Rahab – from woman of doubtful reputation to revered ancestress

Five women are named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife and Mary.  Tamar, we have already featured – she was the mother of Judah’s twins, conceived after Judah took her, mistakenly believing her to be a prostitute.  Our next woman Rahab is commonly believed to have been a prostitute.  Let us discover how her actions led to her belonging to that exclusive group named by Matthew.

The Israelite people who were led by Moses out of Egypt wandered in the desert for a long time (40 years) until they reached the Promised Land.  Moses died and he was replaced by a younger leader Joshua. Rahab’s story is told at the point when the Israelites are encamped making preparation to enter the Promised Land.

“Go through the camp and give the people this order, ‘Make provisions ready, for in three days’ time you will cross this Jordan and go on to take possession of the land which Yahweh your God is giving you as your own.

Rahab lived in Jericho – the place that the Israelites need to conquer in order to take possession of the Promised Land (Canaan).  She owned a property which was built into the City Wall.  She is named as a prostitute, but some have suggested that perhaps she was an innkeeper.  She certainly seems to be a lady earning her living without the support of a man – no reference is made to any husband living or dead.  Interestingly, her mother, father, brothers, sisters and dependents are mentioned.  She seems to take responsibility for protecting them and is earning an independent living, despite her father and brothers being around.

Rahab hides the two spies that Joshua has sent to reconnoitre. The king of Jericho orders her to give up the spies, but she claims that although they came in to her house, she did not know who they were and that by nightfall they had left, just before the city gates were closed.  She denies all knowledge of their whereabouts, but suggests that if the king’s messengers hurry out of the gates, before they are closed, they could catch up or overtake them. They do as she suggests and the gates are shut behind them.  It is difficult to call this anything except an outright lie, as she had in fact taken them up to the top of her house and hidden them under the flax stalks which were laid out on the roof to dry.

Having thus made sure their pursuers are off the premises, she then goes up to the roof to speak to the two spies.  She says to them:

“I know that the Lord has given you the land; for the fear of you has fallen upon us.  You see, we have heard that the Lord God dried up the Red Sea before you, when you came out of the land of Egypt, and we have heard what great things he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you completely destroyed.

And when we heard it, we were stunned in our hearts; and there was no spirit left in any of us at your advance, because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.

And now swear to me, by the Lord God, because I am performing an act of mercy for your, that you will also perform an act of mercy for the house of my ancestors and keep my ancestor’s household alive: my mother and my brothers and sisters and all my household, and all that belongs to them, and that you will deliver my soul from death.”

At first, we might think that Rahab has hidden the spies through fear as news of the Israelites great victories have reached her and her fellow-city dwellers.  However, it becomes apparent that she acknowledges the agency of their God who is “the Lord your God in heaven above and on earth below.”

She asks that her household and all her relatives be spared in the upcoming battle.  We have then a perceptive, independent, responsible and resourceful woman.

The two spies, who are not really in any position to refuse her, affirm:

“Our life for your life, even to death.”


She lowers them off the roof and out through a window, which as her house is built into the city wall, lets them out, outside the city.  She advises them to go up into the hill-country, the opposite way from the way she had sent their pursuers, and that they should hide for three days.

The two spies promise that her household and relatives will be kept safe, so long as she gathers them all together in her house and ensures that the scarlet cord, which she has used to lower them off the roof to their escape, is put outside her house as a sign.

A few days later began the assault by the Israelites on Jericho, when the priests holding the Ark of the Covenant marched around the city seven times, blowing their trumpets.  The walls fell down and the Israelites rushed in to take the city.

“And Joshua said to the two young men who had done the spying, ‘Go into the house of the woman and bring her and whatever belongs to her out of there.”

She was brought out, along with her father, mother, brothers, sisters, kinfolk and household, “and they placed her outside the camp of Israel”.

Joshua 6v25 records that “Joshua preserved Rahab the prostitute alive, and all her ancestral household; and she lived in Israel until the present day, because she hid those spies whom Joshua sent to spy on Jericho.”.

Rahab’s actions thus ensured the preservation of her life and those she was responsible for.  The genealogy of Jesus places her in a revered position as the great-grandmother of David.  This suggests that she married Salmon or Salma, the son of Nahshon, a prince of the tribe of Judah, a contemporary of Moses and brother-in-law to Aaron.  Her son was Boaz, who married Ruth (another non-Israelite who married in).  Boaz and Ruth were the grandparents of King David.  Boaz is often commended for the way he acted towards Ruth; perhaps he remembered how his mother’s actions meant that she left her own tribe, came to believe in the one God and married Salmon, who was perhaps one of the spies.

Her actions are commended in the New Testament.  James writing to the Christian communities says:

“Likewise, we read of Rahab, the prostitute, that she was acknowledged and saved because she welcomed the spies and showed them another way to leave.”

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