The Exodus is more than the founding myth of the Hebrew people; it is a literary stream that runs from the beginning of the scriptures to the end. It is recalled all throughout the Biblical narrative: at creation, at Israel’s return from exile, at the death of the Messiah, and at John’s judgement of the nations. Without a doubt the Exodus is the Biblical paradigm for the redemption of God’s people. But the Exodus is also more than a generic redemptive event—rather, it is consistently characterized as a divine act of separation: God divides land from water, animal from animal, male from female, pure from impure, the sanctuary from the camp; He divides Israel from Egypt, Judah from Babylon, the church from pagan Rome, the holy people from the unclean nation.
In this post I want to focus on a particular figure from the Exodus story and show how her story parallels the experience of the predominantly gentile churches as they existed within the nations of the pagan Mediterranean. I want to look specifically at Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho. Here I will attempt to explain the reasons for her prominent place in the Christian scriptures. But first we must recall her role in the story of the Exodus.
Rahab in the Hebrew Bible
The last four books of the Pentateuch recount God’s removal of His servant Israel from Egypt and His preparation of His son for entrance into his inheritance, the land of Canaan. After forty years of testing, Joshua and the Hebrews stand on the shores of the Jordan, set to inhabit the land. Unfortunately, however, there is another political order already reigning in the Promised Land: a federation of pagan Canaanite nations. Joshua must therefore defeat these nations so to possess the land and to give Israel rest from war and strife (Numbers 33:55). Additionally, God commands Joshua to purge the land so that the ways of the nations do not pervert the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 7:1-6).
Standing in the way of these objectives is the fortified Canaanite city Jericho, a powerful center of influence in the land. Before attacking, Joshua sends spies to the city. These spies are taken in and protected by Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute. Deciding to help them, Rahab professes:
I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. 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 that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.
Rahab is depicted here as a kind of righteous gentile. Upon hearing of YHWH’s wondrous salvation of His people, she acknowledges His status as the Most High God (cf. Isaiah 62 Psalm 117). She perceives rightly that pagan supremacy in her land is giving way to YHWH’s rule. With this newfound faith in Israel’s God, she risks her life by betraying her city and pledging her allegiance to a small and desperate band of frightened desert wanderers (Numbers 13:30-33, Deuteronomy 1:23-34). On account of her foresight and loyalty to Israel, Rahab inherits a portion in the new Israelite order (Joshua 6:25). She and her family remain in the land as honored gentile God-fearers.
Rahab and the God-Fearing Gentiles of the Empire
It might not be immediately apparent how this story resonates with the experiences of the churches scattered among the Greco-Roman nations. And yet, Rahab is mentioned three times in the New Testament and once in the first epistle of Clement. Her faith must have proven meaningful to early Christians. But why?
Rahab first appears in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Although the First Evangelist portrays Jesus as a righteous Jew, he does not shy away from his relation with the gentile prostitute. It is easy to make too much of this, however: Rahab was revered among Jews both before and after Jesus. Matthew did not provoke scandal by affiliating his Messiah with her. Rather, for Matthew Rahab is a forebearer of those righteous gentiles now celebrating the redemption of Israel in the victory of the Messiah—as was anticipated by scriptures like Isaiah 60 and Zechariah 8.
In Matthew’s text, Rahab most closely prefigures the Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus for help in chapter 15. This woman recognizes Jesus as David’s son and thus as the king of a politically restored Israelite nation (15:22). She further acknowledges the subservience of the nations in relation to Israel and her king (15:27). She is, like Rahab, a righteous gentile who fears the God of Israel and honors the one whom He has appointed king. Her belief that Jesus can heal is thus also a belief that Israel’s God is acting to reverse His people’s fortunes by raising up David’s fallen booth (Amos 9:11). Like Rahab, she desires to take part in this new reign, this new kingdom. She believes God is setting the table for the messianic banquet and does not want to miss it.
James highlights the faith of both Abraham and Rahab as examples of faith that works. He writes in 2:24-25 “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?” Having inspected Rahab’s speech in Joshua 2, we are in a good position to identify what it was she had faith in. She believed, based on the redemption of the Hebrews from Egypt, that Israel’s God was sovereign over the world and that He was establishing a new polis in the land, one in which Canaanite pagans would have no portion. This faith manifested as hospitality toward the Hebrew spies. Just as she received the spies she also received Joshua, and just as she received Joshua she also received Joshua’s God. Her faith worked. She cooperated with what God was about to do.
Lastly, Rahab is mentioned among the heroes of faith by the author of Hebrews: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace” (11:31). What binds together all these heroes—Abraham, Moses, Rahab, etc.—is that they anticipated with joy a heavenly kingdom, a permanent rule of God on the earth (11:15-16). The readers of Hebrews stand at the foot of the heavenly Jerusalem, at the foot of a kingdom ready to supersede the kingdoms of the world. God is about to shake the earth once more and His people are about to receive an unshakable kingdom (12:18-29). As was the case in Joshua 2, for the writer of Hebrews divine judgement was coming upon the nations. The faithful must endure as a separate and marginalized community or be lost in God’s reckoning. They must remain the holy people among the nations, a people set apart by the blood of Jesus.
So why was Rahab beloved among the early Christians? I argue it is because she embodied the ethos of the early churches. She was a God-fearing gentile living in the midst of a world that was passing away all the while trusting in a world that was yet unseen. She was separated from an ungodly people and yet she still lived among them. She existed in this space at her own peril, having betrayed her people and her gods and having allied herself with a small band of sojourners. She endured the danger, trusting that the God who led the Hebrews out of Egypt would accomplish His will. In short, she represented and prefigured a gentile exodus out of a pagan order and into a godly one.
In the same way, the early gentile Christians were separated from their pagan people and transferred into another family, the family of Israel’s king. Though spiritually removed from pagan jurisdiction, these Christians entered a marginal space within the nations. Just as Rahab looked to Israel’s redemption from slavery for proof of what was to come, so too did these Christians look to the redemption of Jesus from the dead for proof of the kingdom that was dawning. Their work of faithfulness was to endure until the day of judgement; to await the fall of Jericho’s walls and the erection of the new Jerusalem’s.