Rahab: A Hero of the Old Testament!
Joshua 2:6, 16-24
6 [Rahab] had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. 16 She said to them, ‘Go towards the hill country, so that the pursuers may not come upon you. Hide yourselves there for three days, until the pursuers have returned; then afterwards you may go on your way.’ 17 The men said to her, ‘We will be released from this oath that you have made us swear to you 18 if we invade the land and you do not tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down, and you do not gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family. 19 If any of you go out of the doors of your house into the street, they shall be responsible for their own death, and we shall be innocent; but if a hand is laid upon any who are with you in the house, we shall bear the responsibility for their death. 20 But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be released from this oath that you made us swear to you.’ 21 She said, ‘According to your words, so be it.’ She sent them away and they departed. Then she tied the crimson cord in the window.
They departed and went into the hill country and stayed there for three days, until the pursuers returned. The pursuers had searched all along the way and found nothing. Then the two men came down again from the hill country. They crossed over, came to Joshua son of Nun, and told him all that had happened to them. They said to Joshua, ‘Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands; moreover, all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before us.’
OK, can we just get the uncomfortable truth out of the way from the very beginning? Rahab was a prostitute. Google Rahab, as I did this week, and you are overwhelmed by art and sermons titled “Rahab the Prostitute” or “Rahab the Harlot.” To try to learn more about the person beyond her profession I searched sermons about Rahab by female pastors, and it was more helpful. Still, it is tempting to identify others by what they do for a living, or what they do not do, or where they do not live if they are on the margins of the society: the unemployed/the homeless/the immigrant. The more difficult task is to think of people as individuals, and value them based on who they are, not by what they do or how they do not measure up to certain standards of polite society. We could ask: why are they homeless? Why did they leave their native country? Why is that person poor or food insecure? Why was Rahab a prostitute?
It certainly was not a glamorous lifestyle; there is nothing in the text to indicate that she was a madame of the most liveliest nightlife spot in the Red Light District of Jericho. The odds are good that Rahab did not choose prostitution as a profession at all, but that it was imposed on her by her family’s poverty or status. It wasn’t uncommon in her day for women to become prostitutes because of debt slavery. Owing someone money and being unable to repay it often forced the choice: prison or prostitution. The story doesn't say anything about that, but we do learn very quickly what Rahab’s priorities are: the safety and well being of her family. It’s not hard to connect the dots.
At the end of the Book of Exodus, Moses died on the mountain overlooking the Promised Land. Following forty years of wandering through the wilderness, the Israelites arrive on the border of the Land of Canaan, but it is Joshua, the successor of Moses, who will lead the conquest. Joshua sends spies into the walled city of Jericho to determine the obstacles the invading armies will encounter. The spies visit Rahab’s home to gather intelligence. Soldiers of the King of Jericho arrive at the home, having heard from their own sources that Israel’s spies were there. In a scene right out of STAR WARS, where C3PO tells Stormtroopers they’ll find Luke, Han and Chewbacca if they hurry up and leave, Rahab says to the soldiers, “‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.’” Like the Stormtroopers, the troops fall for it, and leave Rahab to attend to her foreign guests.
‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.’ The men said to her, ‘Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.’
How does Rahab, who is not an Israelite, know so much of their story? Did she subscribe to the Traveling through the wilderness newsmagazine? She is a Canaanite, having her own rituals of worship, and yet she affirms the God of Israel to be powerful not only in heaven but on earth as well. She is driven by the wellbeing of her family. So, she bargains for them: as I have shown you kindness-- the King’s guard certainly would have killed the spies and paraded their bodies through the streets of Jericho-- so you must show kindness to my family in return. They get it, and readily agree:
“The men said to her, ‘We will be released from this oath that you have made us swear to you if we invade the land and you do not tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down, and you do not gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family. If any of you go out of the doors of your house into the street, they shall be responsible for their own death, and we shall be innocent; but if a hand is laid upon any who are with you in the house, we shall bear the responsibility for their death. But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be released from this oath that you made us swear to you.’ She said, ‘According to your words, so be it.’ She sent them away and they departed. Then she tied the crimson cord in the window.”
Following the destruction of Jericho, we’re told this in Joshua Chapter 6:
“Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers we sent. Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, ‘Go into the prostitute’s house, and bring the woman out of it and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.’ So the young men who had been spies went in and brought Rahab out, along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and all who belonged to her—they brought all her kindred out—and set them outside the camp of Israel. Her family has lived in Israel ever since. For she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.”
And it’s not only in the Book of Joshua that Rahab is remembered:
“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”
“Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?”
The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah
“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse…”
Rahab becomes the grandmother of David, and the great/great/great/great/whatever mother of Jesus!
Putting together the Heroes of the Old Testament series, I was inspired by Vacation Bible School curriculum; you’ll often hear the stories of David or Moses or Jonah. The stories of widows or prostitutes aren’t usually shared. I imagined a child from the community, picked up by a parent, and when asked how the first day went, hearing this response: “What’s a prostitute?”
It was only this week, months after I outlined this sermon series, that I made the connection between Rahab’s crimson cord and the liturgical red of Pentecost Sunday. It makes sense: Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as pilgrims from across the world journeyed to Jerusalem for the Jewish harvest festival. The disciples shared the story of Jesus, and the pilgrims were able to hear the testimony in their own native language. Later in the Book of Acts, Peter is made aware of God’s intentions to share the Good News beyond the Jewish community. After baptizing all of Cornelius’ family-- Cornelius being a Roman Gentile, not a Jew-- Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Well, Rahab certainly feared God and did what was right! Her actions saved the lives of her family, and she is remembered among the great Old Testament Hall of Fame in Hebrews Chapter 11. The crimson chord of her faith hanging from her window recalls the blood of the Passover lambs imposed on the doorframes of the Hebrews on their last night in Egyptian slavery. Rahab’s story is certainly consistent with those whom Jesus often associated himself with, even in the face of the sideways glances of the religious leaders and his own disciples. Why are you eating with Zaccheaus? Don’t you know he is a tax collector? Don't let that woman who is blessing touch you! You'll be unclean! Don’t let that woman from town anoint your head in someone else’s home! What are you thinking? You can’t speak to the Samaritan woman at the well!
Rahab’s faith and actions, the scarlet rope hanging from her window, call out the self righteous behavior and comments of those who have access and privilege in the face of those who are denied a place within the church. How often have we forgotten our own sinfulness and need for grace when we do not welcome the immigrant or the foreigner or those on the boundaries of society? Rahab literally lived in the boundary; her home was inside the walls protecting Jericho from outsiders; yet Rahab allowed the spies into her home; not as customers, but as protected guests. We remember Rahab by her profession of faith: “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below,” not by the profession imposed on her by society.
I found this hymn by Edith Sinclair Downing remembering and celebrating Rahab’s story:
Remember faithful Rahab
who harbored Hebrew spies
by using devious methods ??
invention, intrigue, lies.
Along with Egypt's midwives
Rahab defies the king.
She lets men out her window
from which hung a red string.
When Joshua led the army
her family took refuge
in her house, lying low.
Rahab becomes the midwife
for a new Israel,
convinced that now God gives them
this land where they may dwell.
Can we, too, risk beginning
anew when God calls us
to act with faith for others
who place in us their trust?
Remember righteous Rahab,
ancestress of our Lord.
She lives with all the faithful
bound by the Spirit's cord.
We remember Rahab by her profession of faith, not by the profession imposed on her by society. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen