Imagine that you’re driving to the supermarket and you are approaching an intersection with a traffic light. When you are a hundred feet from the crossing, the light turns yellow. What decision are you likely to make in the next split second?
Will you hit the accelerator hard and roar through, possibly on the yellow but probably on the red? Or will you hit the brake and take no chances?
The decision you make in that split second will depend on a number of factors. For one, your schedule will have an impact on your decision. Are you running behind or do you have all morning free for grocery shopping?
Another thing affecting your decision is how you feel about obeying the law at all times. Some of us are compulsive about that. For others, skating along the rim of the law is an invigorating challenge. A third factor is the way you feel about getting a ticket, having to explain it to your family, or having to take the time to talk to a police officer.
Of course, your personality will affect the decision you make. If you’re a Type A who can’t stand waiting at red lights, you’ll probably bear down on the accelerator and barrel through the intersection.
Once you’ve made that decision, you may have more decisions ahead. Assume that you’ve finished collecting your groceries and you’re now checking out. The clerk gives you a 10- dollar bill in your change instead of the 5 you should receive. What decision will you make in the next split second? Will you call her attention to the mistake or will you pocket the 10 without saying anything?
Once again, your decision in that split second will depend on a number of factors. You may remember the times you bought produce in that store and it turned out to be rotten inside: The lettuce was rusty, the cantaloupe was tasteless, or the apples were mushy. Or perhaps the last time you bought cottage cheese there, you had to toss it out because it had already turned sour. In that split second you may decide that you are merely reimbursing yourself for all the times the store has cheated you with bad merchandise.
What you believe about the store and what you believe about honesty and justice will determine what you do when you have to make a split-second decision about the wrong change in a check-out line.
This isn’t a new problem. People have faced choices like these for thousands of years. Ever since Eve made a decision about a piece of fruit in that long-ago garden, people have had to make quick decisions in life. Those decisions are usually made on the basis of our beliefs about ourselves, about our society, and about the universe. Is there a God? If so, how does He impact what I choose to do? What do I believe about Him that influences the decisions I make every day?
When we turn to Joshua 2, we see a woman who made a split-second decision that changed her life from bottom to top. Her name was Rahab. She practiced the oldest profession on earth, prostitution. She had already made some major decisions about the worth of her body and the worth of her soul. In this passage, we meet her in as she faces another decision.
To understand that decision, however, we need to move back 40 years and set the stage for Rahab’s quick decision. God’s people, the 12 tribes of Israel, were held as slaves in Egypt. Under the leadership of a remarkable family trio—Moses, Aaron, and Miriam—God delivered His people. When through unbelief these people refused to enter the Promised Land, they wandered for 40 years in the Sinai Peninsula. During that time an entire generation died, and our scene opens with the 12 tribes now camped on the east side of the Jordan River, ready to begin the conquest of Canaan under the leadership of their new commander-in-chief, Joshua.
The first city the Israelites would have to take was Jericho, the City of Palms. It controlled a lush green valley. God had promised His people a land flowing with milk and honey, and the first city in their path was one that filled that description perfectly.
The valley was fertile and well-watered, overflowing with abundant crops and luscious fruits. The city itself was the strongest of the fortified cities in Canaan. The mud walls, about 20 feet high, seemed impregnable. Archaeologists tell us that there were actually two walls with a room-wide gap between them. If an enemy succeeded in scaling the first wall, he would be trapped in this no-man’s-land, an easy target for the defenders. Jericho was well protected.
Over the gaps in these walls were houses at intervals around the city. Strong timbers supported these houses spanning the gulf between the two sets of walls. It was in one of these houses on the walls that Rahab lived.
Our story begins in Joshua 2:1.
Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
That’s the setting: Israelite preparations for war, spies, and questions of loyalty and patriotism. The spies had come to Jericho. Where could they stay? How could they learn what they needed to know? What better place to go than to a house of prostitution? Visiting merchants frequently asked directions to such places. We need not be too surprised that the two spies from Israel ended up at Rahab’s house on the wall.
But had the spies succeeded in evading suspicion? Read Joshua 2:2-7.
The king of Jericho was told, “Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.” But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
Clearly, the spies had aroused suspicions among some of the people of Jericho and the king soon heard about them. He sent a delegation to Rahab’s house to ask that the spies be turned over to the Jericho police force. Rahab was faced with having to make a split-second decision.
Would she do the patriotic thing and turn over the spies to the king? Or would she lie and become a traitor by sheltering the enemies of her people?
That is a big decision for anyone to make. And Rahab did not have several hours or several days to think it over or to consult with people she trusted. She had to make that decision quickly. You know from the text what decision she made. The spies, at least for the moment, were safe under the stalks of flax on her roof. The soldiers who had come to her door believed her story and went off to search for the spies on the road back to the fords of the Jordan River.
Think about Rahab’s decision. What on earth convinced her that she would do better betraying her own people and risking her own life just to save the lives of two men whom she had never seen before and didn’t know if she would ever see again?
Like many of the split-second decisions we make, Rahab’s decision came out of who she was and what she believed about herself, about her world, and about God. What she believed gave her the courage to go against her people and her government when she was faced with a split-second decision.
Go with me in your imagination to that rooftop on the Jericho wall. Listen to what Rahab said to the spies after the soldiers left on their futile search. Sit with me under the stars as she chatted with the two men from Israel. Feel the warm spring breeze. Smell the rich scents of flowers on the night air. See the river sparkling in the moonlight to the east and the mountains looming strong to the west. Read what Rahab said to those two young men in Joshua 2:8-13.
Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.
What fundamental belief caused Rahab to make that decision to hide the spies and betray her city? Rahab decided to bet her life and her future on Israel’s God. She had become convinced, as she told the spies, that their God was “God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
And that is the only way you and I can confront our culture or go against the tide of society around us. We find the courage to do that only when we are convinced that “the Lord [our] God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
Do I really believe that God is sovereign not only in heaven above but also on the earth here below? Am I convinced that “my times are in [God’s] hands” (Ps. 31:15) and that God really does have “the whole world in His hands”? Can I be sure His hands are good hands and that He will cause justice to triumph and good to win out in the end?
The American poet James Russell Lowell wrote:
on the scaffold,
on the throne—
Yet that scaffold
sways the future,
And behind the
within the shadow,
above His own.
“Truth forever on the scaffold. Wrong forever on the throne.” It seems like that sometimes, doesn’t it? We look at our world around us and we see injustice triumph. We see the good guys lose and the bad guys win. We see a close friend having to cope with a broken marriage, not because she has been a poor wife, but because her husband has succumbed to the charms of another woman. We see an honest husband lose his job at the same time that a dishonest co-worker is promoted. It doesn’t look as if God is sovereign on the earth below. We don’t have much to go on to believe that He is even sovereign in the heavens above. Is God really standing “within the shadow, keeping watch above His own”?
Whether you believe Lowell is right or wrong depends on what else you know about God.
Rahab knew enough about God to believe He would use His great power to benefit His own. She was willing to bet her life on it. She knew how thick the Jericho walls were. She lived on them. She knew how ferocious the Jericho soldiers were. As a prostitute she probably had listened to enough of them brag about their strength and prowess when they visited her. She could see how invulnerable Jericho was to any invader. But despite all of that, she had come to believe that the God of Israel would triumph, and that the Israelites were on God’s side. She believed that so thoroughly that she was ready to bet her life on that reality. Rahab dared to stand alone against her culture because she had a strong faith in Israel’s God.
We learn something important about Rahab’s faith when we move over to the New Testament. To our surprise we find this prostitute held up as an example of outstanding faith. Look first at Hebrews 11:31.
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Here in this Hall Of Fame for heroes of faith we find only two women— Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and the prostitute Rahab. Remarkable! But the writer of this letter to the Hebrews is not the only one who used Rahab’s faith as an example. Look also at James 2:25-26.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Rahab’s faith led not only to a strong statement about Israel’s God: “Your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” It also led to a strong action for the people of God. Someone has said that “faith is a step, not just a statement.”
What demonstrated Rahab’s faith? The writer to the Hebrews said that the fact that she welcomed the spies demonstrated her faith. James put his finger on the same thing: “she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction”—away from the Jericho soldiers. Rahab’s faith led her to action. Her decision to act grew out of her faith.
And what came of it? In betting her life on the reality and work of Israel’s God, did Rahab choose well? If you grew up in Sunday school, you know the story better than I can tell it.
After having sent the Jericho soldiers off on a wild-goose chase, she had that wonderful conversation with the two spies on her rooftop under a star-studded evening sky. She confessed her faith in Israel’s God. And she did one more thing. She asked that, in exchange for saving the spies’ lives, the lives of her parents, brothers, and sisters be spared when God gave Jericho to the invaders.
“Our lives for your lives!” the spies assured her. On two conditions: She must not tell their mission to the authorities in Jericho, and she must bind a red cord in the window on the wall. Only those in that house at the time of the conquest would be saved. Everyone else would be destroyed.
They all agreed on the conditions. She let them down over the wall by a heavy rope and told them to hide in the mountains until the search party had returned to Jericho empty-handed. She tied the red cord in the window. And she waited.
In Joshua 3, 4, and 5 we read the story of a huge nation of people crossing a raging river and of the things that happened as they set up camp not far from Jericho. Meanwhile, Rahab waited. Our story resumes in Joshua 6:1.
Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in. Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.”
And with that God gave Joshua one of the strangest battle plans ever recorded. He was to organize a parade. At the head were some armed soldiers followed by seven priests carrying instruments made of rams’ horns. Then came more priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, followed by more armed soldiers. The seven priests were to blow the horns all the way around the city, but the Israelites lining the parade route were to be quiet. Once the parade was ended, everyone returned to the Israelite camp for the night. The people assembled and marched the first day. Again on the second day. The third day. The fourth day. The fifth day. Again on the sixth day.
What in the world would you have thought was going on, had you been a citizen of Jericho standing on the wall and watching them each day? Day after day after day? Would you have begun to wonder what kind of God would give such instructions to these people?
Or would it make you just a little bit nervous to watch the processional, all the while wondering what would happen next?
On the seventh day the parade formed as usual. The Israelites watched the armed soldiers, the priests with the horns, and the priests carrying the Ark line up in the customary formation. Everyone was quiet. They were supposed to be. But I suspect that even without such a command from Joshua, a lot of them would have been silent anyway. This was the big test. Would God come through for them, or would they end up looking as silly as they had looked all week?
One time around, twice around, three times around, four times, five times, six times, seven times. And suddenly Joshua gave the signal. The trumpets sounded. The people shouted. And, as the song puts it, “The walls came a-tumblin’ down.” Those massive walls—20 feet thick—collapsed in on the city. The armed Israelite soldiers were able to run up over the rubble and engage the Jericho militia in battle. The destruction of Jericho was total. Or almost total. Left standing was a house on a section of the wall. From the window of that house dangled a red cord. People crowded around the window inside that house, watching in astonishment all that was happening.
Joshua called the two spies and gave them a good assignment: Go to Rahab’s house and bring out everyone there and keep them safe. In Joshua 6:23 we read:
The young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel.
Safe! Rahab had bet her life on Israel’s God. God had come through for her and for all who huddled with her inside that house on the wall of Jericho.
There is more to the story. In Joshua 6:25 the writer tells us that Rahab lived among the Israelites to the day the book of Joshua was written. She became one with the people of God. The fact that she had been a prostitute was no longer relevant. By faith she was joined to the community of God.
One of the remarkable things we see when we look at Jesus’ contacts with women in the four Gospels is that He often stooped down and lifted up “fallen women.” Remember the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume in Luke 7 and the woman taken in adultery in John 8. Again and again, we see the compassion of Jesus reaching out to women who had broken the rules and had lived lives that “respectable” people looked down on.
Rahab reminds us that being joined to the family of God has nothing to do with our goodness. It has everything to do with God’s grace. Through a prostitute God teaches us that we are saved by grace, not by being good.
But our story is still not over. Turn to Matthew 1— that dry, dull genealogy— and look at verse 5: “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.”
Rahab the mother of Boaz? That means she was the great-great-grandmother of David, Israel’s greatest king. Even more amazing, she was an ancestress in the genealogy of Jesus, the Lord of glory, the God-man, the Savior of the world.
Rahab, the prostitute. Wouldn’t you think that God would be a bit more choosy about the lineage of His Son? For people for whom descent was everything, wouldn’t God take their scruples into consideration and choose a purer line for the Messiah? Apparently God wanted us to learn something else as we look at Rahab.
Rahab stands as a tribute to the possibilities within every one of us. God saw in her the possibility of an active and invigorating faith. Never mind what she was. He looked at what she could become.
It is the same for us. Our past is irrelevant. Our future alone matters to God. Faith can blossom in any environment. Roses can grow in manure piles. Whatever lies behind us is not nearly as important as what lies before us. The choices we have made in the past have brought us where we are today. The choices we make today, tomorrow, next week, or next year will determine our destiny.
Some of those choices will be split-second decisions. They will come out of who we are and what we believe about ourselves, our world, and God. Those decisions will determine the actions we take.
Rahab heard about Israel’s God. She responded to what she heard by faith. She made a split-second decision to go with God by saving the two spies. Her faith gained her life in the midst of destruction. It gained her the salvation of her entire family. It gained her a place in Israel and marriage to Salmon, who, tradition tells us, was one of the two spies. It also gained her a place in the genealogy of Israel’s greatest king and a place in the genealogy of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
What she had been was irrelevant. What she became through active faith was all that mattered.
What resources do you fall back on when you have to make split-second decisions in your life? Are your decisions grounded in your faith in a loving, compassionate God whose hand is on you for good? Do your actions show your faith as you go with God and with His people? Look up to Rahab. Look at this prostitute who modeled vibrant faith for Israel and for us today.