Part 2 of the series “Wonder Women of Advent”
A couple of years ago we cut the cable cord, bought a digital antenna, and we now only get the free over the air channels on our TV. At first I thought we would be missing out (and I do miss the occasional game on ESPN), but I also discovered a few gems out there I hadn’t imagined. For example, buried on the free TV dial are some channels that show old, old reruns of TV shows I grew up with—shows like Happy Days and Black Sheep Squadron (which was always one of my favorites), Wild, Wild West and even The Love Boat (which looks even cheesier now than it did back then!).
One of the channels runs a series of old westerns each afternoon—shows like The Rifleman, and Wagon Train. You can see a young Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Gaines in Rawhide or Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive. Then, of course, there were the shows that were on our black and white Philco TV every night back in the late 60s and early 70s: Bonanza (which I loved and which they named a steak house after in our town—that’s where I always wanted to eat for my birthday), and then there was Gunsmoke, which is probably the quintessential western of them all.
I watch those shows today with a very different eye now than when I was a kid. I always thought Marshall Matt Dillon was as cool as they come, but didn’t you always wonder about the relationship between him and Miss Kitty? She ran the saloon and while no one ever said it or made it clear, the overwhelming undertone was that she was a madam—which was typical of saloons in the old West. Amanda Blake, who played her on TV for 17 years, said as much in an interview on the Mike Douglas show (which is a very old sentence, I admit!). She was a classic example of the Hollywood stock character—the “hooker with a heart of gold.”
Such a characterization sticks despite the fact that the world’s oldest profession is actually one of its most demeaning and degrading. Still, many would read the story of Rahab here in Joshua 2 as a kind of “hooker with a heart of gold” story, while missing the point that it’s really a story about faith, repentance, and entry into a new family.
In fact, the story of Rahab doesn’t focus so much on her past as it does on her future, which is the result of her faith. In his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew mentions that Rahab was the wife of Salmon and that together they had Boaz who would marry another Gentile woman named Ruth (who is next on our list of Wonder Women). They would give birth to the grandfather of King David. So prominent is Rahab in the biblical story that she gets more ink in the New Testament than any of the other women in Matthew’s genealogy (save perhaps Mary). In the famous “faith chapter” of Hebrews 11, the writer says, “By faith, Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace” (11:31). James, on the other hand, uses her as an example of faithful works: “In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute shown to be righteous when she received the messengers as her guests and then sent them on by another road?” (2:25). It wasn’t her past or her profession that marked her—rather, it was faith put into action.
That’s the superpower I want to highlight today for this particular Wonder Woman. Her story, like the story of Tamar’s last week, is the story of both exploitation and redemption. She rises above her circumstances and does something heroic for God, even though she is an unlikely candidate in the ancient world—a woman, a Gentile, and a prostitute, all of which put her at the very bottom of the social ladder.
The story of Rahab is part of the story of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. After the death of Moses, the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, but there is a prominent Canaanite city that stands in their way. Jericho sits a few miles north of the Dead Sea along the Jordan River. It is built on an oasis where a fresh spring comes out of the ground. It’s one of the oldest inhabited sites in the world and is the lowest city in elevation on earth. Jericho guards the main road into the central highlands of what was then Canaan, thus any invasion the Israelites wanted to mount would have to deal with this heavily fortified city-state.
So, Joshua, being a good military commander, sends out a recon patrol of two men to enter Jericho, pose as travelers, and check out the enemy disposition. When these two enter the city, they decide to bed down in a place where travelers might be expected and could remain anonymous—the local saloon, run by Madame Rahab.
But apparently the king of Jericho has his own spy network watching the place, so he sent orders for Rahab to produce the men she was hiding. Rahab is resourceful and cunning, however, and she defies the king’s authority with a half truth and a lie. “They were just here,” she says in effect, “but I didn’t know where they were from. We get so many people in here, if you know what I mean! I don’t know where they went, but if you rustle up a posse I bet you can catch them!”
Meanwhile, Rahab has hidden these spies on her roof under a bunch of stalks of flax that were laid out to dry. Flax was used to make clothing and rope and in order to separate the fibers for spinning it had to be soaked in stagnant water and then spread out to dry. That meant that it was a smelly operation and being hidden under stalks of flax would have been the equivalent of hiding in pig slop. No one would think to look there because they wouldn’t want to deal with the nasty odor.
As the posse charges out of town and the danger passed for the moment, Miss Rahab goes up on the roof to talk to these spies and it’s there we learn the real situation. Like most women in her situation in the ancient world (and even today) she’s not really there by choice. For her, selling her body was the only way to support her poor family. She has been exploited by the men in town, perhaps even by the king who knew where to look for strangers. Her home attached to the city wall was well known.
But in these spies she also saw a possible way out, so she took a chance. She decided to fill them in on the real situation there in Jericho. “I know that the Lord has given you the land,” she says (2:8). “We’re terrified of you Israelites. We heard about what your God did in drying up the water of the Red Sea in front of you when you left Egypt, and how you wiped out the kings of the Amorites on the other side of the Jordan. No one here has any courage left.” And then there is her statement in verse 11: “This is because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and earth below.” Here is a clear statement of faith from a Gentile—unexpected, unsolicited, and unwavering!
It’s not that she converted to Judaism right there and then; more likely she is simply expressing what the evidence has shown her—that none of the gods she and her people have worshipped for centuries could do anything like this. It was a first step of faith, but one made possible by the reputation of God and the appearance of these spies.
And because of that realization, Miss Rahab proposes a practical response. She could have ratted out these spies and probably gotten a reward for doing so. She would have need the money and the status afforded to a state informant. But she has decided that the king of Jericho is nothing compared to the King of heaven and earth and so she has defied him, much like the strong women of the early Exodus story, the Hebrew midwives who refused to kill the Israelite babies as ordered by Pharaoh. Here again, it’s the women who take charge and put their faith in God rather than the patriarchal political system.
She says to the spies, “I’ve been loyal to you. So pledge to me that you will deal loyally with my family. Give me a sign of good faith. Spare the lives of my family and everything they own. Rescue us from death” (v. 13). She is not only declaring faith, she is seeking real salvation—rescue from death for her and for her family.
The spies pledge to do so. They tell her that when the invasion comes she should get her whole family into the house with her. No one outside will be spared. Then she should tie a red cord in the window as a way of marking her house to be spared from death. You can’t help but see the Passover imagery here. Israel is about to cross the Jordan on dry ground—a new Exodus—and the red cord is as good as blood on the doorposts. This time, however, it’s a Gentile and her family who will be saved from death and given new life.
The invasion takes place. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came a tumblin’ down. Rahab’s family is spared. As it says in Joshua 6:22-25 –
Joshua spoke to the two men who had scouted out the land. “Go to the prostitute’s house. Bring out the woman from there, along with everyone related to her, exactly as you pledged to her.” So the young men who had been spies went and brought Rahab out, along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and everyone related to her. They brought her whole clan out and let them stay outside Israel’s camp…Joshua let Rahab the prostitute live, her family, and everyone related to her. So her family still lives among Israel today, because she hid the spies whom Joshua had sent to Jericho.
Rahab would go on to marry and Israelite and have a family of her own. She becomes part of a larger family and her life is redeemed through faith.
In doing the research for this sermon, it was interesting for me to look at how the early church views this story. For some of the early church Fathers, like Origen, the story of Rahab is the story of how all people come to faith. In fact, it’s reflective of the way that Jesus taught his disciples to share it. Remember the strategy in Luke 10? Jesus (whose name in Hebrew is Yeshua—”Joshua”) sends out seventy disciples in pairs to “go ahead of him.” They arrive at a stranger’s house and stay there, offering peace and proclaiming the gospel. When that word is received, there is repentance—turning from the old way to embrace the way of Christ—and those in the family who come into the house of faith are saved from death and given new life. They need not fear the coming judgment. Rather, they become part of a new family called the church, where the good news of the gospel continues to be spread to other places in the world; even places like Jericho.
For Origen, Rahab represents all of us. He puts it this way:
“Nevertheless, our Jesus [Joshua] sends spies to the king of Jericho, and they are received hospitably by a prostitute. But the prostitute who received the spies sent by Jesus [Joshua] was no longer a prostitute since she received them. Indeed everyone of us was a prostitute in his heart as long as he lived according to the desires and lusts of the flesh.”
But we have been set free from that old life by receiving the word, believing in the reputation of God, remembering that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). We have been saved from death and judgment and brought into a new family. This is the result of faith.
Rahab stands as one whose past has been redeemed and she is a hero in Israel’s history and in the history of the church. It’s a reminder that no matter what we have done in the past or what situation we find ourselves in, we can be set free.
Advent is a time to hear the words of the recon patrol of the kingdom as they announce the coming of the world’s true king. Origen saw John the Baptist in this role, “Because the scribes and the Pharisees did not believe him, the Lord spoke concerning the baptism of John and said that the “prostitutes and publicans who believed” were baptized. The same thing is fulfilled in the fact that the prostitute received the spies of Jesus [Joshua] and is snatched away and brought back from the destruction of every hostile nation.”
The question is whether, like Rahab, we will exercise the force of faith to receive that word and change our lives. Will we recognize the judgment to come and gather our family together to be rescued from death? Or will we continue as the rest of Jericho did—defiant, taunting, daring God to act. Those walls came a tumblin’ down—except for Rahab’s house.
Miss Kitty and Matt Dillon never got together on Gunsmoke. Amanda Blake didn’t stick around for the final season of its 20-year run, so we never got to see the story resolve and a new life take place. Dodge City was still Dodge City in the end.
Rahab’s story ends quite differently. And it can be our story, too—a story of faith, repentance, redemption, salvation, and new life in a new family. It’s the story that brought Jesus to us, and is still bringing him to us today.