The Gospel of Matthew starts out with a lengthy genealogy of Jesus, tracing his line back to Abraham. It seems likely that the author of Matthew was writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, because he frequently connects events from the Gospel narrative to prophecies in Scripture. As a kid, I found the genealogy in Matthew chapter 1 both boring, (there are a awful lot of "begats" in there) and fascinating, (trying to pick out the names I recognized from Sunday School).
The genealogy, not surprisingly, is mostly a male one, with Fathers begetting Sons begetting more Sons after that unto the umpteenth generation. But the author of Matthew does pick out four women to mention in the lineage of Christ. And these aren't necessarily the ones you'd expect. He makes no mention of Rebekah, or Rachel, or even Sarah the Mother of Nations.
No, the ones Matthew chooses to honor are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. One an adulteress. One a prostitute. Two are widows, one of which pretended to be a prostitute. And all of them foreigners. Four Inconvenient Women of the Bible, women who don't seem to fit the expectations we have of The Virtuous Woman.
We get Rahab's story in Joshua chapter 2.
Forty years have passed since the Children of Israel paused just outside the Promised Land and Moses sent spies to scout out the Land of Canaan. The spies had given a discouraging report, (“Those guys are freakin’ Nephilim, man! They’re huge!”) which dismayed the Israelites, and the people’s lack of trust angered the Lord. Now Joshua, one of the original twelve spies and one of the two who gave the land a good report, leads Israel and sends another pair of spies into the city of Jericho.
The spies come to the home of a woman named Rahab, whom the text tells us is a prostitute. Or was she? Some scholars have argued that the word used to identify Rahab can also mean “innkeeper.” This may be true. I suspect, though, that these scholars are chiefly looking to sanitize the story.
When soldiers show up looking for the spies, Rahab hides them and gives the soldiers a false trail to follow. She offers to help the spies sneak out of the city and asks them to promise to protect her and her family when the Israelites attack.
Why did Rahab hide the spies? Perhaps as prostitute she was considered a social outcast and therefore had little loyalty to the city she lived in. And I have to admit, the romantic in me likes to think that something happened between her and one of the spies. That's the way it would work in a James Bond movie.
The reason she gives the spies is a pragmatic one: she has heard about how the Lord had led the Israelites through the Red Sea and defeated the Amorites, and she recognizes that the people of Israel have divine backing. In fact, she tells them that the whole city is terrified of their approach, which is why the king of Jericho has his men searching for spies.
The spies arrange for Rahab to tie a scarlet cord to her window and have it hanging out, so that the Israelites will know which home to spare. They want to make sure nothing goes wrong.
It occurs to me that Rahab's scarlet cord parallels the blood the Israelites were commanded to place on their door and lintels the night of the First Passover, so that the Angel of Death would spare their homes. Which was probably where the spies got the idea.
Thanks to Rahab, the spies make it safely back to their camp and give Joshua their report. And later on, when the walls come a-tumbling down and the Israelites conquer the city, Joshua honors the vow his men made and spares Rahab's family. The text tells us that she lives among the Israelites to this day.
That's the last mention we have of Rahab in Joshua. According to the genealogy in the Book of Matthew, Rahab married Salmon, who was the great-great grandfather of King David. I don't know where Matthew got that. The only genealogy I can think of covering that period is the one in 1 Chronicles, and that one only traces the male lineage. Perhaps he was following an oral tradition about Rahab not written down in Scriptures; or perhaps he inserted her into the genealogy for other reasons.
She is mentioned two other places in the New Testament. The author of the Book of Hebrews includes her in the epic chapter listing the heroes of faith in Israel's history (Hebrews 11:31), and the Apostle James cites her as an example of a person whose actions demonstrated her faith (James 2:25).
And who was this heroine of faith? A harlot and an outsider; but also a loving woman protective of her family, and a woman who recognized the hand of the Almighty; and ultimately she became a part of the community of Israel.