This summer the Sunday ‘Breakfast with the Bible’ group at Chelmsford Cathedral has been looking at women in the Old Testament women. As a result, I found myself having to prepare a seminar on Rahab (Joshua 2 & 6.22-25), a Bible character who to my shame I had never studied in 49 years of ministry. And what a character she was!
She lived in Jericho, “the city of palm trees” (Deut 34.3). 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, Rahab’s house 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 boarding house manageress, but a prostitute (2.1). Her very name is full of sexual innuendo. The Semitic root, rhb, means to ‘open’ and in Ugaritic refers to female genitalia. In American slang, she was a ‘broad’. Her name, suggested Ellen Davis, was “an old soldier’s joke”. Indeed, 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 –this is also 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 clear in the Hebrew. For instance, 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 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 perhaps driven by economic necessity to sell her body.
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. For according to Pressler:
It is not implausible that a destitute woman like Rahab would identify more with the poor Israelites than with the rich lords of Jericho.
With this preamble, we spent a good deal of time examining the story, before asking ourselves: ‘What is the underlying theological message we can take from this highly unusual story? Some have highlighted the way God works through women as well as though men; others that God’s choice of agents is not determined by social respectability or power.
However, true as these suggestions are, the key message surely is that membership of the people of God is defined by faith and not by ethnicity. Rahab is one of faith’s heroines.
Her faith was exemplified in her response to the two spies: “According to your words, so be it” (Josh 2.21), words which were 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), In this regard 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 of the first Passover (Ex 12.7). Similarly, many Christian interpreters have seen the crimson cord as a symbol of the blood of Christ. However, crimson is not a colour used to describe blood in the Old Testament. To look at the story through the lens of the Passover or the Cross is not exegesis, but eisegesis.
Rahab’s faith was a simple trust in Israel’s God. 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).
We finished with some questions for reflection
- 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?
There was too much to think about in the half-hour available to us. But, unlike home groups where all too often the study ends up in a sharing of mutual ignorance or prejudice, all of us came away having learnt something.