Rahab “the harlot” played an important role in the story of Israel. Let’s look into her life and times and see who she was, what she did and what we can learn.
We are first introduced to Rahab in the book of Joshua as the Israelites prepared to conquer Jericho (Joshua 2:1-23).
Who was Rahab?
Simply put, Rahab was a prostitute, a “lady of the night.” Both the Hebrew term zanah and the Greek word porne used to describe her mean “harlot,” a woman who offers herself to men.
In Old Testament culture a prostitute opened her home to travelers and foreigners, offering food and lodging as well as sexual favors.
The notes in the NKJV Study Bible speculate that “it is possible that Rahab had been reduced to prostitution by the death of her husband and by the needs of her impoverished family.” They also explain that a house that was part of the defensive walls of the city “would be a humble dwelling, just the spot for a poor prostitute.”
We are told in Joshua 2:1 that Rahab was a harlot and that the two men Joshua sent to spy out Jericho came to her house. Why did the spies go there? Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament explains, “Their entering the house of such a person would not excite so much suspicion.” There weren’t many safe places for travelers, and especially for spies.
There’s no indication that the spies went to her house to do anything but safely hide from the authorities of Jericho.
What did Rahab do?
Rahab welcomed the two Israelite spies that Joshua had sent to Jericho (verse 1). She protected them by hiding them under piles of flax that were drying on her roof (verses 4, 6).
She also gave false information about the two spies to the agents of the king of Jericho when they questioned her (verses 3-5).
Why did Rahab protect the spies?
Rahab had heard about how God had guided the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt.
“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” (verse 9).
Rahab had come to believe that the God of Israel was the true God. She did not yet have enough knowledge of the God of Israel to completely change her life to align with His laws. But she recognized His power and was willing to make a decision that would forever separate her from her people and the culture in which she had grown up. This was an incredible act of faith. It was her first step in the direction of changing her life.
So Rahab requested that when Joshua and his army came to take Jericho, she and her whole family would be shown favor and allowed to live.
Rahab had faith, and she acted on that faith. This active faith in God is what saved Rahab and her family.“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 give me a true token, and spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death” (verses 12-13).
We see as the story progresses that the spies did promise Rahab this protection for her and her family. She was to mark her dwelling with a scarlet cord in the window.
When Joshua and his army took the city of Jericho, they saw this cord marking her home and honored the promise made to Rahab (Joshua 6:22-25).
Meaning of Rahab
Rahab in Hebrew is Rachab, which means “broad, wide” (Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon). By her bravery and faith in God, she helped Israel to enlarge as they inherited the Promised Land.
Rahab, an ancestor of Jesus Christ
The Bible lists Rahab the harlot as an ancestor of Jesus Christ.
After leaving Jericho, Rahab married Salmon of the tribe of Judah. She later gave birth to Boaz, who married Ruth (see our article about “Ruth”). Rahab was the great-great-grandmother of David, Israel’s greatest king. She was therefore the ancestor of the family into which Jesus Christ was born (Matthew 1:1-6).
This indicates she left the practice of prostitution and began a new lifestyle as a faithful wife to one man. In other words, she brought her life in line with the biblical standard of marriage (Genesis 2:24).
God’s plan for Rahab
God worked in Rahab to eventually bring her to repentance. God does not desire that any one of us perish, “but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). (You can read more in our booklet God’s Purpose for You.)
God does not judge as we humans judge—outwardly, using the external standards of appearance, behavior, race and national origin. God judges the heart of a person.
“For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Rahab had faith, and she acted on that faith. This active faith in God is what saved Rahab and her family.
“By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (Hebrews 11:31).
“Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (James 2:25).
This story was just the beginning for Rahab the harlot, as she left Jericho and the life she had lived there. It is the same for anyone who is seeking the truth that God has to offer and striving to move forward and overcome this world that we live in (John 16:33).
“Go and sin no more”
Some wonder if the story of Rahab somehow justifies prostitution or lying. God commended Rahab for her faith, but we don’t read that He condoned her sins. Most likely if she had not understood that prostitution and lying were sins before, she learned that as she adopted the religion of Israel and learned God’s 10 Commandments.
Jesus once said to the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Surely Rahab must have left her life of sin behind and apparently added to her faith virtue, knowledge and godliness (2 Peter 1:5-6).
Rahab’s life teaches us that even if we have been living a sinful lifestyle, we can leave that way of life behind. We can repent and change. Even though she is still identified as “Rahab the harlot”—because that’s who she was when she encountered the Israelite spies—she didn’t stay a harlot.
By the time her life ended, she was Rahab a woman of faith.
Read about other examples of faith in our “Women of Faith” section.