Grace – Up on the Roof
The second chapter of Joshua tells us that a woman named Rahab found grace in the most unexpected manner and place. This story would make a great Hollywood action-thriller. It’s a story that includes adventure, suspense, military conflict, spies—and, of course, a beautiful woman. It has all the elements of a block-buster hit at the box office.
The leading character of this drama is a prostitute named Rahab. We can be fairly certain that Rahab was not invited to join the important clubs in Jericho where she lived, because she lived and worked on the fringes of polite society. While Rahab’s way of earning a living may have been more acceptable in her culture than ours, it’s safe to assume she was not accorded the same respect as her culture’s equivalent of a Sunday school teacher. She provided a service that was utilized but probably not commended in Jericho.
Forty years earlier the nation of Israel had been delivered from the slavery and oppression of Egypt only to spend forty years wandering in the wilderness. Now they were on the edge of inheriting the promises of God—they were ready to take possession of the Promised Land. The Promised Land was Canaan, already occupied by a number of city-states and tribes, but God had promised Israel that their enemies would flee before them.
Joshua was the military commander of the nation of Israel, having been mentored and prepared by Moses for the last forty years. The first obstacle that stood in the way of Israel as they went in to take the Promised Land was the city of Jericho.
As the nation approached Jericho, Joshua was nearing the end of a long road of planning and preparation, but like any good military commander Joshua wanted to make sure and do all his homework. He wanted more specific information about the obstacles that would confront him and the nation of Israel.
So Joshua picked the equivalent of two modern-day Navy Seals. He chose two of his best warriors to go check out Canaan, and specifically, the city of Jericho. The two spies successfully disguised themselves, and made it across the river Jordan and entered into Jericho. This is when the story gets interesting.
When the two Israelite spies arrived in Jericho they wound up at Rahab’s establishment. When some Bible commentators get to this part of the story, if they even attempt to deal with it at all, they often suggest that Rahab’s place might have been more like a bed-and-breakfast than a brothel. Maybe it was—but there is no getting around the fact that Rabab’s place offered something more than just a good night’s sleep and coffee and bagels in the morning.
Some teachers and commentators seem to justify the spies’ choice of lodging by saying they went to this brothel because they felt it would be a good place to hide—better than the Jericho Motel Six or Holiday Inn. Maybe that’s true —at least partially. Other teachers say that the spies decided to stay at Rahab’s house (her place of business) because it was close to the city gate and would be a great place to observe the traffic in and out of the city and make for a quick escape, when and if that were necessary.
The Bible doesn’t tell us why the secret agents went to Rahab’s place or whether they made use of all the services offered there. I don’t think their motivation in spending the night at Rahab’s place is the point of the story—in my opinion, whether or not these two soldiers were “looking for love in all the wrong places” is not the issue upon which God wants us to focus.
Somehow the identity of the spies was discovered, and their presence at Rahab’s establishment was reported to the king of the city, who sent some of his men to capture them. Rahab intervened. She told the king’s soldiers that the two Israelite spies had been there—that much was true. Now, Rahab said, the two spies were gone—that was a lie. Rahab suggested, hoping to start a wild goose chase, that the spies had even left the city. Her profession involved deception and seduction—she knew how to tell men what they wanted to hear. Apparently Rahab was good at what she did, so much so that she succeeded in getting the soldiers who were looking for the spies to begin that wild goose chase.
Then she headed up to the roof, where she had hidden the men once she had heard that soldiers were on the way. The roofs of homes at that time, as you probably know, were flat, and as our passage tells us, the roof was a place where Rahab was drying stalks of flax.
The spies were trapped, because the city gate had been shut to enable the king’s soldiers to check for the whereabouts of the secret agents. The spies knew that they were in deep trouble. Their mission looked like a total disaster. They had found out nothing. Joshua wanted them to return with information—maybe a map of Jericho, some information about the size of their military, the location of their defensive positions, and now here they were, trapped in a brothel. They had been discovered hiding there and now the most they could hope for was to escape with their lives.
And if they ever made it back to the camp of Israel, what, they were no doubt thinking, could they tell Joshua? Unless they cooked up a better story, the truth was that all they had accomplished on their mission to Jericho was a visit to Rahab’s establishment.
But then, Rahab did something highly unusual. Rahab the prostitute gave these two fighting men a sermon— Grace—Up on the Roof.
She told them that the town of Jericho knew of the nation of Israel, and that, as verse nine says, I know that the LORD has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us… She also told them that she (in some way the Bible doesn’t reveal) believed, as verse 11 says, the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
It was an incredible turn of events for these two warriors! They had decided, for whatever reason and to whatever degree, to use Rahab and her business, and now she was telling them that she was one of them, spiritually speaking. The only thing the spies wanted from Rahab was what she could provide physically. And again, exactly what physical services they took advantage of are not specified in the Bible. However interesting and provocative that part of the story may be—that’s not the issue.
Now these two men had a real dilemma. Up until this time they had seen Rahab as a woman, and probably an incredibly attractive one at that. But she was a woman, and in that culture the two spies would have never accepted her insights to be on the same level as that of a man. In addition, the secret agents perceived Rahab as a foreigner, not one of God’s chosen people. She was a pagan. And not only was she a female pagan, she was an enemy, standing in the way of Israel. And of course they perceived her simply as a woman who was willing to provide a service many men wanted, but did not normally talk about in polite society.
Up until her astonishing sermon, the spies may well have seen Rahab as someone they could use and then leave behind, with no question of conscience. But now her own words in the sermon she was giving them caused these men to realize that God was somehow making himself known to Rahab, even though she was a pagan woman, a citizen of Jericho, their enemy and of course a “woman of ill repute.” As hard as it was for them to realize and accept, who and what Rahab was had not stopped God from visiting her with his grace.
And here they were, all three of them, up on the roof. They were all in somewhat desperate circumstances, and Rahab was talking to them about experiencing and discovering God’s grace.
Rahab knew that the city of Jericho was as good as dead. She knew, again, in some way the Bible does not reveal, that the God of Israel was the one true God. And she knew that if her loyalties remained with the city of Jericho she would be on the wrong side of the coming military stand-off. So she wanted to make a deal. She told these two skilled soldiers that she would help them, if they in turn would guarantee amnesty and safety for her house and her family when the nation of Israel destroyed Jericho.
Rahab’s house was right on the city wall, so that she could let the spies down on the other side of the city walls by a rope—if they in return would save her life and that of her family. She gave them a sign so that when Israel besieged Jericho they would know which house in Jericho to spare. The sign she told them to look for was a scarlet thread (probably something a little thicker than we think of when we think of a thread—something more like a scarlet cord) hanging out of her window that could easily be seen by Israel’s soldiers.
Rahab told the spies that the people of Jericho were deathly afraid, as recorded in verse 11, when Jericho heard that the nation of Israel was coming, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed…. This was the information Joshua wanted from the spies, and Rahab had provided it, at the risk of her own life, should the king of Jericho find out.
When Rahab told them, in verse 9, I know that the LORD has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us… the spies may have remembered that God told Moses to tell the nation of Israel that their enemies would run from them, as they took over the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 28:7).
So the Israelites came against Jericho, and in a most unusual military strategy. Instead of mounting a full-scale assault on the city, Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, until, on the seventh day, the walls crumbled. That is, the walls crumbled, except for the part of the wall holding up Rahab’s house with the scarlet cord hanging out of the window.
Rahab and her family were spared—we could use the word “saved.” When the story of the conquest of Jericho is over, that’s all we hear about Rahab in the Old Testament. But when the New Testament begins we once again see her name.
The first chapter of the book of Matthew provides a family tree for Jesus—his genealogical roots. There are the well-known heroes like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and David and Solomon, and some lesser-known names. But one of the most obscure, and certainly potentially most controversial, is a prostitute named Rahab.
This little-known, non-Israelite foreigner, this lady of the night—Rahab the prostitute is honored as a part of Jesus’ family tree. A woman pious religion might dismiss as just another lowlife slut mentioned as an ancestor of Jesus is yet another example of God’s amazing grace.
Her presence in Jesus’ family tree may help explain, at least physically, the time Jesus took to talk with prostitutes, the castaways of society, during his ministry. He knew that his own heritage included great-great-great-great grandmother Rahab, who was a harlot in Jericho.
Then, later in the New Testament, in a prestigious list of what some have titled the Hall of Faith, in Hebrews chapter 11, Rahab’s name appears as one of the incredible examples of faith in the Old Testament. There is the name of Rahab along with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and a host of others. We know Rahab is not included on this list because of her Sunday school teaching or her perfect attendance record.
What is this “outsider” doing in the Hall of Faith—filled with upstanding insiders—patriarchs and prophets and “men of God”? What does Rahab’s story teach us? It teaches us that the God of this universe, with all of his power, chooses to accomplish his plan in humanly unexpected, unanticipated ways. Rahab gives us a unique perspective on God’s grace.
Rahab’s story brings us face-to-face with the mysteries of God’s grace. Rahab’s story clearly teaches us that God’s grace is not a quid pro quo transaction. God revealed himself to Rahab, an unlikely individual in light of her profession, because of his righteousness and goodness—not her own.
God chooses to work with and through humans, rather than to dictate and manipulate. Although we don’t always perceive how he does it, we presume, based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, that God, in his wisdom and time of his choosing, often works with people we would least suspect. God dispenses the riches of his grace in wildly extravagant ways—sometimes in ways that we might determine to be scandalous.
After all, weren’t there other “good” people in Jericho God could have used—the ones who tried real hard, were respectable, who kept the laws, who raised families and who set a good example? What was God thinking? Why Rahab?
With God’s grace, things are usually what we would not expect. God’s grace is not a commodity to be hoarded, protected, safeguarded or rationed. God does not allow or ask us to determine to whom and how his grace will be given. God lavishes his grace upon anyone who is willing to receive it, regardless of their physical pedigree or spiritual resume.
The story of Rahab is, among other things, about the dispensing of God’s grace outside of (and in spite of) a respected, “holy” institution or corporation—in this case, the nation of Israel. I am personally convinced that God lavishes a great deal of his grace outside of religious institutions, in spite of them not because of them. God often uses a strange cast of characters and he works in mysterious and sometimes shocking ways and places. God is incredibly creative as he dispenses his grace, and he is completely unpredictable.
You may feel a little like Rahab. You may feel that you are right now, or that you have been in the past, pushed to the edge and fringes of society. You may have been disowned or looked down on by your friends—perhaps even your family—and maybe even your church.
Maybe you feel or you actually have been abandoned, betrayed or abused in some way. Perhaps you are living in guilt and shame, carrying painful and toxic memories of sins so nasty and so ugly that you feel that even God is embarrassed to think about what you have done.
Maybe you are struggling with an addiction and you just can’t seem to kick the habit. Or maybe you’re getting older and feeling unloved and distant from family and former friends—you may feel desperately alone.
Whatever the situation in which we might find ourselves right now, the story of Rahab is for you and for me. The story of Rahab is a story about the grace of God that is so amazing and so unbelievable. The story of Rahab is, in some way, your story and my story, for it is about a God whose love is not owned or controlled or parceled out by any religious entity or organization.
Who we are, and who we have been and what we look like is not important to God. God loves you whether you are male or female, whether your profession is admired or despised—he loves you whether you are in a respectable church or whether you never walk through the doors of a church.
Most importantly, God is there, available, and near to each of us. His grace is for all of us. His love covers each of us. His hands are open, his arms are reaching out and he is asking us to accept the invitation of his love and grace, to live in his house, to be safe, protected and loved as a part of his eternity.
God calls us out of addictive behaviors, low places, physical and religious prisons and dark and desperate places of every kind. He asks us to reject the false promises of safety and security that we might be offered in our physical world and offers us his grace, the love he has for us that surpasses all.
That’s the significance of the story of Rahab for you and me.