Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Joshua 2: 1-21) (selected verses)
In one sense, at least, the story of Rahab is pretty straightforward. A resident of a soon-to-be invaded city helps the good guys on a spy mission and spares her family’s life in the process. Nothing about that is terribly complicated. And yet, the story of Rahab has layers to it, lots and lots of layers; and like a strong onion, it makes your eyes sting a bit as you peel back each layer to see what needs to be seen.
There is, for instance, the layer of the invasion itself. The battle for the city of Jericho was one of many the Israelites engaged in over the span of a hundred years, all toward the goal of claiming the land God promised them. And there’s the rub. Because we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the fact that this land they believed God had promised them, this land that the Israeites moved into, was not an empty land. There were people living there. Entire nations of people. People who’d been there for centuries. People who were forcibly removed from the only home they’d ever known by a people who felt it was their divine right to have it.
And that is both uncomfortable and familiar to us, is it not? It’s no different than what happened here hundreds of years ago; our forebears hopping off their ships and setting foot on a land they believed was their divine right to have, even though some 60 million Native Americans were already here. It’s no different than what happened less than a century ago; valuable land in the heart of major metropolitan cities like our very own, claimed under the guise of “urban renewal,” even though generations of black and brown families had to be forcibly removed with no place to go. There is an ugly side to today’s story; an ugliness that happens anytime a more powerful people wield that power over the less powerful.
Which leads to the second layer of the onion that needs to be peeled back, and that is with Rahab herself. The writer of Joshua makes a point of telling us from the jump that Rahab is a prostitute. In fact, the way he writes it, we learn this thing about her before we even learn her name. Now I don’t know about you, but I get a little queasy feeling in my stomach anytime a woman in the bible is cast in such light, especially when it’s done in a way to demean and discount. We have the best example of this with another woman in the Bible, Mary Magdalene, even though nowhere in the gospels is she identified as such. And yet, the narrative has been woven into our biblical story over the years, and sadly has stuck.
It appears that some biblical scholars had the same discomfort here; old rabbinic texts claiming that Rahab was an innkeeper instead. And truth be told, whether innkeeper or prostitute, the result for Rahab is pretty much the same either way: she is facing the undeniable and undesirable reality of being a woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated world. She has no power. She has no voice. Even her place of residence is telling – scripture points out that “her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself.” Folks, you cannot get more marginalized from society than literally living in its outer walls.
And so with those layers peeled back, we look again at the story as a whole. The Israelites are in the middle of their hundred-year conquest of the Promised Land. Their latest adversary is Jericho, a city located on the far eastern side of Palestine and known at the time for its huge, impenetrable walls. As the story goes, God commands Joshua, the leader after Moses, to overthrow the city. This will be no small task, due to those aforementioned walls. So Joshua sends spies into the city to size things up and gather intel prior to the invasion. While there, the spies are secretly given sanctuary by Rahab, who allows the men to stay in her house during the day and do their spying at night.
Somehow in the course of all that, word gets to the king of Jericho that there are Israelite spies in his midst and that they might have some connection with Rahab. The king sends soldiers to Rahab’s home in the outer city wall to demand the men’s eviction. Hearing of this before their arrival, Rahab hides the men on the roof of her home and misdirects the soldiers on their behalf. The soldiers go on a wild goose chase outside the city walls that predictably proves fruitless.
Meanwhile, once the soldiers are out of sight, Rahab cashes in her chips. She says to the spies: Listen: I get it. I know you all have God on your side and that this city is not for long. We know what your people are capable of. So here’s the thing: since I’ve treated you kindly, since I’ve hidden you in my home, swear to me that you will do my family and me no harm. Give me a sign I can trust that we’ll be safe when the day comes.
And the men agree; and as they sneak out of the city down a crimson cord hanging from Rahab’s window, they tell her to hang that same cord there on the day of battle as a sign to the Israelite soldiers not to do harm to anyone inside. And so it happens. A few chapters later, after Jericho is taken, Rahab and her family are spared and brought to safety as everything around them is demolished in the siege.
It’s one of those stories that makes you feel good, until it makes you feel a little guilty for feeling good. It’s complicated. If this story were in a news headline, one network might phrase it as: Woman saves family from harm. Another network might opt for: Marginalized nobody aligns with invading army and uses leverage to survive. Still another might say: Treasonous traitor gives up her homeland for personal gain as everyone else slaughtered. It’s complicated.
There is one other layer to this story that is worth peeling off; one that is probably the easiest to see but the hardest to recognize: and that is that Rahab is not an Israelite. On one level this is super obvious: she is a resident of the city the Israelites are invading; she hides Israelite spies in her home and puts her family’s life at risk. Everything about this story screams that Rahab is not one of “God’s chosen.”
And yet, for some reason we tend to miss this – and why is that? Is it because Rahab winds up being on the “right side” of things when all is said and done? Is it because she has become part of our collective faith story; her name recounted in Matthew’s grand genealogy and Hebrew’s cloud of witnesses? We are not inclined to see Rahab as an outsider because of her place in our story. And yet, that is precisely who she was. An outsider in the context of society; an outsider in the context of the faith.
And she is part of God’s work in the world anyway.
Now truth be told, this is not all that unique. It’s honestly amazing how frequently this happens; God using less powerful non-Israelites to carry out God’s will. In fact, all of the characters we’ve talked about so far in our sermon series fit that bill: Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law who gave his son sage advice, was a Midianite. Balaam, who blessed the Israelite army instead of cursing it, was from Moab.
There are many others. There’s Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescues baby Moses from the Nile. There’s Ruth, a Moabite woman who remains with her mother-in-law after her husband’s death and winds up becoming an ancestor of Jesus. There’s the Syrophonecian woman, the subject of a future sermon in this series, who rightly calls Jesus out. There’s the Samaritan woman at the well who, after meeting Jesus, becomes the first evangelist to the Gentile world. There’s the Ethiopian eunuch who insists that Jesus is for all people, not just those already on the inside. There’s the people of the city of Nineveh who, to Jonah’s surprise and disappointment, actually respond to his call to repentance.
I’m wondering if you see a recurring theme here? These non-Israelites who choose to be part of God’s work in the world are almost always people without power, people without place, and people without privilege. They are voices from the margins. They are almost always women. And God loves incorporating them into God’s work in the world. As one scholar puts it:
The story (of Rahab) has more to do with the difference between human expectations and divine decisions. God’s choice of agents is not determined by social respectability or power. Israelite identity is defined by faith, not by ethnicity.
Rahab is the perfect example of this. She represents everything that God’s people at the time were not. As a Canaanite, she was living in a city not long for the world. As a woman, she had no privilege. As a prostitute, she was routinely taken advantage of by others. As someone with a home in the outer walls, were it not for that crimson cord, she would’ve literally been the first casualty in any attack on the city. There are so many reasons that you and I should’ve never heard of Rahab; should not even know that she existed. And yet, here we are, telling her story today.
Let me ask you something: what does it mean for us – as the people of God, as heirs to the covenant promise, what does it mean that God regularly makes a habit of using those who are not us? What does it mean, as people of power and privilege, that God does some of God’s greatest work through those without power and privilege? What does it mean, as those living in places of relative comfort and security, that God employs as God’s agents those living on the margins, those with no voice, those living in the outer walls?
Just a few chapters after this story we meet Achan, an Israelite who took the spoils of war in the fall of Jericho, which was a big no-no. Apparently Achan felt it was his right to do this, as power and privilege can often make us feel as if the rules don’t apply to us. Israel went on to lose the next battle – a shock of a loss, like a 16-seed beating a #1 in the opening round. Things like that just don’t happen. So as the Israelites licked their wounds and tended to their bruised egos, they went searching for the reason behind the defeat. And they found it in Achan’s transgression, and he was punished for it; and the Israelites went on to win their next battle.
Now it is admittedly a weird story; it smacks of an ego-centric theology we identify with former times. But here, just a few chapters after Rahab, it serves as a stark reminder to the faithful that first, we do not get a free pass to do whatever. But along with that, and even more importantly, God can use anyone God chooses – and I mean anyone – to be part of God’s work in the world.
And there are those who understand this as God’s not-so-subtle way of reminding us that our “chosen-ness” does not grant us any lasting power or privilege. Keeping us honest; keeping us humble. God sending us a message, right?
I think this is more than God sending a message. I think this is really about the fact that God just loves everybody. Everybody. And because of that, everybody can be part of God’s work in the world. In fact, everybody already is.
Somewhere along the line we got the idea that “chosen” meant exclusive. Somewhere along the line we came to see power and privilege tied to that in a way God never intended. We have denominations voting to completely exclude women from ordained ministry. We have Christians lambasting other Christians because they choose to embrace inclusivity for the LGBTQIA+ community. Shame on us.
The Rahabs of the world are a powerful reminder that there is nothing special about us – or, more to the point, nothing more special than anyone else. And because of that, the answers do not always lie with just us. Because of that, we must align ourselves with those living in the outer walls.. Because of that, our job as people of faith is to actively see the bigger picture, the breadth and depth of God work in our world, and stay tuned in to God’s agenda instead of just our own.
We do this by getting out of our echo chambers and intentionally listening to voices not like ours. We do this by taking the next step and elevating those other voices over our own. We do this by training ourselves to see God’s work in people and places we would not normally expect to see those things. And we do this by letting go of the flawed logic that tries to tell us that we are somehow in a privileged position because of the God we choose to worship.
That’s what we have to learn from Rahab. And Jethro and Balaam. And the Syrophonecian woman and the Ethiopian eunuch. And women who want to be ordained in a church that won’t let them, and those who are maligned simply because of who they love, and all of those today who would not be caught dead in a church on Sunday morning but who are doing God’s work in powerful, meaningful ways anyway. We would do well to listen to them. To hear what they have to say. To hear how God is working through them, as God continues to work in and through us.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Joshua, Judges, and Ruth – Carolyn Pressler, Westminster Bible Companion, pg. 25.