In chapter two of the book of Joshua, the narrative begins the account of the spies in Jericho and their experiences with the prostitute known as Rahab. She will hide them on her roof, send the soldiers of Jericho on a wild goose chase, and help the spies escape from the city through her window against the fortress’s wall. Because of this, her and her entire family will be spared, and she will dwell peacefully in the land among the other people of God.
While many today take her identity as a prostitute almost for granted, it has been a matter of debate and contention throughout the centuries. Some rabbinical commentators have attempted to say that, far from being a harlot, Rahab was actually a peddler of foods, based on the Targum of Jonathan translating the word “harlot” as “innkeeper.” Many Christian commentators have likewise argued this, saying that Rahab was more of an honest business woman than a prostitute. On the other hand, the Talmud is far less kind to her: it openly claims that, for all the forty years the children of Israel spent in the desert, Rahab spent that time prostituting herself (source). It even claims that she had engaged in relations with every king and prince in the region, hence her knowledge of the affairs of Canaan.
More importantly, the original language is likewise very telling on the matter. The Hebrew word used in reference to Rahab is zō·nāh, which almost always refers to a prostitute or harlotry in the Old Testament (Le 21:7, 14; De 23:18; Pr 6:26; etc.). When Rahab is referred to in the New Testament, in both Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25, the biblical authors employ the Greek word porneh, which refers to a prostitute. Therefore, one can have no doubt that Rahab was indeed a harlot.
Because of this, many individuals (even among the Christian faithful) have shown a kind of passive revulsion to Rahab. They continually think of her as “Rahab the prostitute,” and the mention of her name conjures up a woman of loose morals who is to be shunned. Few Christian parents are willing name their daughters after Rahab on account of her former profession. No one, of course, has a problem with naming their child Peter, despite the fact that their namesake cut off the ear of a Temple servant and publicly denied Christ three times (once when Christ was within hearing). No one has a problem with naming their child Noah, despite the fact that their namesake drank himself into a stupor and was found naked for all to see. No one has a problem with naming their child Matthew, despite the fact that their namesake swindled and cheated his countrymen for years. No one has a problem with naming their child David, even though their namesake lusted after his most loyal officer’s wife and had the man killed so that he could have her. Yet ask someone if they would ever name their daughter Rahab, and you may get one or two people shuddering at the mere notion.
What is astounding is that these same people do not seem to realize that when they belittle and besmirch Rahab’s name on account of her former profession, they miss the entire point of the Jericho narrative – indeed, they miss the entire point of the Gospel! Rahab did not die in her sins, and she did not die continuing her life as a prostitute – rather, she turned towards God and repented of her ways. It was because of Rahab’s bravery and faith that her entire family was saved from the judgment of God. Rahab would later be married to Salmon (Mt 1:5), and hence did away with her harlotry, and became a kind of shadow of Hosea and Gomer, and indeed Christ and the church. We must also remember that it was from the lineage of Rahab and her future husband Salmon that Jesus Christ would come in the flesh (Mt 1:5, 16).
Within the very biblical account of Rahab is the story of the Gospel, and a shadow of the coming Messianic kingdom. The city of Jericho is the world, under the wrath of God’s judgment, and the coming destruction wrought by the Hebrew army is the active judgment of God at the end times. Rahab is the sinner, saved by grace, whose home is marked by a red thread, or the blood of Christ (compare the red thread over her door with the lamb’s blood over the doors of the Hebrews in Egypt). When the defenses of the city of sin fall, and God’s judgment is unleashed, all is destroyed save for Rahab and her family, who are led out of the city under protection. When we read the story of Rahab, we read the story of God’s mercy towards sinners and the salvation of His people.
Instead of finding Rahab to be a revolting character, we should find her as a character from which we can glorify God. We should remember that when Jericho was destroyed, most of those who perished were not prostitutes. In fact, we should look at the destruction of Jericho and be amazed that, of all the people who deserved punishment, the one person not destroyed was a prostitute. We should then give thanks and praise to God, for if there is assurance of salvation through faith for a sinner like Rahab, then there is comfort and peace for sinners such as you and I.