Who is Rahab?

Who is Rahab?  

Creative Commons: Distant Shores

She is mentioned three times in the New Testament, however, we know her best from her story which is found in the Old Testament book of Joshua.   If you aren’t familiar with the story of the prostitute from Jericho you can find it in Joshua 2 and Joshua 6

To the Israelites, everything about her is undesirable.  First and foremost, she is a woman living during a time of patriarchy.   Secondly, she is a Canaanite – a foreigner – one of the people living in the Promised Land that the Israelites have been told must be removed in order to take possession of the land.  Thirdly, her profession is that of a prostitute making her as immoral as they come.

But who is Rahab the woman, and what is she like?   She isn’t a made up character in a story book, but a real living, breathing woman.  Rahab is an outsider, or foreigner, living inside the Promised Land. We first meet her when two Israelite spies – insiders living outside the Promised Land – show up at her house.  The irony of this is that Rahab is also most likely also an outsider among her own people due to her “chosen” profession. Not that she willingly chose to be a prostitute. This is something women fall into as a result of having absolutely no other way of supporting herself.  


Although we read about the weaknesses and brokenness of  Rahab based on her career, which the writers of both and Old and New Testament just can’t let her overcome, we can discover a lot of about Rahab’s character and strengths.   In the pages of the book of Joshua we can also see the kind of person she is.


We know that she is intelligent, quick-witted,  and resourceful. She is able to think on her feet.  She sees the arrival of the spies for the opportunity that it is, and she is quick to take them in.  She is wise and perceptive. Rahab realized that God is giving her a chance at salvation with the arrival of the two Israelite spies on her doorstep.   

At the same time, Rahab is also able to quickly dismiss the king’s men.  She doesn’t hesitate to admit that she did indeed have company that day. She basically on the spot comes up with a story and says more or les, “Sure, the men you seek WERE here, but I had no clue they were from THOSE people.  And anyways, they are gone now. They finished their business with me and took off to make it outside of the gated to be on their way before the gates were closed for the night. But you look like strong, smart men! If you hurry you will surely still be able to track them and catch them!”

The very fact that she took the spies in shows that Rahab is hospitable.  At her own peril, safety and shelter are offered to the spies. As her guests, she knows that she is honor bound to care for them.  She protects them from being discovered by the king’s men – something the spies are unable to do on their own – despite the nasty consequences that she and her entire family can suffer from should the spies be discovered.   Rahab has the abilities to keep them safe and knows just where to hide these men. You see, Rahab doesn’t just entertain customers, she also is very industrious and spends time making linen. She has wet, soggy, smelly flax drying out on her roof for her next batch of linen on the very day these two bumbling spies show up on her doorstep.  She uses this big smelly drying pile of yuck to conceal the spies.

Once the king’s men are gone and is it safe to go back upstairs, we discover that Rahab is a skilled negotiator.   She goes in with a quid pro quo approach. I have dealt kindly with you, now you need to promise to deal kindly with me.   And what can the spies do? They know they are still neatly caught. They can either agree and negotiate with Rahab, or refuse and risk having her turn them over to the king.   We also discover during these negotiations that Rahab has a great love for others and she puts her love of others before love of self. Her request for salvation isn’t just for herself.  She ensured that her entire family will be spared and kept safe from the destruction that will inevitably come.


But most importantly, Rahab is a woman of incredibly strong faith.    Not just any faith either. She makes a confession of faith in the one true God of Israel , the  God of in heaven above and on earth below. A statement that is made by only two other people in the Old Testament – Moses and Solomon.  

Can you imagine how shocked the spies must have been by this Canaanite woman who is standing before them protecting them while at the same time declaring and confessing that she believes in their God?  And what a confession! It is perfect!

In his book, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story, Frank Anthony Spina sums up Rahab and her confession like this :


Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, is familiar with the Israelite theological language as though she has graduated from an Israelite religious academy…she presents herself as fully and comfortably conversant with information that would typically characterize an Israelite insider completely knowledgeable about Israel’s religious patterns…In fact, Rahab’s confession is arguably the best one in the entire Book of Joshua, even better than anything offered by the great leader himself, Joshua.” 

 


Now how on earth would a pagan woman, who is lowly and poor with a horrible job, not only learn about the God of Israel, but also come to such an absolute and faith in him as her God as well?  Divine revelation is the answer.

All of the Canaanite people in Jericho  heard about the miracles the God of Israel had done and continued to do.  They knew about the other victories the Israelites had won battles over other powerful kings on their way to Jericho.  But only one Canaanite, Rahab, heard these stories and realized the strength that the won these battles came from the God of Israel, and she somehow sought to encounter and know him for herself.  God had a divine plan and purpose for Rahab just like he does for each of us. He met Rahab where she was in her current circumstances and accepted her belief in him. And just like Rahab, no matter what our circumstances our,  we to can have faith and trust in God to take us forward to our salvation.

And finally, we know that Rahab was a woman of great courage.  Can you imagine the nerves of steel it took for this woman to hide spies on her roof and then lie to the soldiers literally standing on her doorstep?  She took a ginormous leap of faith and courageously grasped on to the situation unfolding under and on her roof to secure salvation for herself and her entire family in exchange for her protection of the spies.

Then she has to wait, not knowing what is to come next or when whatever it is will come.  She really had no idea if the spies will keep their word once the battle has begun. All that she has to comfort herself with is her faith in the God of Israel.  Can you imagine the currents of terror that envelop the city of Jericho as the Israeli army arrives? The seven torturous days as the army marches around the city leaving the inhabitants inside shaking with fear wondering what will come next.  And then finally, the courage it takes to stay inside her house in the walls of Jericho as the great stone walls all around Rahab’s house come tumbling down?


Joshua gave the people of Israel God’s message to them in verse 1:9 to be strong and courageous.  Rahab, who hadn’t even been present to hear Joshua deliver this message, takes it to a whole now level.  Rahab shows us that absolute faith gives us the courage and strength we need to stand against anything.

Today we have been looking at a familiar story.    Before our time together today, have you ever given any thought to why Rahab the prostitute was given such a prominent place in this story?  A woman living in poor conditions trapped in an immoral job and a foreigner at that. Rahab’s story shows us that sometimes we are being prepared for a part in the story and really have no idea what it is or when we will need to use it. This past month I have spent a lot of time with Rahab and her story and feel like I have gotten to know Rahab as a person.  In doing so I have learned these two things as my takeaways, one is an encouragement and the other is a caution:

  1. No matter how marginalized you are, you have a place in the Kingdom, but it doesn’t always come easy.  You have to be ready and willing to move when God tells you it’s time to move. Have faith and be courageous.    No matter how bleak your current situation, you can have hope. God won’t leave you where he found you. No matter your circumstances, God will prepare you for whatever tasks he has for you.  Sometimes he is preparing you for a role that you would never dream you would have in the Kingdom. Rahab certainly didn’t know as she was learning who God was that she was going to play a prominent role in the Israelites taking of Jericho.  
  2. We can be too quick to judge a book by its cover.  Prior to taking a closer look at Rahab, I never realized that she had such a profound and deeply rooted faith in the God of Israel.  I guess that I just assumed that since she was a prostitute that she was a sinful person who just happened to get the right opportunity to ensure she survived the siege of Jericho.  I never looked beyond her title of prostitute to actually meet the woman of faith we have uncovered here today. We all have great potential in the Kingdom of God.

Going forward, I hope that when you hear the name Rahab, you aren’t so distracted by the title of prostitute that always seems to accompany it.   Instead my hope is for you to recall of a faithful woman filled with courage and strength who rose above her circumstances and found redemption and her place among God’s chosen people as well as a branch on the family tree of Jesus.                                                                            

Each of us has at least one Rahab moment in our lives.  A time when we have to choose to believe and trust in God and the promises he has made us despite our circumstances.  

My most recent Rahab moment came this past spring when my husband was suddenly incredibly sick, needing emergency surgery to clean out an infection that had found its way into his knee.   This resulted in him having to be off of work for a month. Perhaps in the greater scheme of problems in the world this wasn’t so big, but for me it was huge and seemed to be a recall of our financial hardships earlier in life.  In my past I would have been in complete despair and afraid that we would find ourselves without a home again. However, throughout the entire month I chose to lean into God and trust in him and I felt a deep sense of peace knowing that God would supply all our needs.  

This is just one of the Rahab moments in my life, what are some of yours?


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Dying Discernment

This coming Monday marks an anniversary of sorts for MC USA.  For some it marks a milestone and a step forward, for others it marks a death knell and destruction.  It is the one year anniversary of the Mountain States Conference’s (a conference of Mennonite Church USA) decision to license Theda Good as a pastor.

What is so notable about that?  Women have been licensed as Mennonite pastors before.  What makes the licensing of this particular woman so momentous?  The answer is that she is in a committed same-sex relationship.   What this historic licensing has done is spark a year of turmoil.

It has started dialogues on whether we need to rethink the provision in the Confession of Faith that defines marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman.  It has also started conversations on what does the Bible really say about same-sex relationships.  It has us searching for answers to questions about whether homosexual relationships are always wrong, or could they be right if it is a committed relationship between two people.

It has been my experience that we as a denomination strive to include all of God’s children in our folds.  We all come with baggage, our own particular brands of sin and shame.   We are all humans living in a broken world.  However we don’t allow all to serve as leaders in our congregations, as leaders are held to a higher standard according to 1 Timothy 3:1-13:

The saying is sure:  whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.  Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, and apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.  He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way — for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?  He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience.  And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons.  Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.  Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

So we have standards in place for the people who are leading our congregations.  We chose pastors to shepherd our flocks based on credentials and their moral character and worship and various other types of leaders based on their values and whether they have a heart for worship and/or leadership.  Those standards have been developed over the years by our denomination through conversations, prayers, and community discernment.

One of the good things that has come out of this is that the conversations are no longer being delayed and hidden.  The church body at large is going to have to address how we as a denomination move forward with multiple issues that arise when the topic of homosexuality comes up, not just in terms of leadership roles.

Do we begin the process that will change our Confession of Faith or do we reaffirm that Confession of Faith?  How can we address polity issues with grace and in love?  What measures can we utilize for accountability among conferences when we feel a conference is acting in violation of our shared beliefs?

In the days ahead the Mennonite denomination needs to have some challenging discussions on very personal topics.  We are being called at this moment in time to discern some very hard questions.

However there are also bad things coming out of this. Church dissention is running rampant.  Conferences have different views on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.  Congregations are withdrawing from conferences. Many are feeling let down by MC USA’s perceived lack of response to the Mountain States decision,  whether they were waiting for the church at the national level to levy support for the decision or administer discipline.  New networks are forming, which could possibly be a good thing, but are they forming prematurely?

In addition to churches withdrawing outright from their conferences, others are choosing to remain part of an MC USA congregation but to boycott the scheduled national convention this summer in Kansas City, MS.  They are choosing to stay away, and therefore are excluding themselves from the conversations.

And that is my biggest cause for concern.  We as a denomination have always valued community discernment on matters of theology and beliefs.  How does leading by the Holy Spirit occur in community discernment if we aren’t all showing up for the community conversations?

At the end of the day, no matter how this plays out, some will be happy and others will be angry or hurt. Inevitably there will most likely be some church divisions and splits, but we all need to be present and take part in the conversations going on now.  We need to prepare our hearts and minds and use prayer and scriptures for guidance as we relate with one another on our differing views.

Most of all, we need to proceed with love.  Show up and be present.  Pray for grace and mercy.   Discern together with the Holy Spirit and be open to where he leads us.  And no matter what, bring glory to God in all that we do.

Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another.  The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name.  They shall be mine, says the Lord of host, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.  Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (Malachi 3: 16-18, NRSV)