Lessons from Rahab the harlot
The Holy Bible is suffused with escapades of great men, and on the flip side, there are also incredible stories of great women, a couple of whom are even defined by the term ‘harlot’. Simply put, a harlot is a woman who prostitutes her body for hire. Other definitions of harlot include a common woman; a rogue; a cheat; wanton; lewd; low; base; one who forsakes the true God and worships idols.
In similar fashion to great men committing bad deeds – think Moses, whose actions led him not to enter the promised land – there are some really bad girls in the Bible who are capable of great deeds.
In the book of Joshua, we meet Rahab, a bad girl with a scandalous sexual history. This biblical heroine is better known as ‘Rahab the Harlot’. She is a prostitute living in the city of Jericho, but her residence is the outer wall, which is described as a place reserved for people who do not deserve to dwell near respectable residents.
According to the book of Joshua, when the Hebrews were encamped at the Jordan valley opposite Jericho, ready to cross the river, Joshua, as a final preparation, sent out two spies to investigate the military strength of Jericho. Rahab has an encounter with the two Hebrew spies who lodged in her house, and this dramatically changes the course of her life – and theirs – for eternity. The soldiers sent to capture the spies asked Rahab to bring them out. Instead, she hid them under bundles of flax on the roof and lied to the King of Jericho about their whereabouts.
Rahab told the spies that “dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in Heaven above and on Earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the LORD that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” – Joshua 2:9-13, New Revised Standard Version.
The spies promised to spare Rahab and her family and told her to mark her house by hanging a red cord out of the window.
“On this last day of Christmas (tomorrow, January 6, the Epiphany), we reflect on Rahab the Harlot. I have never seen an image of her in the nativity scene, but she is a named character in the genealogy of Jesus,” Father Sean Major-Campbell notes.
He points out that this foreigner and sex worker would not have had a ready welcome in today’s society. She would have been turned away at the border. She would also not have been considered worthy by Evangelicals. To add insult to injury, Rahab lied. Did Rahab fail in the ethical decision-making process?
Rahab, Fr Sean states, is not the kind of woman that self-righteous, religious folks would want at their upstanding parties and hand-raising, alleluia-shouting praise and worship services. Her reputation as a sex worker preceded her. She was a Canaanite who was not to be trusted. She was a barefaced liar.
Joshua wanted to get an on-the-ground assessment of the army in Jericho. He sent two spies whose work would have been most valuable in making an assessment to inform the fight against the enemy. Their protection and safety were, therefore, important to the mission that would lead to God’s chosen people overcoming the enemy.
“Every so often, reflection on the biblical narratives,reveals that God positively uses those we readily judge and condemn. We need these reminders in our world today. God uses foreigners. Foreigners should not be stereotyped as no good. Sex workers are also people of faith. The Book of Hebrews actually affirms Rahab as a woman of faith,” Fr Sean asserts.
He adds: “Welcome to reality. Even people of religious faith tell lies. This is not to excuse lying. Instead, it is a recognition of the teleological approach in the ethical decision-making process. Rahab told a lie that saved Yahweh’s men and redounded to the victory of Israel over the enemy.”
Maybe the things we might ponder for 2020 ought to include less judgement of people who differ from us. Maybe we might also keep an open mind about God’s capacity to use whomsoever God chooses. What if you heard that your pastor sought refuge at the home of a sex worker? How would you respond? How might your church council respond to a sex worker who offers to assist with volunteering to serve food at the treat for the homeless?
“Hmm. How interesting. Nowhere in the Bible do we see anyone preaching to Rahab and challenging her to say the ‘sinner’s prayer’. Instead, we see that the sex worker, Rahab, is saved along with her family in the aftermath of fallen Jericho. In fact, she is welcomed to be numbered among God’s chosen people. Was that not enough? Well, she is also named as an ancestor of Jesus the Christ.
“The story of faithful Rahab flies in the face of today’s bigots and self-righteous haters who are always looking for someone to condemn. Some of the most genuine God-believing people I have met are sex workers. God loves and saves them, too. And yes, God’s mission in the world may also be accomplished through them,” Fr Sean concludes.