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Joshua: The Story of Rahab

Joshua 2:1-24, 6:1-2,15-25

April 24, 2016

This story of Rahab never appears in the common lectionary so you may not know her story. I wonder why they told it. I wonder whom it was meant to benefit. So, why tell this particular story? Why is it in the Bible?

Rahab was a foreigner, from the Canaanite city of Jericho. She was a prostitute; today we say that being a prostitute is a disrespected profession. There is no mention of this in today’s reading because at that time that wasn’t so. Prostitution was a profession that held no negative connotation. I think that is important to the story because unless we know that we are likely to dismiss Rahab as an unworthy person.

It appears quite likely Rahab was an innkeeper as well as a prostitute. If so, then she owned a sizeable piece of property. This made Rahab an independent wealthy woman.

Very few women in the ancient world could make this claim. Rahab did not depend on her husband’s, or her father’s generosity for her livelihood. She earned it herself. This self-sufficiency, more so than her sexual practices, alienated her from society. The social structures of the day did not allow women to operate a business on their own – so there may have been other activities happening there, but we are not told what they are and so we can assume they are not important to the story. Rahab was a woman outside the system, even though she could afford to live inside the wall. It is interesting to note that her marginal standing is symbolised by her dwelling inside the city wall; she lived on the very boundary between the inside and the outside.

In Joshua’s world it appears that women have no voice and they have absolutely no say in the administration of Israel. The elders, the heads of committees, judges and officers are all male and all are summoned by Joshua. This is the beginning of a very patriarchal society and is different from what had been in place previously. Rahab might be someone who has had a past history of women’s power handed down to her. (Rahab and what it meant to be a Canaanite woman)

Now, Joshua is the new leader and commander of the Israeli military force and his first objective is to take control of Jericho, which would be a key centre near the heart of the
Promised Land and would allow for further military campaigns. Joshua feared that he faced the same problem that he had previously encountered: that Jericho was exceptionally well defended. So, he sent two spies into Jericho to investigate what was going on inside the wall.

These spies infiltrated the city and spent the night in the local inn, which doubled as a brothel. There they met Rahab. Rahab was in a position to collect knowledge. She would have listened to the gossip from men of many different social locations throughout Jericho and she would be an excellent source of information.

While the spies were at Rahab’s place the king of Jericho discovered that they were in the city. The king sent his men to search Rahab’s inn, but she was successful in hiding them away. Then she gave them the information that they needed to make plans for conquest. Rahab betrayed her own city, but she had a loyalty deeper than that.

One might expect Rahab to act out of self-interest, because she could see that her own town was about to be invaded and so she helped the potential conquerors in exchange for protection. If the walls held and Jericho stood, then Rahab would not have lost anything, but if the Israelites won, then she would still be alive, protected by the very soldiers that were destroying her city. It seemed a sensible bet, no matter what happened. Rahab was taking care of her-self and her family. She had taken care of herself before and she could take care of herself and her own no matter what else came her way.

Rahab did act in her own self-interest, but that was not the explanation that she gave to the Israelite spies. What she did was prove herself to be a woman of faith and in a somewhat lengthy speech, she proclaimed that faith to the spies. She preached proper worship of Yahweh to the Israelite spies. Remember, Rahab is pagan and the whole idea of one god would make no sense to her. But it would seem she understands what is expected of her. Much of her speech focuses on the historical doings of Yahweh. She preaches political concerns but her proclamation of faith goes beyond politics. She describes Yahweh as God in heaven above and earth below. She provided a clear theological rationale for her actions and in doing so, she convinced the Israelites of her place in their culture. She wanted the Israelites to believe her faith matched theirs.

In exchange for this leap of faith Rahab asked from the spies a price. Rahab requested asylum for her-self and her family among the Israelites on the day that they defeated Jericho. She negotiated quite fairly with the Hebrew spies, offering them the protection and the information that they needed and receiving in return, a guarantee of safety during the battle and long-term security afterwards.

In stories, everyone has a purpose and in this story, the spies must perform two tasks. They must identify the benefits of the land and they must identify whether, or not, the inhabitants of the land can be conquered. Both tasks are imperative because the Israelites don’t want the land if there is nothing in the land worth having. Nor do they want to go if they are going to be destroyed in the process. So they have to bring back proof that the land is worth taking.

When they return, they bring Rahab’s testimony of faith. This gives the city of Jericho value. Such is the power of a woman’s testimony of faith, even when the woman is a traitor and her actions are radically outside the norm of what women’s roles were.

It seems that the background of the witness is not important, but the proclamation is what counts. As the listeners of the story, we know that Joshua has already been to Jericho and he has already decided to conquer the city. So he doesn’t need much evidence to siege the city. But Rahab’s testimony would have had an impact, and meaning to others involved in the decision-making regarding war. They also brought back the information that Joshua had predicted: Jericho was well protected, but they could win because Yahweh was on their side.

The idea that God was on their side would have been the theology of the day. The idea of one powerful God who was looking after them. We have moved away from that thinking. We might now believe in the embodiment of God, an energy within that is shared by everyone. A shared power.

When the war was over, the Israelites kept their part of the bargain. Joshua let Rahab live as well as all her family and she kept everything that belonged to them. She has dwelled in the centre of Israel to this day, the text says. Rahab would be a dangerous addition to Israel.

First of all, she was a foreigner, a Canaanite. The Israelites knew God’s command to eradicate the Canaanites, but they were told that her proclamation of faith over-ruled any judgment that the community could pass against her. In their minds, Canaanites were not just an undesirable ethnic group, but also a nation of degenerate sinners; Rahab should have been killed.

Secondly, Rahab’s threat of treachery remained. She had sold out Jericho and now Israel accepted a traitor into their midst. This made her a dangerous figure, with the constant possibility that she could change her loyalties again.

Lastly, at this time, as things were changing, Rahab represented a threat to the community because she was a prostitute. There is no indication that she gave up her business when she moved in among the Israelites. In fact, the text specifically says that Joshua spared all that belonged to her, and that may have well included her business. In time, prostitutes were considered dangerous in Israel for several reasons. The oldest of all being that she would lead Israeli men astray and she might be a negative religious influence. (In the original the text reads,
“to lie with” meaning that the spies had sexual relations with Rahab). She also endangered the entire economic system upon which ancient Israel was constructed. She was a workingwoman whose livelihood did not depend upon a single man or family. That she was allowed to come to Israel was an amazing event – even though she made it possible for the spies to live and she was the bearer of information, this Israeli army needed. Israel accepted the contradictions that were put before them when they accepted Rahab.

Why is this story of Rahab in the Bible? Why did Rahab live?

Bringing contradictions into one’s deepest self in this fashion introduces an element of chaos. Rahab’s name is very similar to the Hebrew word for chaos, (to’hoo) and perhaps the text expects the reader to make this connection. I didn’t make the connection until I was almost finished the research regarding Rahab. The Israelites take chaos into their midst and they violate the order of society.

At a time when Israel desired to unify itself and at a time when men attempted an increasing monopoly on power, propriety, and order, they embraced chaos in the form of Rahab. From time to time it is likely necessary to take chaos into ourselves because it can have real value. We should not always try to control or eradicate chaos, because there are times when the breaking of rules and boundaries brings amazing possibilities for the spirit to work. We cannot hang onto order because it is through chaos that we see the world change.

I believe that chaos can be a positive energy. But there also needs to be much analysis and discernment done around what leads to chaos before we can identify the dynamics that will help us see our way through.

We must ask serious questions regarding a holy war, such as the one in the book of Joshua. The entire book of Joshua is about war. Rehab’s story raises questions about the obsession with war, and power. How many Rahabs were killed in the attempt to conquer the land? How many people with vision and loyalty surpassing that of the Israelites were destroyed in the attempt to establish a pure and unadulterated nation?

The story does hold up the notion that Rahab understood life in her context, and perhaps the value of chaos is the lesson that we take from it – that and the opportunity to teach a story of an enterprising woman in the Old Testament. These are good learnings. But we must also understand that the story is full of hate and racism, making this is a society, dominated by a newly constructed patriarchy. It is a story of war and warfare that is still happening today.

As I read the commentaries and sorted out what to share with you this morning, I had moments when I thought I was listening to the news. We are surrounded by these very issues. Going back a few years we remember clearly the demands made on Iraq by the United States. Iraq was pressured to conform, or be killed, and many civilians were killed. This happened under the guise of a meaningless argument, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so an invasion took place that has lasted for thirteen years and cost tens of thousands of lives.

It is chaotic, perhaps out of the chaos there will be order. Perhaps the whole Middle East, someday, will look radically different. We continue to live in the midst of chaos, with a war on ISOL wondering what good could ever come of that.

Perhaps there will be greater peace and order worldwide, a degree of peace and order that will make life more secure not only for the people of the Middle East, but for you and me as well.

We might want to ask ourselves if we are experiencing some sort of chaos in our own lives and whether or not, we can see that as an opportunity rather than as a problem. Our tendency is to avoid any kind of disruption, or uncertainty in our circumstances, but what would happen if we were to embrace that disruption and uncertainty trusting that it can lead us to something new, perhaps to something far better than the status quo we are wanting to hang on to.

I invite you to reflect on these questions as you move into the coming days. Maybe we have the story of Rahab so that we might reconsider our world view, and how we will embrace the chaos that comes our way?

(the references below are the full text of the books named)

Reclaiming Her Story, The Witness of Women In The Old Testament by Jon L. Berquist

The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Editors
Sharon Ferguson-Hood