Rahab has the distinction of being one of the few Biblical figures who was the object of an attempted moral make-over—or, more bluntly, of a well-intentioned white-wash. In Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 she is referred to as “Rahab the porne”—in quaint English, “Rahab the harlot”, in more common English “Rahab the prostitute”—and this has not sat well with some expositors. Accordingly they have sought to suggest that she was not so much a prostitute as a simple innkeeper (a supposition at least as old as the Jewish historian Josephus in the first century). The narrative containing her story in Joshua 2 refers to her as “a zonah whose name was Rahab” (v. 1) and it is suggested that the Hebrew noun zonah (which normally means “prostitute”, its meaning in Genesis 38:15 and Isaiah 1:21) here is derived from the Hebrew zun, meaning “to nourish” so that she was a hostess, not a hooker. Unfortunately for the kindly revisionists, the meaning of the Greek word “porne” is quite clear and contains no such possible ambiguity. Rahab was a prostitute. Or, perhaps one might say more delicately, her inn offered a special kind of room-service.
Admittedly one needs to differentiate the services offered by Rahab in her day in her pagan town of Jericho from those of the prostitutes plying their trade in the cities of the world today. Rahab did not linger by the roadside trying to attract customers. She indeed ran an inn—one which was also locally known and used as a brothel. As such it was frequented by many men, which is doubtless why the Israelite spies went there: they were not looking for sexual services, but for local information. This cultural distinction however does not exculpate Rahab, which is why the text in Joshua refers to her as a zonah, not an innkeeper. The emphasis is on her pagan sin. It is as if the narrator of the Biblical text was saying, “Of course she was a prostitute—what else could you expect in pagan Jericho?”
That, of course, was just the point—even a benighted pagan like Rahab knew the power of Israel’s God: “I know that Yahweh has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how Yahweh dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan whom you utterly destroyed” (v. 9-10).
In admitting this to the spies Rahab was not simply getting something off her chest; she was defecting. For she went on to offer them a deal: “Swear to me by Yahweh that as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign, and save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them and deliver our lives from death” (v. 13). That is, she was asking for safety and asylum for her and her entire family after Jericho fell.
The spies naturally agreed. There was a condition, of course, given the difficulty of identifying her family in the coming melee. They would all be safe only if they stayed together with her in that room when the slaughter began. Her off-limits house would be identified by the coming invaders if she tied a scarlet cord in the window—otherwise, no deal.
Why a scarlet cord? The vivid red colour would be more obvious to invading soldiers in the heat of the moment than undyed cloth. But it is hard not to think of the red blood which the Israelites daubed over the lintels of their homes in Egypt which kept those inside safe from the destroyer on the night of the first Passover. On that night of death and slaughter in Egypt when the angel of death passed through the land slaying the firstborn of every household, the destroyer would pass over the homes which had sacrificed a lamb and placed some of its blood on their doorposts and the lintel of the house (Exodus 12). On that terrible night, all the Israelite families were similarly commanded to stay together within the safety of their house, for God told them, “None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning” (Exodus 12:22).
In the same way, Rahab’s family would be safe as long as they did not go out of the door of her house until the slaughter ended. The spies were clear about this: “If anyone goes out of the doors of our house into the street, his blood shall be upon his head” (Joshua 2:19). The parallelism between that night in Egypt and that day in Jericho suggest that the former indeed offered a model for the latter. If that is true, the scarlet cord, like the blood of the Passover lamb, also offers a type of the blood of Christ.
Rahab of course followed the instructions of the spies, and by this obedience she was saved, justified, and lived to see another day. The fall of Jericho was terrible, and no doubt Rahab and her family put their hands over their ears as the slaughter and the screams began. But they survived, and the narrator of the sacred text records their happy ending: “Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive, and she dwelt in Israel to this day” (Joshua 6:25).
Her defection was well rewarded; when her world and her old life collapsed around her and everything went up in flames, she and her family were all safe. They walked out of the smoking wreckage that was Jericho into a new life, with a new people, and a new God. More than that, her family had a future destiny they could then scarcely have imagined, for from her line would come the Messiah. For Rahab married Salmon, and their line eventually produced David the King, from whose line Jesus was born (Ruth 4:21-22, Matthew 1:5-6). The Salmon whom Rahab married, it has been suggested with some plausibility, was one of the spies.
Rahab the prostitute may be thought by some to be an unlikely teacher for pious Christians. Yet she has three things to teach us.
First of all, looking at her life it is clear that past sin presents no problem if we will but repent and take refuge in the mercy of God. How many men passed the night under the roof of her inn before the spies came? Quite a few, one imagines. The text portrays her as a sinful pagan, a sexually immoral idolater, part and parcel of doomed Jericho. But she found forgiveness, peace, hope, and a new life when she abandoned her loyalty to Jericho and its gods and came trembling to the God of Israel. Though her sins were as scarlet as the cord hung in her window, they became white as snow. She was willing and obedient, and so she lived to eat the good of the land (Isaiah 1:18-19). We too can find mercy when we come in trembling repentance to our Lord.
Secondly, Rahab teaches us that to be saved, a change in our life is necessary. To save herself and her family, Rahab needed to take action, hiding the spies and sending them out on a route other than the false trail she laid out for her countrymen—and this despite the threat to her life if her actions were discovered by them. Merely saying to the spies, “I believe in your God; I’m on your side” would not have been enough. In the same way merely saying that we believe in God is insufficient unless this faith is reflected in our life. We are not saved by adhering to a mental proposition, but by living as the disciples of Jesus. That is why St. James said that Rahab the prostitute was justified by her works (James 2:25).
Finally, Rahab teaches us that the only place of eternal safety is found under the Blood of Christ. Like the Israelites huddling in their homes on that first Passover night, kept safe by the lamb’s blood daubed over their door, she and her family were safe only when they stayed within the four walls of the home on the window of which hung the scarlet cord. Outside that place of safety, all was divine wrath, retribution for sin, and death.
It will be the same on the Last Day. The wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, and the whole world will then perish in flame (Ephesians 5:6, 2 Peter 3:10). When the wrath of God descends upon the world as it once descended upon Egypt and Jericho, the only place of safety will be found under the Blood of Lamb. I cannot help but remember the words of the old Gospel chorus: “I’m under the blood of Jesus, safe in the Shepherd’s fold. I’m under the Blood of Jesus, safe when the night grows cold. Safe when the nations crumble, safe when the stars grow dim. I’m under the Blood of Jesus, and I am safe in Him.”
For many in the world, the notion of God’s coming wrath seems absurd. So it doubtless seemed in Egypt and in Jericho before the judgment came. But divine wrath will come nonetheless. Rahab’s pragmatic courage teaches us how to survive.