Incidentally, Jewish tradition lists Rahab the Harlot (of Joshua 2) as one of the four most beautiful women in the Bible. That’s only one of the reasons I like her.
Lesson #1: The Atonement is Big
The text isn’t shy about Rahab’s sexuality. First, her story begins in Shittim, the place where Israel began to “play the harlot” (Numbers 25: 1-5). And then there’s the bit about her name. In Hebrew, rhb means “broad,” and in Ugaritic (a relative of Hebrew) the root refers to female sex organs. There is even something symbolic and suggestive in her letting down a “scarlet cord” as a sign to the spies.
Still, the Rahab story isn’t about her harlotry so much as her faith. When Rahab speaks to the spies, she bears testimony of the God of Israel, references Israelite history, and calls the Israelite God, “God in heaven above and earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11)–a phrase that deliberately rejects the polytheism of her nation. Whatever she used to be, by the time the spies arrive, she has clearly accepted the Israelite God. If the Old Testament isn’t clear enough on Rahab’s faith, both Paul and James refer to her as an example of faith in their discourses (Hewbrews 11:31 and James 2:25), not many women are so honored.
I like Rahab because her story illustrates how big the Atonement is. We don’t know everything that took place between Rahab as a harlot and Rahab as an Israelite heroine, but it’s clear that she repented. Even the sins of the harlot, through repentance and the power of the Atonement, can be as white as snow.
Lesson #2: God is not a check-list God
When Rahab is confronted by the King, she must chose between two evils, either lying to the King or acting against the oath she swore to the spies. Both John Calvin and Augustine get after Rahab for chosing to lie to the king—even if it was to a good end. I like Martin Luther’s take better, as he defends “a good hearty lie for the sake of the good.” (I feel safe assuming that God also approves of Rahab’s lie—afterall, He delivers her.)
Rahab is certainly not the first person in the Old Testament to tell one of these “noble” lies, there are the Egyptian midwives (Exodus 1:16-20), Abraham and his “sister” Sarah (see Exodus 12:11-17) and David in his lie to Ahimelech the priest (see 1 Samuel 21:1-3). Each story suggesting that God, even in the thick of the Levitical law, deals with His children individually and not according to a set of fixed rules.
Elder Oaks said something nice along these lines, “The Final Judgement is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. . . . The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”
Lesson #3: It’s character that counts
I have a good friend who admits to feeling less than other members of the Church because she doesn’t have a pioneer ancestry. I think the Rahab story illustrates how little pedigree matters when weighed against our actions. The first story in the book of Joshua is Rahab’s. Immediately following the Rahab narrative, we are introduced to Achan (Joshua 7). The stories begin the same way (with spies) but end very differently. In the first story (Rahab’s), Israel is victorious and Rahab–the Canaanite–and her family are saved. In the second story (Achan’s), Israel is defeated and Achan–despite his choice heritage–and his family are destroyed. (Achan was punished for taking Jericho spoils.) The juxtaposition of these stories shows that God will not condemn or exalt a man because of his heritage. Rahab, the Canaanite, is saved because she has faith. Achan, the Israelite, is destroyed because he does not.
I think it is beautiful that each of the four Old Testament women who appear in Christ’s line (Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and yes, Rahab), each is a foreigner who becomes part of Isreal. Such is the inclusive nature of the Abrahamic covenant, a family that claims anyone who seeks it, for “as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name” (Abraham 2:10). We’re even told that Rahab, after forsaking Canaan, goes on to become the ancestor of at least eight priest-prophets, so that even though she did not have a covenant ancestry, her posterity–kings and priests to the Most High–were the very elect of Abraham.