How the great faith of a Canaanite woman saved both her and her entire family.
Few people hang skeletons on their front doors. But that’s exactly what the New Testament does. The book of Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus, which includes five women, four of whom many would consider skeletons better kept in the closet. One of these women is Rahab.
Salmon, destined to become King David’s great-great-grandfather, married Rahab, who gave birth to Boaz, who became the husband of Ruth. These people form part of the royal genealogy of Jesus Christ and demonstrate how God’s magnificent grace knows no limits.
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Who was Rahab? She first appears in the book of Joshua. After 40 years in the wilderness, Israel was ready to take possession of the Promised Land. Jericho was the first target. Joshua, Moses’ successor, sent two men to spy out the city secretly; and they “came to the house of a harlot named Rahab, and lodged there” (Josh. 2:1).
When the king found out about them, their lives were in danger. So Rahab hid the two men among the stalks of flax on her roof. When asked about their whereabouts, she lied: “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from….Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them” (vv. 4–5).
Based on what she told the spies, it seems she had come to believe in the God of Israel:
“I know that the LORD has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. . . . for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. Now therefore, I beg you, swear to me by the LORD, since I have shown you kindness, that you also will show kindness to my father’s house, and . . . spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.”
So the men answered her, “Our lives for yours, if none of you tell this business of ours. And it shall be, when the LORD has given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with you” (vv. 9, 11–14).
The Israelites kept their promise. After ordering Jericho’s destruction, Joshua spared Rahab and her entire family. In fact, Rahab married into the most prominent family of Judah. Yet we see three challenges with her prominence in the New Testament—reasons why she would seem like a skeleton in a closet.
#1 Rahab’s Profession
Rahab was a prostitute. Some commentators seek to resolve this issue by noting that the Hebrew term bayith-ishshah, which literally means “house-woman,” could mean “innkeeper.” The word translated “harlot” (zona, from the root zanah, which normally means “to act as a harlot or commit fornication”) could indicate a woman having legitimate commercial associations with men.1
However, this would be the only such meaning of the term in the entire Old Testament. All of the other nearly 100 occurrences of the zanah word family clearly mean physical or spiritual harlotry. The New Testament associates the word porne with Rahab, which means “prostitute,” settling the issue for those of us who accept the authority of the New Testament (Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25).
How does a person with such a sordid past end up in the genealogical line of Israel’s royal family? The answer is the grace of God. For the last 6,000 years, God has taken great delight in transforming lives. He loves to display His glory by manifesting His grace in the least likely of candidates.
Imagine the pure joy of the apostle Paul, who called himself the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), when he wrote that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4–6). We should rejoice over this transforming grace every day!
#2 Rahab’s Position
How is it that Rahab became a mother of Israel? She was a Canaanite prostitute. Yet quite unexpectedly—particularly to the Jewish readers for whom Matthew’s Gospel was originally intended—she appears in the royal line of Israel’s Messiah, the Savior of the world:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king (Mt. 1:1–6).
Beyond the events of the conquest of Jericho, Rahab is not mentioned in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Other uses of the word appear, but they do not refer to her. The final reference is in Joshua 6:25: “And Joshua spared Rahab the harlot, her father’s household, and all that she had. So she dwells in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.”
Other than stating “she dwells in Israel to this day,” the Old Testament provides no direct indication of Rahab’s fate. The Jewish genealogies mention the family into which she married, but they never mention her. The only direct indication of her inclusion in the royal line comes in Matthew 1.
Her son Boaz was a key player in the book of Ruth. What a godly son she reared. This wealthy, righteous leader in Bethlehem was a respected businessman who showed compassion for Ruth, a widowed, downtrodden foreigner.
Rahab never could have known how her decision to aid the Israelite spies would impact the future of the world. God took this formerly pagan woman and inserted her directly into the genealogy of His beloved Son.
How many women have reared godly children in similar anonymity? How many women are asked to rear godly children in similar anonymity today? When we serve the Lord in ways the world cannot see, we can be encouraged that He records (and eventually rewards) every act of devotion.
#3 Rahab’s Promotion
Not only is Rahab placed in Jesus’ genealogy as a respected mother of Israel on the very first page of the New Testament, but she also is promoted in status as an icon of the faith.
The book of Hebrews places her alongside spiritual giants (11:31). And the book of James associates her with what may be the greatest example of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures: Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice to God his son Isaac. Both passages use Rahab’s action as an illustration of the true nature of faith.
However, there are two problems here: How could Rahab express faith while breaking the ninth commandment? Her faith was executed through the lie she told to protect the spies. And how could James say she was justified by works? “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (Jas. 2:25).
The answer to the first question is that new believers sometimes express their faith through what may seem crude behavior to mature believers. Lying is always wrong. There is no such thing as an acceptable lie. But Rahab did what she probably had done hundreds of times: She lied to protect herself. New believers sometimes lie or take God’s name in vain, even when trying to serve Him. Such behavior is always wrong. The apostle Paul made it clear that we all must continue the process of God’s gracious transformation: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
Each of us had a starting point. When we become more like Christ, we should lose the habits and values that contradict God’s Word.
As for being “justified by works,” we must understand James’s reasoning. He was not talking about the faith that saves us from sin but, rather, the faith that delivers (saves) us from failing the trials that come into our lives (Jas. 1:2–18). In James 2, the trial (testing of our faith) is how we react to a wealthy man who comes into our assembly. Do we treat him better than a poor man? Our behavior exposes our faith—or lack of it. In this context, people are justified by works (v. 18).
James noted the difference between Abraham’s justification from sin (Gen. 15:6) and his experience in Genesis 22 (approximately 40 years later), when he was justified by works (Jas. 2:21). His willingness to sacrifice Isaac enabled him to pass the test God had given him (Heb. 11:17–19).
The Greek word for “justify” (dikaioó) is used in two ways in the New Testament. The main meaning is “to declare righteous,” as in Romans 3:23–24, 27–30. But a second meaning is “to show to be righteous,” as in Luke 7:29 and James 2.
In Genesis 15:6, Abraham was declared righteous by God because he believed God’s promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. In Genesis 22, Abraham was shown to be (already) righteous because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, yet still believing God would fulfill His promise through Isaac.
It appears Rahab was being shown to be (already) righteous because “she received the messengers and sent them out another way” (Jas. 2:25). She had already acknowledged the God of Israel as “God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11).
Including Rahab in Jesus’ genealogy and in the halls of the faithful reminds us that it is faith that pleases God. He embraces it wherever He finds it:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4–7).
God takes great delight redeeming people, no matter what their circumstances. What better time to celebrate the exceeding riches of His grace than at Christmas, when we celebrate the arrival of Rahab’s greater Son.
- J. C. Macaulay, Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1975), 1438–39, s.v. “Rahab.”