Sunday, March 5, 2017

THE HARLOT

One would think that the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews could have dispensed with the title “harlot” when referring to Rehab, a woman who had lived in the Old Testament days.
 
After all, when he wrote about “Rahab the harlot,” as he calls her, about seventeen hundred years had passed since she had practiced that trade. And she had done other things in her life– more noteworthy things. In fact, it was one of those other and more significant things about which the author writes:
 
"By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith, Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace" (Hebrews 11:30-31 NIV).
 
The spies of this verse are not the twelve spies that had been sent in to spy out the land shortly after the Israelites made their exodus out of Egypt. That occurrence had happened some forty years earlier. The spies referred to in this case were only two in number, and they went in specifically to spy out the city of Jericho, the same city that Joshua was contemplating when he met with the captain of the host of the Lord.

The Story of Rehab


Rahab’s story and the situation surrounding her goes like this: The Children of Israel, after having left Egypt forty years earlier in a great exodus, had wandered around in the wilderness for those forty years, but now at last were now preparing to cross the Jordan River and to enter into the land that had been promised to them by God. Moses, the one who had led them out of Egypt, was dead. The Israelites were now led by their captain and warrior, Joshua.

After leaving Egypt, the Israelites were not permitted to immediately enter into the land that was promised to them by God. There were a couple of reasons that they were not allowed to do so. First and most significantly, the Israelites were not able to enter because of their own unbelief. Even though the people of Israel had been promised the right to the possession of the land by God, they did not accept his provision. To this fact, the writer of Hebrews earlier referred:

"For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief" (Hebrews 3:17-19 NAS).

The other reason that the Israelites had been delayed in entering Canaan was because of something that God had said to Abraham several hundred years earlier. In telling Abraham about what would happen to this patriarch’s descendants concerning Canaan (the Promised Land), God told him about the slavery that his people would suffer in Egypt.

They would return to Canaan, God told Abraham, but they would not be allowed to do so until after the fourth generation, “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16).

There were actually many tribes, clans and peoples living in the land of Canaan, Rahab the harlot being from one of those peoples. However, God used the term “Amorite” in this case to refer to all of the Canaanites as a whole. God, in his patience and longsuffering, was allowing these people to continue in the land, but he would not allow their evil and wickedness to continue indefinitely.

The Lord would eventually punish them for their iniquity. With the entrance of Joshua and the Children of Israel into the land, that time was now coming upon them.

The city of Jericho, where Rahab lived, was on the west side of the Jordan River. At the time when the woman was visited by the spies spoken of in the earlier verse, Joshua and his army were on the east side of the river. Before crossing the river Jordan with his invading force, Joshua sent the two spies ahead to do a reconnaissance on the city of Jericho.

The Confession of Rahab

Meanwhile, while the people of Jericho may not have known at first about the spies, they were not unaware of the larger threat that was coming upon them. News of the arrival of the Israelites to the other side of the river had preceded the spies. The inhabitants of Jericho knew that the army of Joshua had their sights set on their city. The whole city was fearful, for they had heard many stories of the God of this people – stories which seemed incredible. Nevertheless, Rahab the harlot believed them. As she told the two spies when she learned of their identity:

"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 melted 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 utterly destroyed.

"And when we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath." (Joshua 2:9-11 NAS)

It seems like the whole city was in fear because of the invading force that was coming their way. However, there was a subtle difference in the source of the terror. Rahab said that no courage remained in any man of the city because of the Israelites, but the harlot then adds an additional commentary to show that she understood the true source of terror, “For the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and earth beneath.”

It was perhaps true that the iniquity of the Amorite was now complete, but in the woman Rahab, there was at least one of them who was willing to bow before the power of the One True God. For this woman, God would not only provide a path to escape destruction, but God even had great and noble plans for this harlot.

An Earlier Visit by Spies

Unknown to Rahab and probably several years before she was even born, her land had earlier been visited by the earlier party of spies that had come from the people of Israel. This had taken place about forty years earlier. In fact, the same present captain – the man Joshua, had been one of those former spies. These were the twelve spies that had come.

This first group of twelve spies had been sent out by Moses according to the instructions of God, in order to spy out the land that they were to enter. However, those first spies brought back such a discouraging report about the great giants of Canaan, that the Israelites grumbled and rebelled against the leadership of Moses. They refused to enter the land. All of the spies said the same thing; all but two of them that is – Joshua and Caleb. Their assessment was that the Lord would have given them victory.

Nevertheless, because of the rebellion of the people, the Lord destined the Children of Israel to wander for forty years in the wilderness before they would have another opportunity to enter into the Promised Land. The punishment of the forty years of aimless wandering was, God had told them, “According to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day you shall bear your guilt a year, even forty years, and you will know My opposition” (Numbers 14:34 NAS).

The Faith of Rahab

But now it was forty years later. Spies were again to be sent into the land – not twelve spies, but only two. This time, the spies would be received by Rahab.

When Rahab spoke to the spies and told them that all of Jericho was terrified at the thought of the coming of the Israelites, it was her statement that the God of the Israelites was the God in heaven above and earth beneath that gave testimony to the faith of Rahab. The writer of Hebrews had put it like this: “By faith, Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient.”

Others of the city of Jericho may have been terrified, but they remained in their disobedience. Rahab had instead decided to believe.

But Rahab did more than just utter the acceptable words, for she also had welcomed the spies in peace. Her confession that God was the God of heaven and earth was confirmed and reinforced by her actions. This is exactly the point that James makes of Rahab in the letter he wrote dealing with the relationship between faith and works.

"In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot (poor Rahab, she just cannot seem to shake that term) also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?"  (James 2:25 NAS)

The Deeds of Rehab

What exactly was it then, that Rahab did to confirm her faith in God and to help the spies? To return to our story, when the two spies entered into Jericho, they did not come in completely undetected. Someone had noticed their arrival and told the king that “men from the sons of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.”

The spies were seen entering the house of Rahab, and the king sent word to her to deliver the men to him. But Rahab, understanding who the spies were and understanding also about the God who was protecting them, made what must have been for her a very difficult decision. She decided to defy her own king. She instead lied to protect the spies.

“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” (Joshua 2:4-5 NAS).

The Lie of Rehab

We must give some recognition to the inevitable questions about Rahab’s words, as she had resorted to telling lies in order to protect the spies. Was this lie justified by God, and if so, does this mean that it is sometimes acceptable to tell a lie?

The writer of the Proverbs tells us that there are seven things that the Lord hates, among them is the “lying tongue.” He also says this: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 6:17; 12: 22).

This being true, I also think we should not be too harsh in our judgment of Rahab. I do not doubt that she had before this told many lies in her life and that she had sometimes used lies to get herself out of a difficult situation. Now, even though she had made her confession of her belief in God, this does not mean that her life was instantaneously devoid of all bad habits. Suddenly finding herself in another difficult situation, I am not surprised that she fell back on what had worked for her in the past – she told a lie.

But there is another distinction I think that we should make. In the past, no doubt her lies were mostly for her own benefit. The lies were told to help herself out of a difficult spot.

This time it was different. Certainly, that which would have been expedient for her in this case with the spies, and that which would have protected her personally in her present difficulty with the king, would have been to hand the spies over to the king’s men. She may have been even able to benefit financially from this act.

Instead, she refused to deliver the spies, even though that if she had been found out by the king, she probably would have been put to death. She no doubt feared the power of the king and was afraid in her defiance to him, but she had come to know of One with a greater power – the God of heaven above and of the earth below. Of this King’s power she had even greater fear.

The Lie of Jonathan

Jonathan, the son of Saul was in a similar situation of having to decide how to answer a question when he was trying to protect his friend David. Saul wanted to kill David, and when David was absent from a special meal where he was expected to attend, Saul asked Jonathan where he was.

Jonathan responded, “David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem” (1 Samuel 20:28 NAS).

It was a lie. David was not in Bethlehem but hiding in a nearby field. Jonathan knew this to be the truth, but Jonathan and David had arranged to make a test to see if Saul meant to harm David. They were to test Saul’s reaction to Jonathan’s answer. Through this scheme, they found out that indeed, Saul had meant to kill David.

Saul knew that Jonathan was lying and his anger burned against his son. He said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you are choosing the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? (1 Samuel 20:30 NAS). Strong words.

Lying

The two situations, Jonathan’s and Rahab’s, were remarkably similar as were the responses of each of these people to their situations. Both used a lie, but in both circumstances, the immediately expedient thing to do for themselves personally would have been to instead tell the truth. In each of these cases, it would have been the truth that would have helped them in their own situation. In telling the lies, both Jonathan and Rahab put themselves in a dangerous position in order that the one whom they were protecting would benefit.

However, they also both clearly saw God’s broader plan. They risked their present danger for the greater benefit that they believed would later come by following God’s design. One might say that they acted in faith. They acted not according to what they saw, but according to “the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Would it have been better for them not to lie, and then to see how God would have protected David and the spies? Would this have not demonstrated an even greater faith?

Perhaps this would have been the best; I do not know. The only point that I want to make on this is that we should not be too harsh in our own judgment of these two people, for I would think that all of us have told lies where the consequences were far less severe. And with little doubt, most of our lies were for our own benefit. On the contrary, the lies of these two people were for the benefit of another. They were trying to protect not themselves, but another person, and this they did because they were seeking to follow the plan of God.

David’s poem in Psalm 113 is about the works of the Lord, but in this experience with Jonathan, his words speak of what the situation must have been for him when Jonathan protected him. “You have known the trouble of my soul, and you have not given me over to my enemy” (Psalm 31:7-8).

Rahab’s Plan

Returning now to the story: Rahab, after considering the situation when the king’s men came to the door looking for the spies, decided not to hand the two Israelite men over to their enemy. Instead, Rahab had hidden the spies among some stalks of flax that she had set to dry on the roof of her house. She then sent the king’s men off on a futile pursuit of the two Israelites to search the various fords of the Jordan River to see if the men were crossing at any point.

Rahab’s house was built into the very wide wall of Jericho, so when it was safe enough to do so, the harlot let the spies down by a rope from a window that faced the outside of the wall. However, before doing so, she made this agreement with the two Israelites:

"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"  (Joshua 2:12-13 NIV).

The spies agreed to this proposal and told Rahab that if she would leave a scarlet colored cord hanging down from the same window through which they made their escape, when the Israelites came, they would spare all of the Rahab’s family if her household were gathered together with her in the house.

True to their word, the spies told Joshua of their agreement. When the invasion was taking place, Joshua instructed the two men to go to the harlot’s house and to bring her and all that she had out of there to keep them safe.

Thus it was that the Rahab the harlot was saved from the destruction of Jericho, and thus it was that the writer of Hebrews could say, “By faith, Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient after she welcomed the spies in peace.”

Rahab’s Legacy

The story of Rahab the harlot does not end here, however, for her name again comes up in the Scriptures. In the genealogy of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew we find this single line inserted in the records this account: “Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab” (Matthew 1:5). This was the continuation of a line of progenitors which eventually led to Jesus Christ, born of Mary. To honor the harlot who had decided to put her own life in great jeopardy in order to follow the Lord, God gave her a place in the earthly part of the genealogy of mankind.

Living by Faith

The New Testament writer of Hebrews told of several Old Testament people who lived by great faith in God. However, he admits that to write of all those who were great examples of faith would be a very difficult task. “Time would fail me,” he said, “if I tell of those who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”

Nevertheless, among all of the examples of faith from which the writer could have chosen to mention in his summary of the faithful ones of the past, one of those whom he in particularly chooses to point out was a harlot that lived in the cursed city of Jericho. This harlot came to be for us, an example of great faith.

“Rahab the harlot.”

I wonder if she shall ever be completely free of that title. Perhaps we think that the writers of the New Testament should have dispensed with the “harlot” designation, especially in light of the fact that she was, after all, one of the people in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

The Foremost of Sinners

Nevertheless, in some other ways it is fitting that the title remains, for it shows from whence Rahab was redeemed and out of what somewhat appalling conditions she was able to exercise great faith.

The distinguished Apostle Paul, to whom we pay great respect and deference as perhaps the foremost teacher of Christian doctrine, also never forgot from what condition he was redeemed. Often in his writings he recalls to his shame how he once had persecuted the church of Jesus Christ. Paul called himself the least of all of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:8-9; Galatians 1:23; Ephesians 3:8).

Paul also does also use the normally more flattering word “foremost” to describe himself. However, this is the manner in which he uses it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”

Paul believed that he was chosen by God because God wanted to demonstrate his own unfathomable mercy and grace. “Yet, for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 NAS).

It is true that God does not look for the virtuous and self-righteous to redeem, as Jesus Christ Himself had said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). The truth be told, it is not only the harlots and the persecutors among us, but none of us have anything to offer God.

When I think of some of my own past personal actions, I am simply amazed that God would redeem me purely by his grace. God called me out of that past that would have led only to death, and gave me life. He has given me eternal life.

I am sure that Rahab the harlot agrees with Paul, the foremost of all sinners, and with all of us who understand from what conditions we have been redeemed, when Paul exclaims, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17 NAS).

It is not our righteousness, but God’s mercy and his grace.

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