What One Prostitute Teaches the Church

What do we know of Rahab the prostitute? In the Old Testament, her name occurs only in Joshua 2 and 6. (The other references to Rahab ‘e.g. Psalm 87:4′ are not to Rahab the prostitute. The names are spelled differently in the Hebrew.) In the New Testament, Rahab is mentioned in three somewhat prominent passages: Jesus’ genealogy (Matt. 1:5), among the “heroes of faith” (Heb. 11:31), and as one who had both faith and works (James 2:25).

In the Joshua account, what first grabs our attention is the exciting storyline. There are spies, danger, deception, concealment, and escape. Rahab is quite the heroine, saving the spies from the king of Jericho and his minions. And her efforts are rewarded with safety for her family.

What is more fascinating, however, is the nature of this heroine. In a way, Rahab is the opposite of Israel. Israel was called to be holy; Rahab was a prostitute and sold her body to satisfy the lusts of men. Israel was a nation chosen by God for blessing; Rahab was a Canaanite, in the line of those cursed, with God’s judgment being stored up against her and her family.

Adultery and Idolatry

The terminology for adultery and idolatry, physical and spiritual fornication, are often interchangeable in the Old Testament. Just before Israel entered Canaan, they had been seduced by foreign women to worship false gods. Thus Rahab as a Canaanite prostitute would seem to embody the dangers facing Israel as they entered the land.

But what happens when holy, chosen Israel meets Rahab the Canaanite prostitute? The expected roles get reversed. Israel’s actions are questionable while Rahab saves the day. Rahab’s faith contrasts with Israel’s wavering.

Why do the spies go to a prostitute’s house? Even more, why did Joshua send spies at all? Are these strategic moves as they try to gain intelligence, or are they actions that display sinful lusts? The opening verses should make us question whether Joshua and Israel are being obedient, strong, and courageous as instructed in Joshua 1.

At first, the text leaves us guessing as to what the spies were doing with Rahab. (What would you think if someone told you he spent the night with a prostitute?) But as we read on, our fears are alleviated. But the relief comes from Rahab, not the spies. We never learn what they wanted to do, only what Rahab does. The spies are totally passive, at the mercy of Rahab. She hides them, provides them information, and helps them escape. All the spies do is nod their heads. An expedition doomed either by the immorality or incompetence of the spies has been saved by Rahab.

Rahab also makes a surprising declaration. She has heard of God’s great deeds and believed in him as God. She is ready to be a traitor to her own people in order to be allied with God’s people. In contrast, Joshua and Israel, who actually saw God’s acts of deliverance, struggle in their faith. The purpose of the spying trip seems to be to assure Joshua. The spies’ report sounds very similar to God’s words to Joshua in chapter 1. Didn’t God already say he was giving Israel the land?

And we cannot miss what the spies agree to do in order to escape. They make a covenant with a Canaanite! Israel was not to make any covenants with the Canaanites. Instead, all were to be devoted to destruction. As we read on in Joshua, we find that Rahab and her family are not the only Canaanites to be spared. The Gibeonites deceive Joshua and the Israelites into making a covenant with them. They, like Rahab, are allowed to live among Israel. The Gibeonite account is more explicit in indicating that the covenant was against God’s command, but the same issue is raised with Rahab.

Rahab and Israel

Rahab highlights Israel’s struggles. The contrast between Rahab and Achan is particularly forceful. On paper, Rahab was all wrong while Achan had all the external marks. Rahab was to be devoted to destruction; Achan was an inheritor of the blessings of promise. In the end, however, their roles are reversed again. Rahab and all her family were given life, living among the people of God. Achan and all his family were devoted to destruction.

Rahab was one under condemnation who was saved by grace. She, in many ways, forced her way into the covenant community, grasping for herself the promises and blessings to which she had no right. It is no wonder the New Testament writers find in her an example of faith. But her account also highlights one of the glories of the New Testament age. The good news she believed is now proclaimed freely to all, promiscuously even to the promiscuous!

Photo of Joshua J. Van Ee

Joshua J. Van Ee

Dr. Van Ee has taught language and biblical studies courses at Westminster Seminary California since 2002. He is an ordained minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America and enjoys various opportunities to preach and teach.​

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