In this ancient spy story, whatever else the two spies did in Canaan is not disclosed (if this were a modern intelligence report, the information might have been redacted!), but the Bible tells us the spies came to the house of the prostitute Rahab. Perhaps God led them there because He was willing to save this woman of faith, but it is also possible that her house which was “on” or “in” the great wall of the city (some ancient “casemate” walls contained rooms in which people lived) was actually an inn. This tradition is mentioned by the 1st century historian Josephus, as it was not uncommon for inns to function as brothels in the ancient world. In any event, the spies came to the house of Rahab and were hidden there from the king of Jericho who was searching for them. This was, as one-time CIA director Allen Dulles remarked, the first known “safe house” for spies in history – and it proved, of course, to be the only “safe” house when Israel destroyed the city!
The story of the Canaanite woman Rahab and her house is an interesting account at a number of levels – not least that of understanding the right kind of faith that we should all have. Rahab is included in Hebrews 11, the Bible’s “Faith Hall of Fame” chapter, for this specific quality: “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (Hebrews 11:31, NKJV).
But we might question here exactly how Rahab exercised faith. Certainly she believed that God was with the Israelites, but the Biblical account makes it clear that most of the inhabitants of Jericho felt exactly the same way. Notice what Rahab told the spies:
“I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed ... for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:9-11 and see also Joshua 5:1).
Clearly, the inhabitants of Jericho had human faith in the fact that God was with the Israelites. So what made Rahab different? From the perspective of Jericho she was just a traitor who sided with the enemy, but from the perspective of the Bible it was precisely her actions to save the Israelite spies that made her faith real. The other inhabitants of Jericho had the same information she had, but they reacted differently to the same knowledge. Once the Israelite army reached Jericho we see the people of Jericho’s reaction: “Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in” (Joshua 6:1).
Rahab not only protected and helped the spies when they were with her, but also exactly followed the command she was given to distinguish her house by a piece of red cloth (Joshua 2:18-19), perhaps symbolic of atoning sacrifice and certainly reminiscent of the Passover placing of blood on the houses to be spared (Exodus 12:13). Her actions may have been simple ones, but they contrast starkly with those of the other inhabitants of Jericho: while they hardened their attitudes and shut themselves in, Rahab reached out and was obedient to what she was told to do.
It is not that Rahab was physically saved by “works,” but by working faith – belief that was active – as Hebrews says: “Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe.” Joshua 5:1 and Joshua 2:9-11 show that the other inhabitants did believe, but not with full, active belief – which is what Hebrews must mean. Unlike her believing but fearful neighbors (James 2:19: “…the devils also believe, and tremble”), Rahab believed with an active belief that was complete in its expression of obedience, and her story stands as a lasting example of faith that works as opposed to empty belief without action.
What became of Rahab? She evidently married Salmon - one of the two spies she had saved – and through him became one of the ancestors of Joseph, adoptive father of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Her active faith not only enabled her to physically save the spies, her family and herself, but also to include her in the genealogy of the One who would enable the salvation of us all.