Well, our little project now emerges from the wilderness of understanding the Law, along with the Israelites, who at the beginning of the book of Joshua are ready to enter the promised land. This momentous event has a woman in a key supporting role in it's narrative. Rahab the harlot (prostitute, sex worker, what should we call her politely??) is an extremely interesting and important character. When you think of Rahab, you probably do immediately think of her profession. But what surprised me as I read through her story carefully again is how very little her work affects the action of the story. Her contribution to the narrative would be basically unchanged if she were Rahab the weaver--though she would need an excuse to have spies staying in her house, so perhaps Rahab, the innkeeper's wife? This component of who she could trip us up, and frankly I'm not sure what it communicates about prostitution that this was Rahab's job. Surely no one wants to hold harlotry up as an exemplary field, even if we want to fully support and encourage the women who have gotten wrapped up in it. But there is no comment on prostitution at allll in Rahab's story, either on the vendor or on the spies who seem to have been purchasers. Though we will talk about it a little as we read, I think it's not really the point. What is the point? Let's dive in.
What we learn about women:
- Rahab is a prostitute, but this part of her life is not discussed. She is lauded for her faith and the help she gave Israel's spies instead.
- Rahab is the one who initiates the deception of the king of Jericho. She hides them and lies for them before telling them why.
What I'm wondering:
- Why is the morality of prostitution not mentioned at all?
- Did Rahab see this as her own rescue by God?
- Is she for sure the Rahab who married into David's line and became his great great grandmother?
- Who was in her household? Was she truly a prostitute living with her father, mother, sisters, brothers, and their families?
Spies in a safe house
We meet Rahab when Joshua's spies arrive to scout out Jericho, and come to her house to stay the night. This is a little jarring, I think. The previous chapter ends with Joshua encouraging the Israelites to love and obey God in the promised land, and their response of encouragement to him that they will do it! Hurray! Then the spies are commissioned in the first verse of chapter two and in the next, the "set out and came to the house of Rahab a prostitute, and stayed there for the night." Why did these men go straight to a brothel on their mission to scout the land?? Is it the thing where ancient hotels were actually just part and parcel with places of prostitution? I feel like I have heard that. But still, if you could stay there with or without the sexual services why were they emphasized, rather than the lodging, in the name of the place? This, as I mentioned above, passes in the text with no comment. I only bring it up to point out that if we are tempted to see Rahab as particularly sinful for her line of work, we should remember that it takes two to tango and the spies seem to be just as guilty.
With this more or less important detail touched on, we turn to the main part of the story. Rahab takes over as the protagonist for the rest of this episode. The king of Jericho finds out that the spies have come and that they have gone to Rahab's house. (The text says "someone" told him. Who? How did they know?) If we were thinking that the spies offered Rahab a chance to escape the destruction of her city if only she would help them, we were wrong. I love that helping the spies and even reaching out to them at all is entirely her idea. The spies are merely visiting her house, and she proactively shields them, hides them, and lies for them, acting treasonously against the military interests of her own people, before she even speaks with them about why she is doing this. She approaches the spies already knowing that "the Lord has given you this land," that he has acted mightily against Egypt and the surrounding kings, and that "the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below." The spies likely had no idea who they were staying with, but Rahab was not in the same position.
If Rahab knew all those things, isn't it interesting to think of what must have been going on in her mind and her spiritual life before the spies came? She reports that everyone is afraid of the Israelites and their God, and she is so convinced of his power that she is ready to act dangerously to align herself with his cause before she even has the chance to do so. I had previously thought that God was acting providentially in having the spies happen to end up in a house in Jericho where they would be safe despite their cover being blown. But could it be that God knew Rahab belonged to him, and actually sent the spies to her to rescue her rather than the other way around? The more I think about it, the more I feel like this must actually at least been part of his purpose. If what she says about her fear of God was true, can you imagine how relieved Rahab must have been to have the opportunity to join his side when the spies arrived?
I do have this one other question though. Could Rahab have been more crafty than it looks like at first glance? She would have been in a position to have "someone" tell the king that spies were in her house, then to lie and say that they left. Then, with the spies still dependent on her, she could have offered them her request with more on the line for them if they would refuse than if she had just approached them before they were discovered. Still, we could chalk this behavior up to true fear of the Lord. And her risk in committing treason to align herself with him was still the same. The difference would be a little more proactivity in assuring that the spies would hear her out and agree not to harm her. God gave her the opportunity either way.
When Rahab asks the spies to spare her life and the lives of her family, she does still have the option to betray them. This is mentioned by the spies when they depart and say they will not be bound by their oath to spare her if she would do so. But she instructs them well on how to hide for three days in the hill country. Then she helps them climb out her window, which is in the town wall, so they can escape the city. It seems like they may actually climb down on the scarlet rope that will mark her house according to their agreement, and she leaves it hanging there. Was it risky for her to have a scarlet rope hanging out of her window when she has just lied about not having the spies at her house? Like a bedsheet rope hanging from a prison window?? There is a lot of intrigue in this story!
After they make it for the three days hiding in the wilderness, the spies return home with the report, which must have come from the intel they gathered from Rahab, that God has given them the land and the people are all terrified of them. Joshua and the Israelites then spend the next couple of chapters solemnly and symbolically crossing the Jordan river and completing the circumcision of all the male population. They also celebrate the first passover in the promised land, and at that point manna stops being delivered because the Israelites will now eat "from the crops of Canaan."After Joshua receives a visit from the mysterious "commander of the Lord of heaven's armies" proclaiming that he is on holy ground, the campaign to take over the promised land begins, and the remarkable first conquest of Jericho takes place.
The feel of the conquest is not pride in military achievement, rather confident worship of God, who parts the Jordan so the Israelites can walk through, instructs Joshua to circumcise the men and celebrate the Passover, sends his angel to let Joshua know of his presence, and gives a very spiritual and supernatural method of attacking the city. Again and again we hear the same report Rahab gave, that the Canaanites are terrified of God and his people.
Before the walls of Jericho fall on the seventh day, Joshua reminds the soldiers not to harm Rahab or her family, "for she protected our spies." And after the city has fallen, he sends the same spies who stayed with her to go and rescue her. Then she and her family are moved to a safe place near Israel's camp. The last thing we hear about her in Joshua is that "she lives among the Israelites to this day." So at some point it seems that she must have moved from near the camp to among the Israelites. It seems clear that the Israelites took seriously her actions and her faith, and were committed to ensuring that she be repaid for her deeds and be protected as promised.
Later on in the Bible we hear about Rahab again in several places. Confusingly to me in my current level of understanding, "Rahab" is a name for Egypt in Isaiah, and Psalm 89, but I'm not sure it has anything to do with Rahab of Jericho. Where our Rahab is specifically mentioned is in Hebrews as an example of living "by faith" and, ironically, in James, as an example of being "justified by works." The faith/works puzzle is definitely outside our scope for today, but interesting huh? Also, the gospel of Matthew's genealogy says that a Rahab was married to Salmon, the father of Boaz who marries Ruth. If this was our Rahab, she is the great great grandmother of King David! It's is not really explicit that Salmon's wife is Rahab of Jericho, but the timing is workable, and I think people generally take this to be the same Rahab. So fascinating that King David 's grandfather Obed, son of half-Canaanite Boaz and Moabite Ruth, may have been 3/4 Canaanite. It would go to show that being a member of Israel has always been a matter of the heart over heredity.
To wrap up, I think we can celebrate God's rescue of a woman, not even a model ideal woman, not even an Israelite woman, who had real faith in him demonstrated through her action which showed more fear of Him than of the local power she was under. Following her example, wherever we find ourselves in status or culture, we can look for opportunities to start joining God's cause and getting on his side. And we have evidence here that helps us trust that he will provide those opportunities if we are watching for them. The result for Rahab was both her own safe escape from Jericho, and having a part in God's great work in bringing his people into their promised land.