Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Rahab the Prostitute: The Second Woman in Matthew’s Genealogy

by John Shelby Spong

The second woman mentioned in the genealogy of Matthew comes out of a story told in the book of Joshua. One can read the details in chapters two and six of that book. There are two things that are noteworthy about this woman. First, she is not a Jew, rather she is a citizen of Jericho and thus presumably a Canaanite, i.e. a Gentile. Second, she is introduced and described in a single word, “harlot,” that is, Rahab was a prostitute, she sold sex for gain.

Rahab had clearly entered the folk lore of both Judaism and Christianity for there are references to her in the Hebrew Scriptures in the book of Job: 9:13 and 26:12, in the Psalms: 87:4 and 89:10 and in the book of Isaiah 30:7 and 51:9. In addition to this reference in Matthew’s genealogy, she is also referred to in the Christian Scriptures in two places, Hebrews 11:3 and James 2:35. It is difficult to establish any dependency between Matthew and these other New Testament references, so we have to assume that the story of Rahab must have been a popular one in both Judaism and in early Christianity. In this column today, I want to recount the narrative of Rahab as it appears in the book of Joshua.

The context is this: Moses has died in the wilderness of Moab and has been buried by God acting alone in a mysterious and unknown grave, or that is at least the story we receive in the last chapter of Deuteronomy (34). Joshua, Moses’ number one military captain, has assumed the position of the leader of these wandering, nomadic people. As if to validate Joshua with an aura of Moses, a crossing of a body of water in Red Sea fashion has been promised to Joshua at the Jordan River. Beyond that river lay the first military prize for the invading Hebrews, the fortified and walled city of Jericho.

While the people were encamped west of the Jordan preparing for that miraculous crossing, Joshua sent two men to spy on Jericho. These spies are unnamed, but they presumably managed to cross the river in daylight and enter the city, the gates of which were not closed until nightfall. They immediately went, as if by some pre-arranged plan, to the house of Rahab the prostitute. Perhaps there was some kind of prior relationship. Perhaps they sought out this house, the only local brothel, for their own entertainment. Perhaps it made strategic sense. Rahab’s house was conveniently located, built as it was into the wall that encircled the city. Certainly a brothel might have been chosen simply to serve to give the spies cover. We will never know. There is certainly the probability that this location and the service Rahab offered were well known to citizens and strangers alike. For a stranger to enter the city and go straight to the house of Rahab would arouse little suspicion. Whatever the reason or reasons, it was to Rahab’s house that Joshua’s spies went and there, the text says, “they lodged.” It seems that they remained there for several days. In time, their presence became known.

Their presence came to the attention of the authorities in Jericho, including the king. Almost immediately they were defined as spies who had illegally entered the land. So the king, sent a deputation of soldiers to the house of Rahab with orders for the spies to come forth, presumably to be executed. Rahab, however, turns out to be more loyal to the spies than she is to her city, so when she gets wind of the danger, she not only hides the spies, but she lies to the king’s messengers about their continued presence. She did not deny that they had been there, since that seemed to have been a well-established fact. She admitted that they had visited, but that she had no idea where they were from or what their business was in Jericho. They have now gone, she said, telling the authorities that the two men had departed before the gates of the city had been closed when darkness fell.

What might have been her motives? Perhaps she was just protecting her customers. Perhaps she had already developed a relationship with one of the spies that altered her priorities. Whatever the reason, Rahab urged the king’s representatives to pursue these spies rapidly for their departure from city, she said, had been recent and they could surely be overtaken. All the while, according to this narrative, Rahab has taken these men to the roof of her house and has hidden them under stalks of flax that were “laid in order” on her roof.

The king’s men took Rahab at her word and pursued what they thought were the escaping spies to the Jordan River and across it into the surrounding countryside. When the pursuers had left the city, the gates were closed for the night. No one could now leave and the pursuers could not return until the dawn when the gates were reopened.

Rahab then goes to the roof to uncover her hidden guests. She speaks to them as one who knows they are destined to conquer Jericho. She tells them that fear of the invading Hebrews had fallen upon her fellow citizens and has caused their courage to melt away. She tells them that the people have heard of the miracle at the Red Sea and of their conquest of the Amorites in the wilderness and that the citizens of Jericho feel themselves doomed. Then she extracts an oath from the two spies. As I have protected you and dealt kindly with you, she said, I am prepared to continue to serve you by helping you escape. You must first, however, give me a sign that when your people conquer Jericho, you will repay my kindness by sparing my family from death. That means, she says, not just my life but those of my father, my mother, my brothers and sisters, their spouses and children. The spies agreed. “Our lives for your life and those of your extended family” was the deal and it seemed to them a fair bargain. So it was agreed. A sign was established. Rahab was to hang a scarlet cord in the window of her house in that protective wall. The spies swore that all who were gathered in this house with the scarlet cord would be spared.

Then Rahab made a rope and lowered each of the spies in a basket to the ground outside the wall and thus to safety. She instructed them to go to the hills through which their pursuers had already swept and hide there for three days until their pursuers had returned to the city. Their escape was successful and, after three days in the woods, they returned to Joshua with their report. The people of Jericho are faint hearted, the spies said, they know the Lord has given Jericho and its people into our hands.

Rahab then disappears from the drama until the conquest of Jericho occurs in chapter six. In the meantime, the swollen, flooded waters of the Jordan have been split, in Red Sea-like fashion, and the army of the Hebrews has crossed that riverbed on dry land. Then they set up siege positions outside the walls of the city of Jericho. For six days, the army would walk around those walls following the Ark of the Lord, attended by priests blowing constantly on their trumpets, which in fact were shofars or the horns of a ram. On the seventh day, the Hebrew army walked around the city walls seven times with the ram’s horns being blown constantly. When the seventh journey around the walls was complete, the trumpets blew a long and sustained blast, and then the people shouted with loud shouts and, we are told, the walls around Jericho fell to the ground.

Perhaps the miraculous aspects of this story were enhanced with its telling as the years rolled by. This narrative, as a matter of fact, was not written until some 300 years after this event was supposed to have taken place. The important thing for our purpose is to note that this book says that Joshua and his army destroyed Jericho, putting everyone to the edge of the sword – all men, all women, all old people, all young people and all the animals in an act of genocidal fury. True to their word, however, they spared all those who gathered in the house of Rahab. Joshua gave specific orders, “Search out the harlot’s house and bring out of it the woman and all who belong to her as we promised.” The book of Joshua concludes with the story of Rahab by saying that Rahab the harlot was saved and all her household “and she dwelt in Israel until this day.”

Matthew from some source declared that she married a man named Salmon. Was he one of the two spies? Once again, we will never know, but Matthew asserts that Salmon and Rahab had a baby boy whose name was Boaz and that the line from Salmon went through Boaz to Obed to Jesse to David, who became the King of the Hebrew nation, and that this line would lead directly to Jesus of Nazareth, who was of the house of David.

So this is the second woman included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. The first was guilty of an incestuous relationship with her father-in-law, the second was a prostitute. Matthew is introducing the story of Jesus’ birth. He is establishing the Jewish roots of Jesus as well as his royal roots. He is also stating in a loud and provocative way that the line that produced Jesus of Nazareth traveled through incest and harlotry.

Why would he introduce the virgin birth this way? What is his agenda? What is his purpose? The story moves on and so does Matthew’s genealogy. When this column resumes, we will introduce the third of the “shady ladies” in Matthew’s genealogy. She is a seductress. So stay tuned.


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