Rahab is probably the most startling character among the exemplars of faith in Hebrews 11. This chapter contains a list of Old Testament heroes the author presents as models of faith whom the readers of his letter should emulate. Rahab is one of two women mentioned by name, though possibly the only one who is actually an exemplar of faith because it is not clear in the original language if Sarah herself or Abraham is the subject of verse 11.
Rahab is the ninth (or tenth) in the list, the first being forefathers and patriarchs of Israel and each regarded as righteous. She is not only a woman but also a Gentile and a prostitute. She is, in fact, the only name to receive a qualification. She is Rahab, the prostitute. The most surprising thing is that she is also the center and climax of the chapter. (Her testimony and significance, however, will be surpassed by that of Jesus in Hebrews 12.)
The list is organized in a unique way. Each entry begins with the repetitive use of the phrase “by faith.” The basic pattern is “By faith So-and-So did such-and-such” or “By faith such-and-such happened to So-and-So.” Nine (or ten) people are mentioned by name following this pattern.
This rhetorical design is interrupted two times. In Hebrews 11:13 to 16, the author pauses to comment about the reward the heroes of faith were looking forward to—the homeland that God is preparing for the faithful. In verse 29, the author reminds the reader that “by faith” Israel passed through the “Red Sea” toward the promised land. Then it pauses to describe the fall of the walls of Jericho. This repetitive pattern and the two interruptions increase the expectation in the reader to hear climactic assertion that “by faith, Joshua led the people into the promised land.” But the great captain is passed over, and the prostitute takes his place. By faith, Rahab? Over-familiarity with this passage has made us blind to this fact, but the first readers were not, and they were probably surprised to find her name in that context.
After the mention of Rahab, the repetitive pattern ends abruptly with “What more shall I say?” (vs. 32).* This rhetorical technique highlights the previous passage. Then, the author hurriedly lists some names and events that he does not have time to explain. This is reminiscent of a slow climb out to the top of a mountain and a fast descent from there.
Why did the author make Rahab the center and climax of this list? Most scholars believe that it was because of her beautiful confession of faith in Joshua 2:9 to 11: “‘I know that the Lord has given you the land. . . . For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan. . . . For the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.’”
Others suggest that as a Gentile and sinner, she illustrates the universality of faith. If she can receive God’s grace, anyone can. Similarly, others suggest that her inclusion implies an argument from the lesser to the greater. If a prostitute were able to exhibit faith, how much more should the readers.
But a fourth possible reason may have important lessons. Several scholars have noted that the exemplars, at least several of them, have been chosen with the situation of the readers in mind. By describing the deeds of the heroes, the author did not want the readers to marvel at their faith, but to inspire them to emulate their deeds.
Thus Abel’s offering of “a more acceptable sacrifice” reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice (Hebrews 9 and 10) and of the exhortation to the readers to offer a sacrifice of praise to God (13:10–16). Noah’s fear in building the ark when warned by God about “events as yet unseen” (11:7) reminds us of Jesus’ reverent fear (5:9) and of the exhortation to the readers not to refuse the One who “warns from heaven” (12:25) of impending destruction. The patriarchs are described as foreigners and sojourners, looking for a homeland, because the author has in mind the readers who are looking for the “heavenly country” (11:16, NKJV), the “city with foundations” (11:10, NIV). When Abraham set out “not knowing where he was going” (11:8), he became an example to the readers who must “go outside the camp” (Deut. 23:10). Moses bore “the reproach of Christ” (Heb. 11:26) reminding us of Jesus who “endured the cross” (12:2) and exhorts and gives hope to the readers who are “being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction” (10:32, 33).
What does Rahab’s example tell the readers of the Epistle?
Rahab has a unique connection with the readers of Hebrews. As she confesses in Joshua 2:9 to 11, Rahab “heard” of God’s powerful actions in behalf of Israel and believed. The author contrasts her faith with the disobedience of the desert generation who saw God’s “works for forty years” (Heb. 3:9, NASB). They saw the plagues, crossed the Red Sea, heard God speak at Sinai, drank from the rock, and ate the manna; yet they disobeyed and perished in the desert.
Like Rahab, the readers of Hebrews did not see Jesus themselves. They did not hear Him preach. They did not see Him perform a miracle or appear alive after resurrection. Instead, the gospel was attested to them by those who heard the Savior (2:3).
The author describes the readers as being in the same situation as that of the desert generation and Rahab: in the border of the promised land (12:18–29; 10:35–39). He invites them to follow her example. Rahab, heard, believed, and obeyed. She left her city, which was about to be destroyed, and obtained a better inheritance with God’s people. In this sense, Rahab takes the role of Joshua and Caleb in the Pentateuch, the only ones who were not destroyed with the faithless disobedient generation. Likewise, the author exhorts the readers to “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (13:13, 14, italics supplied).
As with Rahab and the readers of Hebrews, there are things that “we do not yet see” (Heb. 2:8). We may not see in our experience yet the fullness of God’s promises being fulfilled. We may not see the church be everything God wants it to be. Yet, we have heard God speak to us “by his Son” (1:2). We have heard Him speak to us through His Word (4:12, 13).
And, yes, like the readers of Hebrews, we have also foretasted the glories of God’s goodness (2:4; 6:4, 5). Faith is not based on a full demonstration of the gospel’s power. Yet God gives everyone the evidence that he or she needs to act. In this sense, Rahab is the mother of us all—not because she became an ancestor of our Lord, but because her faith anticipates ours.