Apostle Paul: Passionate Discipleship
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Sermon on the Mount
James J. Tissot, 'The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies' (1896-1902), gouache on board, Jewish Museum, New York.
As part of his preparation for the Conquest, Joshua has sent out a reconnaissance team to probe Jericho and the surrounding area intelligence concerning the topography and roads of the surrounding, as well as weaknesses in the city's defenses that could be exploited in the campaign to take the city.
"Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. 'Go, look over the land,' he said, 'especially Jericho.' So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there." (2:1))
Why would an inspired author of Scripture include a story about a fallen woman, a prostitute? After all, the spies' mission isn't ultimately critical to the success of the Battle of Jericho. Nor is it necessary to the narrative of Conquest. But I think the story of Rahab the harlot is included to show:
- Fear. The fear in Jericho: "Our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you" (2:11).
- Grace. God's wonderful grace to a prostitute, despite her profession.
- Faith. Saving faith in a Gentile, whose descendants include King David and Christ Jesus himself.
This probably wasn't the only reconnaissance team sent out, but was the most famous due to the fact that it uncovered faith in the heart of a harlot who was to figure prominently in the royal family of Judah, and ultimately of Jesus the Messiah.
Why would these righteous, God-fearing Jewish men go to the house of a prostitute, especially while they are on duty? I don't think their visit had anything to do with sex. Rather, it had to do with anonymity. Any kind of public lodging would be the first place foreigners might be spotted. Prostitutes, on the other hand, were used to arranging secret liaisons with men, and could offer both discretion as well as overnight lodging. And this prostitute was also located on an outer wall of the city, making escape possible.
Q1. (Joshua 2:1) What were the spies sent to learn? Why
do you think they sought to lodge in a prostitute's house? Do you think God sent
The residents of Jericho worshipped fertility gods like in the rest of Canaan. Worship sometimes involved intercourse with female prostitutes and male homosexual prostitutes at shrines as a ritual to ensure fertility in the land. While Rahab probably isn't a shrine prostitute (since she seems to practice her trade in her own house, rather than at a temple), she is affected by the beliefs around her.
It's important to judge Rahab by the standards of her culture, not our own standards. The Canaanite religions didn't practice sexual purity, as the Jews were supposed to. Certainly, being a prostitute -- and going to prostitutes -- is a sin according to the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 21:9). Like all sins, prostitution is subject to God's wrath. However, according to the corrupt standards of her culture, Rahab may not have been looked down upon as much as prostitutes are in corrupt modern culture.
Rahab is not a slave, but a free woman, and apparently a well-to-do woman, evidenced by her ownership of her own house with a window on the countryside beyond the wall.
The spies go surreptitiously to Rahab's house but don't go unnoticed in watchful Jericho. Someone has seen them enter her door. So the king of Jericho sends word to Rahab to produce the spies -- no doubt by armed soldiers appearing at her door to enforce the king's edict.
The true identity of the Israelites is quickly discerned by Rahab. Jericho is a small, compact city, and Rahab knows all the residents by sight, especially the men. Also, the spies' clothing and accent may have given them away. Nevertheless, by the time the soldiers arrive, Rahab has decided to side with Yahweh rather than the gods of her city, and has hidden the men on her roof that is covered with stalks of drying flax.
"4a But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them.... 6 She had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof." (2:4a, 6)
This act of hiding indicates several things. First, Rahab isn't merely a prostitute; she's a businesswoman as well. The flax drying on her roof indicates that she prepares linen thread, and perhaps clothing, in a cottage industry, like the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31:24. Flax is produced from the herbaceous plant Linum usitatissimum, which grows up to 4 feet in height. Harper's Encyclopedia of Bible Life explains:
"The cut flax was tied and set up to dry, then soaked in water for five to fifteen days to loosen the fibers, after which the fibers were drawn over the edge of a stone or board and beaten with a wooden mallet, and finally refined by combing."
Imagine stalks of flax lying all over the roof of her house. It probably wasn't too difficult to hide the spies among the stalks.
Rahab has heard stories of the Hebrews who have been encamped just across Jordan in Shittim. She had heard of their God and the miracles he has performed on behalf of his people. She makes her choice and hides the spies.
This act clearly indicates Rahab's faith. It is an act of treason to the king of Jericho, for which she will be killed if she is caught. But she has become convinced by the stories that have circulated in Canaan about Israel's God. After the soldiers have gone, she explains to the spies why she has hidden them.
"9 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.
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 and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below." (2:9-11)
Rahab sees that Yahweh has more power than the gods of Jericho, and she decides to side with Yahweh. Hiding the spies at the risk of her own life demonstrates her gutsy faith.
Baal was seen as the storm-god, portrayed as a bull, the symbol of fertility. The Râs Shamrah texts, discovered in 1929, praise Baal as the god who has power over rain, wind, clouds, and therefore over fertility. Ashtoreth (sometimes called Ishtar or Astarte) is associated with the morning and evening stars. She was the goddess of love and war. In Babylonia, Ishtar was identified with Venus. Like Venus, Ishtar was the goddess of erotic love and fertility.
However, since the Jews' God has led them to victory in war and has power over nature, Rahab sees Yahweh as greater than Jericho's gods. Yahweh is superior.
"The LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below." (2:11b)
For Rahab, this is not a quiet conviction. It becomes the truth by which she reorders her life, and takes ultimate risks.
In the New Testament, James asserts,
"But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that -- and shudder." (James 2:18-19)
James indicates that it is possible to have intellectual assent concerning the truth of something without having real faith. Demons believe that God is the only true God, says James. However, the demons aren't saved by their belief because they don't act in accordance with it. They tremble in fear and continue to resist God.
The residents of Jericho have heard the same stories as Rahab has, and are filled with fear. But instead of taking action to join themselves to this God, they prepare for battle. Rahab, on the other hand, sides with the true God at risk to her own life. Her confession of faith, "the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on earth below," shows that she had replaced her previous belief in Baal (to whom were attributed those characteristics), with a belief in the LORD.
My friend, do you have Rahab's kind of saving faith in God, a faith that aligns you with him rather than with the secular culture? Or is your belief mere intellectual assent, the kind that believes and trembles? Maybe Rahab can be an encouragement to you to take some steps of faith and enter into true faith.
Incidentally, Rahab calls God by his given name Yahweh.
"The LORD your God is God in heaven above and on earth below" (2:11)
As you are probably aware, whenever in your English Bible you see "LORD" in small caps rather than in upper and lower case, it refers to the name Yahweh. God is generic (like Hebrew "El"), while Yahweh is specific.
Q2. (Joshua 2:2-11) What indicates that Rahab believes in
Israel's God Yahweh? What does she believe about Yahweh? How deep is Rahab's
faith? How deep a faith does someone need to have in order to be saved from the
destruction of a city? From eternal punishment?
A Trophy of Grace in Jesus' Family Tree (Matthew 1:5-6)
Rahab's faith is lauded three times in the New Testament. First, in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew, a Rahab is given as the grandmother of Boaz:
"Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse, the father of King David." (Matthew 1:5-6)
While she isn't specified as Rahab the harlot, this is surely "our" Rahab. In this genealogy only five women are mentioned, each for a particularly noteworthy place in history: Tamar (vs. 3), Rahab (vs. 5a), Ruth (vs. 5b), Bathsheba (vs. 6), and Mary (vs. 16). If this Rahab weren't the famous prostitute, she probably wouldn't have been mentioned at all, especially in company with Tamar (who posed as a prostitute so her father-in-law would impregnate her), Ruth (a Moabite widow whose tender story is told in the book by her name), and Bathsheba (a warrior's wife with whom King David committed adultery).
It's pretty clear that our God is in the redeeming business. Instead of hiding "irregularities" in Jesus' family tree, they are pointed out as trophies of God's grace and forgiveness.
No matter what you may have done in your past life, God is ready to forgive you and give you a new start. In fact, your repentance from sin and turning to him brings joy to him -- so much so that he orders a party in your honor (Luke 15:7). Our God is the God of the Second Chance. Praise him!
Rahab's Faith Praised (Hebrews 11:31)
The second time we find Rahab mentioned in the New Testament, she appears in the Hebrews 11 "Hall of Faith":
"By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient." (Hebrews 11:31)
It indicates that the citizens of Jericho were being punished because of their "disobedience." God was punishing their sin as he had promised Abraham centuries before:
"In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure" (Genesis 15:16).
By Joshua's time, their sins of idolatry and licentiousness have reached this full measure. Yet, the well-known prostitute of Jericho who puts her faith in God is saved, both from temporal destruction and eternal destruction.
The third time we see Rahab in the New Testament, James says of her,
"Was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?" (James 2:25)
She is mentioned in the same breath as Abraham, the father of faith, whose faith was "credited to him as righteousness" (James 2:23 quoting Genesis 15:6). This is sometimes called "imputed righteousness." In the same way, God counts your faith as righteousness and forgives you through Jesus Christ.
Q3. (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:5; Matthew 1:5) Why is a
prostitute honored by being mentioned three times in the New Testament? How does
God look on prostitution? On prostitutes? How did Jesus treat prostitutes? What
does this teach us about God's attitude toward sinners and sin?
The king's men bring the king's message about the Israelite spies.
"3 'Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.'
... 4b She said, 'Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. 5 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.' 6 (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.)
7 So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut." (2:2-7)
But how are we to deal with Rahab's deceitfulness? This is not an easy issue, nor can we treat it fully in the space here. However, I think these are the important points, which I could liberally document from Scripture.
- The Scripture is clear that lying is sinful. Falsehood is universally condemned.
- God is known as a God of truth. He never lies. We are called to emulate him, and to be a people of truth.
- Even though some men and women of God did tell untruths (Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, and Peter), there are never commended for it. Rahab is commended for "welcoming the spies" (Hebrews 11:31) and helping them "when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction" (James 2:25). She is not commended for her lie.
However, consider that in everyday life we commonly place limits on truthfulness.
- Some people have a right to know things; others don't. "It's none of your business" is often an appropriate response to a probing questioner.
- Being truthful does not necessarily mean telling everything you know.
- In a time of war, we consider it permissible to deceive enemies with feints and disinformation. We even seek to deceive burglars with lights on timers to make them think we're home when we're not.
Rahab's case doesn't seem to be that far from the twentieth century, where people such as Corrie ten Boom hid Jews in their homes from the Nazis who sought to destroy them. The very act of hiding someone is an act of deception. Does the end justify the means? When an enemy soldier comes to the door and asks, "Are you hiding any Jews in your home?" what do you answer?
- "No." A bald-faced falsehood, or
- "Yes." A truthful statement, but an invitation for the soldiers to carry out their evil that makes you complicit in their evil intent.
I suppose there are other things that could be said that would not be a lie. "You're welcome to come in and look around," is neutral. It is not a lie, though it intends to deceive the soldier into thinking that you have nothing to hide, which is not true. How many times have you thought of what you should have said after the conversation is over? Too often!
The Bible condemns a particular kind of deceit: lying under oath. The Third Commandment says:
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who takes his name in vain." (Exodus 20:7)
When people are sworn in court, "so help me God," they are taking the name of the Lord. They have taken a solemn oath to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God." If they don't tell the truth after having sworn by God to do so, then they have taken the name of the Lord in vain. Deceit in a legal context also explains the Ninth Commandment:
"You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." (Exodus 20:16)
It is one thing to give into the temptation to lie to keep ourselves out of trouble. Our motive is clearly selfish, and God instructs us to tell the truth.
But it's another thing to tell a falsehood because we know that if we tell the truth, innocent people will die. Lying is an evil, but it seems like "the lesser of two evils" because we don't know how to do what we know to be right without lying. Life is sometimes messy like that, though we gradually gain wisdom from our sins and mistakes.
When Jesus was pressed by questions meant to trick him, his Father gave him supernatural wisdom to confound his enemies. We need that kind of wisdom in the face of evil.
So what do we do when we feel forced to tell a lie? Justify ourselves? No, that becomes a slippery slope that leads to justifying lying more and more often. Rather we should confess to God our sin of lying and ask for forgiveness, and also ask for wisdom in the future to know how to tell the truth without compromise.
Q4. (Joshua 2:4-6) Does God honor Rahab for lying to the
king's men? Is her lying justified in this case? Is there ever a time it might
be permissible to lie?
Rahab tells the spies what they must do to escape the king's men searching for them, but before she sends them off, she bargains with them -- with her life and their lives in the balance. There is no room for deceit here! She calls on them to swear an oath of truthfulness and faithfulness in the name of their God.
She is asking them to "testify under oath" that they will keep their promise. Who knows better than Rahab how easy it is to lie to keep yourself out of trouble. Her livelihood had depended upon it. Since she believes in the great power of Yahweh, she wants the spies to take Yahweh's name as an assurance that they will keep their word. If the spies break their word it would be breaking the Second Commandment, "taking the name of the LORD their God in vain" (Exodus 20:7). Rather than being a sign of Rahab's unbelief, this is probably another indication of her belief in the true God.
James J. Tissot, 'The Flight of the Spies' (1896-1902), gouache on board, 11-9/16 in. x 6-7/8 in. The Jewish Museum, New York.
"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.'
14 'Our lives for your lives!' the men assured her. 'If you don't tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land.'
15 So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall. 16 Now she had said to them, 'Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.'" (2:12-16)
The king's troops would search for the spies in the opposite direction -- along the fords of the Jordan, expecting them to cross over so they could escape and relay to Joshua what they had learned. However, Rahab tells them to go the opposite direction of what the troops would expect, to hide in the deep canyons of the hills east of Jericho until the search was called off.
The spies have sworn to protect her when Jericho falls -- they had to, afraid that otherwise she might have turned them in! But now they clarify the terms of the agreement.
"17 The men said to her, 'This oath you made us swear will not be binding on us 18 unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house. 19 If anyone goes outside your house into the street, his blood will be on his own head; we will not be responsible. As for anyone who is in the house with you, his blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on him. 20 But if you tell what we are doing, we will be released from the oath you made us swear.'
21 'Agreed,' she replied. 'Let it be as you say.' So she sent them away and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window." (2:17-21)
What is the meaning of the scarlet cord? There have been many theories, including that it represents the blood of atonement. S.D. Walters has suggested that the scarlet rope may have been the mark of a prostitute, a "red rope" district if you will. Scarlet in the New Testament is associated with sensuality. The Great Prostitute in Revelation 17 sits on a scarlet beast, and was dressed in purple and scarlet (Revelation 17:4). But symbolism aside, a red rope hanging outside a window in the wall would be unique; it couldn't be missed or mistaken for something else.
And so the spies escape and return to Joshua brimming full of intelligence information and an amazing story of how God gave faith to a prostitute.
"22 When they left, they went into the
hills and stayed there three days, until the pursuers had searched all along the
road and returned without finding them.
23 Then the two men started back. They went down out of the hills, forded the river and came to Joshua son of Nun and told him everything that had happened to them. 24 They said to Joshua, 'The LORD has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us.'" (2:22-24)
The spies have discerned the morale in Jericho. They have heard Rahab's faith and have seen God's hand in the whole adventure.
Joshua honors the spies' oath to Rahab. During the Battle of Jericho, Joshua commands the two spies to find Rahab and give her safe passage.
"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 and brothers and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel." (6:22-23)
Rahab and her family were safe, though perhaps not trusted enough to dwell within the camp of Israel's fighting men.
When you take the time to examine Rahab, you find a remarkable woman who demonstrates a remarkable faith. But God's forgiveness is even more remarkable.
Since I have thousands of webpages online, I receive my share of e-mail. This week I received an unsigned note from a man who objected to one of my articles on forgiveness:
"With all due respect, the article about forgiveness seems to be nothing more than exactly that which murderers and criminals want to hear so that they can keep committing their crimes, because God and His good people are suckers and will keep on forgiving them no matter what they do!"
Forgiveness is hard for even us Christians to accept. We are not nearly so inclined to forgive as God. Nor are we inclined to forgive sins again and again. But, contrary to my anonymous friend, I believe our God is full of forgiveness, full of grace, full of mercy. No, we can't trifle with God. When we do, we experience his uncomfortable discipline in our lives. But he does forgive. Again and again.
God forgave Rahab her prostitution. He forgave David his adultery and murder. He forgave Peter his denials. He forgave Paul his persecution. And he will forgive you. Trust him as Rahab did, and bask in his grace and cleansing.
Lessons for Disciples
Lessons in book formats are available.
The disciple lessons from Rahab's life are clear.
- We shouldn't underestimate God. He can give spiritual insight and faith to anyone -- even pagan prostitutes like Rahab. Her faith is mentioned three times in the New Testament.
- Rahab showed her faith by her actions to hide the spies; faith without works is dead.
Father, give us faith like Rahab to see who you are and what you are doing in our times, and to align ourselves with you. Give us the courage to do what is right, even when in doing so we risk all we hold dear. And give us the courage to proclaim your great grace far and wide. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
"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 2:11, NIV)
 D. W. Wead, "Harlot," ISBE 2:616-617.
 R.K. Harrison, "Flax," ISBE 2:313. Flax is produced from the herbaceous plant Linum usitatissimum L. which grows up to 4 feet in height.
 Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller (revised by Boyce M. Bennett, Jr. and David H. Scott), Harper's Encyclopedia of Bible Life (Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 377-378.
 "Cord" (NIV) is tiqwâ. The root qāwâ means "to wait or to look for with eager expectation." It is used only twice in the Old Testament in the sense of cord (verses 17 and 21). A closely related noun qaw refers to a measuring line or plummet line used in construction (John E. Hartley, qāwâ, TWOT #1994d). The rope used to let them down from her window is a different word, chebel (from ḥābal, "to bind"), "cord, rope, tackling, line," such as a coarse rope for pulling Jeremiah out of a cistern or bracing a ship's mast and securing the sail ("tackling") (Carl Phillip Weber, ḥābal, TWOT #592b).
In-depth Bible study books
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- Apostle Paul: Passionate Discipleship
- Disciple's Guide to the Holy Spirit
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ