Rahab: harlot, heroine or both?

Joshua 2, 6

Depending on the version in the Bible you read, our next woman is described as either a harlot or a  prostitute (although some Rabbinic texts describe her as an Innkeeper). Yet despite her likely profession, and even though she wasn’t an Israelite, she is one of the few women named in the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.

Abraham was the father of Isaac….and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, …and Jesse the father of King David…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah

Matthew 1

So, who was she?

Some background. Moses had died and his assistant Joshua had taken over the leadership of the Israelites, who were still in exile in the wilderness. God had promised them that they would be led into the Promised Land and they had camped in the Jordan valley opposite the City of Jericho in hope that this was indeed the land they had waited for for so long. But first they needed to check out the city and so Joshua sent some spies on a reconnaissance mission.

Rahab was a citizen of Jericho and she lived literally on the edges of the City:

..her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself.

Joshua 2.15

Joshua’s spies went to stay at Rahab’s house ‘and spent the night there’. We don’t hear whether they were doing so because she had an Inn or because of her other profession… we can only imagine! The King of Jericho found out about them and ordered that they be brought to him. Rahab was cunning though. She had heard about their God and also realised these men might be useful to her and her family. And so she hid them in her room, lied to the King’s men by sending them in the wrong direction, and then hatched a plan.

Before the men are allowed to sleep, Rahab went up to the roof to  speak to them:

I know that the Lord has given you the land…. we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea… The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and earth below.

Joshua 2.8
Rahab Helping the Two Israelite Spies., Frederick Richard Pickersgill, illustrator of the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster

She defied the orders of the King (rather like Shiprah and Puah, the midwives), and made a pact with the spies. She would help them escape and in return they were to ensure that all her family would be unharmed when they eventually come to take the land. The Israelites would know them because of the red cords tied on their windows. The pact is made and the spies escape.

A little while later the City of Jericho was surrounded by the Israelites who marched round the city walls for seven days blowing their trumpets and processing the Arc of the Covenant.  They eventually took the city killing all those who lived there, but Rahab and all her family were spared and they become incorporated into the Jewish people.

This blog is not the place to defend or attack the actions of the ancient people of Israel in the time of Joshua, though it’s hard imagine that the God of love and justice ever commanded the destruction of a city and its people.

Instead, let us focus on this remarkable woman who comes to be named in the New Testament as a hero of faith (Hebrews 11) and as an example of faith in action (Book of James ). She used her position, her (perhaps intimate) knowledge of people both within and outside of her culture, her home, persuasive powers, charm and wily intellect, to protect the Israelite spies and to secure the lives of her entire family, a family that would in time include Jesus of Nazareth. It is an impressive feat.

Rahab: harlot or heroine? Perhaps she was both.

Reflection and Prayer

Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.
Matthew 21.31 (from the parable of the two sons in the vineyard)

Jesus was criticised by the religious leaders for spending time with those they considered to be ‘sinners’ and ‘unclean’, the prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers. Yet they were often the first to recognise that He was the Saviour, the one who would bring healing and wholeness. Rahab’s story reminds us that we too often make judgements about people because of their lifestyle, profession or values. She also reminds us that God often chooses the most unlikely people to bring about His purposes, even women like Rabah, and you and me!

Many of us are fearful for families and friends at this time of Covid 19. Let us pray for God’s protection, especially for those who are sick, and those who care for them. Perhaps we might think about what we can do to support someone who is fearful.

Father, give to us, and to all your people,
in times of anxiety, serenity;
in times of hardship, courage;
in times of uncertainty, patience;
and at all times, a quiet trust in your wisdom, protection and love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
A Prayer from New Every Morning

Author: clarehayns

College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator of Christ Church, Oxford | Mum of three boys | wife of a juggler and magician | Council of Reference of ZANE - http://www.zane-zimbabweanationalemergency.com | enjoys board games, dog walking, films, eating out.

6 thoughts on “Rahab: harlot, heroine or both?”

  1. Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying this series. I knew a little about most of the ladies featured, but it is so helpful to be able to appreciate their wider context.
    Thank you. And the paintings of each of them are amazing too.


  2. Thank you again. As ever we come as we are. With all our baggage. We don’t come perfect, tht is something the Lord works on, as we give our lives to Him on a daily basis.
    Appreciate you in remonding me again of the above. It is all of Him.

    Liked by 1 person

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