I have learned way more about ancient Middle Eastern prostitution than I ever thought I would this week. It would have been weird week to have someone shadowing me. But when you try to do research on Rahab that’s what comes up. That’s the defining characteristic that we’re given about Rahab, both in Joshua and in Hebrews she’s referred to as Rahab the prostitute or the prostitute Rahab. She is the great-grandmother of King David, she’s one of four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, she’s one of two women who gets mentioned by the author of Hebrews as a hero of faith, and yet she’s still remembered as Rahab the prostitute.
It probably wasn’t Rahab’s fault or choice that she was a prostitute. I think the fact that most of the scene takes place in her house can trick us into thinking she’s wealthier and in more control of her situation than she is. She more than likely finds herself doing what she’s doing because of debts that her family, probably her father, has racked up. At this time ways to get out of debt are slavery, prostitution, or both. Chances are the house that she’s in is either Rahab’s father’s or its owned by whoever the family owes a debt to. There’s very little chance that she’s doing what she’s doing because she wants to, prostitution is more than likely something that has happened to Rahab, not something she’s chosen. That was the reality then and its really the reality now for the most part. It would be wrong, I think, to look at a story where forced prostitution is lingering right below the surface while ignoring the fact that it is lingering in our world far more than we’d like to admit. Interstate 85 from Atlanta to Charlotte is the most used stretch of road in the international sex trade. Forced prostitution, debt slavery, these kinds of things still happen. In 2015 a woman was arrested in Cleveland for trying to sell her 10-month-old daughter and what the investigators discovered was that she was a drug addict, she was in debt to a dealer, and she was trying to sell her child to pay off her debts. Stories like Rahab’s are not simply stories from the past, for thousands if not millions of women and girls and boys this is a modern story, and we need to recognize that and I believe that this is one of the great injustices in our world where people of faith can take the lead and support those who are fighting this reality.
Rahab’s story, first and foremost, I think, is a reminder that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge people by their situation. It is very easy to look at other people and forget that there but for the grace of God we all go. There are very few circumstance in this world that have easy answers. There are very few people whose stories are exactly what they appear to be. I’ve mentioned before that I did some work in divinity school with victims of predatory lending practices, payday and auto deed loans and things like that, and one of the things you learn when you get to know the people who find themselves trapped in debt and get to know their stories is how quickly one thing, one accident or illness or change in work hours, can derail someone’s life and could just as easily derail ours. Its really easy to judge how someone’s life has turned out until we realize how quickly ours could go the same way.
We also see a reminder in Rahab the prostitute of God’s ability to use all people regardless of their circumstances. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge people based on their circumstance, and we shouldn’t be too quick to write people off either. Rahab is introduced as a Canaanite prostitute and she ends up the great-grandmother of a king. She’s mentioned, as we mentioned already, in Jesus’ genealogy. God can and does work through folks we would never picture.
Two years ago I took youth on a mission trip to Cleveland and we worked with church planters. One of them was a guy named Greg who worked in “little Poland” neighborhood of Cleveland, which is considered ground zero of the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007-2008. In 2009 it was named the worst neighborhood to live in in the world. Let that sink in for a minute, in the world. Greg, around that time, was one of the biggest meth dealers in northern Ohio. He eventually got busted and ended up in jail, and cliché as it sounds he became a Christian, and when he got out he moved back into Cleveland. One day he was sitting in a chick-fil-a, and the manager came up to him and they started chatting. Eventually the manager asked his opinion about something, the store was getting extra chicken delivered each week and needed something to do with it, what would Greg do if he was in that position. And Greg said he would go back to little Poland give out sandwiches to all his former clients, to all the people he knew who didn’t have food for their kids because they spent all they had on meth. All the people who were out of work because of their addiction and couldn’t afford three meals in a day. That was the beginning of a church that is getting people out of poverty and addiction and revitalizing that neighborhood. It is bringing hope into a place where there had been none for years. God’s not limited in who God can call and what God can do with and through the called.
So there are two things that I think Rahab’s story tells us about our world and how God interacts with it and uses it and therefore how we should look at it, there are also two things here that I think Rahab’s story tells us about how God works with and through us and I want to turn to those for just a little bit as well.
The spies come in and hide in Rahab’s home. Soldiers come to look for them and Rahab convinces them to move on. Then there’s this conversation between Rahab and the spies and she says something interesting. “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” Jericho is the first real stop the people make when they go into Canaan and yet she talks about the eventual takeover of the land as if it is a foregone conclusion. And it isn’t just her, she says that all of her peers and countrymen and women have heard what has already happened and seen what the Israelites are capable of and are afraid and convinced that they can’t stand up to them. People notice faith at work. When God’s people are doing things, other folks stand up and take notice. Our lives are window into God’s power. Through the successes of the nation of Israel Rahab and other people living in Canaan found themselves drawn towards Israel’s God. A lot of people lament the state of Christianity in America and in the world and they aren’t wrong, the numbers of people who are members of churches and who express any kind of faith is shrinking, but I do think a lot of people miss something when they try to come up with solutions. When people talk about keeping America a Christian nation they talk about who gets elected and what laws are passed, the example we see in scripture is that when the people of God act in faith other people take notice. Who we elect and what laws we support are important things but they also are ways to pass the buck a little bit, to make it someone else’s responsibility to keep the faith alive. When we are willing to act on our faith, when we are willing to do something with our faith, people take notice. When we’re acting in faith God’s ability to change the world and change lives is revealed and recognized.
And that brings me to the second thing I think we can see about ourselves in Rahab’s story and the last thing I want to mention today. Genuine faith draws people in and it shows people that they can begin again. There’s another interesting thing that occurs in this speech that Rahab makes to the spies, she uses the word Lord to describe God, and if your Bible is like mine it is in small capitals. That means she’s using the personal name of God in Hebrew, the name the Hebrews themselves would use. She’s not using a generic word as if this God is just like any other run of the mill god, she’s realized there’s something special going on here. And when Jericho is destroyed Rahab and her family are spared and they join the Hebrew people and Rahab ends up marrying one of the spies and as we’ve said before, her great grandson becomes king. Rahab’s life, this life that had been forced on her and was going to shape her and define her, is completely reimagined. The prostitute becomes the ancestor of a king. A life that was nothing but subjugation and despair was transformed in a life of freedom and hope. A lot is made of the violence we see in the Old Testament, particularly in Joshua as the people conquer territory and I don’t want to ignore that or brush it aside because I think its something that needs to be wrestled with, but we’d be wise not to overlook that fact that God is delivering people in Canaan as well. The things that Rahab has heard about what God can do cause her to trust these to spies, to have faith that she’ll be spared and that the life being offered is going to be better than the life she has. That’s what’s at the heart of our faith. That’s the good news we have to offer. The life that is available is better than the life we have. The life that is available offers hope in the face of despair and liberation in the face subjugation. Those are the things we should be seeking and working towards. Rahab is a reminder that when people see faith in action it impacts them, and that that faith carries the promise of new beginnings for all of us. Our God believes in new beginnings and second chances. Our God offers hope for the future. Our God sets the captives free. Our God offers all of us the chance to start again.