Reading: Joshua 2
This is the first in our series on Old Testament women in which we look at Rahab.
We have already heard part of
her story from the beginning of
Joshua 2. So to recap on that lesson and to continue the story:
Children of Israel have reach the borders of the
promised land and stop to consider their next move. They send two spies to Jericho. There they are given shelter in the city by
a prostitute called Rahab. Indeed when the soldiers come looking for
the spies, she says (in classic Hollywood style) “They went that way” whilst
actually they are hiding in her roof.
The spies make their escape and return to the Israelite camp – but not
before promising to Rahab that the army will protect
her and her family when they attack.
In due course the Israelites attack Jericho, the walls fall down and the city is captured – but Rahab hangs a piece of red cord from her window, the Israelites see the sign, and she and her family are saved.
The story of Rahab and the spies has been told and interpreted in many ways over the centuries.
1. The original story may well have been an ancient folk tale older than the Biblical narrative- a classic tale of an ordinary working class woman getting the better of the King and his soldiers.
2. The writer of Joshua uses the story at the beginning of the Conquest story to make a point. The point of the story in the Biblical context is to prove that you can trust God to have the victory.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why the Israelites sent spies in the first place? Normally in this sort of situation you send spies to reconnoitre the territory and look for the best place to attack. But the Israelites didn’t need to know things like that – when they arrived, you recall they just marched round the city and then God knocked the walls down – they didn’t need the spies for that. No – the purpose of the spies is to reassure the Israelites that God will give them the victory. The message is: look, with God’s help, even a common prostitute can get the better of the King of Jericho and his army – the children of Israel need have no fear.
3. The New Testament looks back on the
same story but gives it a different twist – It is now a story about Rahab as the model of faith (in Hebrews) and works (in
James) – again God is shown working through the faith and commitment of
ordinary people – so much so that even someone like Rahab
can not only be part of God’s plans but even appear (in Matthew’s Gospel) as
one of Jesus’ ancestors. Rahab for the NT writers is a precursor of Mary Magdalene
and all those publicans and sinners with whom our Lord eat
and drank –
“Amazing Grace, which save d a wretch like me!”
– God does not merely save but uses those who are sinful, outcast and marginalised by respectable society.
4. But then this same story has been read in modern times against the background of 20th and 21st Century history. And I want to offer you two modern readings.
4a. The first sees
the story of Rahab and the spies against the
backcloth of World War II. The Jews
are on the run from the military in ancient Jericho as 3000 years later they
would be in Europe. If they are
caught, not only will they be killed, but so will those who harbour them. It is thus possible to retell the Rahab story with a real sense of modern terror and tension
– imagine the soldiers of the King of Jericho in Nazi Jackboots – when Rahab opens the door she is effectively a householder
knowing that Anne Frank or whoever is hiding upstairs and that she is risking
her life for those she has taken in.
Or perhaps Rahab is cast in the role of the classic resistance fighter who works in a Paris brothel and is abused by her country folk as a collaborator – but actually she is gaining secrets from those she sleeps with and is risking her life to pass them on to the resistance….
Rahab then, the woman of faith and courage who risks her life for the weak and the vulnerable, helping them escape the powers that be.
4b. The second modern reading of the Rahab story sees it against the backdrop not of the 2nd World war but the subsequent Palestinian Israeli conflict.
Now the emphasis is on Rahab representing the Palestinians – those already occupying the Land when the Israelis arrive in 1948 (as once before they had arrived with Joshua).
The message is this – Yes, God has a plan of salvation for the People of Israel – but he also seeks salvation for the Palestinians as well.
When the woman of Jericho hangs the scarlet cord from her window to make sure the soldiers spare her – it reminds us strongly of the Passover in Egypt, when the Israelites painted blood on their doorposts so that the Lord would pass over them and not destroy them. It is saying that the Passover celebration is one which can be shared by Jews and Palestinians alike – it is a pre-figuring of the New Testament which talks of Christ as the Passover lamb and the new Covenant in his blood for Jew and Gentile alike.
So Rahab becomes a symbol alongside the Centurion and the Cannaanite woman in the Gospels of those outside Israel who
can still find God’s blessing.
She also becomes for us a reminder of our need to love and care for the Palestinian Community in equal measure with our love and care for the community which has invaded their land.
So we have a remarkable story which has been re-worked and reinterpreted from generation to generation.
It is of course a case study in the dangers of Biblical interpretation – the dangers of taking exegesis (reading the truth out of a passage) and replacing it with eisegesis (reading our own truths into a passage).
And certainly much of what I have said was clearly never in the mind of the writer of Joshua.
But much of the interpretation over the years has reflected not only the teaching of the NT – and as such may indeed be valid help to us in reading the story.
So as we reflect on the ancient ancient story, we might recall some of the great Biblical truths –
1. Never underestimate what God can do! Even the great Kings and Powers that be are no match even for the most humble soul who trusts in the Lord
2. Never think that God can’t use you – like Rahab and so many others on every page of Scripture, God uses the weak and the sinful – and that includes you and me.
3. Give thanks for the faith of those who have gone before us and have been willing to risk all for God’s work – May we not only give thanks for their example but also follow it.
4. God calls us to protect the poor and the vulnerable – even if in so doing we risk our lives – for in so doing we work for one who said that to lose ones life was the ultimate way to gain it
5. Remember that God cares for all people of every race and clan – and that ultimately his salvation is offered to all – to American and Iraqi, Russian and Chechen, Serb and Bosnian, Christian and Moslem, Jew and Palestinian.
So in conclusion -
often we sing of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob -
Let is too give thanks for the God of Rahab,
and pray that like her
we may be God’s humble but powerful servants.
Hymn SOF 40 “Be still”
Prayers (MWB p.185)
2:1-7 (p. 216)
Matthew 5:13-16 (p.969)
Hymn 62 “Captain of Israel’s Host”
Prayers and Lord’s Prayer (MWB p.188)
Hymn 610 “I come with joy”
Holy Communion (MWB p. 191)
Hymn 642 “Glory to thee”