Rahab and the Scarlet Thread
The story of Rahab, as encountered in the second and sixth chapters of Joshua, is a key component to the Israelite’s conquest of the ancient city of Jericho, but there's so much more to it than that.
While camped at Shittim, Joshua sends two spies on a mission to the city of Jericho. Jericho was a prosperous city-state and was well-protected by its walls. However, the spies manage to infiltrate the fortress city and find lodging with a prostitute named Rahab. In short order, “someone [tells] the king of Jericho, ‘Men from the Israelites have come here tonight to spy on the land.’” (Joshua. 2:2) Rather than hand over her Israelite guests to the authorities, Rahab tells them that the men have already left, and the authorities leave her dwelling in pursuit. Rahab tells the spies whom she has hidden on her roof that she knows the God of Israel is great and that she fears Jericho will fall as a result of God’s might. In exchange for hiding and protecting the spies, Rahab asks that they promise safety for her and her family once the city is conquered. The spies agree, and they tell Rahab to bring all her loved ones into her home and to mark her window with a red cord. She helps the spies escape through the same window she is to mark.
Later, after the children of Israel have marched around Jericho’s walls for seven days, God delivers the city into their hands. The wall falls, and so does the city. Only Rahab and her family are saved, and they are welcomed into the community of the Israelites.
The aspect of Rahab’s story I find most interesting is her occupation. Without commentary or judgement, she is described as a prostitute in nearly every translation of the Bible. (The reader of Joshua is left in the dark as to whether the Israelite spies are Rahab’s customers as well as her guests.) According to the law of Moses, Rahab was impure, both as a foreigner and as a prostitute, yet she is very clearly the heroine of the story.
Her unsolicited confession of God’s might and power is incredibly moving, especially coming from the lips of one outside the community of the Israelites. The tales of victories that instill fear in the residents of Jericho, cause Rahab to proclaim, “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.” Rahab knows that victory is the Lord’s, and she wants to be on the Lord’s side!
As with Cain after he killed his brother, Abel, we once again see God’s grace showing up in an unexpected place and God’s mercy being showered on a surprising character. The Old Testament provides its readers with some very clear and often harsh laws concerning purity, sex, and morality. Yet the text also includes amazing examples of God’s expansive capacity to love and to bless.
When God looked down on Rahab, God didn’t see Jericho’s prostitute. God saw a brave woman who recognized God’s might. God saw a woman who was willing to risk everything to save her family. God saw a woman who honored her word. God saw the woman whose descendants would include a man after God’s own heart, as well as the One who is God incarnate, Jesus.
Thanks be to God for ancient and enduring grace.