"By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with the disobedient, receiving the spies with peace."--Heb 11:31
"And in the same way was Rahab the harlot not by works justified, receiving the angels, and by a different way sending them out?"--Jas 2:25
Of the many men and women whose lives we read of in the Old Testament, we account many as models of righteous and early types of Christians. The Letter to the Hebrews has a long list of them: "By faith a better sacrifice Abel rather than Cain brought to God...," and so it continues through so many figures. It is easy to see the faith of Abel and Enoch, of Noah and Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, of Moses and Joshua, of the Judges, of David and Samuel, and so many others. Yet many, I think, miss the harlot listed among the righteous: Rahab of Jericho.
Though we may miss her, the early Church did not. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews included her among the faithful, and St. James praised her for her good works. Not only this, but he mentions how she was "made righteous" or "justified" by her works. We see this in the Book of Joshua: She received the Israelite spies in Jericho, and she kept them safe, letting them flee through her window so they would not be caught and killed. For this deed, she and those in her house were spared during the coming destruction, and she let out a scarlet thread as a sign to identify herself. According to rabbinical tradition, for her righteousness, she would have prophets and priests among her descendants. What is even greater is what St. Mathew shows us in the genealogy of Christ: she was an ancestor of the Messiah.
The Church Fathers, as the Scriptures, did not ignore her. The fact that she was a harlot (πορνή in Greek) was a foretaste of Christ's radical gift of redemption: "Rahab and all her house were preserved, through faith in the scarlet sign; as the Lord declared to those who did not receive him...that the publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of heaven before you" (St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses IV.20.12). More than that, the Fathers focused on the fact that her whole house was saved, not just her. "And Rahab the harlot and all her father's house Jesus saved alive, and they dwell in Israel until the days of today" (Jos 6:25). (The fact that Joshua in the Old Testament shared the same Greek name as Jesus our Savior was not lost on the Church Fathers.) Thus the salvation of her house became a sign of what was to come: entire households of Gentiles would be saved, and they, as wild branches, would be grafted onto the cultivated olive tree of Israel. Thus Scripture says that her house "dwells with Israel until today." Origen, in his Homilies on Joshua, affirms this interpretation (VII.5).
The house itself became a symbol too. Just as the ark of Noah became a symbol of the Church for St. Cyprian, so much so that, in ecclesial architecture, the central section of a temple is called the nave (from Latin navum, ship), so was Rahab's home a sign of the Church. "She who was formerly a harlot receives this injunction: All who shall be found in thy house shall be saved...if anyone wishes to be saved, let him come into the house of her that was a harlot...Let there be no mistake, let no one deceive himself: outside this house, that is outside the Church, there is no salvation" (Origen, Homilies on Joshua). What else affirms this view? The fact that the sign Rahab used to identify her house, the house of salvation of the Gentiles, the type of the house of salvation for all, was a scarlet cord, "the scarlet sign of salvation, a colour which is manifestly the colour of royalty when considered as a dignity, and, when looked at, the colour of blood; both these features were found in the Passion: the Lord was clothed in scarlet, and blood flowed from his side" (St. Hilary, Tractatus Mysteriorum II.9). Thus as the Israelites were saved from the Angel of Death during the first Pascha by the blood of the Pasch on their doorposts, so was Rahab saved by the scarlet cord out her window. So too are Christians, those in the Church, saved by the most precious Blood of the Lord, the true Jesus, of Whom Jesus son of Nun was only an image. The scarlet cord is thus "the symbol of the blood of Christ, by which those who were at one time harlots and evil persons out of all nations are saved, receiving remission of sins, and continuing to sin no longer" (St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho CXI.4).
Thus let us not neglect Rahab the harlot, who has been cleansed of her sins and joined with the Church. Just as Hosea married a harlot to show God's love for all sinners if they repent, so Rahab was saved despite her prior sin. For this her entire house was saved, and she foretold the glorious works the Lord was still to do through His Son, and for this she even became an ancestor of He Whom she foretold. When we praise the righteous ones of the Old Testament, let us not neglect Rahab, the harlot who repented, she who is now part of that great house of salvation, the Church of Christ. Glory to Jesus Christ!
Nota Bene: This post is basically a summation of the chapter "Rahab a Type of the Church" (Part V, Chapter II) in Jean Daniélou's From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers, translated by Dom Wulstan Hibberd (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1960), pp. 244-260. All quotes from the Church Fathers are taken from this work.