Word of Courage or Word of Despair?; Joshua 2

Prayer: God, you have given us a history. I pray for wisdom to comprehend it and humility to understand it, so that what was written for our benefit might strengthen us and glorify the risen Christ. To Your name be all things, Lord. Amen.

In theatre and story writing there is a well known rule to be efficient in everything which you add to a story. A good director or writer wastes nothing in terms of dialogue, setting, or plot. If there is a gun on the wall in Act 1, you better believe someone is getting shot in Act 2. If there is a significant line a character speaks, it better contribute to the plot or else be revisited in a later part of the story. Such foreshadowing is essential to telling a good story and seeing the trajectory of where the author wants to take the narrative. We see the same principle occurring at the beginning of the book of Joshua.

Today, we will be looking at the whole of chapter 2 which is a story with which no doubt many of you are familiar. It is the story of Rahab and the Israelite spies. Often, this story is held up in isolation so that its main character, Rahab, might be admired as an example of faith, and Rahab’s faith is notable here. However, it is crucial to note that Rahab’s faithfulness does not stand in isolation but rather is a display of the themes covered in chapter 1. Recall with me in chapter 1 that there were a number of charges and reminders given to Joshua and the Israelites in total: 1) they were given the promise of the land and God’s presence with them, 2) they were told (four times) to be strong and courageous, and 3) they were told to adhere to the Torah which came through Moses. These three things do not stand in isolation to one another in this chapter; rather, note the logical connection between them. 

In verses 3-6, God reminds Joshua of the promise of land, and, in verse 6, it is this promise of the land which justifies the command to be strong and courageous, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” And immediately following this command, God supplements it with another in verse 7, “being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you.” Then again in verse 8 God tells Joshua to adhere to the Torah, in verse 9 He tells him to be strong and courageous, and finally again God reminds Joshua of His presence with them. Note the chiasm here: God offers the promise, gives the command for strength and courage, commands adherence to the Torah, again repeats this same command, tells them to be strong and courageous, and He again assures them of His presence. Joshua then assumes command over the Israelites, and in verses 17-18 they repeat what God told Joshua: God is with them, adhere to Torah, and be strong and courageous. There should be no surprise then that these themes of God’s presence, strength and courage, and Torah will emerge time and again as we go throughout this book, and the big question which stands as we enter chapter 2 is will the Israelites be faithful to these sayings or will they turn off to the right or to the left?

When chapter 2 opens, the narrative moves quickly. Joshua commissions spies to enter Jericho and scout the land, they find the house of a prostitute named Rahab, and they lodge there. At this point in the story, it is reasonable to be a bit confused about the trajectory of this book. Joshua, the main character of chapter 1, has faded from the scene, and the Israelite spies are not even named for us which signifies that neither are they the main focus of the chapter. Rather, the figure who emerges as central is a Canaanite woman prostitute, and as of yet we do not know why this is the case.

The ruler of Jericho catches wind of the spies’ presence and sends soldiers to come and find them at Rahab’s house. When met by the soldiers, Rahab lies to them about the spies’ location and sends the soldiers away into the country to try and find the spies despite them having been hidden by her on the roof. The soldiers then leave the city to pursue the spies, and Rahab returns to the spies, and offers up her confession concerning everything which the Canaanites have heard about what God has done for His people. Rahab then offers them a means of escape, and the spies guarantee that she will not be harmed by giving her a scarlet cord to tie around her window which marks her house as to not be touched by the invading Israelites. The spies then hide from the soldiers searching in the country and return to Joshua and give a report of their mission.

In sum, the oddness of this story is immediately apparent to those who might read this within an ancient culture. The fact that the only named character (besides Joshua) is Rahab and that she is given the most to say within the story makes it apparent that it is her response to the Israelites is what the author wants the reader to take notice of. Further, what she says and what she does for the Israelites is given special attention as the whole of chapter 2 is another chiasm with Rahab’s confession of faith standing in the middle of the story. Look again with me at verses 9-13: 

“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away 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 who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.”

Notice again what she says and how she presents the justification for her actions in hiding the spies. First, she affirms that God has given the land to the Israelites because of what she has heard concerning God’s acts for His people. Second, she notes how all the inhabitants of Canaan lost their courage due to what they heard. Finally, she pledges herself to the Israelites asking them to swear by the divine name of God to “deal kindly” with her. The word here often translated as “deal kindly” in the Hebrew is the word khesed (חֶסֶד) which is a term used to describe the covenant loyalty God has for His people and the people are supposed to have for God. In other words, this is the language of the Torah. Further notice how Rahab is to be sectioned off as distinct from the rest of Jericho. Rahab is told to mark her window with a scarlet cord which distinguishes her home as distinct and not to be touched by the Israelites (v. 18-21). This reminds the reader of Exodus 12:13 where the Israelites themselves are told to mark themselves as distinct by placing lamb’s blood over their door post in order to be spared from God’s wrath against Egypt. From the perspective of an Israelite, the imagery is unmistakable. In tying a scarlet cord to her window and by swearing an oath in the divine name of God, Rahab has now fully identified herself and her family with the people of Israel. The benefits of God’s promises and the Torah are now applied to her as well. This is why the author of Hebrews identifies Rahab as one among a legacy of faithfulness (11:31); she does not identify herself as one among the disobedient, as the writer of Hebrews calls them, but she welcomes the spies in peace and so is counted among the faithful.

Notice that the great irony of chapter 2 is that the previous question of faithfulness foreshadowed in chapter 1 is not answered by a male Israelite leader but by a female Canaanite prostitute, and from the perspective of the author of Joshua the question of loyalty to God is not nor has never been a question of gender, nationality, or class but of faithfulness to the God who has confronted us via His word and demands a response. Is this not what has happened to Rahab in this story? She is confronted with what God has done and when she meets the Israelites, the people whom God loves, her immediate response is not to cling hopelessly to the idolatry and immorality which previously defined her; rather, she desperately seeks to associate herself with them even putting the lives of herself and her family on the line. Whereas when the text says that the news concerning the Israelites reaches the Canaanites and, “there was no spirit left in any man” (v. 11), Rahab is instead confronted with God’s Spirit by the word, and she is brought to belief in the LORD. 

This witness concerning God’s actions changes her heart and causes her to seek repentance and believe. In hearing of what God has done and His mighty acts, Rahab confesses the sovereignty of God as she is brought to believe that God is “in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (v. 11). Of course this language of the heavens above and the earth beneath is reminiscent of Genesis 1:1 and God’s creation of all things. In other words, in hearing about what God has done, Rahab is brought to the beginning of the Torah, to the beginning of instruction for the development of knowledge which is brought about by her fear of the LORD (Pr 1:7). And it is this knowledge which causes her to foremost exemplify Torah in the book of Joshua, not an Israelite. Albeit while Joshua and the Israelites are the main protagonists of the book, it does not escape the author to remind his readers of the ultimate purpose of the Israelites taking the land: to be a blessing to all of the nations (Gn 12:2-3).

But this point raises a significant question which needs to be addressed. When the news about the Israelites confronts the Canaanites, why is it Rahab who alone responds the way she does (with strength and courage) while everyone else in the land becomes discouraged and even looks to resist the Israelites with warfare? In the coming days and weeks as we traverse the book we will see time and again people who would rather take up arms against the Israelites knowing full well of the report which Rahab gives to the reader in verses 9-11. I do not want to tidy up certain doctrinal issues which ultimately go beyond what the text elaborates upon (the issue of conversion is ultimately mysterious as it is where the divine will and the human will meet), but I do want to highlight the separate reactions of Rahab and the Canaanites. When the word reaches them, they are brought to despair, but it is Rahab and her family who forsake their idolatry and become loyal to the true God alone. On the other hand, the Canaanites resist the advances of the Israelites at every turn and seek to thwart God’s plans. Why? The text in Joshua is not explicit in their reasoning, but it is implicit based upon what the reader knows from Deuteronomy 9:4-5:

Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

The Canaanites did not repent because although they have heard the word about God and what He has done, they still wished to continue in their iniquities and sin. When word came to the Canaanites they were thrown into despair because they would rather continue on in their idolatry and immorality rather than submit to God. 

Rahab’s example of faith does more than simply serve as an example of good conduct. Ultimately, Rahab’s story confronts the Israelites in later generations and us in the church today with a pressing question: to whom are you loyal? When the word of God confronts you and divides you between bone and marrow are you filled with repentance or when it confronts your idols are you filled with grief and resistance? When Christ tells you to deny yourself, take up your cross (take up your death sentence), and follow him, do you believe Him? Are you compelled to follow and forsake all other allegiances like Rahab or do you out of desperation seek to resist the full significance of that command at all costs? Do you reshape, reinterpret, and overall neglect His imperatives? 

I do not think I need to give you examples of professing Christians taking the commands of Christ and neglecting them in order to be loyal to other banners which stand in contrast to the way of the cross. I do not think I need to recount the examples of those within the church selling their birthright for the stew of political power or lust, and I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that in your own time you have witnessed countless examples of intemperance and hatred in this past year to the point whether you are questioning whether or not there is something in the water. And I am sure that many of you have felt the urge and pull to forsake (or redefine if nothing else) loyalty to God and turn away to either the right or to the left (pun thoroughly intended). I have felt that too, and I have seen my own self give way to those tendencies and temptations.

In such a context where loyalty to God is difficult and certainly not getting easier it is essential to comprehend the true significance of Joshua chapter 2. Yes, while Rahab is the main character here, her loyalty is derivative. She must first hear the word of God’s loyalty and faithfulness before such things can manifest in her, and once it meets her, her story only serves a testimony that it is God who is the primary actor at play in protecting His people and incorporating more into His covenant family. As the word is first brought to her and changes her, she in turn testifies to God’s greatness and sovereignty. It is Rahab’s faith which allows her to experience the joys and benefits of the covenant of Israel, and it is by God’s faithfulness to her that she is in the genealogy of Christ (Mt 1:4-5).

Does this story sound familiar to you? As the apostle Paul points out, it has always been faith which serves as the mark of rightness with God (Gl 3:5-11), and just as Rahab is brought into the genealogy of Christ so too are we adopted into that same family line by the faithfulness of God. Our identity as God’s covenant people only stands by His gracious provision that we might be one with the Messiah, and as the inheritors of God’s promises, the imperative to remain loyal is stronger for us than it ever has been prior to the revelation of Jesus because we have been given God Himself, crucified and resurrected.

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