Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, ‘Go, view the land, especially Jericho.’ So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.’ Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.’ But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, ‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.’ She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord 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, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.’ The men said to her, ‘Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.’
Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself. She said to them, ‘Go towards the hill country, so that the pursuers may not come upon you. Hide yourselves there for three days, until the pursuers have returned; then afterwards you may go on your way.’ The men said to her, ‘We will be released from this oath that you have made us swear to you if we invade the land and you do not tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down, and you do not gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family. If any of you go out of the doors of your house into the street, they shall be responsible for their own death, and we shall be innocent; but if a hand is laid upon any who are with you in the house, we shall bear the responsibility for their death. But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be released from this oath that you made us swear to you.’ She said, ‘According to your words, so be it.’ She sent them away and they departed. Then she tied the crimson cord in the window. — Joshua 2:1-21 (NRSV)
Rahab was what is commonly known as a “workin’ girl.” The word “harlot” gets thrown around a lot in the Bible, usually about women who were somewhat outside the normal sphere of wife and mother, decently hidden away in the house just waiting for the man to come home from work. Rahab had a family to support, and apparently no husband to bring home the bacon so she could cook it. Harlot? Maybe. Woman with a lot of mouths to feed and a roof to keep over her head? Definitely.
The story picks up with the entrance of two spies who just happened to choose Rahab’s house as a place to hide. I mean, do you walk into a strange city where your clothes, accent and even lack of local knowledge or language would point you out in a New York minute and ask for the nearest prostitute who happens to live in a house with access to the outer wall of the city? That seems a bit far-fetched but in the world and words of the Bible, far-fetched things seem to be almost routine.
Sometimes God picks the oddest people to do the toughest jobs. Most of the heroes of the Bible (you know, the biggies like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the major prophets, the 12 disciples, Paul…) weren’t what you’d call star material for the gig God had planned for them, but they took the challenge and did their turn. But what of the women? Rahab is a prime example. Her quick wits sent the Keystone Cops of Jericho in the wrong direction, got the gates shut and everybody looking outside the walls for a potential danger that was already inside scoping out the territory and hiding in what was probably rather plain sight. Rahab’s house was part of the city wall and so anybody looking over the parapet should have been able to see her rooftop fairly easily, one would think.
We know how the story ends: the spies are hidden on the rooftop, they promise safety for Rahab’s family when the Israelite army gets there, and she lets them out of the city by means of a rope which would also undoubtedly have been visible to anybody patrolling the wall, hearing a strange sound or just happening to look over the parapet. That rope might have been made by Rahab herself from flax like that which hid the spies. Anyway, the spies shinny down the rope and scamper off to report to Joshua about Jericho and Rahab goes back to life as normal — except with a certain piece of red rope hanging out the window of her house.
Rahab was resourceful, quick-witted, and trusting. She also had faith, faith in the word of spies (and men) whose very lives at that point depended on stealth and prevarication, and faith in a strange God who, as the local newscasts had it, did wonderful things. She took a risk, and harlot or not, it gave her a legitimacy that made her one of the ancestors of a certain child of another unlikely heroine of resource, quick wits, trust and a whole lot of faith. Rahab may have been a workin’ girl, but this time she was workin’ for God.
There’s a special spot in my heart for Rahab.