While, on the eastern bank of the Jordan Israel’s army prepared for the invasion of Canaan, spies were sent to reconnoiter the area into which the Israelite army was about to move and, in particular, the first fortified city that lay in its path of conquest. That city was Jericho.
Shittim, if you remember, was where Israelite men consorted with Moabite women and were led by them into the worship of idols, namely the Baal of Peor. So the attentive reader is reminded as the account begins of the danger of Canaanite women and the false gods of the land. [Hawk, 40] Indeed, we read that at Shittim the men of Israel “began to prostitute themselves,” a form of the same word as will be used here to identify Rahab’s occupation.
That the men go to a prostitute’s house to lodge might raise immediate doubts about the spiritual fidelity of these two men. The woman is identified as a prostitute. Why is that important? But there is something else: the prostitute is given a name. We don’t know the spies’ names, but we do know the name of this woman. Why, the reader wonders? Obviously this woman is the center of the story. Rahab’s house was probably an inn or tavern, the sort of place strangers would not stand out.
To make matters worse, these spies had been unable to avoid detection. The spies were sent “secretly” we read in v. 1 but in maintaining the secret of their identity they were singularly ineffective. [Howard, 97; Hawk, 41] So much was this the case that it appears that informants knew not only who they were but where they were. It does not appear that these men were the sharpest knives in the drawer!
The king’s command put Rahab at great risk. If she didn’t produce the men she would be considered an accomplice and punished accordingly. By the way, the so-called king of Jericho was hardly a great ruler. He was at most a “kinglet” who ruled over a small city and its surrounding land. [Howard, 99]
As so often the OT narrative, when a lie was employed to protect the people of God or to advance some interest of the Lord, the narrator seems to show little concern about the telling of an obvious untruth. A professor of mine, in his very fine book on biblical ethics, considered the case of Rahab and, at least more honestly than some, acknowledged how very much and very well she lied. “No half-truth or equivocation or mental reservation, but a pure fabrication to put the hounds off the scent. In classic western, “They went that-a-way!” [David Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 150]
Probably no particular incident in biblical history has been considered in greater detail by Christian ethicists through the ages as Rahab’s lie. It was already an old controversy in Augustine’s day. Was it right for her to do what she did in deceiving her king and his servants? If not, why not, given that the spies would surely have been caught and executed. If so, how so, given that we are commanded not to lie. There are many things that might be said but for the moment it is enough to say that the ethics of war and the ethics of peace are not the same. To be sure, there are overarching principles that are universal and apply in every situation, but it is obvious as well that not all people deserve to be told the truth. If you remember, thirty-eight years before God himself ordered spies into Canaan (as we read in Numbers 13). Spies, in the nature of the case, are deceivers, liars. Such lies can be regrettably necessary in certain extreme situations. But it is part of our loyalty to the Lord to recognize that there will be very few situations in our lives in which it is permissible for us to tell a lie.
George Sayer, the biographer of C.S. Lewis, recollects being on a walk with Lewis once — Lewis was a great walker! — when a fox, exhausted and bedraggled, ran by them, trying to escape the hunt that was following behind. “Oh, poor thing,” said Lewis. “What shall we do when the hunt comes up? I can already hear them. Oh, I know, I have an idea.” “He cupped his hands and shouted to the first riders: ‘Hallo…gone that way,” and pointed to the direction opposite to the one the fox had taken. The whole hunt followed his directions. There followed a long discussion about when lying was justifiable, but he boasted delightedly later to my wife that he had saved the life of a poor fox and showed no trace of guilt.” [Jack, 209] I’m not so sure that was a lie that passed muster. But what of this?
Both the books that William Tyndale published in 1528 — The Parable of the Wicked Mammon and The Obedience of a Christian Man — carried the name of a non-existent printer, one Hans Luft, and a false place name, Marburg, being in fact printed by John Hoochstraton at Antwerp. This was an effort to protect those who were associated with Tyndale’s dissemination of the teaching of the gospel as it had been rediscovered at the time of the Reformation. What do you think?
If the events narrated in Exodus and Numbers had indeed taken place, it is no wonder that the peoples of Canaan would not only have heard about them — we know from a variety of evidence that there was a great deal of traffic and so communication all over this part of the ancient near east — but that once they realized that the Israelites had set their sights on Canaan it would have unnerved them. This was people that had bested Egypt, the great imperial power of the world in that day. What were they going to do to the minor potentates that were scattered all over Canaan? Rahab, apparently alone among the citizens of Jericho, had drawn the appropriate lesson. Israel’s God was the living and true God. Her only hope lay in Yahweh being merciful to her and her family. Real faith never contents itself with knowledge of the facts alone; it invariably acts on those facts. If God’s wrath is about to overwhelm her city, she must seek refuge for herself and her loved ones where that refuge can be found: the God whose wrath she fears. Twice in the New Testament Rahab is commended for her active faith (Heb. 11:31; James 2:25).
The first thing she says about God, effectively, is that there is no other God; “the Lord your God, he is God.” That put the so-called gods of Canaan immediately in their place as non-entities. What is interesting and important is that Rahab didn’t need to confess Yahweh as God. She could have bargained with the spies to save her life in exchange for saving theirs and left God out of it. But her confession was obviously something that had settled in her mind and heart as a personal conviction. She had made up her mind about God! She realized that she was dealing with Yahweh more than with the Israelite spies.
There is some question as to whether these conditions attached to the promise after the fact represent some realization on the part of the spies that, in making their promise to Rahab, they had overstepped their bounds. Now that they were safe they had recovered their confidence. So they attached conditions by which the oath they swore to Rahab, made under duress, might be nullified in the end. You’ll notice that twice the spies referred to their oath as one Rahab made them swear as if somehow or another they weren’t quite as equal parties in the exchange. But Rahab is untroubled by the new conditions. She readily agrees because the promise that really matters is still in place.
This involved conversation must have taken place before the men were let down the rope. It is hard to envision such a conversation taking place while Rahab leaned out the window and the men shouted up from below. If you were running for your lives you would hardly stop to put the finishing touches on your agreement by shouting with a Hebrew accent! It is put here perhaps because of the mention of the window.
Whatever they thought of Rahab by this time, they trusted her advice sufficiently to follow it to the letter!
In other words, the spies told Joshua what Rahab had told them! The emphasis falls on Rahab throughout the chapter.
Now the highly interesting fact is that chapter 2 is not really necessary to the narrative of Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. If chapter 3 had followed immediately upon chapter 1, it would have made for a seamless account. No reader would have thought that something had been omitted. In chapter 1 we read of Israel preparing to cross the Jordan and in chapter 3 of her doing so. Nothing materially would change if we had never heard of Rahab. In fact, nothing she told the spies materially changed the situation Joshua faced. He didn’t change his plan of attack because of anything Rahab had said. But from years of reading OT narrative we have learned that the biblical authors chose to include historical material precisely because it conveyed the lessons they intended to teach. The author of Joshua thought the material in chapter 2 was essential to his history. It could have been added as an addendum to the story of the fall of Jericho at the end of chapter 6, but instead it is right here at the very beginning of the book. This also was a conscious choice on his part. Chapter 2 contains information the author wanted his readers to know. There is something here of importance to the story of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. What in fact we have is a narrative that lays bare the theological realities that will explain Israel’s conquest of Canaan.
The fact is that this chapter literally bristles with fabulously important and profoundly fundamental lessons of our faith. This is its importance and this explains why so much attention is paid to the first encounter between Israel and a citizen of Canaan.
- There is first the fundamental assertion of human accountability and the significance of human effort.
Israel is poised to enter the Promised Land, but is she ready to do so? Is she willing to do so? You may not be aware that there is a long-standing argument among those who comment on this text as to whether Joshua’s decision to send spies into Canaan represented some measure of timidity, even unbelief on his part. After all, hadn’t the Lord told him that he would give the land to Israel and none of her enemies could stand before her? If so, what did Joshua need spies for, particularly as it does not appear that they brought back any information that would prove useful in either tactical or strategic military planning. The only intelligence they provided was that the Canaanites were cowering in fear. That certainly would have been encouraging to hear, but it wouldn’t change Joshua’s order of battle or his plan of attack. So what were the spies sent into Canaan to learn?
We are not given sufficient information to answer that question, but the fact is, as will become perfectly obvious as we proceed, Israel still had to fight. Joshua still had to win battles. Joshua still had to plan the army’s movement and prepare it to fight intelligently and successfully. The sending of the twelve spies years before could have been criticized for the same reasons; after all wasn’t God with Israel, wasn’t he going to give her the Promised Land, but it was obviously appropriate to spy out the land since God himself had ordered it to be done (Num. 13:1). Israel was to fight in Canaan as an army and armies need intelligence. For all we know the spies came back with some useful information about the topography of the land on the immediate western side of the Jordan, ideal places for the army to camp, possible routes to Jericho, and so on.
If you remember from our studies in Numbers, Israel had the cloud and the pillar of fire to guide her through the wilderness — when it moved she moved after it. Where it stopped, she camped. Nevertheless, Moses plead with Hobah, a Midianite, to remain with Israel as she traveled through the wilderness because he knew where the best camping places were to be found. [Num. 10:29-32] What do you need that kind of intelligence for if you’ve got a pillar of fire and a cloud that moves in front of you everywhere you go? The cloud did not make Hobah’s knowledge of the terrain useless any more than Yahweh’s promise to defeat the Canaanites made the gathering of intelligence or the planning of the army’s march or the tactics for battle unimportant or unnecessary. What we have here is a perspective so fundamental to our lives and our faith that we find it face up on every single page of the Word of God. As Rabbi Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism famously put it: “That God does half and man does half is wrong; that God does all and man does all is right.”
We have no way of knowing how Joshua’s plans might have changed had the spies never returned from their foray into Canaan. But they did return, thanks to Rahab, and, as we will see, the battle was taken to Jericho and the city fell. Christians likewise have work to do in the taking of heaven, lots of work. They must think and plan, gather intelligence and put it into practice. A fundamental lesson of faith: God saves us by his grace, but uses our effort in the process.
- Another very important feature of the history of Israel’s conquest of Canaan — and one we will have cause to consider in some detail later — is that Israel’s war of conquest against the people of Canaan was the execution of divine judgment.
Israel was not, in fact, simply stealing the land of innocent folk who were minding their own business. This is the way far too many people characterize this history, but the Bible is at pains to make it clear that the Lord was using Israel to judge pervasively and defiantly wicked peoples. It was for this reason that Israel had to wait for some six centuries to take possession of the land the Lord had promised her. She had to wait, we read in Genesis 15, because “the iniquity of the Amorite was not yet full.” Israel got Canaan not only because Yahweh had promised it to her, but just as much because the Lord would not permit the Canaanites to hold on to it any longer. His patience with this corrupt, dissipated, and cruel people had reached an end.
I don’t know if you noticed this, but it has long been pointed out and it would have been very obvious to the Hebrew ear who listed to this narrative being read, that in the narrative of the visit of the spies to Jericho we hear repeated echoes of the narrative of the Lord and his angels’ visit to Sodom and Gomorrah before their destruction. In the first case also, the visitors arrived, they were hosted in the home of a citizen of the town — a citizen who happens to have realized that the behavior of his fellow-citizens had brought down upon the town the wrath of God –, the citizens came looking for the visitors to do them harm, and they escaped in the nick of time. There is as well a sexual element in both accounts; here a prostitute, there the threat of homosexual and then heterosexual rape. Even some of the vocabulary in which the story is told is reminiscent of the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are being told something about Jericho in this subtle but powerful way. [Hawk, 37-40] There is a reason why this city is being marked for destruction! Like Sodom its sins have gone up to God and he was unwilling any longer to permit them to remain unpunished.
The more we learn about Canaanite culture in the middle of the second millennium B.C. the more we understand Yahweh’s determination to rid the world of such a society. What really ought to worry us is how many similarities to the life of ancient Canaan we can find today in the culture of the modern West! Here is another fundamental article of our faith: salvation and judgment go together; the same acts cause both results at once. Jerusalem and Gehenna lie very close to one another! Jericho had to go so that Israel might inherit the Promised Land.
- But more important still in this narrative is the conversion of a Canaanite pagan; a person, indeed a family marked for destruction with the rest of her people is spared on account of her confession of faith in Yahweh.
That such a thing should have happened at the very beginning of the narrative of Israel’s conquest of Canaan is fabulously important. It is a dramatic demonstration of the fact that the destruction of Canaanite society was not a pogrom; it had no racial element, nor was it conquest for the sake of material gain. It was not only divine judgment against a wicked people; it was the blessing and the reward of those who trusted in Yahweh. Remember, as we have already noted in several of these first sermons on Joshua, Canaan is a type or embodied prophesy of heaven. Rahab is the proof that those who enter heaven do so not because of their ethnic or national identity, not because they find themselves in the right place at the right time, and certainly not because they are better than others. Rahab was a prostitute for goodness sake; a very important point in this history. People got a place in the Promised Land only because they trusted in the Lord and confessed him as Lord. There are so many texts in the NT that the Rahab episode illustrates, but chief among them is John 3:18:
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Remember how many times in the New Testament Jesus is identified with Yahweh. We might as well read Rahab as saying in v. 11 “Jesus is Lord,” which, if you remember, Paul writes no one can say, not say and really mean, except by the Spirit of God.
Rahab belonged to a wicked people; she was a pagan. Imagine her earlier life. She had a family; probably not a husband (she would later marry an Israelite man); but she made her living in a disreputable and dehumanizing occupation.; as disreputable and as dehumanizing in her day as it is in ours. She impresses us here and perhaps she was an able woman, but the life of a prostitute is a hard life and would have been still worse in 15th century B.C. Canaan. She had probably adjusted herself to her life in Canaanite society, brutalized and brutalizing as it was. It never ceases to amaze me what people will get used to.
But this woman came to trust in the Lord and was saved together with her family. “I will be a God to you and to your children after her,” was a promise Yahweh made to all who believe in him, whatever their background, however wicked their past. Indeed, we will read later not only that Rahab became a citizen of Israel but married an Israelite and became an ancestress of Jesus Christ!
So while there is no great commission anywhere in the Old Testament, while the Israelites were not duty bound to make disciples of all nations as we are today, nevertheless there were not a few who found their way into Israel because they came to believe in Israel’s God. Indeed of the four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, apart from his mother Mary all were pagan outsiders who came into Israel as believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Yahweh had, to be sure, forbidden Israel to enter into agreements with the Canaanites (Deut. 7:1-5; 20:16-18), but obviously that did not mean Canaanites who confessed Yahweh as Lord! [Howard, 105-106] Rahab was added to Israel, later Ruth would be, later still we read of Namaan the Syrian general who placed his faith in Yahweh during the days of Elisha the prophet. If the door to heaven was not wide open in the age before Pentecost, it was certainly ajar and willing hearts from any people were welcome to enter in.
Rahab was the first Canaanite convert to faith in the living God, but she would not be the last. If you want to know why the author of the book of Joshua thought it important to report this episode of the spies and Rahab, consider this: that the Canaanite lady of ill repute became a hero of Israel’s history and an ancestress of the King of Kings is the entire message of the Bible compressed into an individual personal history. [Davis, 29] And if the history of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan is a picture of the salvation of the people of God from sin and death, as the rest of the Bible teaches that it is, then Rahab teaches us that anyone can find that salvation if only he or she will believe that God is and is the rewarder of those who seek him.
How did Rahab learn the truth about Yahweh? How did she come to realize what the lordship of Yahweh meant and what it required of her? We are not told. But, then, such things have happened times without number ever since. A person has become a believer in Jesus with little help from anyone else. In such cases the Holy Spirit reminds us that it is he who changes the heart and illuminates the mind.
One of the most remarkable Christians of the 20th century was an Indian convert to the Christian faith by the name of Sundar Singh. If you remember his story, still in his early teens, Sundar was brought to faith in Christ out of a wealthy Sikh family that opposed his conversion at every turn. On one occasion they even tried to poison him. Like Rahab, his conversion to Christ was not the result of an environment that encouraged the Christian faith; far from it. Better dead than a Christian was the thinking of his Sikh culture and family. But in despair about finding the truth, one night when he was fifteen years of age he had a dream, like the dreams we hear so much of in Muslim conversion stories nowadays or, for that matter, in the conversion story of Eric Mataxas. Like Rahab it was not enough for Singh to believe in Christ, he acted on his faith, became a Christian sadhu, or holy man, and spent his relatively short life traveling through India and nearby countries – Nepal and Tibet especially – preaching Christ to people who very often treated him terribly for bringing this unwelcome message. Thrown into prisons and jails repeatedly, stoned, bones broken, often sick, having to fend for himself when injured, often hungry, often cold, he never wavered in his service of his king. Hated by religious leaders, set upon by mobs, his was a seriously active faith in Christ.
And, also like Rahab, in faith he carried his family with him to heaven. All the while Sundar was traveling and preaching the gospel, he was also praying for his own family, the family that had cursed him and thrown him out when he became a Christian at 15 years of age. Many others became Christians through his preaching, but, all the while, he prayed for his family. Fourteen years after his own conversion, his father became a Christian as well. In the later years of the Sadhu’s ministry his father was his chief supporter. The 15th century before Christ, the 20th century after, it is the same: faith laying hold of Yahweh, of Jesus Christ for oneself and for others.
Some of you may remember Marshall McLuhan’s famous illustration of the light bulb, often referred to as “McLuhan’s Light Bulb.” This is the McLuhan famous for the phrase “the medium is the message,” a reminder that technology has its own message, its own power over our perceptions, its own influence over the way we think and what we believe, no matter that its influence is often undetected. Imagine a entering a pitch-black room. McLuhan asks the question: how would your behavior be affected by the darkness? Well, he says, you would be more cautious, reserved, and careful. Unable to see who else was in the room or their facial expressions, your communication with people you encounter would be more guarded. You don’t know who or what may be in the room or where anyone or anything is located. You would step very carefully. You would be hesitant; careful.
But if the room is lit your behavior changes radically. You walk more confidently; you speak with ease and assurance because you can see who is there and how they are reacting to what you say. You hardly give a thought to stepping here or there because you know where everything is. Nothing has changed in the room, only the way you perceive it. The reality is unchanged, but the light bulb has transformed the way you experience that reality.
Well so it was with Rahab and so it is with every Christian believer. The light went on and she saw what was really there, what was really happening. Like Lydia in the New Testament, the Lord opened her heart to see the truth and once she saw it her whole approach to life was radically transformed. The same reality was bearing down on everyone else in Jericho but the light bulb went on only in Rahab’s mind and heart. And then she took action. And what was that action? And what was that action? She confessed Jesus, Yahweh, as Lord and God; confessed his name and acted accordingly. That’s what Israel is going to have to do: confess Yahweh’s name and act accordingly. That’s what you and I have to do every day we live: confess the Lord’s name and act accordingly. That is the lesson of Rahab and that is why her story was told.