8 Before the men lay down, [Rahab] came up to them on the roof 9 and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. 12 Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign 13 that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” 14 And the men said to her, “Our life for yours even to death! If you do not tell this business of ours, then when the Lord gives us the land we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.” (Joshua 2:8–14 ESV)
Rahab is a prostitute, so it wouldn’t be all that unusual that single male travelers — even strangers — would make their way to her place for some “rest” and “relaxation.” It would also be a good place for strangers and visitors to get some information on a place, to take the measure of a people, and maybe hear a little gossip.
It also makes sense that such a place would be watched, especially since the king of Jericho knows an enemy army — the army of Israel — looms just across the river, waiting.
We don’t know much about Rahab (רָחָב, which means proud, but also roomy and wide — Rahab is a real broad!), except that she is a prostitute (זוֹנָה, from the verb זנה which means “to fornicate”), known to friend (the king knows her, whatever that might mean) and foe (the Israelite spies know to go to her as well, whatever that might mean) alike.
We do know she is not condemned. Not for being a prostitute. She is praised by Hebrews (for her faith) and James (for her works), but certainly not for her profession. James and Hebrews don’t shy away from her occupation either — she is, after all, Rahab the prostitute (Ῥαὰβ ἡ πόρνη), as if somehow that’s her proper name.
But she’s also a traitor — she betrays her people to the Israelite spies. The tales of what God has done for Israel — from the Egyptian rescue onward — have been told far and wide, and because of that, Rahab tells the Israelite spies,
… our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2:11 ESV)
Seeing the Lord at work redeeming, guiding, and giving Israel victory convinces Rahab that the God of Israel is God, al least the only god that matters. With all we’ve been told in the chapters prior to this, all the descriptions of Israel’s looming faithlessness and failure, she sees inexorable success, she sees glory, and she sees doom for her own people. In betraying her demoralized city (there is no fight in Jericho’s men), she seeks to become part of something bigger (Matthew puts her, or someone named Rahab — Ραχαβ — in his genealogy of Jesus) — this people of God who about to swarm over the Jordan.
She sees God at work, and alone in Jericho, she surrenders. To God. To God’s people.
She asks that Israel spare her family, and in something reminiscent of the night death took the firstborn of Egypt, the spies tell her to tie a red ribbon to her window shutters and stay inside. A red ribbon marks the home death, in the form of the Israelite army, is to pass over. All are killed. Jericho is put the torch.
But Rahab, who saw the work of God in this enemy army, who saw salvation through surrender, who lied to her king, hid the spies, and sought a future with the conquerors and destroyers of her people, she and her family lived. As Joshua writes,
… she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. (Joshua 6:25 ESV)
The army is Israel’s, and the taking of the land is beginning. But the prophet Jeremiah will have a similar epiphany, when the army in Babylon’s, and the city is Jerusalem. And the future is in a distant exile.