Lavonne van der Zwaag
December 4, 2022
This is the second Sunday we are looking into the lives of the named women in Jesus’ lineage as listed in Matthew 1. Today we are hearing the story of Rahab. Once again, we’re reminded that our ancestry can include stories that are hard to hear or understand. Unlike Tamar’s story last week, Rahab doesn’t just pretend to be a prostitute; she WAS a prostitute. People like to look to Rahab’s story as being about redemption from a sinful existence to a Godly life. People believe her story shows that God had a plan for Rahab’s life and she was rescued because she chose to do God’s will. I propose that her story isn’t that straight-forward.
In articles that I found about Rahab, there was some conjecture about whether Rahab lived in poverty as an outcast in the margins of Canaanite society; or whether she was a successful business woman, a madam of sorts, whose services were sought out by men in high and powerful places. Some proposed that she was an innkeeper and provided additional services to wealthy merchants seeking companionship while they were “on the road”. Some proposed that she might have even owned a second business which might explain why she had all that flax on her rooftop which effectively hid the spies.
After reading about Rahab and looking more closely into her life, I find her to be a complex and interesting character. Whether she was a poor prostitute that was living life on the edge of poverty or a successful business woman, we can assume that Rahab’s profession and status as a single head-of-household definitely meant she lived outside of the social mores of her community. She was not a respectable member of society. She was most definitely an outcast living life in the margins of her world.
What makes Rahab so interesting is her ability to see and act on her options. She was a decisive woman who knew a good opportunity when she saw it and claimed it not only for herself but her whole family. She had to make a split-second decision to hide the spies when the king’s men came searching for them. It made me wonder if that decision was out of a desire to protect these two Israelites because she already believed in their God or because she saw this as a possible opportunity? Did she already know of their intentions?
Rahab was an intelligent woman. She was probably also shrewd and maybe even manipulative. Even though she lived in a community that was walled off from the rest of the world, she had ways of learning what was happening outside of those walls and within her community. She understood the value of this information and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of it.
Rahab was a spiritual seeker as well. Long before those spies showed up on her doorstep, she had contemplated the Israelite’s God. She recognized God’s presence in the lives of the Israelites. She knew that God had parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape their own captivity. She knew God protected them when traveling through other kingdoms. Whether this resulted in Rahab seeking a greater awareness of God in her personal life, we don’t know. We do see how she opened herself up to becoming a part of a new community that worshipped and found favor with the Hebrew God.
I wonder, did the spies reveal to Rahab their plans for Jericho or did she figure out that out based on the circumstances of their presence within Jericho’s walls? Regardless, Rahab capitalized on this knowledge with a determination to pursue promises from these men. She committed herself to ensuring their safety and eagerly agreed to their terms. She put her faith in the God that was directing the Israelites to conquer Canaan - her own homeland.
Think about this. Despite living with the stigma of being a prostitute and being outside of what was acceptable in her community, Rahab didn’t waste time with thoughts of whether she was worthy of being saved. She not only petitioned for her own rescue but also the safe passage of her family out of Jericho. That takes some hutzpah. It was one thing for her to ask for her own life to be saved but she also was courageous (or was it presumptuous) enough to also demand the safe passage of her parents, her siblings and all the people within their households. She risked everything to save the lives of these two spies; and in turn, procured the safety of herself and her family.
Perhaps what was most intriguing to me is that this Canaanite woman (a Gentile) does apparently change the course of her life securing a place in history – in Jesus own lineage. I wondered about what Rahab’s life was like after her rescue. I found hints of this in several places.
Joshua 6:25 tells us “Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.” The storyteller wants us to know that Rahab continues to be a part of their community. Some reports indicate that she married Joshua. Matthew 1:5 says that Rahab was married to Salmon. We then learn that Rahab and Salmon were the parents of Boaz.
Boaz, the man who showed such compassion and generosity to Ruth when she and her mother-in-law needed food. Boaz, who ended up marrying Ruth (another Gentile).
In the story of Ruth, we see that Boaz must have learned a few things from his mother.
• Like not judging a book by its cover or being confined by society’s rules.
• Like hospitality, generosity and being empathetic to the plight of two widows living in poverty.
• Like caring for the marginalized outside of his social circles.
• Like seizing the moment.
Boaz’ life strongly suggests that Rahab not only left her life of prostitution but that she fully embraced a new life that reflected a Godly heart and an open spirit. It is possible to see that the qualities that helped Rahab survive and maybe even thrive in Jericho also remain a part of who she might have been as an immigrant living with the Israelites.
SO…I had to wonder - was it Rahab who changed, or was it her new life with the Israelites that made this change possible?
Dr. Amy Cooper Robertson has an intriguing article that suggests that Rahab was forced into prostitution at an early age and that she made the most of the systemic power structures that were available to her in Jericho. She probably learned how to develop a “wide network of connections” which she utilized to be the best at what she did. Dr Robertson suggests that rather than Rahab being a redeemed sinner who saw 4 the error of her ways, she was instead saved by a change in her life circumstances (emphasis mine). Dr Robertson writes:
“It is more realistic to imagine that, at her core, Rahab has herself changed very little. Instead, the world around her changed – thanks in part to her savvy and bravery – and these changes meant she was no longer stuck in her social role.”
Dr. Robertson invites us to contemplate the power structures at work in our own society. She concludes, “A person’s circumstances and relative privilege (or lack thereof) [can] have at least as much influence as our moral core on the life path we walk. When an individual has few viable choices for livelihood, attaching moral judgment to what seems an unseemly path can easily lead to inappropriate assessments of character.” (https://www.thetorah.com/article/rahab-the-faithful-harlot)
I found that Rahab’s story asks more questions than providing us details or answers. Still the pieces of her that are scattered throughout the Torah and the Old and New Testaments reveal an intriguing woman who definitely deserved being named in religious scriptures where women are rarely mentioned much less named.