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To go along with my summer sermon series on minor characters from the Bible, I have decided to use this space each Thursday to explore the stories of other characters I will not be covering on Sundays. This is the third reflection in the series.

Read Joshua 2:1–21

One of the mistakes people make in reading the Bible is expecting the people they find there to be upstanding religious folks. But that makes for a two-dimensional depiction of the characters in the Bible, while they are in fact fully developed persons with motives as complex and mixed as our own. Not all of them are good people, and precious few measure up to our Sunday School depictions of what “Bible people” are supposed to represent.

Take the two spies Joshua sends into Jericho and its environs to case the joint before the proposed invasion. In Joshua 2:1, the general commissions the two men, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” Well, they go and do some viewing, but it’s uncertain how much of the land they scope out. Verse 2 tells us, “So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there.”

Now, the Sunday School version of the story says that the men are in danger and take cover at the first place of refuge they can find, but a more realistic understanding says, “They’re out of town, they have some shekels burning a hole in their pockets, and they pay a visit to a prostitute. Duh.” I’ll let you decide which interpretation is more likely.

Regardless of their motivations, their visit introduces us to Rahab, who turns out to be an enterprising person in more ways than one. She has heard the rumors about the Israelites, that their god has given Jericho and the rest of Canaan into their hands, and she works a deal with the two spies. She hides them from the soldiers sent by the king, who has heard the same rumors and somehow knows the spies have come to his city. (It’s interesting that his men should go first to a prostitute to ask for the men’s whereabouts; that ought to tell us how the king understands the spies’ motives and choices.)

So the king’s men come to Rahab, but she tells them the spies have already come and gone, while in fact she has hidden them among the flax she is drying on her roof. She goes to them and extracts a promise that her family will be spared when the troops attack the city. She undoubtedly reminds them that she has just saved their hides and can just as easily turn them in. Whether out of gratitude for her protection or because they know she can and will flip on them in a heartbeat, they comply with her request. Their one condition is that she hang a scarlet cord from her window on the day of the invasion as a sign that her house and family are not to be caught up in the general destruction. If we don’t see the cord, the spies say, all bets are off.

The most interesting thing about Rahab is what we find out many years later. As we read Jesus’s genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find among the descendants of Abraham, “Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of…” (Matt. 1:4–5). Did you catch that? Rahab, the prostitute, the “fallen woman,” the hooker with or without a heart of gold, is woven into the genealogy of Jesus.

In fact, the names of no fewer than four women find their way into Jesus’s lineage, and each of them are problematic in one way or another. Tamar pretends to be a temple prostitute and conceives a child by her father-in-law Judah. Ruth seduces Boaz. Bathsheba (Matthew just calls her “the wife of Uriah”) is a married woman whom David takes and impregnates before having her husband killed. And then there’s Rahab.

My attitude toward women who practice prostitution in the ancient world is similar to what Augustus McCrae says when asked what Lorena Wood was doing in Lonesome Dove in the novel of that name: “She was doing what she could, but don’t hold it against her.” We cannot know the dire choices that lead women into prostitution in our times, let alone three or more thousand years ago. I don’t hold it against Rahab. She did what she could, and she used her crafty, quick-thinking mind to provide security for her loved ones. In the process she elbowed her way into the genealogy of the Messiah. If Jesus knew about her role as his ancestor, I doubt that he disapproved.

Grace and peace,