Joshua Sends Spies to Jericho

Joshua 2:1

Chapter two of Joshua actually begins the exciting story of how Israel conquered Canaan. The people were camped on the east side of Jordan. Across from them lay Jericho, the first city they would reach on the path of conquest, but before they set out, Joshua decided to send agents ahead to spy out the defenses of Jericho.

This maneuver did not imply lack of confidence in Israel’s ability to overcome her enemies. He was merely acting as a prudent general seeking to formulate a plan of attack that would minimize the risk to his own men. So far as he knew, he would have to employ ordinary military methods to take the city. God had not yet revealed His intention to overthrow the city by supernatural means. Once before, with God’s encouragement, the nation sent spies to search out the land (Num. 13:1-3). Hence, Joshua no doubt felt that to send them now was a measure that God would endorse as appropriate.

The point of departure for the two spies was Shittim, which means "the acacia grove." The acacia is a tree rather like our locust tree. From there they went across the river to "view the land," coming at last to the city itself, where they entered the house of Rahab the harlot. Lest we suspect them of immoral conduct, Scripture informs us that their purpose in going to her house was not dishonorable. They were merely seeking a place to lodge. The Hebrew says literally that they went there to "lay down"—in other words, to sleep. Yet, they did not seek out her house only because it seemed like the safest place to spend the night. We will argue later that in their planning for the mission, they had probably identified her house as the best place to gather intelligence.

Joshua 2:2-3

But their movements were under surveillance. No sooner had they gone into Rahab’s than news went to the king of Jericho that two Israelites spies had entered the city. Either the guards at some distant outpost had spotted them and followed them into the city, or the guards at the gate had recognized them by some peculiarity of dress or speech. Somehow they had failed to conceal themselves. The king sent a message to Rahab, instructing her to bring out her guests.

Joshua 2:4-6

The narrative leaves the sequence of events unclear. One possible reading is that Rahab hid the men after receiving the message, but before she replied. The difficulty in imagining how she could have postponed giving her answer until she had ushered the spies to the roof has led many commentators to suppose that verse 4 should be translated, "And the woman had taken the two men and hidden them." In other words, even before the messenger arrived, she had sought to protect the men by hiding them in the stalks of flax. When the messenger came, she told him directly that the spies had already left.

Delving Deeper

Order of events

Let us examine the wording more closely. A literal rendering of the Hebrew goes as follows: "And sent the king of Jericho to Rahab, saying, Bring out the men who have come in to you, who have come into your house; for to search out all the land they came. And took the woman two the men, and hid them, and said, Thus came in to me the men, but not I did know from where they were."1 In Hebrew idiom, successive statements in past tense need not signify actions in sequence. Thus, even if the woman hid the men before the messenger arrived, the writer was not departing from common practice if he put the messenger’s arrival first in the narrative. After all, both events took place in the past, exactly as the verb tenses indicate. The statement, "And took the woman two the men and hid them," should be understood as a parenthetical insertion to clear up a question left in the reader’s mind by the preceding statement. It says the king told Rahab that he knew the spies entered her house. Now informed of their peril, the reader naturally wants to know their present situation. Are they cornered inside Rahab’s house, or have they gone elsewhere? The writer assures the reader that they are safe. The passage could be translated this way: "And the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, ‘Bring out the men who have come in to you, who have come into your house, for they came to search out all the land.’ (But the woman took the two men and hid them.) She said, ‘Thus came in to me the men, but not I did know from where they were.’"

Thus, like most other students of the passage, we infer that Rahab took the spies to the roof even before she heard from the king. Although the wording is ambiguous, this interpretation is clearly preferable. Not only does it respect the literal sense; it also yields a more natural flow of events. But it raises questions. How did the woman discover who the spies were? Would Joshua have chosen spies so incompetent that they blabbed their identity to the first Canaanite they met? Or did they prepare for their role so poorly that Rahab easily saw through their disguise? However she found out their identity, why did she react by supporting their cause?

The basic answer must be that going to her house and revealing themselves as spies were key elements of their strategy. Israelite scouts could see from a distance that a harlot lodged near the city gate. As we will learn later in the chapter, a scarlet cord advertising her business often hung outside her window on the city wall. Joshua and the men chosen to attempt the risky job of penetrating the city must have decided that the safest course was to go straight to this woman’s house. In that way, they would meet as few people as possible and minimize the danger of being recognized as Israelites. They must have learned Canaanite speech well enough to converse with Rahab. Still, speaking and dressing and behaving exactly like city residents or traveling Canaanites was an impossible task, so the scheme was to hurry through the gate and into the woman’s house as fast as possible. As it was, despite all their precautions, they did not escape detection.

The plan adopted by Joshua and his men had another obvious advantage. The harlot’s house was the best place to do spying. Because of her trade, giving her frank conversation with many of the most important men in the city, she herself was a good source of useful information. Moreover, the rooftop of her lodgings on the city wall was ideally positioned to give the spies a good view of at least the outer defenses of the city. There they would have a clearer picture of the barriers to be overcome.

Yet another consideration when mapping out their tactics was possible escape routes. From a distance they could see that Rahab’s window in the wall was an easy way to leave the city under the cover of darkness.

The plotters realized that to maintain any pretense would be hopeless once they went inside the woman’s house, however. The lady would quickly figure out that they did not want her services or belong to her Canaanite world. Therefore, they intended to disclose who they were and scare her into cooperating. That all Canaan was quaking in fear of the Israelites hovering on their borders was probably well known to Israel and her leaders. So, the spies merely reminded Rahab that she and all her people were on the verge of mass destruction. But they must have promised her clemency if she would help them. As an intelligent woman already filled with a realistic awe of Israel’s God, Rahab did not need much in the way of persuasion. As we will argue later, it is likely that the wickedness of her world had left her unhappy, even bitter, so that she welcomed an opportunity to escape into the righteous world of Israel. In any case, when the spies revealed themselves to her, she quickly reckoned that her best option was to take them upstairs and hide them. Then when the king’s messenger came, she told bald lies to save them from discovery and death.

Pondering a Question

What if the woman had failed to cooperate?

No doubt they would have killed her, barred entrance to her house, and then fled through the window as soon as darkness fell. To avoid being trapped a long time inside, they entered the city toward evening. It was reported to the king that they slipped into the city "tonight" (Josh. 2:2).

The success of their mission demanded that the spies use drastic measures if necessary, perhaps even to kill a helpless woman. Yet we dare not condemn them for heartless cruelty. We must remember that God had already commanded Israel to utterly drive out and dispossess the people of Canaan (Num. 33:51-56), and He would soon decree that Israel should slaughter all inhabitants of Jericho, except for a few who would prove themselves allies of Israel. The wickedness of Jericho's people had become such a stench in His nostrils that He refused to tolerate their existence any longer. Eliminating them was the only way to rid the world of the moral pestilence infecting their society.

Yet we must also remember that there was no chance the spies would be required to deal with an uncooperative woman inside Jericho. God sent them to Rahab because He knew she would cooperate, and He wanted to extend mercy to her and her family. His merciful hand in her case shows how ripe Canaan was for judgment. The best person in the whole land, and the only person God viewed as worth sparing, was a harlot.

It is possible that God viewed her as essentially a tragic victim of male lust. Consistent with this appraisal of her moral position is that she was apparently quite young. When she sought deliverance for her family, she spoke of her brothers and sisters as though many were still living at home (v. 13). As further grounds for mercy, she may have already given birth to one or more children who, because of her profession, were taken for infant sacrifice.

Another reason Rahab was not allowed to perish in the collapse and conflagration of the city was, as we will discuss in the next lesson, that she was chosen from ages past to be a mother of the Messiah.

Delving Deeper

Grousing against God

Unbelievers point to the evil pervasive in our world as proof that it was not created by a good and loving God. Yet when God takes steps to contain or eliminate wickedness by the only means possible, which is to remove wicked people, the same unbelievers protest that He is unfair and cruel. Go figure.

The spies who set out for Jericho had a good plan, but it was hardly foolproof without divine aid. The two men of Israel who strode virtually defenseless into enemy territory, walking boldly by day into the unknown, were brave and stalwart soldiers of God. Perhaps they were inspired by the example of Joshua himself, who, forty years earlier in the company of eleven others, had walked undaunted into Canaan on another spying mission.

When the king learned about the spies, why did he not choose the simplest course, which was to have a large detail of soldiers storm the house and capture them through superior force? Perhaps we detect here some degree of fear. Later in this chapter we read of the reputation Israel had gained as a nation of mighty warriors, undefeated in battle. The king would have assumed that the men sent to spy out Jericho were Israel’s finest. Therefore, he wanted to arrest the men under circumstances that would limit their ability to resist. If his forces tried to enter the house, the Israelites might position themselves at the door and cut down anyone who came through. Or they might inflict casualties by putting their backs to the wall and forcing their attackers to meet them head-on. The safer tactic was to have Rahab lure them outside her house so that his men could pounce on them in the street. Outside, the two spies would have trouble seeing their adversaries, for it was already dark.

So, instead of attacking the intruders, the king chose the cowardly expedient of sending Rahab a single messenger, backed up by a squad of armed men hiding in the shadows. The messenger told Rahab to bring out the spies. How he expected her to do this is a bit foggy. In her response, Rahab must have been a good actress, for with a demure composure natural enough to convince him that she was sharing complete truth, she told him a complete fabrication. It was a clever story designed to send the king’s soldiers away on a wild goose chase. She claimed that the spies had already left, dodging through the gate just before it closed. That was the time of day when traffic at the gate was especially heavy. To make her lie more plausible, she acted like a good citizen of Jericho by urging quick pursuit of the enemy intruders.

Joshua 2:7

A posse quickly assembled and rushed away, hoping to overtake the spies before they reached the fords of the Jordan. Then the guards closed the gate, shutting off any escape route for the spies in case Rahab was wrong in supposing they had left the city. But never were the spies found. The king’s men came back empty-handed.

Notice that Rahab herself floated above all suspicion. It sounds as if the authorities knew her well and trusted her. Very likely, they were among her customers.

Bargain with Rahab

Joshua 2:8

Rahab visited the spies on the roof "before they were laid down." We may assume that they had not yet lain down for sleep because they were carrying out their assigned task, which was to gather as much information as possible. From their vantage on the roof, they could learn much about the city even at night, for doubtless they timed their incursion so that they could count on the help of moonlight as well as torchlight. Thus, when Rahab came up to them, the hour may have been quite late, perhaps long after she had sent the king’s men on a fool’s errand. Why the delay in talking to the spies? Secrecy was essential. She waited until the whole city was asleep. She did not want anyone coming to the door while she was on the roof.

Joshua 2:9-13

She went to the men for one purpose. As we have said, she must have already consented to help them in return for her life. But she wanted to make sure. She wanted to extract from them a solemn, sacred promise that the armies of Israel would spare her life when they overthrew the city.

To win the spies’ sympathy, she said first that news of Israel’s march from Egypt to Canaan preceded them and brought great terror to all the inhabitants of the land, for these all heard how God parted the waters of the Red Sea to enable Israel to go across on dry ground, and how Israel met the Amorites in battle and annihilated them. Rahab then declared her allegiance to Israel’s God by stating her conviction that He was the true God of heaven and earth, and she declared her allegiance to the nation of Israel by affirming that it had the right to occupy the land. She understood that this right derived from God’s sovereign act of giving it to them. She then pleaded with the men to return her kindness. Just as she spared their lives by hiding them from the king, she asked that her life and the lives of her family would be spared when the city was destroyed.

Joshua 2:14

The spies replied with an oath that indeed the armies of Israel would exempt her and her family from the slaughter. They swore, "Our lives for yours." Yet she had to meet one condition. She was forbidden to tell "this our business." But did not the king already know their business? Yes, but he did not know where they were. The spies were simply telling Rahab that the only way she could secure her life was to withhold from the king everything she knew about their mission. She dared not betray them before they left, and she dared not go to the king after they left and reveal what happened. But once they were gone, how could she have revealed anything without confessing her own collusion with the spies? Yet there was a danger that Rahab would then go to the king’s men under the pretense that she had lied to them for fear of her life. If she told them when the spies left and what course they took, such information might lead to their capture.

The incentive to keep silent was to assure her own survival at the time of assault. But we can imagine a scenario where Israel might have spared her undeservedly. Under pressure of guilt about betraying her own people, Rahab might have gone to the king later and told him the truth. Then how would Rahab’s double-dealing have come to Israel’s attention? From this perspective, her promise to remain silent after their departure might seem meaningless. Yet Rahab as well as the spies understood that another party to the agreement was God Himself. God would know whether she kept silent and would direct Israel accordingly. The only way she could survive Israel’s assault on Jericho was to remain innocent before God.

Joshua 2:15-16

She provided for their escape by taking them to a high window in her house overlooking the outside base of the city wall. She let them down by means of a "cord"—that is, a rope. Perhaps she had used this rope many times before as an exit for customers who did not wish to stay all night in the city. As they were leaving, she advised them to go hide in the hill country for three days before attempting to cross the Jordan. By then, the pursuit would have been suspended.

Joshua 2:17-20

The spies then imposed two more conditions on Rahab. The first was that she keep "this line of scarlet thread" tied in her window so that the army of Israel would readily recognize her house when they assaulted the city. Although "line," "thread," and "rope" are three distinct words, the men said explicitly that the line of thread was the very rope they were using to escape. Evidently, it was a red-colored rope that Rahab normally hung from her window whenever she wished to advertise her immoral business.

The second condition was that when the assault came, her whole family had to take refuge in her house. Everyone inside her house would be spared, but everyone outside would be killed even if they were related to her.

Joshua 2:21

Rahab readily assented to the conditions, and the spies left. To make sure that Israel would find her in compliance with the first condition, she made the rope in her window a permanent fixture. She knew that if she waited until Israel came before she set it out again, the people of the city would be more likely to suspect that it was a signal to the enemy.

Delving Deeper

Another dimension of meaning

Many commentators have viewed the scarlet thread that saved Rahab’s family as a symbol teaching an important spiritual truth. Although Scripture itself gives no direct support to this interpretation, we should not lightly dismiss it, considering how many godly men have found it convincing. They have seen the scarlet thread as representing the blood of Jesus Christ, the blood that flowed freely to save us from our sin. Just as Rahab’s family saved their lives by taking refuge in the house with the scarlet thread, so we must put ourselves under the blood of Christ to escape the penalty for sin and obtain eternal life.

Getting Practical

How to be saved

How do we put ourselves under the blood? All we must do is to confess that we are sinners and ask Jesus to be our Savior (1 John 1:7).

Joshua 2:22-24

According to Rahab’s instructions, the spies scurried away from town toward the hills, in a direction opposite to what the pursuers had expected, and they took refuge in the hills for three days before returning across the river to Joshua. Their report was a great encouragement to the nation, for it showed how utterly demoralized the enemy had become. As Joshua said, "Even all the inhabitants of the country do faint because of us" (v. 24).

Who Was the Hero?

Notice that the account does not put the two spies in a flattering light. As spies they were bumblers who could not get into town undetected. Except for the resourcefulness of the woman Rahab they would have died. It was she who found a secure hiding place. It was she who succeeded in deceiving the king by concocting a believable lie and then telling it with a poise arousing no suspicion. It was she who provided critical help so that they could exit silently from the city at the opportune moment. And it was she who devised the plan that enabled them to elude the search party. The only real hero of the incident is no hero at all but a heroine, Rahab.

If the story of Israel's assault on Jericho were not history, but a national myth emerging centuries later with the intent of heroizing the men of Israel, the spies would not have been portrayed as miserable failures rescued by a harlot.

Getting Practical

Divine control of outcomes

Even though we, like the spies, may be inept and awkward in our efforts to serve God, He will accomplish His purposes anyway.

When I go home after teaching an adult Bible class, I sometimes tell my wife, "That was the worst I’ve ever done." But then she says, "Really, I learned a lot." Somehow God managed to work despite having me as His clumsy instrument.


  1. Jay P. Green, Sr., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew/English, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983), 1:559.