What would it look like for someone “outside” of God’s chosen people to become a predecessor to the Christ-child? And how might we as Christ-followers learn about faithfulness from someone utterly unlike us? Let us consider the story of Rahab, a woman of faith and boldness, who used her quick thinking and attentiveness to save the lives of Joshua’s spies and negotiate a deal that saved the lives of her whole family.
The story begins with Joshua, the leader of the Israelites after Moses’ death, sending two spies out to survey Jericho. They secretly enter the city and not-so-secretly enter Rahab’s house, pursued by the king’s men. Rahab, however, hid the spies on the roof among the stalks of flax and lied to the king’s men, sending them on a wild goose chase outside the city walls. The king’s men followed her directions and left Rahab and the spies alone.
Rahab shares with the spies the insider information about Jericho: that the city is “melting in fear because of God’s people” because of the things they have heard the Lord has done for Israel. She boldly declares, “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” But Rahab isn’t finished at just this proclamation of faith. She has a request of the spies.
What does this incredible woman have to teach us about God and ourselves? Let’s explore together how Rahab’s location, both physically and socially, might give us a window into her actions, and let’s wonder together about how our faith journeys might be shaped by Rahab’s faithfulness.
Rahab is perfectly situated physically to save the spies and negotiate her safety. According to the text, she lived within the outer wall of the city and had a window opening to the outside of the city, through which she let the spies escape. Rahab was stuck right at the edge, barely inside the city, a window away from losing her community. Perhaps it was because of this placement at the edges of her city that she was not very loyal to it, instead putting her trust in God to save her from the impending military threat of Israel.
The Hebrew word for window, חַלּוֹן, (chal-lon), literally means “piercing of the wall.” Rahab had the ability to live in the gray area of what was considered “inside” and “outside” the city, and was able to save the lives of the spies because of this window. This is the same window she later places the scarlet cord in that saves her and her family during the conquest of Jericho.
We see that Rahab has the perfect physical placement to provide an escape route for the spies through this window, but noticing her social location as well might provide us the chance to understand the story as more than just a military mission where Rahab ends up on the winning side.
Rahab was a resident of Jericho and thus a foreigner in the eyes of the Israelites. Moses had already commanded the Israelites at this point to not engage in marital relations with those outside of the Israelite community. This immediately puts Rahab at a social disadvantage against the typical heroes of our Old Testament stories, who are often male and Israelite. The spies must find shelter somewhere while scoping out the city, but it is interesting that they arrive at Rahab’s house because in addition to her status as a foreigner, Rahab was a prostitute, likely for the purpose of paying family debts.
Jerome Creach explains that Rahab was a prostitute because she “was the victim of an economic system in which women had no opportunities to earn a living; women like her sometimes found themselves on the edge of life, with slavery or prostitution their only options.” We can see some similarities between Rahab’s societal position and sex workers in American society today. It is often a profession chosen out of poverty. Sex workers in our American community are often viewed as inappropriate or dirty, and it is often considered by people in other professions to be one of the least respectable jobs one can do. Along with women, many men, nonbinary, trans and intersex people engage in sex work. It is important to note here that sex work does not always carry this same stigma in other countries around the world, and it is important to remember that there is often some level of choice involved in taking up this profession, as compared to slavery or trafficking.
I wonder to what extent Rahab was accepted by others in this story. Was she treated kindly by the spies despite her social location and profession, or did they simply come to her for her services or for information? Did they get lucky to be saved by her or did they have some insight that we don’t? Interestingly, we aren’t told much about the male Israelite spies’ actions and motivations behind them; instead, we are told about Rahab’s loyalty to God. Her bold claim, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below,” sounds more like something coming from the mouth of an Israelite than a foreigner!
Rahab, the foreigner and prostitute, is faithful first to God and those in need in front of her. Not only that, through her negotiation of her and her family’s safety, she calls two of God’s people to be faithful to her in return. These two actions flip so many social, cultural, and religious scripts, then and now!
We are so often tempted to be faithful to the social and religious systems in place around us over being faithful first to God and the people around us. It is so easy to believe that our personal faithfulness to God is the only faithfulness required of us, when our communities are full of people in need of protection and justice. We are challenged by Rahab to see the one most disadvantaged by the system as the one who is faithful to God, and as the one calling us to faithfulness to them in response. I think again of the sex workers around the world, who deal with threats to their safety and seek the ability to practice their profession peacefully. How might we shift our perspective to understand them as faithful ones?
Rahab’s window pierces through the walls of her home and city, but she, by her faith in God, also pierces through the walls of injustices and labels that were placed on her, opening up for her a chance to be protected and saved as well. And her window shows us faithfulness in a whole different light. It is first the choice to protect those unlike you from the harmful systems surrounding them, and then it is the radical vulnerability to ask others to do the same for you.
We as Christ-followers are called to this sort of faithfulness. Can we offer protection and safety against the systems of harm in our world today? Can we then open ourselves up to also be saved by those who are unlike us?
I want to share with you an imagining of Rahab’s perspective in this story, her thoughts and feelings as she made her decisions. As you listen, consider the way Rahab’s faithfulness might challenge you today.
“Where does the inside of my home’s wall begin
and the outside of the city wall end?
Does the binary even exist?
I make my bed amidst paradoxes and potency.
That you are willing to lose your dignity
by resting in my rooms
tells me there is more to you than virtue
a sign of good faith is all I ask.
I will cut a deal with you
for the privilege of watching my city burn
but you must remember me
when you come into your kingdom.
Do I matter in your bigger picture?
Chronologies could continue with or without me
but I will tie the crimson cord in the window
just in case you care.
And if, among the rubble,
we are able to be saved by my wits or my wisdom
I shall never forget the goodness of the Lord
and I shall build my new home of faith forevermore.”