The story of Rahab is one we tell to children, but we tend to camouflage one salient fact: Rahab is a prostitute. We tell the children she was an innkeeper, and that is probably true in the sense that she had rooms where people slept. But no fewer than five places in Scripture identify her as a prostitute. That is almost certainly the reason that Matthew included Rahab in his genealogy. In our series of examining women of initiative, Rahab is the third chronologically, and the second of the four included in Matthew’s genealogy. The first, as you recall was Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute. But more of that later, when we discuss why Matthew included the four women he did.

Because this is a story we tell to children, we are all familiar with the broad outline of events. Joshua sends two spies to Jericho. They enter the house of Rahab, a prostitute. Soldiers of Jericho come to Rahab’s house, seeking the spies. She hides them on the roof under some bales of flax. And then she lies to the soldiers, stating that the spies have just left, and that the soldiers should hurry and pursue the spies. She then extracts a promise from the two spies: she will not turn them in and will help them escape, but they must promise her that when the Israelites come to the seize Jericho, she and her father’s household will be spared. The spies agree, leaving a scarlet cord for her to put out her window as an indicator that her house is to be spared. And they escape.

But as we have discovered, these Old Testament stories are carefully crafted, and much of the significance is encoded in the details.

The first notable detail is the difference in the number of spies this time as compared with the previous episode. You may remember that 40 years earlier 12 spies were sent to spy out the land. Ten of them convinced the rest of Israel not to invade the promised land, that the inhabitants were too fearsome and too strong. Only two of those spies, Caleb and Joshua, gave a faithful report. Faithful not only in reporting the actual conditions of the land, but faithful in the sense of being filled with faith that God would deliver it to them.

Forty years elapsed, during which time all of the Israelites older than 21 years of age perished in the desert, all except Caleb and Joshua. This includes Moses, and Joshua has recently succeeded him as leader of the Israelites when these events take place. So when Joshua sends two spies, this is a signal that they will be faithful, as Joshua and Caleb had been decades earlier. But these two spies are not named. As we shall see, there’s a very good reason for that. One reason is that the real players in this episode are not the two spies, but the two characters named in the first verse of Joshua 2: Joshua and Rahab.

Rahab does almost all the talking in this episode. In fact, Lindsay Hardin Freeman, in her book Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, tells us that in the whole book of Joshua women speak 277 words, and that Rahab speaks all but 22 of those. And most of those in a single speech. Given that the Bible is usually fairly spare in the number of words that it allots a given character, Rahab’s words must be significant.

In fact, Rahab utters most of these—172 words—right after she brings the spies down from the roof where she had hidden them, un-burdening herself with this remarkable speech:

She said to the men, “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, who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and to Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we had heard it, our hearts melted, and there wasn’t any more spirit in any man, because of you: for Yahweh your God, he is God in heaven above, and on earth beneath.

Now therefore, please swear to me by Yahweh, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a true sign; and that you will save alive my father, my mother, my brothers, and my sisters, and all that they have, and will deliver our lives from death.”

The more you look at it, the more amazing the speech appears. She uses the metaphor of melting away to describe the way resistance to the Israelites has and will dissipate. Very much like some of the psalms, she recites the mighty deeds of Israel’s God. She concludes her oration about Yahweh with an amazing prophetic speech and declaration of faith by stating that he is “God in heaven above, and on earth beneath.” And then she extracts the promise of protection.

Having secured their promise to protect her—they have little choice, she could still turn them in—she proceeds to demonstrate her cunning by instructing them on how to escape:

Then she let them down by a cord through the window; for her house was on the side of the wall, and she lived on the wall. She said to them, “Go to the mountain, lest the pursuers find you. Hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers have returned. Afterward, you may go your way.”

“The mountain” referred to here lies to the west of Jericho, while the Israelites are camped well to the East. She correctly discerns that those searching for the spies will go to the east, to catch spies they expect to be running home. The spies followed her sage advice.

They went, and came to the mountain, and stayed there three days, until the pursuers had returned. The pursuers sought them all along the way, but didn’t find them.

Then the two men returned, descended from the mountain, crossed the river, and came to Joshua the son of Nun.

The spies report to Joshua, essentially repeating verbatim what Rahab had said to them.


Rahab’s first words to the spies The spies’ report to Joshua
“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. They said to Joshua, “Truly Yahway has delivered all the land into our hands. Moreover, all the inhabitants of the land melt away before us.


In essence, Rahab is the spy. She harbors the two (unnamed) spies, gives them the equivalent of a military sitrep—situation report—saves them from discovery, helps them get outside the city walls, and instructs them on how to elude their pursuers. When they get back to Joshua, they repeat her words almost verbatim. Everything Joshua instructed the spies to do, Rahab makes possible. Rahab collaborates with Joshua to accomplish his purpose. So, in a sense, they are a match. Perhaps this explains a rabbinic tradition claiming she married Joshua. But Matthew’s genealogy declares she married Salmon, of the tribe of Judah.

In fact, there is a better spiritual match for Rahab: Caleb. Caleb and Joshua collaborated to be faithful spies, but like Rahab and unlike Joshua, Caleb was not an Israelite by birth. Caleb was a Kennizite. And yet, because of his faithfulness, he was allotted an inheritance as an Israelite. Rahab, because of her faithfulness, becomes part of the royal and messianic lines. And Caleb demonstrated great courage, not only as a spy, but forty-five years later.

I was forty years old when Moses the servant of Yahweh sent me from Kadesh Barnea to spy out the land. I brought him word again as it was in my heart…. Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land where you walked shall be an inheritance to you and to your children forever, because you have wholly followed Yahweh my God.’

“….Now, behold, I am eighty-five years old, today. As yet I am as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me. . . .  Now therefore give me this hill country, of which Yahweh spoke in that day; for you heard in that day how the Anakim were there, and great and fortified cities. It may be that Yahweh will be with me, and I shall drive them out, as Yahweh said.”

Eighty-five, and still ready to take on the walled cities! By contrast, Rahab was a woman, a gentile; but when unexpectedly confronted with the Hebrew spies, questioned by soldiers of the King of Jericho, she had the presence of mind and the courage to save the spies, misdirect their pursuers, instruct the spies how to escape and as a result saving herself and all her father’s household. But more than that, her breathtaking testimony of faith in Israel’s God, worthy of a prophet, places her among the great figures of faith in all of Scripture.

You may remember we noted that Rahab and Joshua are the two characters named in Joshua 2. They are also the only two characters named in the entire episode! The king of Jericho—an important person, surely—is not named. Only these two faithful spies, Rahab and Joshua. And when we look at it, what real spying is done? No information about troop numbers, armament, or deployment, no information about the walls weaknesses and blindspots. No. Only Rahab’s testimony that the people are afraid, because Joshua’s God is powerful! Rahab’s behavior and faith does indeed match that of gallant Caleb: two faithful gentiles, who played essential roles in Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. And God recognizes Rahab further, by causing the royal and messianic lines to pass through her.

Read other posts in the “Matriarchs and Prophets” series.