Faith Hanging On A Thread

"By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace."—Hebrews 11:31

By Carl Hagensick

By the grace of God even a harlot could become a hero of faith. While some, eager to protect Rahab’s reputation, hold that the word translated harlot can also be translated innkeeper, the distinction is more apparent than real. Nelson’s Bible Dictionary, after discussing cult prostitution, states: "A second class of prostitutes consisted of those who owned bars or inns and had sexual relations with the patrons who desired their services. Rahab of Jericho was such a woman (Josh. 2:1; 6:17-25). God had mercy on her, and she was delivered and transformed. Her name is included in the genealogy of the Messiah (Matt. 1:5)."

As such she may have had clients who merely sought lodging as well as those who had more intimate dealings in mind. This may explain why the spies went to her house in the first place—merely seeking a night’s rest.

The name Rahab means pride and may be further indicative of the worldliness of her parentage and upbringing.

Rahab’s Faith

Joshua had sent out two spies to determine the strength of Jericho in preparation to do battle against it. They lodged at Rahab’s inn. The king of Jericho sent men to apprehend the spies, having heard of their mission. While admitting that the spies had been there, Rahab protected them by lying to the king’s agents, saying: "And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them" (Josh. 2:5).

Then, returning to the spies whom she had hidden behind stalks of flax on her roof, she confessed her faith: "And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath (Josh. 2:9-11)

The Basis of Her Faith

As an innkeeper Rahab would have been well informed of outside events as travelers would talk of their journeys and experiences. She had heard of the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea some forty year prior, and of the recent conquests of Israel in the conquest of the two kings of the Amorites. Word of these events had spread through Jericho and frightened the people. But fright is not faith.

Rahab may well have shared the fright of the other townspeople, but she reasoned upon the events reported and drew a conclusion that others had not drawn; namely, that if Israel had enjoyed such miraculous victories there god must be the true God. She had even sought out his name, as is indicated in her concluding words to the spies: "for the LORD [Jehovah] your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath" (v. 11).

Rahab had thus progressed from information to belief in the truthfulness of her information to a reasonable conclusion from it—that Jehovah was God. Now, to prove that it was really faith, action was required. This final step of faith is recorded in James 2:25, "Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?"

The Token of her Faith

The other way by which she sent the spies was circuitous. First, dwelling on the city wall, she let them down by rope. Secondly, she instructed them that their pursuers were sent eastward to the Jordan, therefor they should go westward into the surrounding mountains for three days until their pursuers would return. These were the same mountains where, centuries later, Jesus would be driven by the spirit to be tempted after his baptism in the river Jordan.

In return for saving their lives, she requested that the lives of herself and her family be saved.

A sign, or token of her faith, was established between her and the spies. As a memorial of the rope by which they had been saved, she was to hang a scarlet thread from her window until the Israelites would attack.

The effectiveness of her sign soon became evident. One week later the Israelites began their attack by circling the city for seven days with the blowing of trumpets. On the last day they marched around the city seven times and the walls collapsed—though the house of Jericho which was in the wall was not destroyed. Before burning the city, Joshua sent the two spies back into the city to rescue Rahab and her family. "But Joshua had said unto the two men that had spied out the country, Go into the harlot’s house, and bring out thence the woman, and all that she hath, as ye sware unto her. And the young men that were spies went in, and brought out Rahab, and her father, and her mother, and her brethren, and all that she had; and they brought out all her kindred, and left them without the camp of Israel" (Josh. 6:22, 23).

The Rewards of Faith

Rahab’s faith was richly rewarded in at least four ways.

A NEW GOD: Becoming a proselyte to the Jewish faith this Canaanite, in effect, said the same thing to the two spies that her future great granddaughter-in-law, Ruth the Moabitess would say to Naomi: "thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (Ruth 1:16). Her new religion not only brought her peace of mind, but gave her all the advantages of a covenant relationship with God which Israel alone enjoyed (Amos 3:2).

A NEW HUSBAND: While the identity of the two spies is not specifically given, we can speculate that one of them was Salmon of the tribe of Judah. His father Nahshon was the leader of that tribe during the earlier wilderness wanderings (Num. 1:7; 2:3). Since Judah was the leading tribe (Num. 10:14) and since Nahshon had died in the wilderness, it is likely that his son Salmon would have taken his place. Whether it was on this occasion or later is inconsequential for, in either case, Salmon of the princely line in Judah, the royal tribe of Israel, became the husband of Rahab (Matt. 1:5).

AN ILLUSTRIOUS FAMILY: The family of Salmon and Ruth became the royal family of Israel. "And Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, And Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David" (Ruth 4:21, 22). Most importantly, she became an ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 3:32; Matt. 1:5). In addition to the kingly line, rabbinic tradition states that Rahab was the ancestor of eight prophets, including Jeremiah and the prophetess Huldah.

LONGEVITY: While we are not informed of the age of Rahab at her death there is evidence that she lived an unusually long life. Being an innkeeper, as well as a worker in flax, she was of sufficient age to have accumulated property and a business clientele before she entertained the spies. The book of Judges was written some 40 years later and notes Rahab as being remarkable for being alive at the time of the writing: "And Joshua saved Rahab the harlot alive, and her father’s household, and all that she had; and she dwelleth in Israel even unto this day; because she hid the messengers, which Joshua sent to spy out Jericho" (Josh. 6:25).

The brief genealogy given in Ruth spans a period of 490 years in just five generations—Ruth, Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David—an average period of 98 years between generations. We know that David was a son of Jesse’s old age and that Boaz was Ruth’s second husband. This leads to the conclusion that Rahab achieved great longevity and was probably well advanced in years when she gave birth to Boaz.

Rahab and Lydia

From the two pieces of evidence that Rahab hid the spies behind sheaves of flax and the scarlet thread we have a hint that Rahab had a sideline business dealing in linen garments. This suggests an interesting comparison between her and a New Testament hero of faith—Lydia.

"And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us" (Acts 16:14, 15).

  • As Lydia, a Gentile who had become a proselyte to Judaism, was the first European to be converted by the Apostle Paul; so Rahab, a Gentile, was the first in the promised land to become a convert to Judaism.
  • As Lydia offered her home for hospitality to the strangers from Asia Minor, so Rahab housed the Israelite spies.
  • As not only Lydia, but her whole household, was saved; so Rahab’s faith not only saved herself, but her entire household.
  • As Lydia attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul, so Rahab carefully heeded the instructions of the spies.
  • As Lydia was a seller of purple [purple-dyed garments], so Rahab was a merchant in red linen garments.

A Virtuous Woman

Still another remarkable parallel exists for Rahab. In Proverbs 31:10-31 we have a description of a virtuous woman, many of the details of which are appropriate to Rahab.

  • "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. . . . She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. . . . She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant" (Prov. 31:10, 13, 24). Rahab dealt in flax and linen.
  • "She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy" (Prov. 31:20). So Rahab stretched forth her hands to the needy spies
  • "She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet" (Prov. 31:21) Because of the cost of the scarlet dye, clothing of scarlet was reserved for durable and warm fabrics, indicative of the kind of clothing which Rahab may have made.
  • "Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land" (Prov. 31:23). Salmon, Rahab’s husband, was one of the elders of the tribe of Judah.
  • "Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her" (Prov. 31:28). How blessed has been the memory of Rahab, a memory blessed by the royal line of children which came from her faith and conversion to the God of Israel.
  • "Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised" (Prov. 31:30).. The Jewish rabbis hold that Rahab was one of the four most beautiful women in the world. Whether the tradition is so or not we do not know; but it is not for her beauty that she is remembered, rather she is praised because she feareth the LORD.

"Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates."—Proverbs 31:31