If I were to choose two people from the Old Testament to illustrate what faith in action looks like I would probably include Abraham. Patriarch of three major religious traditions, blessed by kings of multiple nations, and known for direct conversations with the Almighty, Abraham is an easy choice. If you want to read his whole story, start in Genesis 12 when God calls him to leave everything he knows and goes to a place that God will show him. God didn’t even give Abram (his original name) the destination! The Father said, “Go…and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). And Abram packed up and went. No argument, no questions, and no hesitation. At 75 years old, he gathered up his possessions and moved.
Abram had his moments of insecurity, to be sure (including passing off his wife as his sister twice), but ultimately, he trusted God more than his own wiles, and his faith was profound enough that God made a binding blood covenant with him, promising him a great nation from his descendents. Abram had no children, but he believed.
Long story short, Abram tried to make things happen on his own (Genesis 16) when his wife, Sarai’s faith was not as strong as his, but eventually (Genesis 17), God renamed Abram (which meant exalted father) to Abraham (meaning father of multitudes) and established His covenant with him. Abraham’s wife, renamed Sarah, gave birth to Isaac (another fun story from Genesis 21).
Then God called on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). At this point, Abraham had to know that God would work things out, but he had no idea how. Just like packing up and leaving his home close to 30 years before, Abraham acted on his faith. Eventually, Isaac married Rebekah, gave birth to Jacob who married Leah and Rachel, whose 12 children made up the tribes of Israel (Genesis 24, 26, 29, 30, 46, 49).
So, as an example of active and living faith, Abraham makes perfect sense. But of all the people to call out as a second example, Rahab? Not Miriam, sister of Moses (Exodus 2)? Not Deborah, the great judge of Israel (Judges 4)? But James chooses Rahab, whose story is found in Joshua 2.
There are good reasons to not understand why Rahab is part of James’ letter. She was a woman. She was a prostitute. She was not Jewish. She lived in Jericho, an enemy town. What could Rahab possibly have in common with the father of multitudes?
Rahab acted. That’s what she had in common with Abraham. She had heard about the God of Israel, and she believed HE was the all-powerful God over all the familiar gods she knew from childhood. She didn’t understand all the details, but she knew in her heart of hearts that hope for salvation would come through Israel. Her actions, hiding the spies, marking her position, and keeping her word, demonstrated her faith in the Unseen God. The Israelites promised to preserve her and her family, and they were faithful to their word (Joshua 6). She had no way of knowing what might happen to her once she got out of Jericho. She might have been taken as a slave or some man’s concubine. She could have been shunned, maligned, and marginalized for being a pagan prostitute. But she acted on faith is a God she did not yet know, trusting His salvation. Her faith in action gave Israel the victory, and this woman, in spite of all the strikes against her, became part of the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1).
Rahab, on the other hand, did not have a knowledge of God, but she knew His people. She could not have known what might happen even if the Israelite spies rescued her and her family, but she knew their God was superior to hers. Abraham had a visible covenant but was physically weak. Rahab had youth and vitality, but no connection to this God she chose to trust. Both, however, took action in response to a call they recognized as coming from outside themselves. In both Abraham and Rahab, faith was active along with works and faith was completed by works (James 2:22).
The lesson to take away from this passage is clear: faith apart from works is dead. And dead faith is worthless. But faith is available to everyone, not the select few. And all of us who believe have both the power and the choice to demonstrate that faith through action.