The author of Hebrews tells us what faith is: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NIV). The author goes on to give examples of people who lived by faith: Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph—the list goes on, tracing the faith history of the Hebrew people.
But there’s one name on that list that is seemingly out of place. Of the two women named in Hebrews 11, one is Sarah, wife of the patriarch Abraham. The other is me, Rahab, the Gentile. The author of Hebrews records: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (verse 31).
Yet when you examine the account of my life and the spies, what you uncover about faith may deeply challenge your assumptions. Not only am I a prostitute, but in the account I never verbally proclaim my faith in God. In fact, I call the spies’ god “your God” in Joshua 2:11. Nevertheless, I’m in the line-up. I join the patriarchs of Hebrews 11.
Hebrews isn’t the only place my faith is heralded in Scripture. In James’s epistle, I am also listed alongside Abraham as an example of one whose faith expresses itself through works.
Imagine with me: I am a prostitute, probably driven to my state in life by poverty. My family, parents, brothers, and probably children live with me in a location that’s convenient for male travelers.
One day some travelers arrive, and I recognize their foreign accent. I realize that they’re Israelites, part of the tribe that has been wandering around in the desert. I remember stories I’ve heard of them and their god. I’ve heard of how God opened the Red Sea before them. I’ve heard about the awful fate of Sihon and Og—the kind of story people whisper around a campfire.
I am afraid. Though my faith is never mentioned in the story, twice I describe the anxiety my fellow citizens and I feel. One Hebrew word I use, ‘ey-mah’, is variously translated as terror, fear, or dread, and the other, ‘macac lebab’, describes the inner self melting away, or the inability to breathe. And why are the people living in great fear and dread, wasting away internally? It is, I say, because “the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:11).
Despite my fear, I protect the spies. I not only hide them on the roof but also lie cunningly on their behalf. Now, imagine me, standing in the doorway of my home, speaking to the king’s men, using my well-developed skills of flattery to convince them that of course they could catch the spies.
I took risks for the spies. My fear of Israel’s God spoke louder than my own fear of committing treason. Joshua 2 records my first chapter of faith, but you can see the future impact of my faith in the book of Ruth.
In Matthew’s geneaology of Christ, another line-up mostly of men, you read that I married the Judahite, Salmon, and was mother to Boaz, the wealthy landowner. In other words, I was Ruth’s mother-in-law. You may remember how my son, Boaz, welcomed Moabite Ruth—also a stranger, like the spies were to me—into his household. Boaz learned this hospitable posture from someone—perhaps from me, his mother (smiles).
Do you want to explore my story more?
What does my story in Joshua really tell you about what it means to have faith? Or about what it means to do things by faith—especially when I was not part of the covenant community, did not follow God’s law, and did not articulate personal faith in God?
As a model for faith, I stand in contrast to the misconception that faith is something we need to work hard at. Often you may feel like you haven’t done enough to acquire enough faith, so you put on your spiritual work clothes and get down on your knees with a scrub brush. You want to see what sort of stains your faith-elbow-grease will remove. You want to feel like you’ve accomplished something, like you’ve grown, like you’ve somehow achieved faith.
Is this because, deep down, you think acquiring faith should be hard?
But what if you redefined faith as your posture toward God rather than something you must work hard to acquire? In Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris reminds us of Doris Betts’s famous line that faith is “not synonymous with certainty . . . [but] is the decision to keep your eyes open.” And, you could add, faith is the willingness to let God turn one’s head so that you can see and then do what God wants you to see and do.
It’s a little like going to the chiropractor. There’s this moment in chiropractic treatment when the doctor cradles the skull in his hands and turns it suddenly to manipulate the upper spine. It’s uncomfortably noisy, I hear. It’s like your head would pop off. It is challenging to let someone else reorient your head. I think receiving chiropractic care requires a posture of humility.
Faith, too, requires a posture of humility. In the Old Testament, God’s people were sometimes called “stiff-necked.” When your neck is stiff, God can’t turn your head. But when we live in faith, we allow God to turn our head. I, Rahab, allowed God to turn my attention to the two spies. And once my attention was drawn toward them, I cared for them, I protected them, and ultimately I risked my life for them.
You can live in this posture of humility only if you remember the character of God. You can entrust your vision and attention to a God who is kind. God’s kindness in this story is demonstrated through the spies’ response to my request.
Smack-dab in the middle of this account, I say: “Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you” (Joshua 2:12). And they agree. God’s hands direct my attention toward the spies and move the spies to respond kindly to me. God preserves my life and the life of my family when Jericho falls. Afterward, Joshua orders the same two spies back to my house to rescue me, my parents, and the rest of my kin before the city is burned (Joshua 6:22–25).
My story reminds you that God’s kindness and faithfulness empowers you to trust God’s direction—to trust the way God moves your attention toward the needs that surround you. God invites all of you to join the sixteen people listed in Hebrews 11. You don’t do this by putting on your work clothes and getting out your spiritual elbow grease. You can’t clean up all the spilled oil, and that’s okay. All you have to do is allow God to turn your heads, just like I did.
Rahab, The Faith-full Prostitute