wandering in the desert east of Egypt and south of Canaan, the nation of Israel camped near the Jordan River, not far from Jericho. This was right along the edge of the territory said to be “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8; Num 14:8). It was this land the Lord-Yahweh, the God of the Israelites-had promised Abraham and his descendants centuries before.
Nervously watching the two to three million homeless refugees on their doorstep were the Canaanites, the current occupants of the land. “Canaanites” (Exod 3:8) is the generic name applied to the fierce, polytheistic tribes that lived in a patchwork of city-states streching across the Holy Land all the way to the Mediterranean.
Like the rest of her neighbors, Rahab had heard all the stories: Yahweh’s obliteration of the mighty Egyptians in liberating his people, his annihilation of lesser nations that dared to stand in Israel’s way. Such anecdotes raised not only eyebrows but also heart rates and neck hairs! The Israelites themselves weren’t much in the way of a fighting force, but their God was not to be trifled with. And suddenly there they were, massed on the border, clearly preparing to invade.
What do you suppose went through Rahab’s mind when two Israelite men-sent by Joshua to scope out the city-knocked on her door? No one can say for sure, but clearly something shifted in the soul of this woman off ill repute.
Filled with holy fear and pierced by holy insight, Rahab swung into action. She first protected the spies (hiding them on her roof while telling the king’s agents the strangers had come and gone). Second, she pleaded for mercy from the spies: “Now please swear to me by the LORD that you will also show kindness to my family, because I showed kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father, mother, brothers, sisters, and all who belong to them, and save us from death” (Josh 2:12-13).
The men consented to Rahab’s request under these conditions: she would have to gather her family in her house during the invasion; she would need to hang a red rope from her window. This scarlet cord would signal to the conquering Israelites her whereabouts. If she did this, the spies assured, she and her loved ones would be unharmed. Rahab took the men at their word. After carrying out their instructions, she and her family were spared.
But the story doesn’t end there. After Jericho’s destruction, Rahab married an Israelite named Salmon. Together they had a child named Boaz, who was none other than the great-grandfather of King David! We know this because Rehab’s name appears in the genealogy of Jesus Christ that begins the Gospel of Matthew (1:5). Two other times in the New Testament (see Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25), Rahab is mentioned and praised for her faith.
Seeing the name of a pagan prostitute listed in Scripture among spiritual icons like Abraham, Moses, and David is enough to make one wonder, “What’s a bad girl like her doing here?” But when you knew Rahab’s story, the answer is obvious: anyone who responds in faith to God’s gracious overtures can and will be saved.
A product of Canaanite culture, Rahab had surely grown up a devotee of false gods. As a practitioner of the “world’s oldest profession,” her character was stained by immorality and dishonesty, her heart jaded and hardened by such a brutal existence.
The good news is that is God is willing and able to rescue someone like Rahab, he can redeem anyone! Her transformation shows that God is serious about “not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Rahab’s experience underscores the gospel truth that we are not saved by our good works but by faith in who God is and what he has graciously done for us.