Updated: Oct 25, 2019
Hebrews 11:30, 31
Faith is obedience in the face of risk.
“30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. 31By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Hebrews 11:30, 31).
Two separate, but related events. Both illustrate the truth described in James 2:26, “…faith without works is dead.” It was not enough for Israel to believe that the walls would come down, or for Rahab to believe that somehow she and her family would escape the oncoming army of the Hebrews. Israel had to act. They had to march. Rahab had to choose between obeying her king and hiding Hebrew spies. Both actions were risky. Israel could have been badly humiliated or even subjected to assaults from people standing above them on the walls of the city (the question arises as to why the citizens of Jericho didn’t tossed down rocks or boiling oil or spears, or something to chase the Hebrews away). Rahab could have been branded a traitor and punished. The promise made to her might not have been kept. While faith is conceived in the heart and mind, it must be acted on in order to prove its validity.
If these two intertwined stories were told in their chronological order, the encounter between Rahab and the spies would come first, and the fall of Jericho would follow. But the act of faith in which Rahab is the principle player is an act that began before Jericho’s walls fell but culminated afterwards. “By faith the prostitute Rahab…was not killed with those who were disobedient.”
So we are going to start with what the author of Hebrews mentions first: the fall of Jericho. By the time our story starts the Israelites had crossed over the Jordan River. Forty years have passed since the Hebrews had left Egypt. A whole generation had died in the wilderness, the result of that earlier generation’s disobedience and rebellion. Despite the lack of modern means of communication, the events in the journey of this nation-in-the-making had reached the ears of all the nations in the path of the Hebrews’ advance. The mighty acts of God on their behalf could not be ignored—and were not! But just in case the inhabitants of the region had not heard the story of the Red Sea crossing and the death of the Egyptian army, God “fires a shot across their bows” as it were as described in Joshua 3:14-17.
“So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is in flood all during the harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of Arabah (that is the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.”
Over the years the argument has been made that the Red Sea crossing was not what it is portrayed to be in the Biblical account. It is believed by some that the Hebrews crossed at a shallow end of the Red Sea and were able to wade through the water to the other side—the famous “Reed Sea” interpretation. Perhaps someone in Jericho also doubted the story of the miracle at the Red Sea. But here, at the Jordan River, before their eyes, that story was reenacted.
According to Joshua 4:19 Joshua sets up camp in Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. The enemy can see those who have come up against them. Twelve stones which had been taken from the river are set up in plain view of the camp and of the citizens of Jericho. These stones will form a permanent memorial to all as to what God did in bringing His people to the Promised Land. We note this: “The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he has done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us when we crossed over.”
And the reason? “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”
According to Joshua 5:1 the news of the crossing, and no doubt the events that allowed the crossing, causes terror in the hearts of the Amorite and Canaanite kings. Logically, and strategically, the perfect time for the Hebrews to attack them would be when they were paralyzed with fear. But that is not what God has in mind.
Joshua 5 describes an event that, at first glance, defies understanding. God instructed Joshua to circumcise every Israelite man who had been born in the desert. Circumcision had not been done since the Hebrews had left Egypt. This would have left the fighting men weak and basically helpless, at the mercy of, and on the doorstep of, their enemies for as long as the surgeries took to heal. But the earlier actions of God had paralyzed Israel’s enemies with fear, so no one came against them while they recovered.
We may never know how many times God circumvented some attack against us when we were at our most vulnerable. God continues to put us in situations where we are forced to depend on Him because of our weakness or because of a situation beyond our control.
But there was something greater going on here. Circumcision identified the Hebrews as belonging to God’s covenant people. (Oddly enough it was not an uncommon practice. The Egyptians also circumcised their males.) On the eve of beginning the campaign for the land that God had promised them as children of that covenant it was only right to do what had been neglected during their journey through the desert. They could not celebrate the Passover, which was a required memorial as they entered the land of promise, without being circumcised.
Now, on the other side of the Jordan, in the land of promise, ready to take possession, there is so much to think about, to anticipate, and to be anxious over. That great, and revered leader, Moses, is dead. Joshua now stands at the head of a people about to become a nation. The mantle of leadership has been placed on his shoulders. God has appeared to Him to confirm his calling and reassure him of God’s presence. What lies before Joshua and Israel is a momentous task and Moses was a tough act to follow for Israel’s new leader. The crossing of the Jordan became to Joshua what the crossing of the Red Sea was to Moses—a confirmation of calling and commission.
Exodus 14:31 “And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.”
Joshua 4:14 “That day [the crossing of the Jordan River] the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they stood in awe of him all the days of his life, just as they had stood in awe of Moses.”
This “vote of confidence” from the Lord would have served to allay the fears of those who might have missed the firm hand of Moses and who may have wondered if Joshua was up for the challenges ahead. The Lord had revealed Himself to Joshua prior to the crossing to reassure him that he would not be alone in the task of claiming the land of promise, that, in fact, the Lord would go before him to ensure victory.
“No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.”
But there were conditions.
“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
But now Joshua is facing Jericho. He stands alone perhaps wondering what the next day will bring, thinking about battle strategy, perhaps praying for God’s guidance. And then, suddenly, he is no longer alone. Joshua 5:13-6:5 tells us what was unusual about the conversation Joshua has with an armed stranger who appeared to him the night just before the “battle” for Jericho.
“Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand, Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?”
Joshua did not assume that this man, armed and perhaps dangerous, was an enemy, though since he was standing this close to Jericho he could easily have assumed that. But he fearlessly approached him to ask, in the traditional manner, “friend or foe.” But it is the answer Joshua was given that intrigues us.
“’Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as the commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’”
Keil and Delitzsch note that “the person who appeared neither belonged to the Israelites nor to their enemies, but was a prince of the army of Jehovah, i.e., of the angels. ‘The Lord’s host’ does not mean ‘the people of Israel, who were just at the commencement of their warlike enterprise,’ as V. Hofmann supposes; for although the host of Israel who came out of Egypt are called ‘the hosts of the Lord’ in Exodus 12:41, the Israelites are never called the host or army of Jehovah (in the singular). ‘The host of Jehovah’ is synonymous with ‘the host of heaven’ (1 Kings 22:19), and signifies the angels, as in Psalm 148:2 and Psalm 103:21.”
There was another army present aside from the one which Joshua commanded. Joshua couldn’t see it. The people of Jericho were unaware of its presence. It is an army that appears in other parts of Scripture. One example that describes it is found in the story of Elisha, trapped with his servant in the city of Dothan. The servant, terrified as he sees Aram’s army surrounding the city, prompts Elisha to pray that the Lord will open the eyes of his servant. The result? “Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” God’s army was there, armed and dangerous.
What made the walls of Jericho fall? Even six days of a million people marching around the walls could not cause their collapse. There is no indication of an earthquake or any other natural disaster that might have caused the walls to fall. But there is a distinct probability that the walls fell because they were assaulted by the angels of the Lord’s army!
Joshua’s reaction to this appearance of the heavenly messenger and to his message is an important lesson for us—when the Lord appears, worship results: “Then Joshua fell down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does the Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ And Joshua did so.”
That command would probably not have been unfamiliar to Joshua. He would have been familiar with Moses’ encounter with God in the desert before his return to Egypt as the Lord’s emissary. As Moses had approached the burning bush that day he was told to remove his sandals because in the presence of God the ground is holy.
Joshua recognizes a superior being. Joshua doesn’t call him God, but Lord (The alternate reading is “lord” and in the original its first meaning is a reference to men, i.e. “master.” The archangel Michael, who name means “who is like God” is referred to in Jude 1:9 and Revelation 12:7 is considered to be the head of the heavenly host. He is also referred to as a chief prince and considered to be the guardian angel of the Israelites.)
But there is an important note to be considered here. Many nations and peoples have gone to war claiming that the Lord is on their “side” of the argument—often both sides have made that same claim! The truth is, the question is not whether the Lord is on my “side” but whether or not I am on His!
Joshua was an experienced military commander. But the encounter described for us in Joshua 5:14 tells us that Joshua knew a better plan when he heard it and wasn’t afraid to cede his authority to one of greater authority. He must also have been certain that, while his visitor did not claim to be on Israel’s side, he would fight on behalf of Israel if the conditions that God had laid down in earlier encounters between Joshua and God were kept. The conversation between Joshua and the commander of the Lord’s army continues in Joshua 6 as Joshua is given the instructions as to how the battle is to be carried out.
We don’t need to be military experts to understand that this battle strategy described in Joshua 6:6-21was extremely strange. If you were living in Jericho what would you be thinking as the Israelites marched in silence around your city for six days? Though the fear of the Israelites had caused the people of Jericho to close their gates, perhaps the sight of all these people marching around their walls without any sign of attack might have caused them to relax, even make fun of those who had come against them in this strange manner.
What would the significance be to the Israelites and to the Canaanites living in Jericho of the prominent presence of the ark of the covenant and the priests right at the head of the procession? The Canaanites had heard the stories of the prowess of the God of Israel. They had seen what had happened at the Jordan River. Would the presence of the ark, as representative of the presence of Israel’s God, have caused them any concern? They could have surrendered, as others did in the face of the Hebrew threat, so it appears that whatever concerns they might have had were not enough to scare them into giving up. Could it be that God had hardened their hearts, as He had done with Pharaoh, because their sins had reached a point where justice had to be served?
Barnes comments: “The fall of Jericho cogently taught the inhabitants of Canaan that the successes of Israel were not mere human triumphs of man against man, and that the God of Israel was not as ‘the gods of the countries.’ This lesson some of them at least learned to their salvation, e.g. Rahab and the Gibeonites. Further, ensuing close upon the miraculous passage of Jordan, it was impressed on the people, prone ever to be led by the senses, that the same God who had delivered their fathers out of Egypt and led them through the Red Sea, was with Joshua no less effectively than He had been with Moses.
And the details of the orders given by God to Joshua Jos. 6:3-5 illustrate this last point further. The trumpets employed were not like the silver trumpets used for signaling the marshalling of the host and for other warlike purposes (compare Numbers 10:2), but the curved horns employed for ushering in the Jubilee and the Sabbatical Year (Septuagint, σάλπιγγες ἱεραί salpinges hierai: compare the Leviticus 23:24 note). The trumpets were borne by priests, and were seven in number; the processions round Jericho were to be made on seven days, and seven times on the seventh day, thus laying a stress on the sacred number seven, which was an emblem more especially of the work of God. The ark of God also, the seat of His special presence, was carried round the city. All these particulars were calculated to set forth symbolically, and in a mode sure to arrest the attention of the people, the fact that their triumph was wholly due to the might of the Lord, and to that covenant which made their cause His.”
The text in Hebrew says that the walls fell because of faith. The Israelites had to have faith that this unusual form of doing battle would work. They had to believe that whatever parts of the conversation Joshua shared from his encounter with the Lord, were true. They had to believe that obedience was essential. They had to exercise faith to do the ridiculous and expect a great victory from their actions.
Into this story enters Rahab. And here we must take a step back to look at what had taken place before the march around the city walls. Joshua had done what any good commander would do—check out the opposition before the battle. He sent spies to discover the attitude of the people, the defenses of the city, and whatever else might be useful to him in developing a battle plan that in the end he did not have to use.
For some reason the spies ended up at Rahab’s house. We have to believe that this encounter was by divine design since what strategic use was talking to prostitute unless, as the theory goes, men reveal all kinds of strategic secrets in the bedroom. But the spies were discovered and the king’s men came looking for them. Rahab was faced with a decision: to turn them in or to protect them.
We know little about Rahab. What information we have is given to us in Joshua 2:1-24 as the story is told of her encounter with the spies and her protection of them. She is described as a prostitute. Matthew 1:5 tells us that she was numbered as part of the line from which Jesus came. James, speaking about the relationship between faith and deeds in James 2 says this in verses 25, 26: “In the same way, [as in the case of Abraham] was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction. As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
The writer to the Hebrews notes that Rahab’s faith was demonstrated by her welcome of the spies. She not only took them into her house (something that the king of Jericho was apparently aware of for some reason) but she then protected them from the king’s men when they came looking for Joshua’s men. Disregarding her own safety and, no doubt, the command of her own ruler, she believed in the God of those who had come up against her people.
“Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them. ‘I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you…for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.’”
How did she know that the Lord was the God of heaven and earth? How did she come to such an astounding conviction? She’d heard the stories, but so had everyone else in the city and the surrounding country. Why did she believe? Why did the rest not believe?
What we do know is that in Rahab’s story of faith we have a demonstration of the mercy of God and a glimpse at what will become much later a movement, as those outside of the nation of Israel are welcomed into the family of God and into His eternal kingdom through faith in Christ.
Matthew Henry comments: “A true believer is desirous, not only to be in covenant with God, but in communion with the people of God; and is willing to fare as they fare. By her works Rahab declared herself to be just. That she was not justified by her works appears plainly; because the work she did was faulty in the manner, and not perfectly good, therefore it could not be answerable to the perfect justice or righteousness of God.”
Barnes writes: “The main difficulty has been that a woman of this character should be enumerated among those who were eminent for piety, and many expositors have endeavored to show that the word rendered "harlot" does not necessarily denote a woman of abandoned character, but may be used to denote a hostess. This definition is given by Schleusner, who says that the word may mean one who prepares and sells food and who receives strangers to entertain them. Others have supposed that the word means "an idolatress," because those devoted to idolatry were frequently of abandoned character. But there are no clear instances in which the Greek word, and the corresponding Hebrew word - זונהzownah - is used in this sense. The usual and the fair meaning of the word is what is given in our translation, and there is no good reason why that signification should not be retained here. It is not implied by the use of the word here, however, that Rahab was an harlot at the time to which the apostle refers; but the meaning is, that this had been her character, so that it was proper to designate her by this appellation.”
Gill comments: “…she perished not with them that believed not; the inhabitants of Jericho, who were unbelievers, and disobedient, and all perished by the sword: but Rahab perished not, neither temporally, nor eternally; her temporal salvation was an emblem and type of her spiritual salvation; her receiving the spies was an emblem of a soul's receiving the Gospel, and the ministers of it; the scarlet thread, that was hung out, was an emblem of the blood of Christ, by which sins, though as scarlet, are made white as wool; and the saving of her whole family is an emblem of the complete salvation of all the elect, soul and body, by Christ…”
The spies sent to Jericho by Joshua made a promise to her as repayment for her protection. Joshua had given instructions regarding Rahab and her family to his soldiers. If she, and her family, followed those instructions, they would not be harmed, either by the destruction of the walls or by the entrance of the soldiers once the walls fell. After the city is taken those orders are carried out.
Rahab put herself at great risk in helping the spies, and in trusting that they would keep their word and protect her. How was she to know if the leader of the Hebrew army would agree to the deal made by the spies—they might be as convincing a team of liars as she turned out to be!
This unlikely beneficiary of grace is held up by James as an example of how faith and deeds work together despite the fact that Rahab lied to protect the spies, a lie that was never rebuked as least as far as we know.
I am puzzled by the fact that Rahab’s story is mentioned after Jericho’s fall in the list given to us in Hebrews. There is no doubt that Rahab demonstrated great faith, but I wonder too if the faith mentioned in the passage in Hebrews might be referring, not only to Rahab, but to the Israelites themselves. The spies made a promise to Rahab, apparently without consulting God. Joshua kept that promise apparently without consulting God. God had given instructions that when Israel attacked a city in the land that had been given to them as their possession, they were to destroy everyone in it. There does not seem to be provision for any exceptions. So perhaps the faith was on the spies’ part, on Joshua’s part, and on the Hebrew community’s part for believing that, based on her actions, Rahab’s faith was a genuine one, and that God would honour the promise they made her based on that. In any case, Rahab’s story is a grace story.
Like Ruth, Rahab was looking from the outside in. Would she be able to build a new life among those who had been her enemies and the enemies of her people? More difficult yet, would she, a prostitute, be accepted into a community despite her former occupation? There are levels of faith here, unmentioned then and long-since forgotten, that remind us that God accepts everyone who exercises faith in Him.
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. How do you feel about conditions being placed on whether or not God blesses your life?
2. How difficult would it have been for you to obey Joshua’s orders to march around Jericho for six days in silence? Can you think of any experiences in your life when you have been asked to do something illogical, and even foolish, as an act of faith and obedience?
3. Describe any risks you have taken during times when you have stepped out in faith and obedience. How has God responded to your actions?
4. What does Rahab’s story teach you about God?
5. Do you have someone in your life who seems, for whatever reason, beyond God’s reach? Stop to pray for them in faith.
6. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.
 Joshua 4:23, 24
 Joshua 1:1-9
 2 Kings 6
 Exodus 3:5
 Joshua 2:8-11
 Joshua 6:17, 22-25