I have often heard this accusation leveled at the Bible: “God commanded the Israelites to commit mass genocide when they conquered Canaan. A God of love could not be so cold and merciless, so I do not accept the Bible as true (at least not certain parts of it).”
There are many ways to respond to this objection, but today I just want to focus on one burning question. If the conquest of Canaan paints a picture of God as cold and merciless, what about Rahab?
Rahab, we are told in Joshua 2, was a prostitute in the ancient city of Jericho. Joshua, the chief commander of Israel, sent two men to spy out the land, “especially Jericho.” When they enter the city, Rahab receives them into her house. The king of Jericho was watching, and he sent a message to Rahab telling her to hand over the Israelite men. Instead, Rahab hides the Israelite men and says she already sent the spies away. If the king hurries, his soldiers will catch up to them in no time. The king bites the bait, giving Rahab enough time to help the Israelite spies escape through her window in the city wall. A prostitute who used to receive men into her home for her perverted profession had now received men into her home for an entirely different reason. Why did she do it? She tells the spies,
“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, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.“Joshua 2:10-11
Rahab believed in the power of the Lord. She proceeds to form a covenant with the spies. In exchange for her faith-filled act of loyal love and kindness, she begs for God’s loyal love on her family in return (Joshua 2:12-13).
Four chapters later we find God’s people doing exactly as they promised. Rahab hangs a scarlet cord in the same window she used to deliver the spies as a sign to Israel to have that same mercy on her. Don’t miss the stark contrast between judgment and mercy!
But to the two men who had spied out the land, Joshua said, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring out from there the woman and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.” So the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. And they brought all her relatives and put them outside the camp of Israel. And they burned the city with fire, and everything in it. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord. But Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive. And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.Joshua 6:22-25
Rahab was still alive at the time this book of Joshua was written. She was a former prostitute, a woman, and a Canaanite. She had three strikes in that culture and should have been out. But instead she was a living example of God’s mercy and love to everyone in Israel. Hebrews 11:31 tells us, “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.”
God’s favor on Rahab extended far beyond what she could have ever imagined. Centuries later Matthew mentions her alongside Ruth the Moabitess, another great foreigner of the faith, as matriarchs of king David and the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
“and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king… and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.”Matthew 1:5-6, 16
That is not the work of a cold and merciless God; that is a work of a loving and gracious God. Is it possible that other Canaanites confessed faith in Yahweh and received mercy? In light of Rahab’s story it is safe to say “yes.” Even though the Canaanites knew much about Yahweh, we do not read of many cases like Rahab in the Old Testament. Apparently Rahab’s faith was rare. The conquest of Canaan, if anything, points to the depravity of the human heart that stubbornly refuses to pursue God’s mercy even in the face of impending judgment. It is a miracle of mercy that any of us would believe. And it is to God’s glory that anyone, like Rahab and her family, has been “saved alive.” God still freely extends the promise of forgiveness and salvation to anyone who repents of their sin and professes faith in Christ. The scarlet cord hangs today, but now in the form of the blood of Jesus Christ stained on a wooden cross. Mercy is extended. The only question is this: will we, like Rahab, believe?