Rahab? One of these names is not like the others! (Sunday before the Nativity)

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1; Joshua 2, 6:23-25

For someone not brought up in the Orthodox tradition, this Sunday’s reading from the gospel may seem strange: why read a genealogy in Church? That may be interesting for the historian or the Biblical scholar, but what does the ordinary person do with all those “begats”?

Indeed, the genealogies of the Old Testament are one of the reasons that the novice, reading sequentially through the Bible, ends in frustration. The creation stories, the fall, the intrigue between Abel and Cain, are all fascinating: then comes a string of names. But we don’t leave genealogies behind in the Old Testament. Instead, we find them front and center in Matthew’s gospel, and after the introduction of Luke’s. Clearly, remembering these names matters to God. And we should not be surprised, for much of our time in Divine Liturgy is taken up remembering the great ones who have gone before us, praying for them and asking for their intercession.

Today Matthew’s genealogy, Matthew 1, is put alongside a portion of the “list of heroes”—a kind of spiritual genealogy—in the book to the Hebrews. (The full passage is Hebrews 11:4-12:1, but we only read from sections of the passage in our liturgy.) We look at the natural family alongside the spiritual family, so to speak. In these lengthy rehearsals of history and family, an unexpected name makes an appearance—not a father of Israel, nor even a mother, like Sarah or Mary, but a woman of Jericho, a Gentile sinner, and a prostitute at that. One of these names is NOT like the others! Yes, we are talking about Rahab, who was clearly an important figure for the apostolic community.

In Matthew’s passage, she is listed alongside several other women, a surprising characteristic in a genealogy that details, by custom, fathers. We hear about Tamar (whose story also is a bit shady), about Ruth (who was a Gentile and the great-grandmother of David) and about our own Theotokos, whom some slandered as immoral, due to her being “found with child” before she married. But only Rahab is a harlot by profession. In Hebrews 11, our reading, she is ranged alongside a whole host of male heroes. She does have a little company: Sarah, who is mentioned for her faith, the midwives who hid Moses, and women who received back their kin by resurrection (or saw them martyred faithfully). But the notice about Rahab startles us, because she is hardly the natural choice for the historical list. Consider how the roll call of faith unfolds: “By faith Abel offered to God…by faith Enoch was taken…by faith Noah heeded God’s warning…by faith Abraham obeyed…by faith Abraham sojourned…by Abraham offered up Isaac…By faith Isaac invoked blessings…By faith Jacob blessed and worshipped…By faith Joseph mentioned the exodus…by faith Moses was hidden and refused to be called Pharoah’s daughter…by faith the people passed through the Red Sea with Moses….”

At this point, we expect, by faith Joshua led them into the promised land, right? Instead, we hear, “By faith Rahab!” “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.” Then the letter goes on to gesture at all the rest of the judges, kings and prophets, as well as the Maccabean martyrs who would not worship in the pagan way. We are part of a huge company, a company that includes this foreign woman of ill repute. Rahab also makes a startling appearance in the letter of James, which ranges her alongside Abraham, the prime exemplar of faith, and asks us, “And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:25).

Goodness! A harlot “justified by works!”—by receiving the scouts, and helping them. Because of her simple, but brave actions, even though she knew very little about the God of Israel, our God, she is commended. We hear that she was “commended for faith,” and will receive her reward, with us, in the resurrection (Hebrews 11:39). She is one of those in the “cloud of witnesses” that encourage us to press on in this little Lent, so that we may receive the blessing of God. Let’s look more closely at her story in Joshua 2 to see why it is of such importance in the New Testament.

The first thing we learn from Rahab is that God can use anybody; pedigree is unimportant. This should not, of course, surprise us. After all, David was not the strongest brother of his family, but the youngest, and Paul called himself “the least of all saints.” When we turn to Joshua 2, we enter into a story of intrigue and suspense, where Joshua sends two spies into Jericho, who spend the night in Rahab’s disreputable house, in order to remain undetected. The king of Jericho gets wind of it anyway, and orders that Rahab produce them, but she tells a story that they left at dusk, and hides them on her roof. Once she has misdirected those who would apprehend the Hebrew spies, Rahab visits the men whom she has hidden, and declares: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites, whom you utterly destroyed…The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”

What a remarkable thing! She has heard stories, as have all the others in Jericho, including the king, about the LORD God, but only she has come to the correct conclusion—that he is all-powerful, not just a tribal sky god or earth goddess, but the God of everything! Looking at the events of the Exodus, she has seen the handiwork of the Creator of all. And so she makes her confession, simple though it is, and asks for mercy, not only for herself, but for her whole family.

At this point, Rahab’s infamous house becomes an ark of salvation for any who will stay in it with her. It is marked by a crimson cord—the same cord that she uses to let the spies down, out of her house, which is situated on the wall of the city. The cord that saved them will be the mark of her own salvation, and any who are with her in the house. And they warn her not to tell anyone that the spies have been with her.

Immediately she agrees, lets them down the window, and ties the cord so that it can be seen. Its red color makes a mark, just as the Hebrews had marked their doors so that the avenging angel would leave them alone, during the Passover night. It is the mark of faith and the mark of salvation.
For the end of the story we have to jump to Joshua 6, with its march around Jericho. Part of Joshua’s instructions include bringing out of Rahab’s house all the family gathered there, to save them, as the spies had assured her: only that family is spared. Joshua 6:25 tells us, “Her family has lived in Israel ever since.” They were, we are told, “set outside the camp” (6:23): presumably OUTSIDE because they were pagans, not ritually clean according to the Law. Everywhere else in the OT, those things outside the camp are there because they are associated either with disease or uncleanness. Here, Rahab is saved, and joined, in a way, to Israel, along with her family—but their position is not in the midst of the people.

By this intriguing story, we see that Rahab, despite her pagan upbringing, and her ignorance about many things, believed that God is powerful, believed that the spies would do what they promised, and was truthful both in her intentions to them, and in her faithful actions which she carried out. God used even this common woman to bring about his purposes, because she exhibited faith in the true God by what she said and did.

But I think there is more. I think that she is also, in the book of Hebrews, commended for her humility. In Joshua, she is attached to Israel, but as an adherent, a kind of second-class citizen. Yet, dwelling with Israel leads her to have a key part in the genealogy that Matthew records: she becomes the great-great GRANDMOTHER OF King David! Though positioned outside the gate, she has a wonderful honor, but she didn’t know it during her lifetime.

The book of Hebrews does not say explicitly that Rahab was put outside the camp, but I suspect that the author wants us to remember that part of Rahab’s story, where she was positioned with her family. The reason why this is so, is because Hebrews speaks explicitly about being “outside the camp” with regards to someone far more central to our great biblical Story. It is, of course, our Lord Jesus.

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.
So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. (Heb 13:11-14)

Jesus is not only like Rahab, outside the camp, but also like the animals who were sacrificed for sin, and like the scapegoat, over whose head the sins of the people were recited, before it was sent outside the gate, bearing those sins away. Jesus took on everything that it was to be human, including the reproaches that would have fallen on Rahab for her dubious occupation—what is not assumed by Christ is not healed. And so in Rahab’s humility, in her willingness to be attached to Israel, even though only as an adherent, we see a type of the Lord Jesus, whom many thought to be afflicted and accursed—yet he was the truly Blessed One.

Rahab, in her willingness to be used, in her faithfulness, and in her humility points to Jesus himself. She could not have known that there was an eternal city waiting for her, along with the rest of that august cloud of witnesses. Nor would she have imagined that the Savior of the world would come from her family. But she knew that Jericho’s days were numbered, that she had no continuing city among pagans who did not recognize the true God. And she knew that the Hebrews dwelt with the true God of all things, and she cast her lot in with them—though her place was on the periphery. As a result, she took a remarkable place in the history of God’s people, and comes not only into the genealogy of Jesus, but into Hebrew’s roll-call of faith.

There are many things which we should not imitate about Rahab. But, her life tells us about how God has a plan for even those who seem to have no real significance in the world’s eyes. Her life also tells us about the importance of faithfulness and having faith: Rahab trusted the Hebrews, and she was trustworthy, too. She is therefore known to us as Rahab the righteous, or Rahab the just.

And, her humility itself gave her a place in God’s family. By consenting to live outside the camp, she eventually became the great-great-grandmother of King David, the ancestor of the One who was born, lived, died and rose for us, and who is the center of the whole Church! By her humility she showed what true faith is, and she became a kind of type, a figure pointing forward to the only righteous One, who is God forever, who went outside the camp in order to gain for us the Heavenly City! O come, let us adore Him!

Verily, we celebrate the memory of Righteous Rahab. Through her we implore thee, O Lord, save our souls.

10 comments:

  1. Wonderful article, Edith. God is faithful. We learn that our faithfulness does not go unnoticed. I am going to save this article for Bible Study after church Sunday!

    1. Thanks, Joanne. Please notice that there is a mistake in the last paragraph, which I have since fixed. Rahab was the great-great-grandmother of King David, the ancestor of Jesus…..

  2. Rahab is the feminine offset of Moses. She is at the center of a Passover. In the first Passover in Egypt the door posts were marked with blood from the sacrificed Lamb and seeing the blood, the angel of death passed over, and the people of Israel were led out to a new life. This is the Passover of the Habiru (Hebrew) in Egypt.

    Another Passover takes place in Jericho. The scarlet cord was hung from the window of Rahab’s house and when the Israelites swept through that city, Rahab and her whole household were spared and led out to a new life, God redeeming their lives from destruction. Rahab became an ancestress of King David and Messiah. This is the Passover of David’s ancestors who never were in Egypt.

    1. Yes, I suggested a similar parallel with the Passover in my blog, though I am not as confident as you are, since I have found no Church fathers who make the same move. Rahab seems to me to be more a parallel to Lot than to Moses. She does not lead her family to deliverance, but those who follow the instructions of the spies, with her, are saved. The Church fathers see her as prefiguring the Church, as the first Gentile to be saved. Certainly Matthew is highlighting this presence of Gentiles in his genealogy, for he also cites Ruth. (A few scholars think, with Origen, that Matthew’s Rachab is not meant to be Rahab, but everything internal suggests that there is an identity, and St. John Chrysostom and others make the indentification). Anyway, I think that there are Passover overtones, Alice, but I am not sure one can posit a whole “other Passover, ” since only one family is spared. Moreover, the Hebrews were enslaved, whereas those in Jericho were not–unless you speak metaphorically about slavery to idolatry, etc. So, I see a parallel there, but also one with Noah, whose family went with him into the ark. The whole sweep of the OT is to show God’s particular calling of the Israelites, though the Gentiles are not wholly forgotten.

      1. The evidence is there, in that the two Passovers point to Christ our God. Consider this: the red lentil – a horizontal bar and the red cord – a vertical bar. The intersection of the two forms a Cross, red with His blood. Patterns like this are more evident when we place the narratives with female figures next to the narratives with male figures. The Church Fathers are an authority for me, but they did think like men, and there is room for women to express views on Scripture as long as our views do not run contrary to the Gospel.

        1. Alice, actually in other places the fathers see parallels between women figures and male figures very well. For example, St. John Chrysostom says that the woman at the well responded positively when Nicodemus only came at night, and calls her the equivalent to an apostle. I do think that there is a parallel with Passover–but I think that there are other echoes in the Rahab story, too. (e.g. like Noah, like what happened at Sodom, etc.)

  3. Hi Edith. Thanks for the wonderful article. The genealogy (of course) is bracketed by the so-called ‘Great Commission’ in Mt 28 in which Jesus sends his disciples to the whole world – so the mission to the gentiles are a major theme for Matthew’s gospel even while Jesus’ own ministry is focused primarily on the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’. I wonder what you think of the story which has the only explicit reference in the NT to a ‘Canaanite’ – the story of the Canaanite woman in Mt 15. Could we call her story a ‘Rahab story’ ? Note that the Canaanites (Rahab’s people) were condemned to destruction. Deut 7 even says that they are to be shown ‘no mercy’ – but mercy is exactly what the Canaanite woman asks for and receives from Jesus.

    Have a blessed Christmas season
    +Grant, the Horn of Africa

    1. What a wonderful parallel, friend! The Canaanite woman is exceptional in Jesus’ ministry (especially, as you know, depicted by Matthew), just as Rahab is exceptional for Israel–but both point to the time when Gentiles will be brought in, even those who previously rebelled against the LORD and made idols for themselves. Both Rahab and the Canaanite woman show remarkable clarity and tenaciousness. They recognize that their time of visitation has come! Thank you for this, and my continued prayers for you and yours!

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