People of the Book – Rahab
The Book of Joshua tells the story of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute practicing the world’s oldest profession within the walls of Jericho before the Israelite advance upon the city. When two unknown lodgers in her establishment are sought by the zealous leaders of Jericho, she recognizes them as spies for Joshua’s forces. She denies knowing their whereabouts to her countrymen and then secretly tells the two hiding in the stalks of flax on her rooftop that she has come to acknowledge “the Lord your God is the only God in Heaven above and here on earth” (Josh 2:11).
Rahab works out a bargain based on her realization that the Jewish forces are soon destined to lay siege to her native city – she will help the two to escape to give their reconnaissance to the Hebrews in exchange for the safety of her own family.
They agree, climb out the window, and order Rahab to hang a scarlet cord from her window to mark the house where they received such kindness. She does so, singlehandedly allowing the providence of God to give the Hebrews the land of their inheritance, and survives the destruction the Israelites impose on her townspeople.
Rahab is a central figure to both Jews and Christians, and invites both faiths to symbolic and allegorical readings of her decision which altered the course of salvation history.
The rabbis in the period before Christianity already reflected on the significance of Rahab in their Midrashim, their extra-biblical and exegetical reflections on the Hebrew Scriptures, sort of official interpretive Jewish homilies. They recognized in her the transformative power of conversion. Rahab moves from Gentile sinner to converted Jew with stunning fervor and conviction. She embodies both the call to do good works (notwithstanding the treacherous lie that gets her neighbors slaughtered) and the clarity of prophecy through which she can see God’s chosen relationship with the people he has called his own.
It is perhaps the ambiguity of her beneficence and imperfections which has so taken readers for millennia. The somewhat irreverent phrase “hooker with a heart of gold” is a standard literary feature in everything from Oliver Twist to Man of La Mancha to Pretty Woman. Rahab might well be the original.
In the early Christian period, Rahab was also highly symbolized. In his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul seems to tie her actions to justification through faith: “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies” (Heb 11:31). St. James, often emphasizing aspects of the human life which are quite distinct from Pauline ones, asks, “Was not also Rahab the harlot justified by her works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (James 2:25). The evangelist Matthew includes her as one of only four women, all of whom are significant figures, in his genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors (Mt 1:5).
Famed theologian and church historian Jean Daniélou demonstrated that patristic commentators such as Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen picked up this notion of Rahab as representative of the universal momentum toward conversion, this time serving as a type of the church’s envelopment of Gentile peoples into her own body. The scarlet cord brings to mind not only the streak of blood marking the doors during the original Passover in Egypt, but also the blood of the cross by which Christians would recognize their salvation in the paschal mystery. Even her name, Rahab, literally means “breadth,” and the claim that “within her house, all will be saved” led early Christians to identify this former harlot’s house with the ever-expanding mission of the church.
She also has been a heroine in many feminist readings of Judeo-Christian history. Some of these theologians argue that it is precisely because of her unique and full personhood, including her courage, foresight, confidence and foibles, that she is able to save her entire family and alter the course of history. However, the proto-feminist reading has been criticized by other exegetes who view her as too demurely acquiescing to Joshua’s rather patriarchal colonization effort and associate her with the all-too-familiar motif of a fallen woman coming to her senses and repenting of her hyper-sexualized past.
Regardless of how one frames her contribution, Rahab stands as an intriguing and significant figure in the history of our shared faith, a woman whose “breadth” of influence continues to extend into our own day.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.