Friday, July 27, 2012

The Scarlet Thread (Joshua 2:18, 21)

How was Rahab the harlot’s house identified to the Israelites? A scarlet cord in the window (Joshua 2:21)

Jericho was the first military objective during the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land. Before his army marches, Joshua dispatches two spies to scout the city (Joshua 2:1). In Jericho, the scouts lodge with the local harlot, Rahab (Joshua 2:1). As her house is situated in the city’s wall, the Israelite spies get the lay of the land from the prostitute’s home (Joshua 2:16). When the spies’ presence is discovered, Rahab covers the men in flax on her roof and covers for the men with the local authorities (Joshua 2:2-7).

Rahab professes faith in the Israelites’ God, understands her nation’s futility in opposing the pending attack and requests clemency (Joshua 2:8-15). In spite of the fact that Moses had forbidden such an oath (Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 20:16-18), the men agree and select a scarlet cord to indicate that her home will be spared when the city is ransacked (Joshua 2:18). Rahab accepts their terms and immediately ties the cord in her window (Joshua 2:21).

She said, “According to your words, so be it.” So she sent them away, and they departed; and she tied the scarlet cord in the window. (Joshua 2:21 NASB)
The encouraged spies return to their army on the east bank of the Jordan River and echo Rahab’s words in their report to their commander (Joshua 2:9, 24). The scouts’ reconnaissance will prove unnecessary as God miraculously intervenes and the city’s wall famously falls (Joshua 6:1-25). Even so, the Israelites keep their word and Rahab and her family are saved (Joshua 6:17, 23, 25).

There are parallels in other classical sources of prostitutes providing assistance in notable conquests but unlike them, Rahab is not merely relocated but also redeemed. Her faith is recalled twice in the New Testament (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25) and not once in any later literature is she condemned for either her occupation or her deception.

At the outset of the story, Rahab represents the ultimate Other to the Israelites. Yet this outsider will become an insider by voluntarily aligning with Yahweh. In contrast in the aftermath of the battle of Jericho, Achan becomes the embodiment of an insider who becomes an outsider by rejecting God (Joshua 7:1-26). Faith in God has always been a criteria for salvation.

John Goldingay (b. 1942) speculates as to Rahab’s motives for siding with Israel and its God:

It is said that men have ambivalent feelings about women who make their sexual favors available; they both utilize them and disapprove of them. Economic factors are commonly what drive women into the sex trade; perhaps Rahab was a widow. Evidently she has a family to be concerned for, but perhaps they had a hard time making ends meet, and this was the way she learned to survive without being dependent on them. A woman like Rahab will be a marginal figure in the society, part of it but not really part of it. So maybe it is easier for her to respond differently to what people are saying about the Israelites, as it will be possible for a woman such as Mary of Magdala to respond to Jesus in a way that most of the male pillars of society cannot. Like the midwives in Exodus 1 or other women in Israel’s story, she does not feel obliged to tell the male authority figures the truth when there is nothing truthful about the way they are behaving. (Goldingay, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for Everyone 13)
The sign indicating Rahab’s location had to be significant enough to be noticed by the Israelites yet sufficiently inconspicuous to her people. The sign selected is the scarlet cord (Joshua 2:18, 21). Though not mentioned in the account of the fall of Jericho or later references to Rahab, the scarlet cord is mentioned twice in the harlot’s interaction with the spies (Joshua 2:18, 21). Some have connected Rahab so much with this item that they have been dubbed her the “scarlet woman”.

The object is translated as “scarlet cord” (ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, RSV), “scarlet line” (ASV, KJV), “scarlet rope” (NLT), “red rope” (CEV, MSG) and “crimson cord” (NRSV). This exposed cord becomes the sign of the covenant she seeks; it effectively marks her home as a “safe house” (Joshua 2:12-23).

This thread has generated much interest. Richard S. Hess (b. 1954) analyzes:

This word for “cord” (tiqwā)...normally describes a simple thread, such as something of low value that Abram refuses from the king of Sodom (Genesis 14:23). The term for “scarlet” (śānî) appears elsewhere in the Bible to describe textiles used to decorate the tabernacle (e.g., Exodus 25:4), cleansing rituals (Leviticus 14:4), a bright color (Genesis 38:28), and special garments for the wealthy (Proverbs 31:21)...In contrast to the usage of “red” in the contexts of holiness and purity in Israel, the origin of the Akkadian term for “Canaan” may identify the color “red-purple.” This color, derived from the purple dye processed at Tyre, Dor, and other coastal cities, could have been understood as a statement of loyalty to the region by other Canaanites. However, its connection with Israel may have a double meaning. (John H. Walton [b. 1952] and Daniel I. Block [b. 1943], Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 21)
Jerome F.D. Creach (b. 1962) adds:
The expression “crimson cord” in Hebrew is actually three words that stand in relationship to each other, including the word denoting the color crimson. The word translated “cord” is tiqwah, which comes from a verbal root meaning “to be tense/rigid” and, by extension, “to be expectant.” The noun form elsewhere in the Old Testament has the second connotation and means “hope.” A related form (qaw), which appears numerous times, always refers to a measuring line, as used in construction (I Kings 7:23; Job 38:5). If this related term is any clue, it would further argue against the idea the tiqwah refers to a rope. The second word in the expression “crimson cord” is the Hebrew hût, meaning “thread.” Hence, although English translations do not show it, the two words together have the sense of a “cord of thread.” Again, this seems to refer to a line not substantial enough to support the Israelite spies (see the use hût, “thread” in Judges 16:12; Ecclesiastes 4:12)...Although it is not certain, the “cord of thread” probably refers to a strand of material from which cloth could be woven. That it was a crimson cord, not a whole piece of cloth, makes sense when we realize that ancient Near Eastern people typically dyed individual strands so that the cords might then be woven together with others of different colors to make cloth (W.F. Albright [1891-1971], The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim, 3:60-61). (Creach, Joshua (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 38)
The cord may have been something that was already in Rahab’s possession. This seems likely as why would spies, who by the nature of their mission are trying to be inconspicuous, be traveling with a bright red cord? Rahab uses a rope to lower the spies from her home and the text is ambiguous as to whether or not this is the same rope (Joshua 2:15). Phyllis A. Bird (b. 1934) has posited that the scarlet cord was used for advertising, the ancient near eastern equivalent of a red-light district (Bird, “The Harlot as Heroine”, Semeia 46: 130). If this is the case, it would not arouse suspicion. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the practice of identifying a brothel in this manner ever existed.

Richard D. Nelson (b. 1945) comments:

Although “this crimson thread” (Joshua 2:18) sounds as though they [the spies] are providing her with it (as a gift of feminine finery?), this seems awkward from the standpoint of staging. Perhaps the reader is meant to suppose that Rahab has just lowered them by her (perhaps very feminine and sexy) crimson thread, presumably intended as a touch of humor...Although her display of the the window is technically premature, it is the appropriate place for the narrator to assure us that she has taken this last prudent, expectant step. (Nelson, Joshua: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 51-52)
The positioning of the cord has proven problematic for interpreters. Military historian Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) reads between the biblical lines and develops a far less miraculous explanation of the fall of Jericho based upon the scarlet cord’s locaton:
Fashioned in this manner, the crimson cord would only be visible from outside the city wall, making it useless as an indicator of Rahab’s house ravaging the city from the inside. That is why the Israelite scouts told Rahab to keep herself and her family inside the house during the attack [Joshua 2:18]...What, then, was the purpose of the crimson cord?...The answer might be that the crimson cord marked the window through which the Israelite elite troops enter the city. The dust and confusion caused by the Israelite army as it assembled and marched through the city...was sufficient distraction for small numbers of Israelite troops to enter the city through Rahab’s window...The idea was to infiltrate a few men at a time into Rahab’s house, using the army’s activities outside the wall as a distraction...The defense would have collapsed quite quickly, perhaps tempting the text’s author to employ the metaphor that “the walls collapsed on the spot [Joshua 6:20].” (Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel, 132)
Many have derived greater significance from the object. L. Daniel Hawk (b. 1955) notes:
The “crimson cord” constitutes a double pun...The cord (tiqwat) marks the “hope” (tiqwâ) which the pact has given Rahab, while its crimson color (haššānî) beckons the two (šnēy) spies. On a deeper level, the reddish color at the window recalls the Israelite deliverance from death in Egypt (Exodus 12:1-31). The instructions which the spies give to Rahab parallel those which YHWH gives to Israel in preparation for the first Passover (Exodus 12:21-28). Like Israel in Egypt, Rahab is told to mark a portal with red (lamb’s blood on the doorway in Egypt, the crimson cord at the window in Jericho), to gather her family within her home, and to keep them within the house when destruction comes. The instructions are followed, in Exodus, by the promise that the Israelites will be spared from the destroyer. The spies also follow directives with promises...By including this information, the narrator discloses that Rahab and her family participate in one of the constitutive events in Israel’s story. Rahab’s family will experience its own Passover, and later generations will (but for a change of particulars) be able to recite the story of national deliverance with the rest of the people. The incorporation of Rahab into Israel is now virtually complete. (Hawk, Joshua (Berit Olam, Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 49-50)
Why is Rahab’s family saved in the conquest of Jericho? Other than sparing Rahab, does the spying serve any purpose? Why is the scarlet cord selected as the sign of this alliance? Is there significance to the color? What sign would you have chosen?

Many have seen Rahab as a picture of salvation as an undeserved external red object becomes the instrument of her salvation. As early as the late first century, Clement equated the scarlet cord (Joshua 2: 18, 21) to the blood of the cross (I Clement 12:7). Since that time, Bible teachers have spoken of the scarlet thread running the course of the Bible from Abel (Genesis 4:10) to Calvary (John 19:34).

Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) documents:

In the preaching of the Christian church, all the way back to Clement of Rome (perhaps earlier, but we do not know), this cord has been taken as a sign of the blood of Christ, the Lamb. One should not be dogmatic about it because the Bible does not explicitly make this connection; nevertheless, many on the church have emphasized over the centuries that the scarlet cord was a mark of something beyond itself. (Schaeffer, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History, 85)
Woodrow Kroll (b. 1944) adds:
In order to identify that she was under the protection of the Most High God, she tied a cord in the window, a blood-red sign of salvation...This thread of redemption shows up often throughout the Bible and has been noticed by many scholars. Matthew Henry [1662-1714] described it this way, “A golden thread of gospel grace runs through the whole web of the Old Testament.” W.A. Criswell [1909-2002] once preached a watch night service on New Year’s Eve from 7:30 PM until past midnight. His theme for this marathon message was “The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible.” It was later published as a book. (Kroll, How to Find God in the Bible: A Personal Plan for the Encounter of Your Life, 147)
J. Gordon Harris (b. 1940) advises caution when using this means of interpretation:
Details about the rope strengthen the art of the narrative and should not be considered theological points. Early church fathers used typology to associate the red cord with the red blood of Jesus. They taught that as the cord saved the lives of Rahab and her family, so does the blood of Christ. However, the original passage in Joshua did not place any particular prominence on the color of the cord. Red would be visible at a great distance. Even New Testament allusions to Rahab did not associate the color of the cord with the color of Jesus’ blood. Despite the similarity of the two types, modern preachers need to use typology sparingly and carefully. It is enough to realize that God saved the lives of Rahab and her family through the red cord tied to the window. (Harris, Cheryl A. Brown [b. 1949] & Michael S. Moore [b. 1951], Joshua, Judges, Ruth (New International Biblical Commentary), 13)
Whether typological or not, the scarlet cord held great personal meaning to Rahab. John A. Huffman, Jr. (b. 1940) writes:
Rahab was willing to join a new family—the family of God. She probably didn’t fully understand the significance of the scarlet rope that the spies told her to hang from her window any more than did all the Jews who were saved out of Egypt understand the significance of blood splashed over their doorways. They came to understand in the years ahead the significance of the blood sacrifice in the ordinance of the Passover. Perhaps the scarlet cord had in its color significance that reached forward in history to the blood atonement of Jesus Christ. It might have simply been her way of “tying a yellow ribbon on the old oak tree,” signifying her identity, love, and trust for a people and a God she was only beginning to know...For Rahab, the scarlet rope was sacramental. It was an outward sign of an inner work of grace which God was bringing to pass in her life. It was a sign that she believed God to be God. (Huffman, Joshua (Mastering the Old Testament), 64-65)
What is the meaning of the scarlet thread? What did it mean to Rahab? What, if anything does it mean to you? Do you have any outward visible signs of your inner invisible faith? How do you demonstrate your allegiance? Have you performed an act that means to you what tying a scarlet cord in her window meant to Rahab?
She is not afraid of the snow for her household,
For all her household are clothed with scarlet.
-Proverbs 31:21, King James Version


  1. I am studying The Heart of The Story with my ladies bible study group. I became very interested in the scarlet thread and it's meaning so I started researching it and ran across your blog. Very interesting stuff. I am so amazed how God takes such a 'simple" idea and weaves it throughout the bible and it is symbolic of Christ and how he died for our sins. It's overwhelming! Signed up for your subscription and looking forward to more of your insights.