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Sarah Lindsay

Subversion in Scripture: Rahab

Part of a recurring series on subversion in scripture in which I highlight how the bible repeatedly undermines our expectations about power and authority, our notions of who is “in” and who is “out.” When Jesus became a helpless child and then died at the hands of a great empire in order to conquer a much greater power and evil than any earthly empire, he upended our comfortable notions about how power works. But if we pay attention, we see these subversions of power over and over in scripture.

Rahab with the Two Spies
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies, c. 1896-1902 | image via Wikipedia | public domain

For my first post in this series, I wrote about Tamar and Judah. Despite the fact that she tricked her father-in-law into getting her pregnant, Tamar is not only called righteous at the time but Matthew also includes her as one of only four women in the genealogy of Jesus. Tamar’s story reminds us that God cares about the marginalized and seeks justice for the wronged and oppressed, flipping our ideas of power upside down.

The next woman included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, however, doesn’t point to the righting of injustices. Instead, this woman — Rahab the prostitute from Jericho — challenges our ideas about who can be a part of God’s people, subverting our tribal conceptions of insider and outsider.

Rahab’s story is straightforward: she lives in the city of Jericho, and she along with all the inhabitants of that city know that they are the next target of the Israelites — the people who are conquering and settling the land to the west of the Jordan River. When two spies from the Israelite camp enter Jericho, they stay at Rahab’s inn. Rahab hides the spies from city authorities and, in return, demands protection for herself and her family when the Israelites invade.

The spies and Rahab make an elaborate series of promises, and both sides keep their words: Rahab helps the spies escape and hangs the identifying red cord in her window, and when the Israelites attack and defeat the city they not only spare Rahab and her family but then allow Rahab’s family to live in the Israelite camp — where, the author of Joshua informs his audience, Rahab lives “to this day.”

From this story, Rahab comes across as savvy and opportunistic: she sees the writing on the wall1 for Jericho and she secures safety for her family. Which is good for her, certainly, and suggests that she thought the Israelites' God was stronger than her own. But she seems more interested in self-preservation than in theology, more motivated by her desire to live than by any encounter with the God of Israel.

In short, Rahab both by virtue of her profession (prostitute) and her opportunism seems an unlikely candidate for inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus.

And yet there she is, appearing in Matthew’s genealogy as the mother of Boaz, who himself marries another foreign woman, Ruth.2 Why might Rahab merit inclusion?

The writer of Hebrews gives us one clue: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” Hebrews 11:31. Although the book of Joshua only has Rahab acknowledging the superior military power of the God of the Israelites, the writer of Hebrews credits this as faith in God, faith that God is indeed powerful.

Rahab’s faith, or belief in the power of God, results in her salvation as Joshua insists that she and her family be spared in the destruction of Jericho and also be allowed to live among the Israelites. It doesn’t matter that she isn’t an Israelite herself, or that her faith was spurred by her fear of death. She is not only saved from death but saved into the larger community of God’s people, ultimately appearing in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

And so Rahab challenges our notions of who gets to be part of God’s kingdom. To put it one (fairly Calvinist) way, God does the choosing, not us; from another point of view, God accepts all who come, rewards those who trust.

Rahab and her family are the foreigners, the all-too-often-feared Other. Although scripture records no reaction to the inclusion of Rahab and her family in the Israelite camp, it’s not hard to imagine that some Israelites viewed them with distrust or disgust. She betrayed her people once; would she do it again? She chose a new God, but what old practices did she cling to that might infect others?

But instead of being quarantined off from God’s people or treated as a second-class citizen, Rahab is instead lifted up and honored. She points us towards the inclusiveness of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that embraces the stranger, that transcends our fallen human impulse to exclude the Other.

Rahab’s presence in Matthew’s genealogy tells us that we must not assume that a person is an outsider to the Church, to God, because they do not fit our idea of what an insider should be. Let us be challenged by Rahab’s story and let us work to reflect in our communities and our churches the wonder of people from every tongue and tribe and nation coming together to worship God.

  1. Pun definitely intended.

  2. It seems likely that Matthew’s genealogy telescopes generations together into symmetrical groups; Rahab is probably further removed from King David in time than the genealogy indicates.