Text: Joshua 2
The Israelites are camped just to the east of the river Jordan. It has been forty years since their escape from slavery in Egypt; forty years since they passed through the waters of the Red Sea; forty years of wandering and waiting. Now, fresh from crushing victories over the Amorites east of the Jordan, they are ready to cross the Jordan and take the Promised Land by storm. Their first target is Jericho, 6 or 7 miles away across the river. Joshua, their leader, sends two spies into Jericho to appraise the situation. The spies find lodging in a house owned by a prostitute named Rahab.
Jericho, however, has been on ‘red alert’, and the two Israelites have been spotted.
So Rahab gets a knock on her door. “Those two strangers who have just arrived at your place – they’re Israelites, come to spy out the land.” “Really?” answers Rahab. “I didn’t have a clue. Well, they’ve scarpered. They went thataway..no, thataway…oh, I don’t know; anyway, they’ve gone. You’d better chase after them as fast as you can. So the men rush off in the direction of the Jordan river and try to catch up with the spies.
Once the pursuers are out of sight, Rahab goes upstairs to her flat roof. Out from underneath a pile of drying flax crawl the two Israelite spies. She has hidden them there herself, and in doing so has just saved their lives. “Listen,” she says to them. “I’ve shown kindness to you by protecting you. Now you show kindness to me by sparing me and my family when you destroy our city.” The two spies solemnly agree to this. And then, because her house was built into the city wall, she is able to let them out of the city by a rope through the window. The spies lay low for a couple of days until the search party has given up looking for them. Then they go back across the Jordan and report their findings to Joshua.
This is a remarkable story about a remarkable woman. Curiously, the Book of Joshua would make good sense without the story of Rahab. The Israelites had a mandate to take Jericho and the whole land of Canaan by force and to destroy the inhabitants. Rahab is the exception to this rule. She is ‘a brand plucked from the fire.’ How did that happen?
Josh 2:9-11 – “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. 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. 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.”
It wasn’t just Rahab who knew about the Israelites. It wasn’t just Rahab who was afraid. Everyone in Jericho knew; everyone in Jericho was afraid. One difference was in the conclusion she drew from this knowledge: “I know that the LORD has given this land to you… the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” And the other difference was having drawn this conclusion, that she took action to protect the spies and her own family.
God is in the habit of plucking brands out of the fire. Unlikely people, sometimes from the depths of paganism, make the most of the limited knowledge they have, and find the grace that eludes those who seemed to be much better placed.
Naaman, the Syrian, was granted healing because he exercised faith, even though he was living in the midst of a pagan culture (2 Kings 5:15-19).
The people of Nineveh repented immediately when they heard Jonah’s preaching, even though they were a heathen society.
A Canaanite woman once came to Jesus, pleading on behalf of her demonised daughter. ‘His disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps nagging us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.’
A woman with a chronic haemorrhage only touched the hem of Christ’s garment and she was healed. She acted on the little knowledge that she did possess (Matt. 9:20-22).
None of these people looked much liked candidates for grace. As for Rahab, she was a pagan, a Canaanite, and a prostitute. Few of us would imagine that such a person would be interested in God. But who are we to judge who is open to God and who is not? Rahab was willing to risk everything she had for a God she barely knew. Who are we to gauge a person’s openness to God by his or her background, life-style, or appearance. We should let nothing get in the way of our telling people about God.
After all, what is our own story? According to Eph 2:1-3 each one of us was ‘dead in our transgressions and sins,’ and, like everyone else, ‘we were by nature objects of wrath.’ If truth be known, each believer is a brand plucked out of the fire.
And so this pagan prostitute takes her place in New Testament teaching as a pattern and model of faith. In Heb 11:31 she is one of just two women who are mentioned in faith’s hall of fame: ‘By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.’
In James 2:25 she is mentioned in the same breath as Abraham as one whose faith was not merely notional, but active: ‘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?’
But there is something else in the story of Rahab. What if those two spies had not gone to Rahab’s house in Jericho, but to the house next door? What if those looking for the spies had searched the house, and found them under the stalks of flax? What if the spies had not agreed to Rahab’s plea for mercy for herself and her family? But all these details did happen. And because of that, Rahab survived the destruction of Jericho, and married an Israelite, named Salmon. They had a son called Boaz, who married Ruth. They in turn had a son named Obed, and he became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of King David. And David was the ancestor of Jesus the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. Praise to our sovereign God who is able to knit together even the smallest details of peoples’ lives into the fabric of his unfolding plan of redemption, and to make everything find its centre and fulfilment in his beloved Son.