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).
The faith of Rahab was not an idle or lazy faith, says the Epistle of St. James: “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (2:25–26). Both of these perspectives were preserved by St. Clement of Rome, who said that “Rahab the harlot was saved because of her faith and hospitality” (12.1).
Perhaps because she was the first “Gentile convert” incorporated into God’s people, Rahab has always had a special place in Christian affection and esteem. Chrysostom makes God say of Rahab: “Yes, I had inside their city to teach them repentance that wonderful Rahab, whom I saved through repentance. She was taken from the same dough, but she was not of the same mind, for she neither shared in their sin nor resembled them in their unbelief” (op. cit. 7.4.14).
Joshua’s spies were sent out as a pair, like the apostles of the Lord, and Rahab received them as the Lord’s own emissaries. They came and remained at her home, as though following the dominical instruction, “In whatever place you enter a house, stay there till you depart from that place” (Mark 6:10). Once again, we may consult the insights of Chrysostom: “Rahab is a prefiguration of the Church, which was at one time mixed up in the prostitution of the demons and which now accepts the spies of Christ, not those sent by Joshua the son of Nun, but the apostles who were sent by Jesus the true Savior. . . . The Jews received these things but did not guard them; the Church heard these things and preserved them. So Rahab, the prefiguration of the Church, is worthy of all praise” (op. cit. 7.5.16).
The church fathers thus saw significance in nearly every detail of the biblical story of Rahab. For instance, the scarlet cord, hung from her window for her family’s deliverance, was interpreted by Clement of Rome (12.7), Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 111), and others as a foreshadowing of the redemptive blood of Christ.
And because she was the first to be delivered when Israel entered the Promised Land, there is surely a great propriety in Dante’s speculation that the soul of “tranquil Rahab” was the first to be assumed from Hades by Christ our Lord when he descended there in the hour of his victorious death (“pria ch’altr’alma del triunfo di Cristo fu assunta” —Paradiso 9.115–120).
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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