The Strange Case of Rahab’s Faith

Last week we talked about the relationship between faith and the senses. We’ve tried to fashion a working definition of faith. Where does it come from? What can you do with it? You might even ask: Why are we spending so much time talking about it? Does it really matter?

But the more we look at the people of faith—those mentioned in Hebrews 11—the more we see that faith is associated with some pretty flawed characters and the more questions it raises about what faith really is. This is especially true, I think, given the degree of doubt associated with such great men of faith as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Gideon. Above all, we seek to find our own faith and to solidify that faith and to operationalize that faith.

Today we’re looking at the story of Rahab, one of the most unlikely members of the hall of faith. Without a doubt, if you or I were picking a hall of faith, Rahab would not be one of the ones we’d choose. She wouldn’t even be close to making it into the Hall of faith—no way. She’s a Gentile, a liar, a deceiver, and a prostitute! Yet Hebrews 11 says it was faith that kept her from being killed along with those who disobeyed God after the walls of Jericho fell to the Israelites who had marched around them for seven days. She gave the Israelite spies a friendly welcome.

The context is that the Israelites have been wandering in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years. Moses has died and Joshua, who is now leading the Israelite people, has camped them across the Jordan River, waiting to take them into the Promised Land. As Moses did 40 years earlier, Joshua sent a reconnaissance party to spy out the land. This immediately raises the question: Why? Where is the faith of Joshua? God promised Abraham and his descendants that this land would be theirs. Moses was promised this land and God led his people for 40 years through the wilderness. So why send out spies? What was the advantage of the information they were expected to bring back? Where was the faith of Joshua? If God promised it, why not just believe it and prepare to take the Promised Land? What is needed for faith? Is sensory affirmation necessary to seal our faith?

The task of Joshua’s spies was to view and to hear what was going on in Jericho preparatory to its invasion. So the spies head out and—boys being boys, perhaps—they head straight for the red light district. Rabbis and church fathers have long sought to sanitize the story. “This wasn’t really a whorehouse,” they say, “It was just an end run by a lady who used to be a prostitute. They were tired and just wanted to get some rest.” I think that we do an injustice to the story by trying to sanitize it. We fail to see that faith is more about God than about us. We see that God finds faith in the most unexpected people in the most unexpected places in the most unexpected ways. It should give us all, I think, a great deal of hope that God can find faith in me and in you.

Here is the story in full:

Then Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and rested there. [The NASB translation “rested there,” is better translated: “laid down there.” I don’t think when you go into the house of a harlot and you’re laying down, you’re doing it just for rest. That’s just my opinion based on the story.] But it was told to the king of Jericho, saying, “Behold, men from the sons of Israel have come here tonight to spy out the land.” And the king of Jericho sent word to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to spy out all the land.” But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them, and she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. It came about, when it was time to shut the gate at dark, that the men went out; I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.” But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them in the stalks of flax which she had laid in order on the roof. So the men pursued them on the road to the Jordan, to the crossing places; and as soon as those who were pursuing them had gone out, they shut the gate. Now before the spies lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have despaired because of 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 utterly destroyed. When we heard these reports, our hearts melted and no courage remained in anyone any longer because of you; for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the Lord, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father’s household, and give me a pledge of truth, and spare my father and my mother, and my brothers and my sisters, and all who belong to them, and save our lives from death.” So the men said to her, “Our life for yours if you do not tell this business of ours; and it shall come about when the Lord gives us the land that we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.” Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall, so that she was living on the wall. And she said to them, “Go to the hill country, so that the pursuers will not encounter you, and hide yourselves there for three days until the pursuers return. Then afterward you may go on your way.” And the men said to her, “We shall be exempt from this oath to you which you have made us swear, unless, when we come into the land, you tie this cord of scarlet thread in the window through which you let us down, and gather into your house your father, your mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household. And it shall come about that anyone who goes out of the doors of your house outside will have his blood on his own head, and we will be innocent; but anyone who is with you in the house, his blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on him. But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be exempt from the oath which you have made us swear.” She then said, “According to your words, so be it.” So she sent them away, and they departed; and she tied the scarlet cord in the window. So they departed and came to the hill country, and remained there for three days, until the pursuers returned. Now the pursuers had searched for them all along the road, but had not found them. Then the two men returned and came down from the hill country, and they crossed over and came to Joshua the son of Nun. Then they reported to him all that had happened to them. And they said to Joshua, “The Lord has indeed handed over to us all the land; furthermore, all the inhabitants of the land have despaired because of us.” (Joshua 2)

Rahab—this paragon of a faith underwritten by a lot of doubt—is a liar, a deceiver, a whore, a bargainer, a negotiator. She is surrounded by fear and driven by self-interest. The best you could say about her faith is that it was a stage one faith*—anti-social and very selfish. Where do you find faith here that fits a definition of laudable faith? Is it possible that our definition of faith is utterly wrong? Do we have a misguided understanding of what faith really is? Are we the generators of faith? Or do we get our faith as a secondhand product?

In James 2, we come across Rahab again, in the context of faith and works:

What use is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? In the same way, faith also, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.  But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to acknowledge, you foolish person, that faith without works is useless? Was our father Abraham not justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was Rahab the prostitute not justified by works also when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26)

Our faith is the faith of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, and all the people we’ve studied so far. And our faith is the faith of Rahab, too. We are prostitutes, liars, deceivers, and bargainers, full of fear and consumed by self-interest. We are all housed in a place of doom. But through faith there is a window, a rope, a way of escape. Could that be it? Faith is simply an escape hatch from something? If so, from what? From ourselves? From others? From distress, disease, disaster?

There’s something about the story of Rahab that says God has a way of looking at things differently from us. God sees things that we do not see. Faith is an open window. Faith is a rope of hope. Faith is a bridge over troubled waters. Faith is a way of escape. What can we say about Rahab’s faith and how it relates to your faith and my faith? What about faith and works? What about faith as a way of escape, as a rope of hope? What about the need for Rahab to express her faith? Through the senses, we have heard about whatever things happened to the Israelites by these various kings and so forth. What about sensory faith in light of this story of Rahab?

Donald: With regard to the relationship between faith and senses and whether we should rely on our emotions as part of the process: When Noah came out of the ark, the first thing he did was to build an altar on which he burned flesh as an offering to God. The Bible states very clearly that the smell was pleasing to God. Not too many verses later, a rainbow appeared. It seems that faith is not necessary if we can see it, yet it didn’t take too long for the Israelites to go from eating manna to crying in the wilderness that God was neglecting them. So they had it, but only moments later they were not content with God.

I still think that’s something we need to ponder: If we have too much endorsement of our faith, then it’s no longer faith—it’s fact. Faith is something that’s necessary for God to understand whether or not we trust him and put our faith in him as opposed to in something else.

Jay: We have a burning desire to endorse faith through our senses. You can see examples of that in the Bible—Gideon and others. I would guess that this is not something God welcomes, because in some of those examples God appears rather irritated, especially when he gives great endorsement through someone’s senses and yet that person still has questions, like Moses at the burning bush. So it seems as if faith is a vital component but we don’t want to leave it alone. We don’t want to let it just be faith.

As human beings we have an uncontrollable desire to endorse what faith is through the use of either our senses or our mental intellect. We feel we can decipher it and figure out and make an explanation for something and therefore validify our faith. Don’s question today is: Is there great faith in Rahab because she doesn’t seek endorsement?—She doesn’t need a signal that the spies are from God before she will hide them and put the cord out the window and so on. It seems that she does these things through what we sometimes call blind faith. That seems a little contradictory compared to some of the other examples,

Ahmed: I think one of the very important issues we need to understand is that God looks at your heart before looking at what you do. I think this is crucial, because we have to question many things that we do and think of as good things. Why did I do this? What were my intentions? Having good intentions is difficult or at least not always easy. Looking at our hearts and our intentions, I am sure God knows why we do things, but we judge others as having no faith while God is able to look into their hearts and see true faith.

Robin: I wonder if these exceptional examples of faith are correlated with humility. Rahab in the Old Testament and Mary Magdalene in the New Testament were outcast and marginalized, even though they were used by society. And so perhaps these people who have such poor self image in a way find it easier to demonstrate faith while the scribes and the Pharisees and those whose self image is exaggerated, or people who are desperate because their children are sick and dying, find faith easy.

Reinhard: I think what God wants to show with this mix of people either weak or strong in faith is that anyone who believes in God will be accepted into the kingdom of God some day no matter how much faith they have and regardless of what they have done in life. If they accept God, they are not only accepted as people of faith but are guaranteed entry to the kingdom of heaven.

David: It troubles me that many of these stories seem to be not so much about faith in God but about faith in an outcome—in Rahab’s case, that her family would be protected. I still have trouble in considering that to be faith. We’re back to the definition of faith. Robin may be onto something when she talks about humility. And I think Reinhard is right that it’s simply a question of belief in God.

Muslims are wont to say “inshallah”—”God willing”—often. “I will pass the exam, God willing” is a humble acknowledgment that while this is what we want, what we think should happen, in the end it depends on God’s will. It is faith that there is a God and that whatever happens is okay because it’s God’s will. But I remain perturbed by stories of faith based on an outcome expected from works.

Robin: Humility is the requirement for faith to be in our lives. Because if you feel like you know everything, you’re not going to rely on faith.

Donald: What if we were to start with a blank sheet of paper and ask: Why do we get together weekly? What is the purpose of our talking with each other? I think what we’re trying to do is discover what God is about, and who God is and what God’s relationship is with who we are. And we’re doing that through a variety of stories. We’re doing it through Scripture, we’re doing it through understanding each other. But maybe we’re artificially separating things that shouldn’t be separated. You use the hand and heart concept, and we know that a body without the hand and the heart isn’t going to be able to respond as it was designed to be.

In this pandemic, over the last number of months, we have heard this then we hear that then you do this, then you do that. And in reality, what we want is a scientific “Do you wear a mask or not? Do you wash your hands are not? How far apart do I have to stand?” We really don’t want to do it in the context of “all the above.” And maybe because we’re studying this, we dissect things that really shouldn’t come apart. Faith by itself is incomplete as are works. So it’s only in the context of the whole that really we can get the best picture of God. But as you study things, you dissect them and take things apart.

I go to the doctor’s office, and they don’t look at one number and say, “Well, you’re doing pretty well this year. See you next year.” There’s quite a set of numbers that they come up with. One is an indication of the other. It’s almost, I hate to use the word “senses” but it’s like, “Okay, this makes sense. If this is this, and that number is that. As we attempt to discuss this, we don’t do it in the context of the whole. We try to say “This is the thing that we’re talking about this week.” I’m not saying that’s not the way we should go about it, but I think there are probably some weaknesses in doing it that way.

Dewan: When we are in doubt and lacking in spiritual feeling, prayer helps keep us safe and secure and strong, and to keep our faith. Faith is an important requirement for everlasting life. Faith helps to give us strength in times of weakness. Without faith, we are nothing. Prayer helps.

David: But without faith, don’t we have God’s grace? What about the poor, the suffering, the people at the end of their tether in the Beatitudes? Faith is not at issue in the Beatitudes. It’s not about whether those people have faith. They’re beyond that. The only thing left to them is God’s grace.

Chris: Can you separate faith and grace? Don’t I have to have faith in God in order to believe that there’s grace? Faith that God exists, faith that God’s grace exists?

David: Grace is there because God is there. It comes whether you believe, whether you have faith or not. God’s grace exists. That’s the lesson of the Beatitudes, in my interpretation of it anyway.

Robin: I think that the Beatitudes show us what God desires us to be like. And therefore you have to be influenced by God’s Spirit in order to attain that kind of spiritual lifestyle.

Don: The story is the story. You can dispute the story. You can say the story is not true, the story is not valid. But the story says that a person who is personally immoral, a liar, a deceiver, a bargainer, self interested, enshrouded by fear, all of which apparently drives her hospitality and apparent kindness. Is it empty charity? She’s doing something to save her skin. How can that be faith? In what sense is that faithfulness?

Carolyn: Is faith a gift?

Jay: I don’t think Rahab’s trying to save her skin. If she were, the more logical thing would be to just give up the spies—two strangers she just met—and be a hero to her friends, family and the whole city. It seems that what she’s doing is abnormal and illogical—as in other examples from Hebrews, whether it’s people walking around Jericho seven times and not doing much except play music and expecting to overtake a city; or an old guy building a boat for 120 years and expecting rain to come that’s never come before; or, a father sacrificing his son… these are illogical.

Is there a relationship between illogicality and faith? Are illogical actions potential examples of faith? When you ignore your senses, most people would say you’re illogical. Many of these examples of the illogical go back to the ministry of Christ, who did a lot of illogical things given the norms of society at that time. Is that the idea? Is it the recognition that we have zero control over what’s going on, so just give it up? Human beings would see giving it up and letting God take control from the outside as a pretty illogical thing for a person to do. Is that some kind of relationship here to this faith?

I agree that grace has nothing to do with faith. Grace is of God, and whether you’ve got faith in him or not, you’re getting it. That’s his prerogative. He’s not waiting for us to have a little bit of faith first so he can give us a little bit of grace, or a lot of faith so he can give us a lot of grace. Grace is what it is. If God is love, love is love and it is what it is, no matter what we as people do or think.

Jeff: All those examples fit with my concept of letting God be God and that’s what faith is. Does it require faith for God to show grace to us? The Bible says, in Timothy, that God remains faithful to us, even if we are faithless to him, because he cannot deny himself: He is faith, he is love, he is the definition. I wonder if maybe in clamoring to develop a definition, we’re looking at it from our side. There are so many examples throughout the Bible of God’s faithfulness or statements towards God’s faithfulness. And we take them all in the context of him being faithful towards us. Maybe we need to examine what his role is. I think that’s one of the big things that makes us question faith, when we don’t feel like God is playing his role as we want him to. Maybe examining it from how God is faithful may bring us to another definition or another way to look at faith.

Donald: If faith is a gift, then it doesn’t come from us. It comes from God.

Chris: That’s what Ephesians 2 says.

Donald: So if it comes from God, then why are we talking about it as if it were our faith? Or is it a reciprocal relationship? Does it require reciprocity? I’m not sure.

David: I think my faith is a gift because I don’t know how else I would have acquired it. I had an experience once that certainly confirmed me in my faith. I might have already had it, I don’t know, but the confirmation was a gift. I don’t know if anybody else has ever had the same experience I did—which is the only reason I can think of for giving some credit to Hebrews 11: It shows there are many different ways in which the gift of faith is delivered or expressed. But a gift can still be rejected. A gift can also be humbling (“I did nothing to deserve it.”) It is also humbling to think there may be people who have not been given the gift of faith. It cannot be their fault if the gift was never offered, and in any case God’s grace is always there for them, even if they don’t know it or believe it.

Don: If it’s a gift, then what responsibility do we have to grow our faith, to enlarge our faith, to strengthen our faith, to refine our faith? Is that completely out of our hands? Or is it something that your faith does with you?

Ahmed: I see it as a gift—in a way. God tends to show himself in our lives in certain situations. People differ in their reaction. Some embrace it, accept it, and work on it, recognizing the presence of God and trying to work on the relationship, while others don’t. And that’s the difference. I think God reveals himself in different ways. You cannot see the coronavirus yet it has disrupted our lives and taken many people away from their loved ones. It’s something to reflect upon and try to see the big picture behind it. Maybe it’s a message that perhaps we are not on the right track as humanity.

We tend to judge people on our terms, by our metrics, without considering how their life was, how they ended up this way. But God sees things differently. People we judge to be bad or faithless or materialistic might not be so in the eyes of God, because he knows what they have been through. So I think it’s crucial not to judge people, even if they don’t seem right to us, because we don’t know where they came from, what they have been through in their life, what their childhood was like, and many other factors.

People always are waiting for something good to happen in order to establish or verify or assure them that their faith has had an outcome. I cannot see that. The mere existence of human beings—of me and of everyone—is a gift. That you are able to breathe and that you are able to live is a gift from God, by itself. And the different challenges that we meet in life and the different bad outcomes and the things that we perceive as disasters or shortcomings or limitations and so on are just challenges that are there to test how much faith we have.

Kiran: If faith is a gift, what do we have to do? Rahab and pretty much everybody in her town knew what the Israelites and their God did. Rahab had the same evidence as everybody else, but she saw the glass half full, whereas others saw it half empty. In the same way, some people today look at the same evidence regarding the pandemic and say it is all fake, while others say it is real.

When God gave repeated evidence to Moses that he was capable of doing what God asked of him, he was still not able to believe. That’s probably why God got annoyed. God doesn’t give too much evidence of his presence and it requires on our part to see the evidence that is present in this life, and then make the bet that the glass is half full—that you decide to go with God. I understand the concept of letting God be God, but not everyone is ready for it. When I came into the church, I wasn’t that mature. I wasn’t even sure whether God was there or was interested.

So he treated me differently than he would treat me today. I’m not the same person as I was 20 years ago, when I had not seen much evidence of God, so he had to treat me differently than he would treat me today. Am I wiser now? Do I expect him to behave the way he behaved 40 years ago? That’s up to me. But whether to rely on the evidence that was given to me and then take a bet on God, and then say, “I believe in your wisdom, even though I don’t know the outcome, and I’m okay with whatever the outcome is” I think is a different thing.

Don: I’ve heard a couple of different themes today: One that faith is a gift, the other that people demonstrate or respond to faith in very different ways and that the plethora of different stories and different experiences recounted in Hebrews are a window on the fact that faith, and how mankind responds to it, is not something which can be uniformly predicted or would be uniformly expected to be the same.

David: As a final comment, I would comment that a true gift must be given with no expectation of a return.

* See article on Stages of Faith here.

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