Joshua 2 & 6.22-25: RAHAB: A WOMAN OF FAITH
Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral 21 July 2019
1. RAHAB THE PERSON
The story begins with Joshua sending two spies to “view the land, especially Jericho” (2.1). Deut 34.3 describes Jericho as “the city of palm trees”. According to John Goldingay, “Jericho is a stunning oasis in a barren landscape, a thousand feet below sea level, too hot in the summer but pleasant in the winter”. Goldingay likened it to a Wild West town, with the saloon doubling as a lodging house for the people passing through”.
However, the house of Rahab where the spies stayed was more than a lodging house. It was a brothel. Let’s not beat around the bush: Rahab was not a manageress of a boarding house, but a prostitute (2.1) offering herself to all and sundry. Her very name was full of sexual innuendo. Some commentators will tell you that her name means ‘hope’ however, the Semitic root, rhb, means to ‘open’ and in Ugaritic refers to female genitalia. In American slang, she was a ‘broad’. Her very name, suggested Ellen Davis, was “an old soldier’s joke”. Perhaps for this reason, the Babylonian Talmud says that just the mention of her name could cause the speaker to be sexually aroused.
Not surprisingly, some God-fearing folk have found her an embarrassment. Josephus, the Jewish historian, maintained she was an innkeeper – indeed, this is the alternative reading adopted by the NIV. But the truth is otherwise, as is indicated by the very ‘ripe’ sexual undertones of Joshua 2. This is not apparent in our English translations, but it is quite clear in the Hebrew. For instance, in the opening verse, we read that the spies “went and entered the house of prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there” (2.1b). The expressions “entered” (literally ‘come into’) and ‘spent the night’ (literally ‘lay down’) are euphemistic ways of describing sexual intercourse. Similarly, Rahab’s response to the king in verse 4 is said to be equally euphemistic: both verbs in Hebrew have clear sexual overtones.
True, Rahab may have been a reluctant prostitute. Some have suggested that Rahab was a widow with a family to support who was forced to turn to prostitution because there was no other form of work left over to her. Like many a ‘sex worker’ in the world, she was driven by economic necessity to sell her body.
Far from being a woman to look down upon, it has been suggested that she is a woman to be admired. According to Jerome Creach Rahab’s house was more than a brothel: the reference to the flax (2.6) and the crimson cord (2.18) indicates that it contained a private industry by which Rahab clothed members of her family. Parallels are drawn with the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31.10-31 who dresses her family in crimson (31.21) and works with flax (31.13)!
One thing for certain, Rahab was an ‘outsider’ – as Jenni Williams puts it: she was “living on the edge”. Prostitutes are never part of mainstream society. They are tolerated, but not accepted. Or as Carolyn Pressler wrote: “They were not outlawed but were outcast”. Rahab did not belong to Jericho’s ‘civic society’. Perhaps this made it easier for her to switch sides and betray her city. It has been said “It is not implausible that a destitute woman like Rahab would identify more with the poor Israelites than with the rich lords of Jericho” (Pressler).
2. THE STORY OF RAHAB
The story of Rahab and the spies may be likened to a drama with three acts, in each of which Rahab is the main player. I find it fascinating that we are not told the name of the king of Jericho –nor do we know the names of the two spies. Apart from Joshua (2.1, 23) the only character mentioned by name is Rahab:
- Scene 1: Rahab hides the spies and lies to the king of Jericho’s emissaries
- Scene 2: Rahab makes a deal with the spies on the roof of the brothel
- Scene 3: Rahab helps the spies to escape and ties a crimson cord in her window
Scene 1: The brothel (2.1-7)
Why did the two spies go to Rahab’s place in the first place? Surely there were other places that offered B & B? Were the men in the brothel for the reason most men go to a brothel: namely away from wives and home they wanted for sex? There is certainly no mention of the men doing any spying. On the other hand, I like the suggestion to Rahab’s place because they wanted anonymity – prostitutes are good at keeping confidences.
Unfortunately, the spies were incompetent and attracted attention to themselves, so that word got back to the king who sent some of his men to Rahab to demand she hand over the spies to him.
What caused Rahab to hide the men from the king, rather than hand them over? I’m not convinced by the suggestion that Rahab fell in love with one of the spies – after all, she was used to one-night stands.
Or was it that she discerned some affinity with the spies? She was an outsider – and in a sense the Israelites were also outsiders? Or was she just being a wise woman: did she realise that Jericho was on a hiding to nothing, and that the only way she and her family were going to be spared was to make a deal with the opposition?
Scene 2: The roof of the brothel (2.8-14)
Middle Eastern houses typically had flat roofs for storage. Flax was laid out there, because the roof-top was a good place to allow the dew to soak the plants. Once the king’s men had left, she went upstairs and there confesses her faith in the God of Israel: “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” (2.11).
She then proposes a deal: “Since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you will deal kindly with my family” (v12). Actually, this is not the best of translations: for the underlying Hebrew word here is found many other times in the Old Testament and is used to describe God’s ‘steadfast love’ (hesedh). Commentators point out that Rahab was proposing not just a deal, but rather a ‘covenant’ between herself and Israel. Or to put it another way, she wishes to become part of the covenant between God and his people.
This is why she and her family were spared. Israel had been told to “utterly destroy” (herem) the peoples of Canaan (Deut 7.2). Indeed, Rahab refers to the way in which the Israelites had “utterly destroyed” the two kings of the Amorites to the east of Jordan (2.10). But when Jericho fell and its people were put to the sword, Rahab and her family were saved – for they now belonged to the people of the covenant. We need to remember that from the beginning Israel was not an ethically exclusive people. At the time of the Exodus many non-Israelite men and women accompanied Israel out of Egypt.
Scene 3: The escape from Rahab’s house down the wall (2.15-21)
The escape from Jericho is possible because Rahab’s house was part of the city’s walls. It would appear, however, that Jericho’s fortifications consisted of casement walls: i.e. double walls which were sometimes filled with rubble, but other times partitioned off for dwellings. Rahab lets the spies down by rope from her window – and tells the men not to go east, where the Israelite camp was, but to go west, to the low barren hills beyond Jericho, and stay there for a few days until the hunt is over (2,.16). The spies confirm their promise to save Rahab and family but make one condition: “tie this crimson cord in the window” (2.17). Incidentally, the Hebrew used for a cord is different from the word used for the rope. The crimson cord would never have held the men’s weight.
Some have suggested that the crimson cord was the ancient equivalent of a red-light.
However, the suggestion has been made “this crimson cord” (or ‘this crimson cord of thread’) probably refers to a strand of bright material from which cloth would be woven and which the spies noticed as they were in the process of leaving (see Jerome Creach).
3. THE THEOLOGICAL MESSAGE OF THE STORY OF RAHAB
Various suggestions have been made. For instance
- God works through women as well as though men
- God’s choice of agents is not determined by social respectability or power (see Matt 1.5 and his genealogy as a whole). In the words of the Magnificat, God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones – and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1.52)
- However, the key theological message is that membership of the people of God is defined by faith and not by ethnicity. Rahab is one faith’s heroines.
Her faith is exemplified in her response to the 2 spies: “According to your words, so be it” (Josh 2.21), words which later are almost exactly duplicated by Mary in her response to the angel Gabriel: “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 2.38).
Her faith was exemplified too in her tying the crimson cord in the window (2.18),
Jewish tradition correlates the colour of Rahab’s cord with the blood placed on doorposts and lintels to protect the Israelites from the angel of death on the night if the first Passover (Ex 12.7). Similarly, many Christian interpreters have seen the crimson cord as a symbol of the blood of Christ. However, it should be noted that crimson is not a colour ever used to describe blood in the Old Testament.
According to Hebs 13.1: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace”.
James, arguing that “faith apart from works is barren” (Jas 2.20) provides just two examples of OT saints whose faith was “brought to completion by… works”: “our ancestor Abraham” and “Rahab the prostitute” (Jas 2.21-22,25).
In Rabbinic tradition Rahab was numbered amongst ‘the faithful’. She was said to have married Joshua, and seven kings and eight prophets came from her lineage. Similarly, Matt 1.5 names Rahab as the mother of Boaz and so an ancestor of Jesus.
FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION:
How ‘sympathetic’ a figure do you find Rahab? Would you find her easier to accept if she had run an inn rather than brothel?
- Do you think that Rahab did what she did more easily because she was not a woman living ‘in the centre’ (as distinct from a woman ‘living at the edge’)?
- What impresses you about Rahab’s faith?
- How can a woman of faith tell lies? Can Rahab be excused because she was lying ‘from a position of weakness’ as distinct from a position of power?