Matthew begins his record of the life of Christ with Jesus’ genealogy. In a long list of men, he names five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the mother of Jesus. I decided to read each woman’s story in the Bible from the perspective of Advent, looking for waiting, longing, what needed to be put right but wasn’t yet, and perhaps where each found hope, if the Bible records that she did. These stories fit well with the themes of Advent. There is much darkness to them. Let’s take the Fridays in Advent to think about the lives of these women, and then our own lives, as we wait for glimpses of light.
I have always liked Rahab’s story (see Joshua 2 and 6) because it has a happy ending. The prostitute helps the Israelite spies. In return they protect her when they invade the city. She becomes part of the nation and culture of Israel, marries an Israelite man, and gives birth to the great-grandfather of King David. It even has that great, seemingly symbolic element, of the spies instructing Rahab to tie a scarlet cord in the window of her house, so the Israelite army knows not to harm her. Scarlet, like the blood on the doorposts at Passover, like the blood of Jesus on the cross. Rahab, redeemed from a life of sexual sin and likely violence, to a life of marriage and children among God’s people.
Do you see what I did there? As I told Rahab’s story, I re-made it in the image of that modern Christian-American idol of Hallmark-romance marriage, dressed in church clothes. Bad girl turns good, and is rewarded with a husband, at least one child, and lives happily ever after in the lineage of Jesus. I didn’t even realize I was doing that over all those years. But I was. Some of it may even be true. Who’s to say that Rahab didn’t find a much happier life with the Israelites? The thing is, I don’t know. It would be better to just read what the Bible says about her and name all the rest for what it is: speculation and perhaps some cultural debris that could be discarded.
When I read Rahab’s story this week, I was struck by the terror and the decision in it. Look what she says to the spies as she helps them hide:
“I know the Lord has given you this land,” she told them. “We are all afraid of you. Everyone in the land is living in terror. For we have heard how the Lord made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt. And we know what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan River, whose people you completely destroyed. No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! No one has the courage to fight after hearing such things. (Joshua 2:9-11a, NLT)
To the people of Jericho, probably a small city-state in the ancient world, the mass of Israelites approaching was terrifying. Rahab seems to have looked at that fear, and the information available to her about Egypt, Sihon, and Og, and made a shrewd evaluation:
For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below. (Joshua 2:11b, NLT).
The New Testament labels that evaluation as faith, showing itself in actions:
It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies (Hebrews 11:31, NLT).
Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road (James 2:25, NLT).
As I have sat still with Rahab’s story for several days, I’ve kept coming back to her fear, her shrewd calculation, her faithful decision, and then her actions. There is some speculation in this re-telling of her story, too. I imagine that a prostitute in the ancient world had to be shrewd, or calculating, to survive. Surely not everyone who came to visit her was a physically safe person. Like any other person in Jericho, she had others she loved and for whom she feared (see Joshua 2:12-13). Seen in that light, her decision to help the spies could be seen as a logical decision after a risk-benefit analysis. Maybe it was. Maybe she looked at the data available to her and decided, “This God is the real God. He is able to save all those Israelites. He must be able to save me, too.” But the logical explanation forgets the terror. Rahab was in a life or death situation, and she knew it, and she decided to place her faith in God in the middle of all of that. Once she made that decision, she had to wait weeks, perhaps months, before anything at all happened. It took the Israelites a while to get there, and then there was the week of very odd siege tactics, and then the battle. Rahab had no guarantee except the scarlet rope that they would keep their word and protect her. She had no guarantee except her belief that this God of the Israelites was the real God, able to save her and her family. She helped the spies, she tied the cord to her window, and she waited.
As I have thought about Rahab’s story this week, three questions have floated to the surface of my heart.
- What do I see approaching that stirs my fear or anxiety?
- What do I believe Jesus can do about that?
- If I really believe that, what is the next thing for me to do?
If you’re reading this, you’re not a prostitute in a little ancient city-state. Me, neither. While it is possible that you face a life or death kind of fear today, it is more likely that we both face fears or anxieties that return again and again, maybe ones we have known since we were kids, ones that sometimes catch us off guard and cause us to panic, inwardly or outwardly. The God who saved Rahab can also save us. Even today.
May we wait for Him with hope. May we be like Rahab.