Rahab Lets the Spies Escape by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
There is a baby explosion happening in my family right now. One of my sisters-in-law is pregnant with what will be my sixth niece or nephew, and it doesn’t look like the baby train is going to slow down any time soon. With all these new lives and names appearing among us, I have found myself also considering baby names.
“Bruce,” I asked my husband recently, thinking about a woman whose story touched me deeply, “What do you think of the name Rahab?”
His eyebrows rose. From his reaction, I could see that Rahab is not one of the “acceptable” Bible names; her story is considered too risque. Yet his reaction confused me. When I look at the way scripture itself treats Rahab, I find that it does not treat her with this same skepticism. As I’ve mulled it over, I have come to believe that the way Rahab is viewed by the church reveals a deep misunderstanding of the stories in the Bible and the way Christians understand grace.
First, let’s take a look at some of the commentary on Rahab. Many of the ways Rahab’s story has been interpreted are deeply troubling. One commentator titled his chapter on Rahab: “How to Listen to a Shady Lady’s Story.” Commentator David Guzik writes: “We may be appalled at the fact that Rahab was a prostitute or that she was a liar but the fact is that she was not saved by her works but by her faith.” Perhaps worst of all, Herbert Lockyer writes in his book All the Women of the Bible:
Like many a young girl today perhaps she found the restrictions of her respectable home too irksome--she wanted a freer life, a life of thrill and excitement away from the drab monotony of the home given her birth and protection. So, high spirited and independent, she left her parents and set up her own apartment with dire consequences.
This speculation is not just troubling, but presents an irresponsible understanding of history and society. Given the time period, Rahab’s most likely backstory is that her family could not pay a debt, and sold her into prostitution. Even a cursory understanding of the sex trade reveals that almost every woman or child involved has been forced into it, either by other people or by the most desperate circumstances. Yet the idea that Rahab was a “shady lady” who somehow chose this life has prevailed in the church.
I could say a lot about this. We are at a crucial moment in the church, when we are grappling not just with #metoo but also with the idea of women as writers, theologians, preachers, and speakers. And while the way Rahab has been treated by the church does make my blood heat, I believe the most useful thing for us is not to cast blame, but to look at how scripture itself treats her. Time after time I have been humbled and encouraged by how the Bible honors and upholds the stories of women in a way that is completely countercultural, elevating the women society discounted and using their lives as integral parts of God’s plan. So what does the Bible actually say about Rahab?
The first time we encounter her is in Joshua 2, which tells the bulk of her story. However, she is also mentioned in four other places throughout scripture--later, in Joshua 6, which continues her story; in the genealogy of Jesus Christ in Matthew 1; in the famous “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11:31; and in James 2:25 . Rahab is not only mentioned frequently, but she is twice held up as an example of faith and is given a place of honor in the lineage of Jesus himself.
If you haven’t read it recently, I entreat you to go read Rahab’s story in Joshua 2. She certainly shows courage and cunning, but the emphasis of her story is not on her own actions, but on her words about who God is. In the previous books of Exodus and Numbers we have been living with the Israelite’s disbelief and unfaithfulness despite God’s promises, and here at the beginning of Joshua, as they are poised to enter the land God has told them time after time he has prepared for them, we hear the strongest invitation to trust God’s word coming from the lips of a marginalized woman:
I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. (Joshua 2:8-11)
Rahab is the mouthpiece of God’s glory and the reminder of his promise. She, a woman who did not know anything about the God of Israel except what she’d heard through tales from travelers in her city, has risked her life and her family’s lives because she is sure that what she has heard is true and trustworthy. The beauty of her story should bring us to tears.
And yet it’s fundamental to our understanding of the text to realize that the emphasis is not on Rahab. She, like all the characters in the Bible, points not to her own story, but to God. It’s this that is the crucial misunderstanding in the way the church has treated her throughout the centuries. If we are looking to Biblical characters as examples of who we should be, we will pick and choose among them. We will encourage our children to be like David and Gideon and warn them against being like Rahab.
This misses the reality, though, that every story in the Bible is a story of failure. Wasn’t David guilty of murder and rape? And yet we are happy to name our sons after him. This incongruity reveals not only that we must reckon with how women have been seen and talked about in the church, but also that we have a surface reading of our Bibles. Tim Keller discusses this when he talks about our tendency to look at the stories of Biblical characters and try to pattern ourselves after them--to try to be as faithful as Abraham, as strong as Moses and as brave as David. He says:
You’ve read the Bible but you don’t know who the hero is... The reason you’re all screwed up is because you thought all the stories were about you. You thought that you were the hero. But every one of those stories points to [Christ]. [He] is the true Abraham, the true Moses, the true David.
We are given stories of Abraham, Moses, and David failing for the very same reason that we are told that Rahab was a prostitute--so that we know not to pattern our lives after these characters, but to seek after the God who found and rescued them. The fact that we want to name our sons David but not name our daughters Rahab shows that we want the stories of the Bible to be about us. We want to believe that we can be courageous like David, instead of understanding that we are all broken and it is God who has redeemed us.
The story of Rahab is especially important because in it we cannot deceive ourselves; we can ignore the fact that David was a terrible father, we can ignore Jacob’s lies, but we cannot ignore the fact that Rahab was a prostitute. It’s part of her identity, and the Bible is not ashamed of it. Only those of us who are in love with the idea that we can achieve God’s favor instead of casting ourselves upon his mercy, no matter who we are or what we have done, are ashamed of Rahab.
I would be proud to name a daughter Rahab. Scripture holds her up as an example to us not once, but four times, of what it means to be grafted into the family of God. Her life reveals that nothing we can do, and nothing we have done, makes any difference in the way God loves us or uses us. It’s time the church let go of the misunderstandings surrounding Rahab, and rejoiced in her story.
Open and Unafraid
David O. Taylor