Notes on Joshua 2
Joshua 2 narrates the actions of two spies whom Joshua sends ahead of Israel into the land of Canaan. The spies do their work but they must rely upon the daring hospitality of Rahab to complete a narrow escape. They return to Joshua and Israel with a positive confession of the victory that awaits them.
2:1-11 The Hospitality of Rahab
The Israelites are poised to enter the land of Canaan. God has commissioned Joshua (1:1-9), and all Israel is ready to follow his lead (1:10-18). In preparation, Joshua sends two men across the Jordan from Shittim to spy out the land including the important city of Jericho. Shittim was Israel’s final campsite in the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River (Num 33:49).
This narrative is similar to Num 13-14 where Moses had sent out 12 men to explore Canaan forty years before. This earlier expedition had ended disastrously as ten of the twelve spies reported the beauty and fertility of the land but also announced that Canaan was filled with heavily fortified cities and huge warriors. This had caused Israel to lose heart in the desert and rebel against Moses and the LORD’s plan. Israel was reduced to wandering in the desert for forty years until that rebellious generation had passed.
Interestingly, instead of spying on the land, the Israelite men enter the house of a prostitute named Rahab. This action goes without comment by our text. The reference to Shittim may come into play in this regard. It was at Shittim that the Israelites had engaged in sexual immorality and committed acts of religious apostasy with Moabite women (Num 25). Perhaps we are to expect another dismal episode of failure for God’s people. Instead, this story carries a few surprises.
In verses 2-7, our story moves away from any thoughts of sexual impropriety to a story of cat and mouse intrigue. The king of Jericho has been alerted to the presence of spies and discovers that they have visited Rahab. He demands that Rahab surrender the men because they have come “only to search out the whole land” (2:3). The king recognizes the intentions of the spies and he announces this to Rahab. This ought to suggest to Rahab that she is in danger because of the Israelites—they are threats to her future as a Canaanite. Astonishingly, Rahab sides with the Israelites. She responds to the king’s inquiry by hiding the men and denying that she knew their intentions. Furthermore, she deceives the king by stating that the men had left in the evening when the city gate was about to be closed. She continues her gambit by encouraging the king to deploy troops to hunt them down. Meanwhile, the two Israelite spies were hidden safely on the roof of Rahab’s house where she had covered them with stalks of flax that were drying on the roof. Rahab’s deception works and the king’s men pursue the supposedly on the run spies as far as the fords used to cross the Jordan River.
Verses 8-11 demonstrate the rationale for Rahab’s act of courage and good will. Rahab goes to the spies before they go to sleep. Her words are remarkable. In verse nine, she confesses her belief that the LORD has indeed given the land to Israel. Moreover, she states that all of Canaan exists in a state of fear and is cowering at the approach of Israel. It is vital to remember that Israel is not some world super-power approaching Canaan with a massive army equipped with sophisticated tactics and superior weaponry. God’s people have been wandering in the desert for forty years and had previously been enslaved in Egypt for generations. The Canaanites were the ones with fortified cities and strong armies. Yet they are the ones who are afraid. This is a sign to the spies of the work of God. God had promised to send terror and dread ahead of his people (Exod 15:15-16, 23:27).
What is it that has caused this fearful response from the Canaanites? Verses 10-11 focus on God’s actions on behalf of God’s people from the time of the Exodus up to the present moment. The testimony of LORD’s mighty acts of deliverance has reached the ears of the Canaanites. God’s acts of salvation in the past have guaranteed Israel’s success in the present and future. Israel’s story is world changing because it is a confession of how Israel’s God the LORD acted on behalf of an enslaved people and rescued them from the hands of a world renowned superpower—Egypt. This is a subversive and counter-cultural story because it is good news for the vast majority of people on earth. The LORD is a god who doesn’t automatically side with the powerful—He is for the people. Moreover, the LORD brought God’s people out of Egypt by guiding them through the Red Sea on dry ground and defeated two prominent Amorite kings in the Transjordan, Sihon and Og.
These past historical actions demonstrate the power, prestige, and person of the LORD. God’s acts carry a missional function. They are not ends in themselves but a means of testifying to the world the greatness and majesty of Israel’s God. This is a key theme in the early part of the Old Testament. Speaking to a stubborn Pharaoh during the Exodus, God says, “But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth” (Exod 9:16, italics added cf. Exod 15:14-16). In Exod 18:8-12, Moses tells his father-in-law Jethro of God’s mighty acts of deliverance and Jethro responds, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods…” (Exod 18:11a). God’s actions brought salvation to Israel, but testimony of the deliverance served as a witness to the surrounding nations.
Notice that Rahab’s response ends with a pivotal conclusion: “The LORD your God is indeed god in heaven above and on earth below” (verse 11). In verses 9-11, Rahab articulates her own personal response to the knowledge that she has gained. All of the Canaanites have apparently heard about what God has done for Israel. This is indicated by the use of “we” and “us” language in Rahab’s statement. But Rahab also includes her own words that affirm God as Creator. Verse 11 indicates that Rahab has acknowledged the authority of the LORD. This is remarkable. An outsider to God’s people makes a confession of faith in the LORD because she has heard a testimony about God. As we continue to study the book of Joshua and are confronted with tales of warfare, we must remember that there was another avenue open to the Canaanites. Instead of opposing God, they could have embraced God’s people as Rahab did.
2:12-21 The Escape and a Promise
After securing the safety of the spies, Rahab pleas for her own life as well as for her extended family (2:12-14). She asks that the spies show a reciprocal kindness and mercy to her in return for her providing security during their visit to Jericho. Rahab’s request affirms the heart of her confession in 2:9-11. She recognizes the power and greatness of the LORD and truly believes that Israel will inherit the land of Canaan. In essence, her plea involves a request for inclusion with God’s people. It is an audacious one.
The spies agree to her request by making an oath with her. They pledge their lives in exchange for hers. If Rahab agrees to remain silent about their whereabouts and activity, then she will be treated kindly when the LORD grants Israel the land. This is not asking much of Rahab because she has demonstrated fully her fidelity toward the LORD and Israel by harboring the spies in the first place and deceiving the king of Jericho. Her life is already on the line for God’s mission.
In verse 16, Rahab provides the Israelites with an escape plan that will allow them to leave Jericho, hide in the wilderness for three days, and return safely to their camp across the Jordan River from Shittim. The distance between Jericho and Shittim would have been about 12 miles. If the men made their way in haste, they could have covered the ground in a day. Her exhortation to hide for three days was more than adequate to insure their safety as the king’s troops would have given up the search by then. The territory around Jericho is dry and the terrain in unlevel. It provided excellent cover for a couple of spies to disappear temporarily from sight.
Verses 17-20 contain final instructions to Rahab before the departure of the spies. They provide Rahab with a crimson cord to tie in the same window through which she lowered them out of the city to safety (2:15). Her home was attached directly to Jericho’s wall so that she actually lived within it. The crimson cord would serve as a signal to the Israelites of Rahab’s location. This sign would save her and her family as long as they remained inside her home. The spies would be released from the oath if Rahab or her family ventured outside. As long as they had the cord in the window and stayed put, the spies pledged their lives for her help. They end their oath with a second warning against Rahab revealing their presence or activities to the authorities (2:20 cf. 2:14).
In verse 21, Rahab agrees to the oath without any revisions. She has received everything that she requested and furthermore she has already explicitly aligned herself with the LORD through her actions. She immediately ties the crimson cord in the window. When Israel captures Jericho, the spies keep their word and rescue Rahab and her family (6:23-25). She becomes part of Israel and she ends up serving as a descendent of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:5). She is counted as a model of faith (Heb 11:31) and faithfulness (James 2:25).
2:22-24 Mission Accomplished
Our narrative concludes with the return of the spies to the Israelites camp. They depart from Jericho and hide in the surrounding hill country for three days until it is safe to cross the Jordan. They bring a favorable report to Joshua that affirms the LORD’s promises in Josh 1:1-9 and stands in marked contrast to the negative report of the previous generation of spies in Num 13-14. Israel is poised to receive the gift of the land from God. Moreover as Rahab’s actions and words suggest, there will be Canaanites (outsiders to God’s people) who will be open to accepting and confessing the LORD as their God.
There is irony in the last verse. God has already promised Joshua that the land will be given to Israel. Yet verse 24 reads as though it were a confession of faith by the returning spies. Rahab has already affirmed Israel’s victory in 2:9. It is worth observing that in this story an outsider to God’s people seems to have a deeper faith and insight into God’s purposes than did the spies.