Rahab & the Spies
Near the end of his list of the “spirits of just men made perfect” (12:23), those Old Testament saints who form his “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1), the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the first pagan that the chosen people encountered inside the Promised Land: “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (11:31). Thus, a Canaanite prostitute becomes a model of faith for believing Christians.
In this text the faith of Rahab is contrasted with the unbelief of those who perished. Just who were the latter? The immediate context suggests that they are the other citizens of Jericho, who for seven days beheld the Ark of the Covenant circling their city and listened to the blast of the warning trumpets. They thus had ample opportunity to repent before it was too late, remarked St. John Chrysostom, more than twice as long as the citizens of Nineveh! (On Repentance 7.4.14).
Nonetheless, in the wider context of the Epistle to the Hebrews, it may be the case that the saving faith of Rahab is being contrasted with the unbelief of the Israelites themselves, those who failed to reach the Promised Land. Of those inexcusable unbelievers the author asks, “Now with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they should not enter his rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (3:17–19). Following this line of interpretation, Chrysostom writes: “She accepted the spies and the One whom Israel denied in the desert; Rahab preached this One in the brothel.” And again: “What Israel heard—he who was surrounded by so many miracles and who was tutored by so many laws—he completely denied, whereas Rahab, who lived in a brothel, gives them instruction. For she says to the spies, ‘We learned all that your God did to the Egyptians’” (op. cit. 7.5.16).
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Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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