Horizons 3 — “What My Grandmothers Taught Me”

Lesson 3: Rahab
(Joshua 2; 6:22-25)

The 1990 movie, “Pretty Woman,” features a young prostitute, Vivian, who gets involved with a very wealthy corporate raider, Edward. Edward buys struggling companies, breaks them up and sells off their various parts — and in the process makes tremendous profit. Vivian is young, poorly educated and turns to prostitution to escape her abusive family. Ironically, Vivian sees people more clearly than Edward does.

Rahab, in Joshua 2, is also a prostitute who survives on the margins of society and is able to see reality clearly. The likely reason that Rahab turns to prostitution is poverty. Perhaps she is a widow with no means of support, or the only able-bodied member of the family, or she may be trying to pay off a family debt. In any event, in the face of extreme poverty and needing to provide for her family, only two options were available to her: prostitution or to be sold as a slave.

People in extreme poverty make desperate choices even today. Believing that they are going to decent paying jobs in another country, people are lured into and then forced to work long hours in occupations that are low skill and poorly regulated, with meager or no pay. Also desperate for work and promised jobs, women, children and men are entrapped in the sex trade worldwide.

Rahab’s story is one of survival. She does what she has to do to protect her family. When two Hebrew spies come to her establishment, Rahab accurately deduces that Jericho is on Israel’s radar and will suffer destruction as have other cities. Rahab then outsmarts two groups of men who have the power to destroy her: the deputies and the king, and the spies.

Prostitutes were usually found at the local saloon where regular customers and strangers would gather to drink beer. Travelers would also find lodging there. Canaanite cites, like Jericho, were small and independent and, as John Goldingay notes in his commentary, their king was more like a sheriff or a mayor. Knowing that the Israelites are nearby, the king has deputies out everywhere “keeping an eye open for suspicious-looking strangers, one of whom will be on permanent stakeout duty across the street from Rahab’s establishment.”

Watchful, Rahab sees the deputies nosing about in the street and has hidden the spies on her roof in bundles of flax. When the king’s deputies come to her house, Rahab plays dumb, admitting that two strangers were her customers but she didn’t exactly get their names. Rahab informs the deputies that the spies have just left, telling them, “Better run and you can catch them!”

The Israelite spies have to remain in hiding. The city’s gates are closed, effectively locking the spies within. In conversation with the trapped spies, Rahab extracts a deal. Rahab describes how the God of Israel dried up the waters of the Red Sea for Israel to escape slavery, destroyed two Canaanite city-states and has given the land to Israel. Rahab asks them to pledge by their God that they will show mercy to her and her family as she has shown mercy to them. The spies make the commitment to save Rahab and all her family when Israel comes to take Jericho. Then, Rahab uses a rope to lower the spies to the ground outside the walls so the outlaw spies can escape to the hills.

If we had a prostitute in our family tree, we would likely sweep such knowledge under the carpet. Sex workers were and still are viewed with contempt. Why then does Rahab make it into the family tree of Jesus?

In Hebrews 11:31, Rahab is understood as a person who walks by faith. Rahab makes a confession of faith that is central to the book of Joshua: God is the Lord of heaven and earth and it is God who is giving the land to Israel.

Rahab is a person of hesed, that is, steadfast love. The Hebrew word hesed means “steadfast love, commitment, loyalty, kindness, mercy, goodness and going beyond the call of duty.” When seeking a pledge of protection from the Hebrew spies, Rahab says, “Now then, since I have dealt kindly (hesed) with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly (hesed) with my family.” Rahab demonstrates hesed to her family and also to the spies.

Rahab also reminds us that God chooses people whom we would not choose to further God’s purposes. Moses was a murderer. Paul was a fanatical persecutor of the followers of Jesus. Mary Magdalene had seven evil spirits. Rahab was a harlot. Our judgments of people are not God’s assessment.

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