The Story of Rahab: How Faith in Action Can Transform

Rahab's story is messy. Nevertheless, she shows how to stand firm in the face of danger. See how faith in action allows God to transform us.

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Transformation often happens through action that reveals and develops faith, not passive belief. A great example is that of Rahab, who acts on behalf of God’s people and is transformed from pagan prostitute to matriarch of the faith.

Background: Rahab protects God’s people and her family at risk of her own life

Rahab’s story is found in the book of Joshua, Chapter 4 and Chapter 6, 17-25. She provides shelter and support to Israelite spies, who are on an intelligence-gathering mission in her hometown of Jericho, a gated city in Canaan. Through her actions, she demonstrates faith in and allegiance to God.

Canaan is important because the Lord had promised the land to the Israelites many years before. But Moses didn’t provide the leadership needed to claim this promised land. He sent spies who become scared of the enemy and spread fear that paralyzes his people. Their inaction comes to mean a lack of faith.

A generation later, Joshua is now leading the takeover. He sends spies to look over the land. They happen to visit and stay at the house of Rahab, a prostitute.

Aware of the Israelite threat in general and the spies’ visit in particular, the king sends a message to Rahab and asks her to bring the spies to him. She responds by saying rightly that she has seen the men but claiming falsely that they have left her home. She then urges the Canaanites to search for the intruders outside of the city gates.

Meanwhile, the Israelite spies are hidden on the roof of Rahab’s home. She makes a deal with them. She starts by acknowledging their Lord and His acts of power (such as the parting of the Red Sea) and tells them that the Canaanites are “melting in fear” because of the Israelites. Then, she asks them to spare the lives of her parents, her siblings, and their families in return for her kindness.

The spies need more help so they negotiate a deal with Rahab, each side exchanging protection of their people for reciprocal protection. When Joshua and his people take over Jericho, Rahab and those in her house are spared. She continues to live with the Israelites and becomes part of their community.

We are given a glimpse of her life following the battle of Jericho through a few more scripture references. We learn that she has been saved because of her faith and obedience to God (Hebrews 11:31) and she is considered righteous for her actions (giving lodging to the spies and sending the Canaanites in a different direction, James 2:28).

Rahab is mentioned as the mother of Boaz in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Boaz is the man who marries Ruth, the woman who clings to her mother-in-law even after the death of her first husband. In a famous declaration of loyalty (Ruth 2:16), she says:  “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” After joining the Israelites, Ruth marries Boaz; their son Obed is the father of Jesse, who is the father of King David. So, Rahab, the former prostitute, becomes a matriarch of the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Lessons and How-Tos: Action based on faith is transforming

I love the way the writer in James says that Rahab is credited with righteousness for her actions. Not her holiness, not her thoughts, but her actions based on a firm faith that God would prevail. Rahab offers a real-life example of how faith manifests itself in action and how action instills faith.

The process of transformation for Rahab involves a series of actions:

Decide where to stand

Rahab is clear that she stands on the side of the Israelites and desires to fear and honor their God.

Act courageously

The one thing I adore about Rahab is how she fiercely protects her family. She risks her life for them. The deal that she makes with the spies is centered on taking care of her mother, father, brothers, sisters, and their families.

Her insistence on protecting them is one reason why I wondered if she may have been the victim of a bad deal, a human trafficking arrangement. Perhaps she had experience with situations in which people made promises or misleading statements, and didn’t fulfill the terms of the bargain.

Keep your word

Rahab honors her promises, without hesitation. Even under threat of a full-house interrogation or a full-scale battle, she does what she says she will do.

Be shrewd

Rahab strategically plots her course, admitting to seeing the spies but not revealing where they were when the king’s messengers came to visit. She diverts the government officials away from her home and to the surrounding wilderness outside of the city’s gates.

When dealing with the spies, she starts by asking for a favor in exchange for the kindness she has already shown. When they ask for more, she negotiates a deal that provides safety for her and her extended family.

Teach your family

As mother of Boaz, Rahab most likely passed along the need to protect the innocent and honor promises. Years later, when Ruth (a beautiful woman and Rahab’s future daughter-in-law) arrives with Naomi but unaccompanied by a male relative, Boaz asks his men to watch over her. This directive makes sure that no man takes advantage of Ruth. Later, when Naomi urges Ruth to bring up marriage to Boaz, he makes sure that the family honors Israelite promises. First, he presents the opportunity of marrying Ruth to a kinsman according to protocol, then he fulfills the promise by marrying her.

Rahab experiences transformation by relying on the Lord, this God who is new to her but whom she trusts. She acts out of allegiance to Him and his people, and is blessed not only by being spared from death but also by being brought into the family of God. Her legacy is to continue to transform communities by training her son to act honorably, protect those who are weaker, and fulfill family duties.

Reflections: Rahab’s thoughts and actions may be complicated by a messy life situation

The story of Rahab is riddled with controversy. As a woman who exchanges her body for money, Rahab is not a picture of propriety. Plus she lies in order to protect the Israelite spies, her family, and herself. Still, she acts shrewdly and courageously in the face of danger, and demonstrates devotion to God. In the pages of Joshua, she is transformed from disrespected in a pagan land to revered in God’s community.

Let’s explore Rahab’s position in society and her lies.

An initial reading may lead me to simply accept Rahab’s prostitution and focus on her lies.  This situation is a moral dilemma: can a lie (or any dishonorable act) performed on behalf of God’s people ever be justified?

Having dealt with those who seem to think that dishonest means are acceptable to achieve whatever they claim God wants, I can say that doing wrong in order to achieve even a worthy end is wrong.

Further, I believe God is much more interested in how we act and treat people than what we accomplish.  If He can call the universe into existence with a few words, then He doesn’t need to rely on us to get specific results.  What He is most interested in is the condition of our hearts, and a lying heart is not a pleasing condition. The Bible affirms that bearing false witness is wrong. So, an admirable end doesn’t justify dishonorable means.

Still, I want to consider what may have happened to Rahab before we learn about her. We seem to accept her profession as if she made a conscious career choice after reviewing her options: engineer, teacher, nurse, diplomat, prostitute. Since she lived in a pagan culture, prostitution may have been a legitimate and lucrative career decision.

But maybe, and my suppositions are pure speculation, she wasn’t living a nice pagan life and simply decided to switch sides.

Maybe, there’s confusion in Rahab’s life. For example, and this is just an example to gain a lens through which to understand her approach, just possibly, Rahab was a victim of human trafficking. Maybe she was promised a good life, an education, an honorable career, and marriage to a rich man in exchange for government or tribal favor of her family but instead she was sold into prostitution. Such bait-and-switch tactics happen today and could have happened then.

So, instead of a committing a deliberate act of deception, she feigned ignorance of the spies’ whereabouts in order to combat evil forces, the ones that sold her into human slavery and threatened to destroy the presence of God and His people in her land. If so, does this scenario make lying more palatable or acceptable? I can’t say for sure but I can attest that her situation may have been messier and more complicated than the basic story line indicated.  Her new allegiance to God may have brought clarity to her in a way that she had never experienced before.

Regardless of her past, Rahab is redeemed for the present and future

Whatever your take on Rahab, God blessed and transformed her despite imperfections and mistakes. As far as we know, she doesn’t continue to lie or deceive. Based on what happened after the spies left, we can surmise that she is a woman of her word.

What does this story mean for discovering practical applications for scripture and building community? To me, this story gives me an understanding that I may not know all that I think I know about another person. I don’t know their family background, their struggles, or their unusual circumstances. Only by listening to their stories can I get a better understanding of their lives, perspectives, hopes, and dreams. I can become aware and more appreciative of another person’s strength, resilience, and faith. This process can help to deepen friendships and build a stronger sense of community.

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