Rahab, the one who clings to God

Today is International Women’s Day, and Julie Clawson invited bloggers to honor this day by posting about a Biblical woman.

This is something I wrote as part of a paper on Joshua 2:1-14 for my Old Testament exegesis class back during my M.Div. I’ve been away all day, so am now just getting to posting. I had hoped to do a filtered version, getting at the heart, without all the details, but I’m away again in a few, and so this will have to do.

I apologize if the formatting doesn’t quite work right for the Hebrew letters and other stuff. If you’re short on time skip to the last few paragraphs, those are kind of the more important, I think.

The specifics of the terrain and city were not, however, the focus of the narrative. We are not told anything about the mission of the spies in their gathering of information. Rather we are told that having come to the city the spies met a prostitute named Rahab, and went to her home. The word for prostitute here, hnwz, implies improper sexual intercourse.[2] The more common usage, however, of the word is metaphorical, as an image of idolatry by the people of Israel, lusting after and committing fornication with other gods.[3] In the participle form, one who commits fornication, then indicates and is properly translated as prostitute in this text, an occupation clearly not sanctioned by the Law.[4] In thinking of this tale as an oral story it is not unlikely that the concept of the spies spending the night at the house of a prostitute was meant to add a little “spice” to the story.[5] Some, more prurient minded, scholars advocate the idea that indeed the spies did in fact stay with Rahab for the purpose of her “services”, but the text does not seem to make this a preferred inference.

The wording, though giving an impression, seems to purposely stay away from indicating any sexual relationship. The spies were not said to sleep “with” Rahab, and given the decidedly non-Victorian tendencies of the Biblical text, if this was a proper interpretation the text would be certainly more clear on the matter. Instead if one looks at the narrative from the perspective of the spies wanting to stay anonymous, their staying at the house of a prostitute makes clear, strategic, sense. What more likely place would travelers from the wilderness likely go to upon arrival in a city? Indeed, strategically thinking again, a prostitute may have insight into the city which would reveal not only the physical aspects, but also may have insight into the minds of leaders and important citizens, while not having a vested interest in the status quo. This is all conjecture of course, we are not told how or why the spies decided to attach themselves to Rahab.

v.2 The intention of the spies to stay anonymous, however, was not successful. In some way the King heard about the presence and mission of the spies from Israel, and was justifiably nervous. As was mentioned, the information about Jericho at this time is so scarce it is impossible to determine anything about this unnamed king, or any of the politics of the city. By leaving him unnamed, the text itself indicates his unimportance for both the narrative, and probably in history. This and the next verse are the only ones in which the king is mentioned. Even in chapter 6 when the army is capturing the city, the king makes no appearance.

v.3 The king sends for Rahab to bring out the men who have come to her home. Apparently, the king’s intelligence knew that the spies had arrived, and where they went, but little else. The king seems to understand, however, their fuller mission, of which spying out Jericho was only a part, realizing that, as Boling puts it, “Far more was at stake than the great Jordan valley oasis alone.”[6] If the king could halt or destroy the Israelites his own acclaim, and indeed survival, could be assured.

v.4, 5 This seems to be an awkward addition if the text is understood as simple history. If understood as an oral narrative, however, the location of this information here adds drama to the tale. The king’s men had come and asked about the men who we are told are at Rahab’s, but only after the conversation starts does the narrator tells us that Rahab had taken the men and hidden them. While the grammar could imply that she hid the men after the guards had begun the conversation, the translation of the verb as a pluperfect, “had taken” seems more justified.[7] Rahab had presence of mind to hide the men before the guards came, thus avoiding raising suspicion. The response of the men in v. 7 seems to indicate no suspicion was raised.

Her response to the guards raises an interesting question: Did she lie? Of course this is not a terribly large issue for those who see this merely as a narrative of an ancient people, but for those of faith, viewing the text more profoundly, the idea of a woman commended for her righteousness telling a lie is troublesome. Calvin wrote:

As to the falsehood, we must admit that though it was done for a good purpose, it was not free from fault. For those who hold what is called a dutiful lie as altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God.. Rahab… does wrong when she falsely declares that the messengers were gone, and yet the principal action was agreeable to God because the bad mixed up with the good was not imputed. On the whole, it was the will of God that the spies should be delivered, but he did not approve saving their life by falsehood.[8]

While many other writers agree with the sentiments expressed by Calvin, the simple fact of the matter is that there is never, ever, any mention of this lie as being morally deficient.[9] This has led some to attempt to get around the fact that Rahab said something to the men other than what was true.[10] Clearly the text does not support lying in general, but the presence of this accepted instance simply indicates the complicated structure of Scripture, which does not hold very cleanly to our clear lines of “do’s and don’ts.” The measure of true righteousness is something more profound.

Cities of course were places of refuge, so the shutting of the gates at night was a common practice in order to maintain security and keep watch on the comings and goings of visitors. Though some commentators find an implied divine assistance in the narrative,[11] Rahab’s story was plausible, spies would not want to generally be caught in the city overnight, especially if they were afraid that their mission had been revealed.

v.6, 7 She had hidden the spies among the stalks of flax which had been gathered and placed for her upon her roof.[12] Flax was a stalky plant used to make linen. It was one of the earliest textile plants, and would grow up to 1m tall, with beautiful blue flowers.[13] Boling argues that this probably was not cultivated flax, but a wild variety whose scarcity would indicate its price, as well as the rare chance that the spies would be able to hide among it.[14]

The king’s men listened to Rahab and pursued the two spies outside the town. The gate was, of course, shut behind them. Though some see a comic element in the narrative of bumbling aides and a nervous king outwitted by a prostitute[15] the indication is more of one of genuine, and realistic, fear by those in Jericho. The gate was shut quickly behind the pursuers,[16] because it was night, and because they knew a victorious army was on the other side of the river, an army which had utterly destroyed major cities already and seemed likely to do so again. The men traveled up the road along the Jordan to where the river could be forded. This may have been a ways away, as Joshua 3:15 notes it was the time of year when the Jordan typically overflowed its banks.

v.8, 9After the commotion had passed Rahab went up to the roof to talk to the two men. She had risked her own life for them and now wanted to make her position more clear.

While it could be said that this statement as a whole was a later addition, especially in its similarity with other Deuteronomistic statements,[17] it need not be the case that this is an artificial claim. Rather, it is likely that in the eighty years of their travels, the story of Israel had been passed on. Certainly, their recent military exploits would have been looked on with great interest and wariness by those in the land. Looking beyond simply textual criticism, this statement indicates both probable knowledge given the political and economic climate,[18] and probable understanding by Rahab given her response to aid the Israelites. She knew the fear in the city, and rather than striking out against it, she sought to join in with what she knew was the winning side. It is common to seek to see Rahab’s aid as somehow being an aspect of her place in society, and her willingness to join in any attempt to overthrow the status quo.[19] We are not, however, given motives but rather a declaration.

Rahab declares that she knows that God has given the land to the Israelites. She knows, from her own interaction and experience, that everyone is filled with terror, and are indeed “melting” before them. The word gwm literally implies a washing away, or melting. The image here is that of a solid turned to a liquid, that of a whole being broken down. This word, however, is primarily used in the Hebrew text as metaphorical, though the idea of a real “flow” or melting” is at the core of its meaning. It signifies the solid heart or courage of a person or people being “melted”, dissolving and breaking down, oftentimes in the face of God,[20] or a force of nature.[21] The narrative of the conquest it seems reveals that the loss of courage, and the melting of the heart of the enemy is one of the primary works of God in clearing the land.[22] Though the falling down of the walls of Jericho in chapter six is the more widely reported miracle, the melting of hearts before his people seems to be God’s general mode of activity.[23] Courage is the work of God in the midst of his people.

v.10, 11 The news of the Israelites and what they had done, and had done for them, was the source of the terror in Jericho. This includes the story of their crossing the Sea of Reeds, often translated as the Red Sea, but probably signifying not the larger body of water we now recognize, but a smaller part, maybe the Gulf of Aqabah.[24] In this, their god can be seen as the God of nature. Rahab also makes reference to the defeat of Sihon and Og.[25] Here the will of God was shown to be overwhelming, the defeat of these two kings showed that attempts to intervene in the plans for the Israelites would be met with destruction. Thus not only were these great military victories, they were, most probably, understood as indicating the power which the Israelite God held over everything else, including the gods of the Amorites, Bashanites, and Moabites. Essentially, Rahab recited God’s part of the covenant.[26]

The word commonly translated as “utterly destroyed”, Mrj, is a bit more complex than the translation indicates. The word basically means “devoted” to YHWH. Essentially anything “devoted” as such becomes wholly and irrevocably the personal property of God, and thus is holy as such, no longer available for use by humanity. These things, or people, oftentimes are then utterly destroyed if not specifically used by God. Their sacred quality may entail their destruction. God claimed the “holy land” for his people, thus those in the land which were not his “chosen” were removed from existence.[27] He is making a special claim upon the people or things and requires his people to follow the dictates of these claims. Rahab understands this apparently, and is seeking to be included among those “chosen” who are useful. She is under the Mrj already, so her goal is to become included within the covenantal community that acknowledges YHWH.[28]

What is a common refrain of covenantal language, so common in fact that most commentators see this as a late addition, comes from the mouth of a prostitute. Earlier in their time at Shittim, the Israelites prostituted themselves physically and spiritually, forsaking the covenant relationship to participate in unlawful activity. Here, however, we find one who professionally is a prostitute, yet turns from her profession and loyalty to the Canaanite people and religions, and claims the words of the covenant. The Chosen people turn away from God, while the rejected turn towards YHWH. This is revealed to be a common theme throughout salvation history.[29] Thus the story of Numbers 25 is reversed, leading to the salvation and victory of Israel. In making this claim, Rahab was asserting in action and words that which the Israelite people were called to assert in actions and words.[30] Their disobedience was highlighted by Rahab’s obedience to a God that was not her own. God is seeking for his people to make the same confession, for they too are “devoted” to God. If they would not confess the same as the prostitute Rahab, and instead prostituted themselves to other gods they too would be utterly destroyed.[31]

[1] Although quite important for this discussion, a fuller treatment of the archeological evidence of Jericho, as well as arguments for and against the veracity of the Joshua text simply is too extensive for this present work. See the excellent and concise article by Holland and Netzer for a more thorough treatment.

[2] see Gen. 38:24; Deut. 22:21; Numbers 25:1

[3] The literal and metaphorical meanings are often connected, one leads to another, as seen in Numbers 25. For more metaphorical usage see Ex 34:15; Dt 31:16; Lev. 20:6; Je 3:6; Ez 23:3, etc.

[4] Lev. 19:29; 23:17; Gen 38 shows the bias of the application of the law however. Tamar would have been stoned if she had been a prostitute, per Deut. 22:21, but because it was Judah who, unknowingly, paid her all was well and good. Numbers 25:1 indicates, though, that the Law in this case was intended both for men and women to follow. DJ Wiseman, as quoted by Campbell, apparently seeking to soften the shocking aspect of the story, as well as some Jewish traditions (including Josephus and the Targums), attempts to define hnwz as the equivalent of ‘barmaid’ or ‘innkeeper’, an immoral person — but not professionally so. See Woudstra, 69n.7, KM Campbell, “Rahab’s Covenant: a short note on Joshua 2:9-21,” Vetus Testamentum 22 (Ap 1972): 243; Greenspoon, “Rahab,” Anchor Bible Dictionary v. V. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 611. This is clearly not indicated by the usage of the word in other texts. Woudstra, 70 notes that the word, bkv, “does indeed have an ambiguous meaning and may be used of sexual intercourse, but in v. 8 it is used without such connotation. Some read v.3 ‘who have come to you,’ as having sexual overtones (cf. Gen. 38:16; Judg. 16:10). This is indeed a possible meaning of the phrase, but the addition ‘who have entered your house; would seem to be against that understanding here.” Boling, 145 following the lead of others, writes however that “the inn and the brothel have been found in one establishment often in the history of mankind, and where better to get information than a bar?”

[5] Boling, 145 writes, “Probably the narrator intends to titillate by reminding readers of an immemorial symbiosis between military service and bawdy house.”

[6] Boling, 145.

[7] See Boling, 145ff.; Woudstra, 70n.12

[8] quoted in Peter Barnes, “Was Rahab’s lie a sin?” Reformed Theological Review 54 (Ja-Ap 1995): 1.

[9] Indeed Rahab is twice in the New Testament commended for her righteousness (Heb. 11:31; James 2:25). See Barnes, 1-3 for other examples of disapproval.

[10] Woudstra, 71n.14 notes that Holwerda argued “that ‘truth’ in Israel is something different from ‘agreement with fact.’ It means ‘loyalty toward the neighbor and the Lord.” Woudstra, thus concludes that viewed in this way, Rahab’s words need not be called a lie. Barnes, in his excellent article on this subject, however, does not quibble over the word lie, but over whether this was a sin, ending his study on this passage with the comment, “truth-telling takes place in concrete situations, and cannot be treated as though it occurs in a vacuum. Kant’s commitment was not to the God of the Bible, but to an abstract ideal of his own making [Kant wrote “Truth in utterances that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of a man to every one, however great the disadvantage that may arise from it to him or any other.”]. Rahab’s commitment was to the God of Scripture, and also to His people. Her lie, therefore, was no sin.” Historically speaking, then, one could from this perspective say quite adequately that for German’s who were hiding Jews during WWII to tell the truth to SS soldiers would have been the sin, not telling a lie. Other examples of accepted lying in the OT include: 1 Sam. 19:14; 21:1015; 27:10-12; 2Sam. 17:17-21; 2 Kings 6:19; Jer. 38:25-28. John 7 tells us that Jesus said one thing, and did another.

[11] Woudstra, 71 writes, “it is strange that the king’s messengers were so quickly persuaded of the accuracy of this woman’s words and that no search of her house was instituted. The Bible is often sparing with indications of divine guidance over against human intrigue (cf. Gen. 50:20; 2 Sam. 17:14). Yet this guidance may well be implied by the narrator of this account.” Rather, however, it seems that the willingness for the messengers to believe Rahab indicates their own incomplete intelligence of the situation, as well as trust of Rahab’s loyalty.

[12] payment for services, maybe?

[13] JD Douglas, “Flax” New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. Edited by JD Douglas, N. Hillyer, RW Wood. Downers Grove: IVP, 1996.370.

[14] Boling, 146.

[15] See Howard, “Rahab’s Faith: An Exposition of Joshua 2:1-14.” Review and Expositor 95(Spring 1998):273.

[16] the ‘posse’ as Boling, 139 translates.

[17] See Butler, 31 “The one thing that does appear to be clear is that the Deuteronomist has introduced his own theological conception into the mouth of Rahab in vv.9-11. The tradition of the fear of the actions, the drying up of the waters, the two kings of the Amorites, and the divine title (12b) all bear Deuteronomic stamp. Verse 24 stems from the same source. Here then is pre-Deuteronomic literuature given a Deuteronomic stamp.” Greenspoon, 611 writes, “that affirmation, found in Josh 2:8-11 and thoroughly Deuteronomistic in language and theology, is widely regarded as a late element in what otherwise seems to be fairly early material.”

[18] Bright, 142 writes, “News of what had happened, and of the new faith that had come from the desert, cannot have been long in reaching western Palestine.”

[19] See Murray L. Newman, “Rahab and the Conquest,” Understanding the Word, edited by James T. Butler, Edgar W. Conrad and Ben C. Ollenburger (Sheffield: JSOT, 1985), 169ff. Rahab’s role here introduces a much larger question of the establishment of Israel itself in the land, and how much help they had from a large disaffected population. This question is much more complex to fit into this space offered here. See Bright, 133-143. Greenspoon, 611: “In a pre-Deuteronomistic stage, Rahab and her family may have been identified with that segment of the Jericho population that opposed the royal establishment and could be expected to respond positively to the invading Israelites.”

[20] Ez. 21:20; Ex. 15:15; Jer. 49:23; Na 2:8; Am. 9:5

[21] Ps 65:11; Am. 9:13

[22] Though as the story of the battle of Ai in Joshua 7 and 8 indicate, the Israelite’s hearts could melt in fear if they were not right with God.

[23] Woudstra, 72 “Dread accompanies God’s march through the world on behalf of his people.” Boling, 146 “The victory of the Divine Warrior is not achieved by the weapons in human hands.” See also Ex. X Z23:27; Job 20:25; Jer 50:38.

[24] See Woudstra, 72n.19, though he seems rather dogmatically assertive of it being the “Red” sea. It is the same term as used in Exodus 13:18 so whatever body of water is referred to here, the context is clearly that of the miracle of the Israelites crossing it.

[25] Numbers 21:21ff.

[26] cf. Deut. 4:37ff. Moses speaking, “And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today. So acknowledge today and take to heart that YHWH is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” See also Deut. 4:35; 7:9; 10:17; 1Kings 8:23, 60.

[27] See Lev. 27:28ff.; Nu. 21:2ff.; Deut. 2:34; Jos. 6:178:26; 10:28; 1 Sam 15:20, 22; Ezra 10:8

[28] This is important in that the unity of the Israelites is based on their religious confession, not political or social rules. George Mendenhall, “Ancient Oriental and Biblical Law,” Biblical Archeologist 17 (1954: 2, 3):36 writes “The one factor which held the tribes together at all was the religious bond which imposed upon them common religious obligations, not a common political law enforced by central authority.” Rahab with her confession places herself within that religious bond.

[29] i.e. the book of Jonah, Acts, etc.

[30] It seems that this would provide the reason for the inclusion of the story, in addition to the later reason of being part of David’s genealogy. Newman, 174 argues that it was a “security clearance” for Rahab’s descendants, but this seems unlikely. His other point, p. 173ff., that this story served as a typology of those that accept YHWH (Rahab) and those that reject (the king of Jericho) is more possible, but given the tremendously minor role the king plays, it is not likely he was intended to symbolize very much.

[31] Ex. 22:20..See also Dt. 13:16; Ju 21:11; Deut. 30:11ff. gives the Israelites the choice of life or death. As the “chosen” they either live for God, or do not live at all.

Here are some others posting on Biblical women today:

Julie Clawson on the God who sees
Steve Hayes on St. Theodora the Iconodule
Sonja Andrews on Aunt Jemima
Sensuous Wife on a single mom in the Bible
Minnowspeaks on celebrating women
Michelle Van Loon on the persistant widow
Lyn Hallewell on women who walked with God
Heather on the strength of biblical women
Shawna Atteberry on the Daughter of Mary Magdalene
Christine Sine on women who impacted her life
Susan Barnes on Tamar, Ruth, and Mary
Kathy Escobar on standing up for nameless and voiceless women
Ellen Haroutunian on out from under the veil
Liz Dyer on Mary and Martha
Bethany Stedman on Shiphrah and Puah
Dan Brennan on Mary Magdalene
Jessica Schafer on Bathsheba
Eugene Cho on Lydia
Laura sorts through what she knows about women in the Bible
Miz Melly preached on the woman at the well
AJ Schwanz on women’s work
Pam Hogeweide on teenage girls changing the world
Teresa on the women Paul didn’t hate
Helen on Esther
Happy on Abigail
Mark Baker-Wright on telling stories
Robin M. on Eve
Alan Knox is thankful for the women who served God
Lainie Petersen on the unnamed concubine
Mike Clawson on cultural norms in the early church
Krista on serving God
Bob Carlton on Barbie as Icon
Jan Edmiston preached on the unnamed concubine
Deb on her namesake – Deborah
Makeesha on empowering women

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