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De Profundis

What We Talk About when We Talk About Rahab

A chapter from the new book Vindicating the Vixens

Published on:
November 22, 2017
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17 min.
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Rahab had me worried when I started studying her ten years ago, because I was worried about myself. A female theology student at a conservative seminary that I love and revere, I had matriculated with specific ideas about women’s roles in ministry, their limitations, and their value in church. Truly, I had given no thought to the potential that my sense of self would grow or shift or freak out during my student days. When it did all of those things, I felt disoriented by my own anger and fear. Mixed messages flashed around my campus like heat lightning before a toad-strangling thunderstorm.

“I hope that God values and loves women in the same way that he values and loves men. Because if he doesn’t, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Consider the complexity of these statements: “Scripture bars women from preaching, so they shouldn’t be taught to preach. Well, maybe Scripture makes provision for women to preach to other women, and heavens, some of them can really do it. So maybe they could learn to preach as long as no men students hear them learning the skill.” Or “Maybe it’s okay for women to preach in church as long as they are under the authority of a male senior pastor and some elders who are men.” Or “Maybe when a woman talks about the Bible, it’s just ‘sharing.’ Maybe she could limit herself to a devotional or a testimony rather than a sermon.” “What about teaching? Is that different? No, forget all that because it misses the point: Women are born to have babies.”

The implications of these conversations wrenched my heart, but I was too scared to participate in them or contribute anything that could be taken seriously. The vitriol that sometimes accompanied these discourses made it much, much worse. I felt like I had been prepped for surgery but, improperly anesthetized, had awakened on the operating table to hear five doctors arguing about how to cut me open. I could hear but couldn’t move, much less say, “Hey, you’re talking about me, and I’m right here!”

Years after my graduation I found a handwritten note in the back pocket of a binder. It was to me, from me. During a class session, a beloved professor had encouraged us to write down something that we were wrestling with. So I wrote, “I hope that God values and loves women in the same way that he values and loves men. Because if he doesn’t, I don’t know what I’ll do.” The debates about women in the church prompted my pain and turmoil, but their source was much deeper.

During the season when I wrote that note, I felt both drawn and driven by desperation to study women in the Bible. In my independent research, I got curious about the women identified in the Matthean genealogy—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. I had read that their inclusion was based on a commonality, namely sexual deviancy. These women were given bad-girl status (how Mary fit into this rubric was never explained). But as I studied and prayed and stumbled along, a different pattern emerged, and a professional sex worker from the ancient Near East became my hero. I grew in respect for Rahab, but she made me nervous, too.

First, Rahab shows up in a section of the Old Testament narrative that can be difficult to navigate, especially for those who hold to a literal, historical interpretation of the story. Secondly, our main character is a prostitute (wasn’t she called an “innkeeper” back in the flannelgraph days?), and a story about a prostitute will likely include prostitution. Thirdly, in our time and place, the book of Joshua offends and confuses. It stretches—perhaps painfully—our understanding of God’s nature and intent, especially if we insist that the “characters” were real people. My tradition esteems the Bible and grants it authority. So what does it mean when one person’s interpretation points up and another’s points down, yet we’re all standing alone on the Word of God? Are we reading the same text? How do we disagree with people we love? What happens to our faith when we reject an idea we would have energetically defended ten years ago? My study of Rahab prompted these questions. Her life story couldn’t answer everything, but it really helped.

Locating Rahab

As I studied and prayed and stumbled along, a different pattern emerged, and a professional sex worker from the ancient Near East became my hero.

Rahab enters the story of Israel at an extraordinary moment. These Israelites have never been in Israel. They have followed a pillar of smoke and fire through the desert for forty years. They have buried an entire generation. They have experienced miracles, violence, and divine victories. With Joshua in command, the whole group has camped east of the Jordan River. And when the time comes, Joshua sends two men into Canaan to spy out the land with instructions to focus on Jericho, Rahab’s hometown.

We could call Rahab the Paragon of Otherness. She embodies the opposite of the traditional values held by the Old Testament’s original readers: She’s female, a Canaanite (Israel’s mortal enemy), a prostitute, and a resident of Jericho—the first city doomed to fall by the sword when the Israelites enter the land. She’s like a death-row inmate waiting for the needle.

The spies, on the other hand, are on a personal mission from the most powerful and revered Israelite alive. God has installed Joshua, made promises to him, and anointed him to replace Moses. So we would expect the spies to be valiant, righteous representatives of both Joshua and God. The writer of Joshua, though, skews the expectations that the reader has of these characters. Everything on the surface is true, but it’s incomplete.

Surprise one: flashback

You know how a TV show will give you a little flashback as a new episode begins—“Previously, on Lost . . .,” or “Previously, on Downton Abbey . . .”? As chapter 2 of Joshua begins, the text notes that the two spies are sent out from Shittim (pronounced she-team). If you haven’t read Numbers lately, the mention of Shittim might not produce an internal groan and sinking feeling in you. But an original reader would probably have thought, “Did you really have to bring that up? Things are just starting to go well. Now I’m dreading this episode.”

Let’s refresh. After annihilating the two formidable kings Sihon and Og (events that Rahab will mention as justification for her city cowering before the Israelite army), the Israelites nearly scuttled their future in the Promised Land. The author of Numbers notes that, while staying at Shittim, the Israelite men “began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women” (Num. 25:1, NIV). These Moabites have invited them to participate in sacrifices and feasting in honor of pagan gods. The flagrant insults to God’s honor and rebellion against his commands should make God’s people quake. But it doesn’t. And God’s anger burns against them with such force that he nearly puts “an end to them in my zeal.” So when Shittim gets mentioned just as the action begins in the book of Joshua, we might fight the urge to cover our faces and whisper, “I can’t look.” The author starts by mentioning Shittim, and before that single verse is complete, the spies are in Rahab’s house (see Joshua 2:1). Do you feel the irony? The spies set out from the camp and end up at a prostitute’s home in one sentence, with no mention of completing the task Joshua assigned to them. The text does not say these men did any spying or acquired valuable information. It does say that they were detected by the enemy.

Surprise two: language allusions

Not only do the spies sent on a task for God’s people go to a prostitute’s house, but the storyteller uses double entendre to emphasize the shadiness of their actions. A contemporary example might help us appreciate the details in the language. The 2000 hit movie Remember the Titans fictionalizes the racial integration of a Southern high school football team. The team starts winning games, and the team members gain status in their school. While walking up a staircase between classes, several girls swoon over the quarterback, who is known by his nickname, Sunshine. Another team member overhears their admiration. He tries to turn the girls away from his teammate by saying, “Sunshine is from California.” They say they know that already, but the teammate emphatically repeats the same phrase, “Sunshine is from California!” He means that, because of Sunshine’s sexual preferences, he will not return the girls’ affection. But that’s not what he says. His meaning is concealed inside his simple statement of fact.

Joshua chapter 2 is rife with this kind of doublespeak—a perfectly “PG” meaning on the surface, with sexual innuendo and humor close to that same surface.[1] In his excellent work The Faith of the Outsider, Frank Anthony Spina enumerates the author’s word choices in this passage that have double meaning. First, the spies “lodge” in Rahab’s house. The word “lodge” can be used in a sexual or nonsexual context in Hebrew, something like the difference between “sleeping with” a teddy bear and “sleeping with” the boss. Second, when the king’s men arrive, the writer uses the verb for “enter” (“where are the men that entered here?”) and the preposition “unto” (“the men who came unto you”). Again the double meaning is in play, but more blatantly than before. Additionally, Rahab’s name functions like the word “broad” in English, as a slang term for a potentially loose woman. The text does not explicitly charge the spies with the same sexual immorality their comrades committed at Shittim, but the writer seems to want the reader to accept the potential. Keep in mind, too, that the story has opportunity for the wordplay because the spies, rather than demonstrating stealth and skill, get caught. Without Rahab’s quick thinking, they’re toast.

Before moving on, the reader must consider a troubling question: Did the Israelite spies feel they had sexual license with the women of Jericho because these women were about to die anyway? Certainly, the spies knew about the divine injunction against all inhabitants of the land as it was decreed and recorded prior to their mission. Deuteronomy 20, for example, spells it out: “In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20:16–18, NIV). This command to leave no one alive falls between the mess at Shittim and the invasion of Jericho. The spies know that Rahab, a person under the ban, will be slaughtered in combat within days. Perhaps this foreknowledge buoyed the spies’ recklessness and informed the author’s choices when writing about them.[2] Rahab’s certainty of imminent death clearly conditions her boldness.

Rahab shines as the hero who has outsmarted every other character.

Surprise three: Rahab’s faith and confession

At this point, Rahab shines as the hero who has outsmarted every other character. She has successfully hidden the spies who were detected by the king’s men, and she has successfully sent the king’s men on a fool’s errand. In the next scene, she shines in another way. The bawdy language ends when Rahab joins the spies where she has concealed them on the roof. Before they go to sleep, she has some things to say. What Rahab articulates next should astonish us, beginning with her declaration, “I know the Lord is handing this land over to you” (Josh. 2:9). Rahab believes that she and her people will be dispossessed; she knows that God intends to give her homeland to the Israelites, and her people wait in terror. As proof that their fears are justified, she lists God’s mighty acts already performed to bring the Israelites to her border: He made passage for them to escape Egypt—right through the Red Sea—and he gave them total victory over the powerful kings Sihon and Og, leaving them “utterly destroyed.” She knows that little Jericho is a puny opponent compared to these now-dead, well-armed Amorite kings. So she and all her neighbors wait for the Israelites’ attack in debilitating panic. They are “melting with fear” (vv. 10–11).

As if this weren’t enough of a surprise, Rahab forms a sentence that must have disoriented the spies even further. “The Lord your God,” she says, “is God in heaven above and on the earth below”[3] (v. 11, NIV). The prostitute—the one introduced to the reader with jocular tone and lewd language—has just confessed belief in Yahweh. Imagine the expressions on the spies’ faces as Rahab articulates orthodox Israelite theology. Whether or not they came to her home for sex, her declaration must have shocked them. Then Rahab strikes a deal to save herself and her family.

Narrative bookends

The story about the forty years of desert wandering is bookended by several parallel events and images. At the front end, recorded in the book of Exodus, the people left Egypt through parted waters, the Red Sea. At the back end, as recorded in the book of Joshua, they entered the Promised Land through parted waters at the Jordan River. The bookends also included miraculous events—the ten plagues on the front end, and the fall of Jericho on the back end.

Perhaps the mirrored symbolism reflected in Exodus and Joshua can inform an understanding of the crimson cord in Rahab’s window (2:17ff). The deal agreed upon by Rahab and the spies depends on a sign to insure her safety. Rahab must hang a red cord in the window—the cord through which she helped the spies escape. If it is not visible at the time of attack, the Israelite army will be free to kill her and everyone inside. But if the streak of red is at the opening to Rahab’s home, it will ensure that those gathered inside would be safe, not unlike the lambs’ blood on the doorposts of the Israelites homes on the night of the first Passover. The symbol of safety comes with similar conditions in both instances. In Rahab’s case, the deal applies only to those gathered within her house; anyone who goes outside forfeits his or her life, just like the instructions given before the plague on the firstborn.[4]

As Jericho literally falls, the two spies themselves rescue Rahab and her family, fulfilling their commitment to her: “Our lives for your lives.”

Then what happened?

Rahab’s family was indeed rescued and, for a time, they lived outside the camp. As unclean Canaanites, they inhabited the fringes of the community, literally and socially. But the writer of the book of Joshua describes Rahab living “among the Israelites, even to this day” (6:25, emphasis mine). If only we knew the details of that story! The outsider had become an insider. Some traditions suggest that Rahab married one of the spies.[5] And we know from Matthew’s Gospel that she had at least one terrific kid, a man you can read about in the Ruth chapter of this book.

What Would We Lose If We Lost Rahab?

If the word choices and tone in Joshua implicate the two Hebrew spies in both potential sexual dalliance and mild stupidity while elevating Rahab to the role of unlikely heroine, what does that mean? The writer of Joshua, presumably, wrote on behalf of the Hebrew people, preserving the story for future retelling and remembrance, with the Israelite nation as the intended receivers of the story. Why include this episode? And, critically, what is the meaning of the story without Rahab?

Rahab’s story shifts the categories for the Conquest narrative. Without her, we have a story of ethnic cleansing.

Rahab’s story shifts the categories for the Conquest narrative. Without her, we have a story of ethnic cleansing. Every Canaanite is under the ban. With her confession of faith included in the story, we have proof that anyone, even the most unlikely, can believe. And the one who believes shall be rescued. With Rahab in the story, we see that God inspires belief in every category of people, and that he honors that belief.

Rahab created an alliance predicated on her desire to be rescued. She joined the Israelites. She chose sides. In the Conquest story, at least on the surface, it seemed easy to sort out the good guys from the bad. Rahab’s story has complicated that dichotomy with the muddied reputation of the spies and her own elevated character.

But there’s another reason to reconsider the binaries in this story. When the messenger of Yahweh appears before the siege of Jericho, a most interesting exchange takes place between him and Joshua (5:13–15). Picture these two army commanders face to face. With reasonable fear, Joshua asks this warrior, standing there with sword drawn, to declare his loyalty: “Are you for us or for our enemies?” Remember, this is the Conquest. So the condemned have been named, and Joshua himself has been chosen by God to lead the invasion. Wouldn’t we expect the commander of the Lord’s army to say, “No worries, Joshua. I’m on your side, of course.” But that is not what he says.

Instead, the Lord’s commander answers with a word: “Neither.” Then he gives Joshua instructions for conquering Jericho in such a way that demonstrates that the victory belongs to God alone. This concept—that God is for God—confounds the insider/outsider themes as understood by the Israelites, and it makes room for Rahab within the community of faith.[6]

Rahab in Matthew

Canaanites in the Gospels

After dropping out of the narrative in Joshua 6, Rahab shows up again in an unlikely place: the highly stylized genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Every authorial choice made in composing the list is intentional and highly nuanced, with Jesus’s ancestors arranged into three groups of fourteen generations each.

The inclusion of four Old Testament women in this list, including Rahab, should stir our curiosity. Why would a Gospel writer call out the prostitute-turned-proselyte from Jericho?[7] Suddenly, old ideas about these “bad girls” come flooding back to me, and I get nervous about the status of women in the community of faith. Could there be cause to put those old fears aside?

The writer of Matthew is up to something. Don’t look for Jewish shepherds at the manger in Matthew’s story. Rather, foreign kings kneel to worship Jesus at his birth. Later in the narrative, a centurion—a Roman soldier—requests healing for his servant and “amazes” Jesus with his faith (Matt. 8:5–13). Jesus grants this man’s request for healing-from-a-distance and tells the disciples, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (v. 10). Did you catch that? “Not anyone in Israel.” Matthew salts his narrative with the faith of Gentiles. “When we turn the page from Malachi to Matthew,” says renowned scholar Christopher J. H. Wright, “we have landed in a totally different world. We find the same understanding of God’s mission to the nations that we have seen breathing so pervasively through the Old Testament. But we also find that it has been transformed from . . . a missionary idea into energetic missionary praxis.”[8] The progression of Matthew’s story prepares the Jews to hear their new assignment.

Matthew is setting up his readers, the Jewish faithful, to accept cultural and racial outsiders—including the dreaded Canaanites—into the community of faith through belief, not blood. When we hit a story about a Canaanite woman interacting with Jesus (15:21–28) we might remember that this woman is not the first Canaanite that Matthew has named. Remember those women in the genealogy? The term “Canaanite” represents an old failure, detailed in the Conquest narrative. There shouldn’t be any Canaanites, right? Matthew’s choice to call this woman a Canaanite, in contrast with Mark’s term “Syro-Phoenician” (Mark 7:26), calls to mind specific hopes and specific griefs for readers of his time. Richard Bauckham observes, “Jewish nationalism was not only directed at the Roman occupying power but also at the presence of pagans in the land of Israel, which they polluted with their idolatry and immoral lifestyle. The Messiah, son of David, was expected not only to overthrow the Roman imperial power but also to repossess the land for Israel and to cleanse it by slaughtering or driving out the idolatrous pagans. . . . How relevant the narratives of Joshua and Judges could appear to some first-century Palestinian Jews, awaiting the leadership of a new Joshua.”[9] These specific messianic expectations—relating to the persistent existence of the Canaanites—might be in play for the disciples when they encounter this pagan woman. While her story shares many aspects of the centurion’s request for healing, her interaction with Jesus raises the hackles of the disciples. After all, like Rahab, she has nothing that might give her status or honor. At least the centurion maintained his dignity while asking for Jesus’s help, and he made his request on behalf of another male. This woman publicly cries out to Jesus, pleading for a powerful intervention because her daughter is demon-possessed. Jesus remains silent, and the disciples are not impressed with this woman at all. She even blocks Jesus’s path with her own body, kneeling before him. With the woman on the ground and Jesus standing, the two of them engage in banter through metaphor: Jews are children, she is a dog. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” Jesus says (Matt. 15:26). “Yes it is, Lord,” she answers. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v. 27). Then Jesus commends her “great faith” and sends healing to her daughter (v. 28).

Matthew is setting up his readers, the Jewish faithful, to accept cultural and racial outsiders—including the dreaded Canaanites—into the community of faith through belief, not blood.

But why is Jesus so rude to her? Like the writer of this story, Jesus is up to something. In order to solve this puzzling interaction, we must remember who is present. “Jesus is not simply dealing with the woman, he is also interacting on a profound level with the disciples.”[10] The woman’s boldness and faith create a learning laboratory for the twelve.

In this story, two concepts are playing tug-of-war. On one end of the rope, we have the mission to “the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus has used this phrase already in Matthew (10:6), and he has sent the twelve disciples out preaching to only Jewish listeners. Pulling on the other end of the rope, we have all those non-Jews demonstrating faith in Christ. Matthew calls attention to the faith of multiple Gentiles and Jesus’s ministry and grace toward them. Matthew seems to love this tension and highlights it as his narrative progresses. Wright explains, “Jesus’s earthly ministry was launched by a movement that aimed at the restoration of Israel. But he himself launched a movement that aimed at the ingathering of the nations to the new messianic people of God. The initial impetus for his ministry was to call Israel back to their God. The subsequent impact of his ministry was a new community that called the nations to faith in the God of Israel. This double dimension of the mission of Jesus needs to be kept in mind as we read the New Testament.”[11]

Jesus plays into the expectations of the disciples by rebuffing the woman as she grovels in the dust. But this woman, too, is up to something. Like Rahab, she uses a title of faith, Son of David (15:22). Like Rahab, she persists in showing her desire to receive God’s blessing. And she demonstrates some brains, picking up Jesus’s theological metaphor and claiming her place within it. Like Rahab, the Canaanite woman demonstrates the role of belief for incorporation into the people of God and God’s acceptance of anyone who believes.

Who is this for? Why would Jesus seem to insult her, and yet grant her request? And why would Matthew choose to include the episode? Like any good writer, Matthew knows his audience. He is addressing the question, “Who can belong?”—who can access the blessings of Messiah?—and he is blowing up his readers’ categories. Remember, Matthew will end his narrative with a command to go to all nations. The radical nature of the Great Commission must be felt with the Canaanites in mind, given the precedent set in this story.

Rahab’s life instructs Israelites entering the land in the Old Testament.

Parallels between Rahab and Matthew’s Canaanite woman

Rahab and the unnamed Canaanite woman in the Gospel of Matthew share a significant list of similarities. Both stories are imbedded in a time of Jewish expansion: Rahab, in the Old Testament Conquest story; the Canaanite woman, in a time of New Testament nationalism, during which the Jews resisted their pagan neighbors and longed for the coming of the Messiah. Some first-century Jews anticipated that this new Messiah would finish the task begun by Joshua, creating a connection of anticipation between Jesus and Joshua.[12] The geographical reference in Matthew to Tyre and Sidon recalls the Conquest narrative, since Joshua 13:6 notes that the Sidonians were yet to be driven out of the territory intended for Israel.[13] Both women use divine titles. Rahab calls Yahweh “the God of heaven above and the earth below.” The Canaanite calls Jesus, “Son of David.” Both women boldly ask for something desperately needed. Rahab asks that she and her family be spared from death; the Canaanite asks that her daughter be delivered from demon-possession. Both of these bold requests are granted. Both women embody an exception in what had been understood as a rule about Canaanites. And so, these women demonstrate God’s desire to extend mercy to those who wish to belong to him. And, both women provide an object lesson for the people receiving their story. Rahab’s life instructs Israelites entering the land in the Old Testament. The Canaanite woman does the same for the disciples and the nationalistic Jews in the New Testament.

The Implications of Rahab’s Story

Critic, journalist, and essayist Vivian Gornick makes this seasoned observation: “When writers remain ignorant of who they are at the moment of writing—that is, when they are pulled around in the essay by motives they can neither identify accurately nor struggle to resolve—the work, more often than not, will prove either false or severely limited.” With Gornick’s admonition in mind, I want to end where I began, with the motives and struggles that brought me to Rahab in the first place.

The implications of Rahab’s story for the church’s mission to outsiders are precious to me because, despite my lifelong faith in Christ, I felt (and sometimes continue to feel) like an outsider because I am a woman. I’m not claiming that Rahab’s story provides a clear line between the debates of our era (preaching, etc.) and the debates of her era. I will claim two things, though. First, Rahab and her New Testament mirror-image reveal to me the power of acceptance through belief. Their stories illuminate the gospel in ways that sting my spirit into fresh, humble appreciation for my own salvation. Second, Rahab and the Canaanite woman show me that the Bible elevates some women whom I thought—was taught—were debased. I reserve the right to learn something new when I approach the Bible and resolve to stay humble when I enjoy certainty. I remain in awe of their faith, their boldness as outsiders. The treatment of their stories in Scripture helps me resolve my fears about the status of women in God’s eyes.

Eva Bleeker
Eva Bleeker (MACE, MAMC, MS) holds two master’s degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MS in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University in the City of New York. She serves as a hospital chaplain in Northern Virginia.

[1] Spina, The Faith of the Outsider, 52–63.

[2] Fewell, The Women’s Bible Commentary, 72.

[3] Spina notes that the wording of Rahab’s confession in Joshua 2:11 is unusual in at least two ways. She is one of three biblical characters to use the phrase “on the earth below,” the other two being Moses and Solomon. Among the three, she is the only female and the only non-Israelite.

[4] Compare Exodus 12:22 with Joshua 2:17–20.

[5] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 37.

[6] Fewell, The Women’s Bible Commentary, 72.

[7] Bauckham says that all four Old Testament women named in the Matthean genealogy are Gentiles and are mentioned specifically because of their non-Jew status. In Bauckham’s view, this is the beginning of Matthew’s admonition to the Jews that all nations shall partake in the blessings of Messiah (Gospel Women, 22). Wright shares this view exactly (The Mission of God, 512).

[8] Wright, The Mission of God, 505.

[9] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 43.

[10] Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 219.

[11] Wright, The Mission of God, 506.

[12] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 43.

[13] Ibid., 44.

This chapter from Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible by (general editor) Sandra Glahn is used with permission from Kregel Academic. Profits benefit International Justice Mission.

Cover image by Janki Ferlic.

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