Background. Jericho was a well fortified and strategic city. To take the land it was essential first to take Jericho. The ruins of ancient Jericho exist today and they have been excavated extensively. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of more than 20 successive settlements in Jericho, the first of which dates back 11,000 years (see Picture 1). Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world, today called Tel es Sultan, but still known to many as Jericho.
In 2:1, Joshua sent out spies from Shittim (see Picture 2), which is where the Israelites were camped, east of the Jordan. Although we don’t know exactly where Shittim was located today, the geography of the land is exactly as set out in the book of Joshua (see Pictures 3 & 4).
- Joshua sends two spies (2:1). Sending out spies to gather intelligence before a war was standard practice in the ancient world, and it still is today. Moses had previously sent out 12 men to spy the land, which included Joshua and Caleb. That mission failed because of the negative report of the 10 other spies, which the people believed, instead of trusting in God’s word. But spending spies wasn’t in itself a lack of faith. The principle is also true for us. We shouldn’t just sit back and presumptuously assume God will do everything for us. For example, if we need a job, we need to apply! Once we’ve done out bit we can trust God to do far more abundantly that all we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20).
The spies came and then stayed at the house of a prostitute called Rahab. The wording of 2:1 is careful to suggest they did not go there for sexual immorality but for somewhere to stay. Rahab’s house was most likely not a brothel, but some kind of hostel. Certainly it was in the poor part of town and attracted the vices of the region. But we can’t, as some try to do, wriggle out of the fact that Rahab was a prostitute.
- Rahab hides the spies (2:2-7). It wasn’t long before word got back to the king of Jericho about these Israelites (2:2). The king sent men to Rahab with the message to bring out the men who came to you and entered your house (2:3). It was treason against the king and Jericho to help, or worse, hide these men, who were the enemy. It reminds me of people like Corrie ten Boom and her family who hid and saved Jews during WW2. They risked their lives to save Jews. In fact, Corrie ten Boom’s father and sister both died in a Nazi concentration camp as a result of their work. Although the situation is not exactly parallel, Rahab also risked her life by hiding the Israelite spies (2:4).
As the king’s men stood at the door Rahab spoke to them, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.”
These verses are difficult because it seems Rahab is lying, and she is! The Bible, as we know, puts a high premium on truth telling. As Christians we are to speak the truth in love. Indeed Paul described the church as the pillar and the foundation of the truth (1Timothy 3:15).
So we can’t excuse Rahab, but we can try and put ourselves in her shoes. She had a choice between two evils, to deflect the spies with an ‘untruth’, or to hand the spies over to certain death. What would you have done? We should also note that by protecting their lives Rahab put herself and her whole family in extreme danger. What if the king’s men hadn’t believed Rahab, and searched the house, and discovered the spies?
- Rahab’s faith (2:8-11). What was it that caused Rahab to risk her life and that of her family? The answer is found in 2:8-11, her faith. She had come to believe in the God of Israel! Reports had been circulating in the city (and most likely the whole of Canaan) and Rahab believed them. Rahab said to the spies, 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 are two King’s of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed (2:10). The parting took place at the beginning, and the defeat of Og and Sihon at the end of the Israelite’s wandering in the desert. Rahab’s faith was based on what God had done, which is always the basis of Judeo-Christian faith. Our faith is based on what God did in raising Jesus from the dead in history. But Rahab also recognised that the God of Israel was also the God in the heavens above and on the earth below (2:11), the Creator of the Universe.
Joshua 2 is about a Gentile sinner who came to faith in the LORD and was saved, she and her whole household. It is highly significant this account is placed right at the beginning of the book of Joshua. First, it demonstrates God’s mercy and faithfulness for all who believe – the gospel is for whosoever! Second, it points at least to the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:3). God chose Israel, especially through the birth of the Messiah to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
We cannot condone Rahab’s deception. But we also note that nowhere in the Bible is Rahab criticised for it. Rather she is commended for her faith.
- Rahab in the New Testament. Rahab is an Old Testament example of someone who was justified by faith. James uses Rahab to show that her saving faith was not just mental assent, but she demonstrated it was real by putting it into practice: was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (James 2:25). The promise of justification is for all who believe, for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:24-25).
Rahab is also mentioned among the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11:31. She was a Gentile who was grafted in by faith (cf Romans 11:17).
Concluding thoughts. Why did Joshua send spies into the land? To gather military intelligence? They brought back Joshua word that the people of Joshua were melting with fear, but that’s all we are told. The fact is their journey resulted in saving some of the lives of the residents of Jericho. Could this in part have been the purpose? An ancient Jewish commentary says, “Joshua sent these (Canaanite) tribes due notice of the approach of the Israelites to possess … the land of promise, and offered them the opportunity of either leaving the country or offering a resistance, in which case, in event of their defeat, they would lose their lives.”
We can’t get away from the bloody reality of war in Joshua … though we can’t get away from it in the modern world either! But when we ready Joshua carefully we see limitations on the brutality of war, not dissimilar to modern attempts at curbing man’s brutality in International Law through the Geneva Convention. For example, in 2016 thousands of civilians were allowed to escape before the Syrian army took and ravished Aleppo.
The LORD said through Ezekiel, Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23). God wants all of us, like Rahab, to turn from our wicked ways to faith in God and live. This is why he sent His Son to be our Saviour.