This week we’ll be getting to know our second Wonder Woman of Jesus’ genealogy according to Matthew. Her name is Rahab. Our Scripture passage has part of her story, and you probably remember some of the rest of it. She’s the Bible version of the prostitute with a heart of gold—the kind of character we find in old westerns and detective stories and Julia Roberts’ role in “Pretty Woman.” In fact, she may have been a model for this stock movie character: a supposedly immoral woman with a hidden integrity and kindness who demonstrates virtues lacking in more supposedly moral folks.
In the movies, many of these ladies of the night find themselves leading the life they lead only reluctantly. They’ve been forced into their role by others who are more powerful than they. Or they have turned to it out of some kind of desperate need. This may have been the case for Rahab.
Sometimes Rahab is painted as a wealthy courtesan, but that is unlikely. Poverty was the most common cause of prostitution in the ancient world, just as it is today. There is nothing in Scripture that suggests that she owns the house she and her family live in. Her entire family is depending on her to provide for them. It may be that Rahab’s family had become the victims of debt slavery—forced to do whatever they could to satisfy their creditors, even if that meant selling one’s own body.
The Israelite spies arrive at Rahab’s house—a place where men come and go as a matter of course. They figure that will make Rahab’s house a safe base for their espionage work, a place where they can work under the radar. But the king of Jericho has spies, too. The presence of the infiltrators is made known to the king, and he sends his henchmen to Rahab with orders to turn the men over.
But Rahab does something incredibly daring. She hides the men on her roof under stalks of flax. Then she tells a bare-faced lie to the king’s men. She says, “Oh my goodness! Yes, they came here, but I didn’t know who they were or why they were here. They left about the time the city gates were being closed for the night. I don’t know where they are, but you’d better go after them right away! If you move fast, you can probably catch up to them.” And that’s what her countrymen did.
Here’s something interesting that I had always missed in this story. Rahab’s act of kindness (or craftiness or treason, depending on your point of view) came before she had worked out any deal with the spies. She hid them first, at great risk to her own life. She lied to the king’s men before she had done any wheeling and dealing with the Israelites. She sent the kings’ men on a fool’s errand before she had any assurances that this action on her part would ensure her safety or the safety of her family.
After the king’s men have taken off, Rahab climbs to the roof. Scripture tells us this was before the men went to sleep (although I can’t imagine some foreign spies hiding out on the roof of an enemy citizen could get much sleep). There on that roof, Rahab makes a startling statement. This Canaanite woman, a woman who is one of the people who have been slated for destruction, shows a remarkable knowledge of what God has done in the past. She knows about the Red Sea drying up as the Hebrews escaped from Egypt, forty-some years earlier. She knows about what happened to King Sihon of the Amorites and King Og of Bashan, and she knows that it is with good reason that her countrymen and women have lost all courage. And from this she has come to a life-changing understanding: that the Lord of the Israelites “is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.” Only after making this statement of faith does she negotiate her family’s safety with the spies.
Rahab and the spies work out a plan. She ties a red cord in a window in the outer wall of the city to mar where she lives, and through that window she lowers the spies to the ground and to freedom. She advises them to hide in the hills for three days until the coast is clear. All goes according to plan, and the spies make it back to Joshua.
Some days later, Joshua readies his people to attack Jericho. In his instructions, he confirms that Rahab and all those in her household are not to be harmed. As the horns blare, the people shout, and Jericho’s walls come tumbling down, Joshua sends the same two spies to Rahab’s house with orders to bring out all her household. They escort Rahab and her family out and, Scripture tells us, “set them outside the camp of Israel.”
I wonder what Rahab was thinking about as she sat in that camp, with her family safe around her, watching and listening as Jericho and all its contents, including animals and people, burned to the ground. Maybe she felt some shame over the part she had played in its destruction. Maybe she felt some survivor’s guilt as she thought about people she knew and perhaps cared about, still within the city walls. But maybe she also felt a tremendous sense of relief, that her life as a slave to her family’s creditors was over. And maybe she felt tremendous gratitude to the God she had discovered, the One who was God in heaven above and on earth below.
What I’m sure she wasn’t thinking about was how her faithfulness to the God of Israel would earn her a place in the story of God’s people. I’m sure she had no idea that her story would be written down hundreds of years later during the time of King David, or that after several more centuries her story would give hope to the subjects of King Josiah as he sought to follow the covenant in ways that would alleviate grinding poverty and do away with the kind of debt slavery Rahab likely endured.
She wouldn’t have imagined that the Messiah would be born of her family tree, and that his followers would one day point to her as a heroine in the faith. Certainly she wouldn’t have been thinking of us, more than three millennia later, looking to her for insight into the wonder of the kingdom of God and the one who makes it possible for us to enter it.
So, what does Rahab’s story reveal to us? What questions does her story challenge us to ask as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the King?
First, Rahab’s story reminds us of who is welcomed into the kingdom of God. Once again, it’s the outsider who shows what faithfulness looks like. A Canaanite, a woman, a prostitute, one of the poor and the powerless—Rahab reminds us that God’s kingdom is full of those whom the world considers beneath notice.
Her grandson Jesus would make this clear at his birth and in his life: his birthplace an animal pen in a backwater village, his mother a peasant girl and his foster father a tradesman, his first visitors a bunch of shepherds in weather-worn clothing smelling of sheep. Later he would visit the homes of tax collectors as often as he visited the Pharisees. He would heal Samaritans and Romans and Jews alike. He would offer forgiveness to convicted criminals hanging beside him on the cross, just as he would offer it to his own disciple Peter, and to us. Rahab reminds us of the wonder of God’s abundant love and acceptance, made visible in the human form and life of Jesus.
Rahab reminds us that God often chooses surprising messengers to offer us insight and revelation. We might have expected the spies from God’s own people to offer their testimony to God’s greatness, but they never did. We certainly wouldn’t have expected words of witness to God’s sovereignty over all creation from a poor Canaanite woman who supports her family by working as a prostitute. No person would have taught her this. It had to have been revealed to her. And this unlikely witness was not shy about speaking what she knew to be true.
How often do we blow off an unlikely messenger because they don’t fit our idea of who qualifies as God’s ambassadors? Who are the people we grudgingly put up with, but keep at a comfortable distance outside our camp, as the Israelites did with Rahab and her family?
Maybe it’s a person whose color or religion or accent is different from ours, or the household that doesn’t fit our idea of a proper family. Maybe it’s the person begging at the traffic light near the mall, or the relative you dread seeing at your Christmas get-together. Maybe it’s the annoying co-worker or the neighbor with the abusive spouse or the child whom you think must lay awake nights just thinking of new ways to upset you.
What would change in our relationship with them, and with Jesus, if we began to look at each of these individuals as possible Rahab’s—people whom Jesus might choose as messengers of his kingdom? What would change in us if we let them into our camp and allowed them to speak a word of grace to us?
One word in the conversation between Rahab and the spies reveals a great deal about the kingdom that came near when Jesus was born and that we are preparing to receive in all its fullness when Jesus comes again. That word in Hebrew is chêsêd, and we find it in verses 12 and 14. One of its meanings is “kindness.” Rahab and the spies speak of how she has treated them with kindness—with chêsêd. But this word is rich in meaning. It also means goodness and faithfulness. It can mean abundant favor, mercy, pity, devotion, loveliness, loyalty, righteousness, constant love, and grace. It’s often used in connection with keeping God’s covenant.
These are all qualities that characterize God and God’s kingdom. Jesus literally “embodied” all of them; we saw them lived out in his life and in his death. Our preparation for Christmas gives us a new opportunity to embody chêsêd in our own lives—to love and act in kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. Advent gives us a chance to embrace once again the kingdom values of showing mercy, love, and grace to others, to offer our devotion and loyalty to Jesus, and to live righteously as the Spirit gives us ability.
Oddly, this word can also mean shame or reproach. It’s only used that way once or twice in Scripture, but it’s worth thinking about in this time of Advent—a time of self-examination and repentance as we prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming. His life was a bright light shining on hypocrisy and unrighteousness, exposing it for what it was. Jesus’ life on earth served as a judgment—a reproach—against all those who live unfaithfully. We know that when he comes again, Jesus will judge each of us. The kindness of Rahab—that chêsêd and all that it encompasses—gives us a standard by which to judge our own lives. It challenges us to see where we need to grow in kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.
But if we become discouraged when we contemplate our own short-comings, we can find encouragement in Rahab’s story, too. The spies received an unexpected gift from Rahab. It was a gift they didn’t deserve. It was a gift they didn’t even ask for. She gave them the gift of life—a gift that threatened her own. She covered them with stalks of flax, sheltered them within her own home, and it possible for them to escape with their lives. And she did it without any assurance that they would offer her anything in return.
Rahab’s story foreshadows what Jesus came to do for us. Jesus came to offer us the gift of life. In his own time on earth, he taught us how to live a God-centered life—the only kind of life that gives us true freedom and joy. In his death, he offered us the forgiveness that makes that life possible, covering our sin with his righteousness as Rahab covered the spies with stalks of flax. In his resurrection, he ensured that our life with God can continue forever. And, in the gift of his Spirit, he gives us the power to live life free from slavery to sin.
This is the greatest wonder that the story of Jesus’ Grandma Rahab reveals: that we are given the gift of life—a gift we don’t deserve, a gift offered before we even know we need it, a gift offered unconditionally but was purchased at a very, very high cost. In this time of Advent, may we look with wonder upon that most precious gift, which we find in Rahab’s story and our own. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young