The Scarlet Cord

There has been much speculation about the scarlet cord that Rahab was told to hang from her window in Joshua 2:18. Ancient Christian interpretations take it to represent the blood for Christ. For example in the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians chapter 12, it says that Rahab was told “that she should hang forth from her house a scarlet thread. And thus they made it manifest that redemption should flow through the blood of the Lord to all them that believe and hope in God.” Or consider Augustine’s treatment in Psalm 87 where Rahab “was told to hang out of the window a line of scarlet thread, that is, to bear upon her forehead the sign of the blood of Christ. She was saved there, and thus represented the Church of the Gentiles.”

However, “typological connections of this sort must be handled with great care. Indeed, a real typological connection between the Testaments should be recognized in the light of the Bible’s own consciousness.” 1Martin H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1981), 75. Also, we must ask if this was what the original author intended or the original audience would have heard. We must not rush to the sensus plenior 2In my opinion, the sensus plenior (or “fuller sense”) can be a valid interpretation of a text but only when used sparingly and with great care, following the New Testament example. Also, the original meaning of the should not be ignored, changed or eclipsed.before we have heard the voice of the original human author.

The most immediate and obvious meaning to be found in the scarlet cord is that it was a fairly clear signal. It would be visible and stand out enough to identify the home to be protected. It may be that there is no significant meaning beyond that. However, the choice of a scarlet rope is not without some background to the spies. In Leviticus 14 scarlet yarn is used to cleanse a person cured of leprosy. While it is not the same exact same phrase used here, it is a similar idea. It could be that the spies recognized that this person with three strikes, she was female, gentile, and a prostitute, had been made clean. But that seems a stretch since even the LXX used different words to translate the yarn in Leviticus 14, and the cord in Joshua 2.

Perhaps another historical context the scarlet cord may harken to is the Passover. Scarlet lamb’s blood was put on the doors of the homes of the Jews and the destruction of the firstborn passed over their homes. All who were inside were safe (cf. Josh 2:19 ,Ex 12:22). Again, it seems a stretch to go from blood on doorposts and lintel to a cord in a window. Certainly both were symbols to the destroyer to pass over that house but they were also different from each other; “The only time that the color of blood is specified in the Old Testament is in 2 Kngs 3:22, which states that ‘the water looked red–like blood.’ The color word here is the normal word for ‘red’.3David M. Howard Jr., Joshua, The New American Commentary, vol 5, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 116.

So the immediate and historical context yields no additional significant meaning for the scarlet cord. Now we may ask if the New Testament has anything to say about it. Rahab is mentioned three times in the New Testament and one of those is in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:5 with no further comment. The other two (Heb 11:31 and James 2:25) mention her being delivered for protecting the spies but nothing about the scarlet cord.

Actually, most of the instances of the word ‘scarlet’ are negative in the New Testament. Jesus is dressed in a scarlet robe after he was scourged in Matthew 27:28. In the book of Revelation the beast is scarlet (17:3) and the woman who represents Babylon is dressed in scarlet and gold (17:4). In the other two occurrences scarlet represents the riches of the corrupt world (18:12, 16).

It seems that the best interpretation would be the simplest: the scarlet cord meant nothing more than to designate the one home to be protected.

1 Martin H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1981), 75.
2 In my opinion, the sensus plenior (or “fuller sense”) can be a valid interpretation of a text but only when used sparingly and with great care, following the New Testament example. Also, the original meaning of the should not be ignored, changed or eclipsed.
3 David M. Howard Jr., Joshua, The New American Commentary, vol 5, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 116.
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  • Well thought out. I have always had trouble with putting too much emphasis on the “shadow” of the OT, when the NT is essentially silent on a subject. This applies to the NT as well. I believe that the 6 stone pots in John 2 are just 6 stone pots. A.W. Pink, in his commentary on John, makes more of them, but I don’t see any justification to giving them more spiritual meaning. They are an historical observation, nothing more.

  • Well said. I wonder if the reason that the Israeli spies specified a scarlet cord could be that red stands out well against the beige stones of the city walls, making it easier to see in the chaos of an assault. We sometimes forget that God revealed His redemptive work primarily through historical events, rather than metaphor, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. Rahab’s faith and God’s intention to save the Gentiles through His covenant with Israel is clearly revealed in this account. Typology of color is, I think, is secondary, if it is present at all. Since salvation by grace, through faith, is clearly communicated in the account, shouldn’t that be the controlling theme in any hermeneutic brought to the text?

  • Well said David. I’m not sure that Rahab is an example of salvation sola fide exactly. She is held up in the New Testament as an example of bravery and trust in God. She is in the Hebrews Hall of Faith in 11:31 where she is commended for welcoming the spies. In James 2:25, James says of her “was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?”

    None of this is to say that she was NOT justified by faith alone, but she is and example to us for her action and her trust. I think more of Abraham as the example of justification by faith alone.

  • Yes, Abraham is the primary Old Testament portrait of faith. Yet, doesn’t James also include Abraham as one justified by works? I think that in reading James, the Hebrew scriptures, or any other biblical account, we should remember that faith and works are distinct soteriologically (as Paul makes unarguably clear in Romans), but often indistinguishable in an individual believer’s experience. There is no way to parse the account of Rahab and the spies and say, “ah ha! Here is her faith, and now, in this word, it switches to her works!” Apologies for getting silly, but you get my point. Rahab helped the spies (endangering her and her family’s life) because she trusted (had faith in) the God of Israel, and trusted in the promise of rescue given to her by God’s representatives (the Hebrew spies). As James reminds us, faith and works always work together in the life of a believer. They are certainly not the same, and not to be confused, but in a believer’s experience, one will always declare the other.

    Good chatting with you, Tim. God bless.

  • Well, consider the Tamar story:

    God was so involved in the life of the author that the author recorded this odd transaction without really knowing why it was important. But God used the history, and the author, to paint a picture of the birth of His own Son such that:

    Tamar:Mary made herself available near the appointment:the appointed time
    Tamar:Mary was promised a goat:scape goat “for he shall save his people from their sins.”
    When Tamar:Mary asked for assurance of the promise, she was given three things:
    Rod: “The power of God will overshadow you”
    Signet ring: “He shall be called the Son of God”
    Bracelets: Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife (in Numbers an empty vessel without bracelets is unclean. Mary was not unclean, and Judah was told “there was no prostitute here”
    Tamar:Mary conceived , not by her legitimate husband, but by his father Judah:God
    Tamar:Mary was going to be killed:divorced until the father was identified.
    Afterwards she was honored.
    Tamar:Mary had twins: God-man
    their names mean “breaking forth” and “the sunrise” ::dayspring
    Phares:Jesus though born to Tamar:Mary first, was really the second breach:second man

    Any one of these parallels by themselves can be said to be coincidental. But all together they make a good case for sensus plenior.

    Back to Rahab… try meditating on these:
    Rahab was a prostitute who became the mother of the promise, kinda like Tamar.

    Hmm two spies, twins.
    Birth, out a window
    Zarah had a scarlet thread tied on his wrist.

    Lev 4 has scarlet thread combined with cedar wood and hyssop to sprinkle the blood…

    Yeah, couldn’t be any symbolism there ;)

    I am sharing some diagrams at

    Thanks for the look, I hope they bless you.

    Bob Jones

  • Bob,

    That sounds a lot like gnosticism. It was also posted a year and a half after real discussion stopped, just like this post it is left to help those who stumble upon it.

  • It is nothing like Gnosticism. Gnostics were condemned for their polytheism, wrong conclusions based in typology, not for typology itself.

    I have gone back to study Rahab in detail. The story parallels Tamar. She fits the prostitute-virgin bride motif just as Eve, Rebekah, Leah-Rachel, Hagar-Sarah, Tamar, Mary, and many others do.

    The two spies are a parallel of Tamars twins, and Mary’s God-man, etc.

    Scarlet is the color of sin… “Though your sins be as scarlet”. Christ has a scarlet robe because he had our sin placed upon him. Tamar’s first son had the scarlet ribbon to show he represented Christ in the flesh. Rahab’s scarlet ribbon is also displayed at the ‘birth’ of her ‘savior’, the two spies as they left the window. Her confession of sin saved her.

    She becomes the mother of the the redeemer as she ends up in the genealogy if Christ.

    This is not free-for-all allegory. You may find the rules and constraints at

  • Bob! I loved that interpretation! It is so clear that God designed the OT to be a reflection of what was to come: Christ. The Bible is a deep deep well of Life, one that will withstand as much picking apart as we can put to it. I am a firm believer that Christ will be found in the details, and there is no such things as pushing something too deep. I do believe that we can’t just be random and unbiblical about it. We have to make sure what we are seeing lines up with other scriptures. And that is exactly what this is! Thank you for you reading. For the first time I’ve been able to make some sense of the Tamar story!

  • I have bean stricken with the Scalet Cord ! It’S the most perfect red line any one has ever seen only God could make it.

  • I’m a Priest from the Community of the Crucified One in Homestead PA. We are a non denominational church. We believe in the Born Again experience,and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and all of the Sacraments. Getting back to the Scarlet Cord and it’s most effective symbol of salvation.Our Pastor was preaching,and I was sitting in the back of the temple directly in the middle in front of the Tabernacle and HE SAID TAKE YOUR MIND OFF OF EVERYTHING AND JUST LISTEN TO GOD! And with in a few seconds I was hit right between my eyes with this laser red light that went from the top of my head all the way down through my body and how I new IT WAS THE LORD WAS HOW STRAIGHT THE LINE WAS .It seemed like there was an electrical current coming off of both sides of the line and going threw my body.It lasted just a few seconds but I will never forget it. PTL Rev.Fred Cioffi

  • Have you looked up the word ‘scarlet’ or ‘chord’ in Hebrew? The latter word is also the basis for the word HOPE in many instances in the OT. Here’s a link to the word scarlet – the details of the scarlet worm really drive home the significance of the scarlet chord.

  • Thanks for that Rochelle. It led me to look into some of this. Though the word for “cord” is similar to the word sometimes used for “hope” according to the New International Dictionary Of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (NIDOTTE):

    Though possibly linked to, even derived from, the Hebrew noun [qawâ]…it is etymologically still uncertain whether a connection between [it and the Akkadian word for rope] exists at all… Other possible cognates under discussion are [the Akkadian word] qu’û(m), expect, wait for, and Syriac qwwî, remain, expect.

    So it may be similar to “hope” but the connection between the words is doubtful. As for the “worm” connection, the NIDOTTE again:

    While the color is derived from a worm, “worm” is never the translation of [šanî] when it stands alone. It denotes the color (Isa 1:18), and more often the color of thread: the thread that Tamar tied around the wrist of her firstborn twin (Gen 38:28, 30); the rope outside of Rahab’s apartment in Jericho (Josh 2:18, 21).

    I would say that the article you linked to is an interesting take on the scarlet cord, but it relies on some rather marginal understandings of the words in order to make it work. It seems to strain word meanings and goes beyond how specialists in the languages understand them to get Jesus in the text. So I think I’ll stick with my understanding: the scarlet cord meant nothing more than which home was to be protected.

  • “Also, we must ask if this was what the original author intended or the original audience would have heard. We must not rush to the sensus plenior before we have heard the voice of the original human author.” But we don’t stop there…we only begin there. There is also a divine Author and He is continuing to teach the Word to this day…in other words, we are also the audience. So interpretation requires BOTH the initiatory and the extensive meaning—BOTH the human author and primarily the Divine Author. And the human author is inferior to the Divine Author whose meaning we are really looking for.

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