Thoughts on Joshua 2
Note - The bold numbers in brackets within the text are pointers to the notes that follow.
In the Jewish Synagogue Liturgy, this chapter is read in conjunction with Numbers 13, 14, and 15 which is the account of Moses sending the spies into the Promised Land. There are some parallels in the two stories so if you read the Numbers account you will quickly see why the two stories became linked in the liturgical cycle. The Joshua chapter however has some unique insights and raises some questions which the Numbers chapters don’t cover.
The format of the whole book of Joshua is a narrative or story (it is considered one of the Bible’s history books in Christian theology, but this is not a dry political history but a didactic or instructive) history written from a theological point of view). Specifically it is epic! In literary terms an epic is the a story of a nation, it focusses on matters of state including matters such as government, leadership, judgement and warfare; but it also includes extensive lists, and so it also falls into the category of a historical chronicle.
And you thought Joshua was just a Bible adventure story!
To make sense of the full story we need to recognise that the narrative gives us information on all these levels.
Within the book the second chapter is remarkable for many reasons. Let’s explore chapter 2 and discover both the narrative and its theological relevance to us today.
The text itself gives a clear explanation of its context - Moses is dead. He died on Mount Nebo, East of the Jordan River in modern day Jordan, overlooking the Promised Land which he was never able to enter. The Israelites have been camped at Shittim - the plain of Acacias, at the foot of the hills near Mt Nebo, for a month now led by Moses right hand man and successor, Joshua.
Joshua has been given command of the Israelites and the mission to lead them into the Land promised to the Israelites by God to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Having been given the commission with the encouragement of “Be bold; be strong”, Joshua makes his first strategic decision; he sends two spies to find out what the people over the river are saying. He particularly wants to hear from Jericho, the most strongly fortified and wealthiest city in the area.
The spies go to Rahab’s house (1) and lodge there. For the spies it seemed to be the perfect safe house; but it was watched. The King receives a report that men of Israel have infiltrated his city and are lstaying at Rahab’s place in the city wall. He sends out messengers to Rahab and orders her to bring the spies to him, but she thought quickly and had already hidden the spies on her roof. She tells the King’s messengers that the spies have already left her house heading for the exit gate before it closes at dark. The messengers leave to search for the spies. Rahab has a conversation with the spies on the roof. (2) She admits that she recognises that the Israelite army will be victorious when it attacks Jericho. She says that fear has fallen on the people of the city because they have heard what God did for Israel in Egypt 40 years before. (3) Rahab then confesses that the God of the Israelites is the God in the heavens and on earth below (in other words the Almighty One) (4) Having made her statement of belief she asks for a deal - her life and the life of her family are to be preserved in return for her helping the Israelite spies. The spies agree the terms and swear an oath subject to Rahab’s silence about their mission. Sometime that night she lets a rope down the wall through a window that exits the city and
they escape. When the Israelite army returns to take Jericho they will recognise the house by the scarlet rope (5) she was instructed to tie to the window. (6)
The spies wait for three days in the hills around Jericho before returning to the Jordan river crossing, which the guards from Jericho would by now have left. When the spies arrive back at Joshua’s camp they report that Jericho is ripe for conquest as the inhabitants “melt away because of us”.
We know the rest, the Israelites do the marching around the walls whilst blowing trumpets. When the walls fall down they fight the Battle of Jericho and destroy the city and all its inhabitants (7) with the exception of Rahab and her family who are spared and eventually live in the land of Israel, where Rahab gets married.
What can we learn?
(1) Rahab was by most accounts a prostitute. Her house is hardly the place for a couple of righteous Israelites, hand picked by God’s man Joshua, to go is it? There is a theory that the Hebrew word for prostitute can mean an innkeeper, and that harlots and bars are frequently found together, and so the spies merely went to the local inn, but in any case there is no hint of any improper behaviour by them in the story so no doubt they were trying to be inconspicuous and blend in with the crowd of travellers who were already there. After all, in the world of Jericho, after a long journey what does a weary traveller far from home need more than drink and the comfort of a woman? and so we catch a glimpse of the unwholesomeness and unrighteousness of Jericho and its inhabitants.
(2) Interestingly she hides them under drying flax which would have been used to manufacture linen cloth. Linen in the Bible is a symbol of moral purity. This image of the spies being hidden under flax is in stark contrast to the one of a prostitute who hides enemy spies and then tells lies to her King’s messengers about it!
(3) Notice when Rahab makes her confession about God it isn’t because of what the Israelites did, but because of what God did through them! This is reminiscent of the Passover story where God says “Not an angel but I myself……”
(4) Rahab renounces the Canaanite gods who allegedly reside on earth in idols, and in the heavens as Ba’al and his consort Astarte and throws her lot in with the people of Israel and the God of Israel. You might say she was converted! This is similar to the story of Ruth, and the common link is the coming to faith of a gentile woman who on the surface is as far from a relationship with the living God as you can get. Ruth was a Moabite, part of a people who were precluded from being partakers of the commonwealth of Israel until the tenth generation - a long time! and Rahab was an idolator, a traitor, a liar and a prostitute!
(5) Scarlet rope - if you’ll forgive the pun this image threads its way through scripture and is always a reference to the purchase of redemption by shedding of blood.
(6) It is an archaeological fact that in antiquity poorer residents of a walled city had houses built into the wall itself. They would be the first residents to fall to an invading army rather than the rich residents who lived inside a second fortification wall inside the outer one.
(7) and finally the moral question presented by God’s command to conduct a complete destruction of the city - men, women, children and animals and then occupy the land for themselves is one that arises whenever we read this and other OT accounts of Israel’s conquests. We shouldn’t ignore the question; it needs wrestling with but it is not unsolvable. Why does a loving God allow for and even command such atrocious actions?
Firstly, as Rahab affirms, God is the God of the Earth and the Heavens; He created them all and they all belong to Him. He has the right to apportion territories according to His perfect will. As the universal Creator He is also the universal Judge to whom every created being is accountable. Here He uses Israel (perhaps as a lesson in responsiblity) as His agents of judgement against the Jericho Canaanites because of their terrible moral condition and their deeds that result. Idolatry, human sacrifice and moral sins which were commonplace in ancient Jericho are anathema to God.
Secondly in the Biblical covenant theocracy, Israel was called to be the people covenanted to follow faithfully God’s commands. “We agree to do all that you say” they proclaimed at Sinai in Exodus 19. Those who violated the terms of the covenant were to be judged and removed from the congregation of Israel. If unrepentant Canaanites were to remain amongst the Israelites after their conquest they would quickly drag the Israelites into idolatry, injustice and evil, which as we read in Judges, Samuel and Kings is exactly what happened.
Thirdly the Judgement that was enacted reflects God’s perfect moral nature and announces it to the whole world. God says “If you act this way, this will happen!!!” Israel’s participation in the judgement of God in some way foreshadows Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 6:2 “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” Being chosen carries with it great responsibility! To be asked to enact God’s judgment is a sobering situation to be in, something akin to being the hangman.
Knowing this doesn’t make the story any easier to take, but it does give us an insight into how God has to work within His perfect nature and that His judgement is awful and fearful.
The great light in this story is that an idolatrous, lying prostitute can be redeemed! God’s judgement is always tempered with mercy towards those who are wholly repentant. The outsider can be both brought and bought into a relationship with the Living God. Our worst sins can, through Jesus be atoned for. God’s salvation is first to the Jews then also to the Gentiles. Nobody is beyond redemption! Rahab, this scarlet woman actually appears in the genealogy of Messiah Jesus as the wife of Salmon, who was the father of Boaz, the husband of Ruth, and great grandfather of King David from whose line, according to Isaiah 11, sprang the shoot of Messiah.