Profiles of Faith: Rahab - From Harlot to Heroine

by Jerold Aust Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Posted on 16-Mar-2002
If a common harlot of Canaan could become an uncommon saint of faith and courage and receive the privilege of motherhood in the line of Jesus Christ, then surely nothing is impossible with God. Rahab's amazing story is a lesson for us all.

For 40 long, rigorous years, Moses—under God’s direction—led the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness. God had delivered them from Egypt, helped them cross the Red Sea on dry ground and supernaturally defeated the enemies who tried to thwart their path to Canaan.

Now (around 1400 B.C.) Israel was about to enter the land God promised to the nation. God had transferred the mantle of Israel’s leadership to Joshua, an able, faithful and courageous leader. Before Israel entered Canaan, Joshua sent a reconnaissance party of two men to spy out the land just west of the Jordan River, paying special attention to the formidable city of Jericho.

Rahab hiding the spies under flax

It didn’t take the pair long to reach Jericho, a bustling, fortified city strategically situated in the fertile plains of the Jordan valley. To avoid being noticed, they blended with the busy pedestrians outside the great city walls. It was difficult not to be visibly impressed with Jericho’s massive fortifications. Still, the spies’ primary job was to take mental notes of the city’s layout and fortifications. Instantly they realized that these impressive man-made barriers would never be breached or destroyed unless God miraculously intervened for the Israelites.

We can learn a powerful lesson from Rahab. Her example demonstrates living faith in a forgiving and merciful God.

The incredible events that followed include an encouraging lesson involving a woman who had lived an ungodly life. Without a doubt Rahab the harlot helped save the lives of the Israelite spies, which in turn set Israel on the path to conquering Jericho and moving into the Promised Land.

Responding to God

What do we know about Rahab, who played such a pivotal role in the fall of Jericho? Halley’s Bible Handbook suggests she may have been a temple prostitute, which in Canaanite eyes was an acceptable line of work (2000, p. 190). Rahab and her family lived within the outer city wall. Her house was apparently part of the wall. It is possible that the house doubled as an inn since the spies were sought there. Besides her infamous profession, it appears that Rahab engaged in less-questionable labor as well. Either raising or buying flax, she dried it on her rooftop and made linen from it.

The whole city had received news about the miraculous events and conquests of the wandering nation of Israel, yet Rahab was the only resident of Jericho who resolved to fear and obey Israel’s God. This she did even before she had the opportunity to interact with the spies from Israel. Although the Canaanites had many gods, she had enough understanding to realize that the God of Israel was no ordinary Canaanite deity.

Upon entering Jericho to determine its strength, the spies conferred immediately with Rahab. The ensuing conversation revealed her understanding of the true God and her determination to help His chosen people.

When the king of Jericho heard that spies from Israel had entered his city, he immediately sent soldiers to Rahab’s house. Word got to Rahab that the king’s men were coming to investigate her and her two guests. Understanding the gravity of the situation and moving with haste, Rahab hid the spies under the drying flax on her rooftop. There she made a covenant with them: She would help them to safety; they, in turn, had to spare her and her family.

The spies then negotiated their side of the agreement: She had to keep their location a secret along with helping them to safety. Moreover, she was required to gather all of her father’s family under her roof and identify her house by hanging a scarlet cord from a window.

The deal struck, God afterward gave Jericho into Israel’s hands by flattening its walls. Yet, incredibly, Rahab’s house was left standing. As had been agreed, Rahab and her family were delivered. They made their home with Israel from that day on.

But the story doesn’t end there, as we’ll see.

Through faith and courage

Surprisingly, Rahab is one of two women named in Hebrews 11 as examples of godly faith. The other is Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Few would question Sarah’s inclusion. She exemplified, in most respects, what are generally considered Christian values and qualities. But Rahab? Why would the holy, righteous God include the name of a harlot as one of His faithful saints?

God, we must realize, shows His great mercy and power through human weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9). Out of Rahab’s weakness she was made strong in faith—through the power of God. The record of her deeds provides sufficient scriptural evidence for why God included her in the faith chapter: “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (Hebrews 11:31).

Many people would not risk their lives for family and friends. Yet Rahab risked her life to protect “enemy” spies. Rahab focused on the godly mission of the spies and her realization that they represented the God of Israel. Rahab didn’t believe just in the existence of God, she literally believed what He revealed. That is, she believed it was He who was bringing Israel into the Promised Land. Risking her very life, she had no more evidence to go on than the reports from others that somehow, in some way, the God of Israel had given His people great victories over more-powerful foes.

Rahab stated confidently:

“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” (Joshua 2:9-11).

Rahab was here living by faith and not by sight, for, though she saw none of these events actually happen, she had faith to believe that Israel’s God was more powerful than all others and would take care of her and her family too.

Rahab’s faith and conviction gave her the courage to look death in the face—and live. As Proverbs 28:1 tells us, “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” Courage is born from unwavering faith, as Rahab demonstrated.

The merciful and patient God

We can learn a powerful lesson from Rahab. Her example demonstrates living faith in a forgiving and merciful God.

We should note, however, that Rahab’s response to God was not perfect. She lied to protect the spies’ whereabouts. Sadly, some will use this to excuse lying when, in their determination, it’s for a good cause. However, God’s law makes it clear that lying is never acceptable (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 12:22). We should bear in mind that Rahab is commended for her faith, not her lying—and realize that her faith was not yet educated, so to speak.

It may even be that Rahab did not yet fully understand the sinfulness of her past way of life. But she did know she had lived apart from the true God and now believed He would receive her if she would serve Him. No doubt this fact would later lead her to a committed life of obedience to God.

No, God did not condemn her for not telling the truth about the spies’ whereabouts; He commended her for hiding His courageous representatives. The apostle James later wrote: “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (James 2:25)—her works being a natural response to her faith. Had she known the truth about lying, this verse would likely read differently. But she acted in the best way she knew—and a merciful and patient God proclaimed her a heroine of faith.

Rahab also showed a deep devotion to those close to her. Considering the terrible destruction about to befall the great city of Jericho, Rahab could easily have thought only of her own safety, ignoring the welfare of others. Yet her agreement with the spies was that they should guarantee not only her safety but that of her entire family. Rahab’s faith, courage and concern for others saved her family and herself.

“But Joshua had said to the two men who had spied out the country, ‘Go into the harlot’s house, and from there bring out the woman and all that she has, as you swore to her.’ And the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab, her father, her mother, her brothers, and all that 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” (Joshua 6:22-25; see also Joshua 6:17-21).

Yes, the Israelites received Rahab and her family into the nation of Israel. Over time, she would have learned the laws of God and come to serve Him more completely, repudiating the mistakes of her past. Indeed, being of Canaan and a former prostitute, she must have convincingly changed her life to have been able to marry a prominent Israelite.

Messianic hope

Surprisingly, Rahab married Salmon, the son of Judah’s tribal leader. From this marriage would come their son Boaz, a faithful man of God. Boaz would marry Ruth (of the book of Ruth), and their son Obed would be the father of Jesse, the father of King David. From David would descend the Savior of all mankind, Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5-6; Matthew 1:15-16; Ruth 4:21-22; 1 Chronicles 2:10-15). Amazingly, then, a former prostitute of Canaan would become what every Israelite woman hoped to be—a mother in the line of the Messiah.

In fact, Rahab experienced the messianic hope in an especially personal way—finding deliverance, physical and spiritual, through the mercy of God. Rahab’s story represents what God has in store for those in non-Israelite nations (the gentiles), who are also promised God’s salvation (Acts 2:21; Romans 9:22-26). Her conversion reminds us that one day God will write His laws on the hearts and minds of all mankind, converting all peoples (Hebrews 8:11).

A transformed life, like that experienced by Rahab, is there for you if you follow the apostle Peter’s instruction: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

If a common harlot of Canaan could become an uncommon saint of faith and courage and receive the privilege of motherhood in the line of Jesus Christ, then surely nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26). Rahab’s amazing story is a lesson for us all.

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