A Broad Place

Scripture: Joshua 2:1-24

May the Spirit that hushes and stills be present in this moment. May we choose to be more discerning with our words and the impulses that inspire us to articulate them.

The Lord be with you…

We find the story of Ra-háv or Rahab in the book of Joshua, primarily in chapter 2. Joshua is a book about the conquest of Canaan by the children of Israel under the military commander Joshua or Yehoshu’a, whose name means “the Lord is salvation” or “the Lord is help.” Actually, Joshua’s name was modified by Moses, as we read in Numbers 13:16; previously he was called simply “salvation” (Hoshe’a – same as the prophet we know as Hosea).

The book of Joshua can be a difficult book to read, especially if we do so in awareness of the history of the land in which we live and worship not only here in Alfred, but in the United States generally. I say it can be difficult, because the conquest and colonization of these lands by Europeans was sometimes justified in terms of the conquest and colonization of Canaan by Israel. Some contemporary scholars indeed call Joshua a “settler colonialist” book, and argue that it gives a rationale or a blueprint for more modern and contemporary versions of settler colonialism.[1] Think of it. We call the izote de desierto or yucca brevifolia, a tree native to the US Southwest and the Mexican Northwest, a Joshua tree. It is said that when white settlers heading West saw it, they were reminded of Joshua leading the children of Israel as they took the land.

And yet there is -as usual- more to the story. I don’t think we can dismiss the book of Joshua simply as a piece of pro-colonial propaganda. As almost always with Scripture, there is more to discover if we have eyes to see and ears to hear – although it takes work. If we look at the book carefully, we will find that it actually includes several understandings of what it meant to enter into and inhabit the promised land, some of them in tension with each other. To that we can add that the historical reality is that Israel did mostly live alongside other peoples who had been in the land before them. And perhaps most importantly later, the prophets would at times hold up a vision of a land open to all, where all would be able to experience the glory of God. So we are called to read the book of Joshua carefully, with an understanding of its ambiguities, in light of the conviction rooted not only in the gospel of Jesus but also in the Hebrew prophets, that the good news of God is for all people, not just for some, that violence is neither a means nor an end that fits into the shalom, the peace with justice of God. There are other ways to act, even in extreme situations – as we shall see in a moment in the story of Rahab.

But already in chapter 1 of the book of Joshua we can find a clue to help us. The LORD speaks to Joshua and tells him that he is to be strong and courageous. This does not mean vengeful and violent, but rather he is to be strong in ways that are in accordance with the Torah, with the Law: [quote] “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8). Now, the law and the prophets were summarized for us in the gospels as loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors -construed widely also as those very different from us, including our enemies- as ourselves, which means loving ourselves also. This is a key guideline Jesus gave usto hold close to our hearts and meditate on day and night, as we walk through our lives and vocations.

So though the book of Joshua does say God is giving the people of Israel the land that was promised, it also clarifies that the way they are to live in it is the way of justice that is described in the Torah, something that -as we said already- the prophets of Israel will later continue to clarify and expand. Folk that take seriously the calling to meditate on the law day and night turn out to be, in fact, a lot like Jesus, more so even than his namesake Joshua. According to the gospels, the parents and kinfolk of Jesus where folk who meditated on the way of God day and night, and so was he. In quite an interesting twist to our story- the second chapter of Joshua, the one we will discuss today, is about someone named as one of Jesus’ ancestors in the genealogy included in Matthew 1:5, someone considered a hero of the faith by the book of Hebrews 11:31, someone considered a righteous person in James 2:25: someone who was not a Jew, but a Canaanite; not a man, but a woman; not a woman of means or prestige, but a prostitute who lived in the poorest section of town. She was triply an outsider: as a Canaanite, as a female, and as a sex worker. Her name was Rahab. Rahab fits into the genealogy of people who got it, who meditated on the Law and understood something about its deeper meaning, who for that reason fit into the stream that flows into the sermon on the mount and the teachings of her descendant in the faith, Jesus.

But before we get any further into Rahab’s story, pause with me just a little longer to consider the matter of the Law that Joshua is told he should meditate on day and night. The spirit of the Law (singular) in the deep sense of the way of justice taught by God, is not always borne out in every single one of the specific laws (plural) in the Torah, most of which we as Christians do not even try to put into practice today. Quite frankly, many of the laws (plural) in Deuteronomy were oriented toward protecting the interests of the male head of household within Israel, with the goal of controlling female sexuality. This was primarily to ensure that a man’s sons were his own. So, if -for example- a man was found to have relations with the wife of another man, both were to die (Deut. 22:2); you may remember the story of the woman caught in adultery that we find in John 8, who is almost stoned before Jesus reminds her accusers of their own complicities with sin (“he who is without sin should cast the first stone”).

However, if a woman was part of the people of Israel but not married or engaged, or if she was a prostitute, or a foreign woman (Deut. 21:10-14) or a female slave (Lev. 19:20-22), then for a man to have sex with her (even a married man) was not considered adultery.[2] Just let that sink in for a moment. The laws didn’t care about a male being unfaithful to his wife – only about making sure that he was not unfaithful with a woman already married to another Israelite.

So when our text for today tells us that the unnamed men sent out to spy out the land ended up in the home of a prostitute, it tells us a couple of things. For one, Rahab’s house may have served as a kind of inn where foreigners stayed. In the ancient world, inns and brothels were often used as sites for espionage.[3] Prostitutes were in touch with many men, some of them well-placed and well-informed, and were in touch with the rumor mill. But, beyond that, the Israelite spies had no qualms about visiting a prostitute and presumably using her services. Rahab was dealing with two men who as a matter of course gave primacy to the interests of males, and specifically of men within the tribes of Israel. And she was in touch with many other men from the city itself, most of whom would have had no qualms in using violence for their own ends. In that situation, she had to think on her feet to try to ensure her own safety and that of her family. And she manages to do so non-violently, saving the two men and -eventually- herself and her family.

Her cleverness, though, does not let us off the hook. What do we do with the kinds of laws in the Old Testament (or, for that matter, in our law books today) that are biased toward a group with greater power against another group with lesser power? Well, to start with, we know that just because something has been promulgated as law does not make it just. In our context we need go no further than Jim Crow, or to recent laws severely restricting reproductive rights, or to laws that criminalize migrants, or to laws directed against trans folk seeking medical help, to realize that simply being law-abiding citizens does not constitute loving God and our neighbors.

But the good news for us as people of the Book, is that we can see in the Bible itself a constant reevaluation of how best to live out the core of what God is teaching us in the Torah and later in the Gospel.

Let me give an example of this. The Mosaic teaching in Deuteronomy 23:1-8 bans or cuts off certain folk from the community based on their sexuality or on the fact that they are foreigners. But the Bible itself later overturns that exclusion, in Isaiah 56:3-8. There we read in part:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”
My house shall be called house of prayer
For all peoples.
Thus says the LORD God,
Who gathers the outcasts of Israel
I will gather others to them
Besides those already gathered.”[4]

We’ve been given the task of struggling with interpretation, of discussing the Bible, figuring out how best to make sense of it. We do this every Sunday together. And then we are called to do it all over again whenever we realize that some of our interpretations may not be helping us to love God and neighbor. The solution when we come across difficult texts is not to throw out the Bible and forget about it, nor is it to revert to simplistic or rigid interpretations. Rather, we are asked to meditate “day and night,” as Joshua 1:8 says, in order to find the life and the light that Scripture provides, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

So, too, with the story of Rahab. So let us wrestle a bit with it.

First, a quick synopsis: Joshua, leader of Israel after the death of Moses, sends out two men to spy out the land, especially focusing on the walled city of Jericho. The two spies enter Jericho and spend the night at the house of a prostitute named Rahab, who lives inside the city wall, right on the edge of the city. The king immediately finds out about their presence in the city and commands Rahab to deliver the spies over to him. Rahab disobeys the king. Instead, she hides the men on the roof of her house under some stalks of flax. She gives the king false information, encouraging his men to pursue the spies in the direction of the Jordan. Once the pursuers leave and the gates to the city are shut, she helps the spies escape down the city wall by means of a rope, and tells them to hide out in the hill country, in the opposite direction of where she had sent their pursuers. Before helping them escape, though, she confesses that she believes the God of Israel, God of heaven and earth, will hand Jericho over to Israel. She asks them to give her a sign of good faith that when they do take the city, they will have mercy on her and her family. They tell her to leave a crimson cord hanging out the window, and that everyone in her house will be spared. Later, in Joshua 6:25, after the city has fallen to the Israelites, we learn that [quote] “Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her descendants -the text adds- have lived in Israel ever since.” As we see in the gospel reading that corresponds to this text, the New Testament picks up on this. Matthew includes Rahab among the four women he points to in the genealogy of Jesus, who by the way are not the traditional matriarchs of Israel (Sara, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel), but rather outsiders who in various ways are survivors of gendered violence: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.

Who was Rahab? We can start with her name. Notice that she is named but the men in the story are not named. That in itself is quite striking and unusual. The name “Rahab” can be translated as “a broad place.” Some interpreters through the years have made this a into a double entendre, a reference to her as an easy woman, a prostitute. But that pun is a bit too facile, a bit too easy, for in our text Rahab speaks poetically and prophetically in ways that justify another interpretation. Her name can also be interpreted as “God has made a wide expanse,” a “broad place” in the sense that God is opening up doors for all to enter God’s salvation and liberation.[5]

Rahab actually anticipates the kind of expansion of the promises of God that we see in Isaiah and the other prophets. For as she puts it in v. 11, using language from the book of Deuteronomy, “The LORD your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” – and therefore God of all, not just of a select few. In the Hebrew Bible, only Moses and Solomon say something similar, in Deut. 4:39 and 1 Kings 8:23 respectively. Think of it! We’ve got Moses the ultimate prophet and leader of Israel, Solomon the wise king who built the first Temple, and Rahab the prostitute of Jericho – all in the same league, all declaring that God is not just a localized God for the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the God of the entire universe.[6] And with regard to the meaning of her name, the “broad space,” in the Hebrew Bible, “the notion of a ‘broad space, wide expanse’ is a thoroughly positive concept.” It usually appears when God intervenes after a crisis. For example in Psalm 18, the Psalmist says that the LORD has taken him into a broad place and rescued him.[7] God is making a way out of no way for Rahab, a person who has been dealt a difficult hand in life; God is making a broad space for her to live and breathe and thrive.

Given all of this, the fact that she is a prostitute who is also a theologian and prophet, an outsider who becomes an insider, a woman who outwits a king and who negotiates with spies, it is probably no surprise that Rahab seems to have caught the imagination of many interpreters through the centuries. The rabbis viewed her as a prototype of proselytes, but also as one of the most beautiful women on earth, an expert in the art of love. They married her off to Joshua and made her into a matriarch of Israel and the ancestor of eight prophets, including Jeremiah and the prophetess Hulda. Rahab can certainly be said to speak as the prophets speak, declaring and pronouncing the will of God as Huldah would do later on, toward the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, when she announced the destruction of Judah.[9]

Later on, the church fathers revel in Rahab’s outsider status, understanding it as a sign of how God can transform us. Rahab becomes a symbol of the grafting of gentiles on to the tree that is Israel, so that gentiles, too, can become heirs of the promises made to Abraham. Rahab also becomes a symbol of the church and the red cord a symbol of Christ’s blood shed for us. The window through which the men escape is taken to be a symbol of the incarnation, a window through which we can glimpse the glory of God.[10] Nobody can accuse the early theologians of a lack of imagination!

Rahab is also a figure who has stirred the imagination of poets and writers through the centuries. She appears gloriously in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Paradiso, 9th Canto) as a “chaste whore,” a casta meretrix, with no regrets about her past life, still thriving in the broad place God has made for her.

But what about us today? What is the good news for us in Rahab’s story?

Well, first of all, Rahab’s story reminds us that God is indeed a God who makes a way out of no way. God is in the business of making a broad place for us to find rest, a place to breathe, a place of safety, a place to grow. And that your experience doesn’t have to be a military commander or a king or a spy. Rahab’s story is that of a woman who literally lives on the margins of her society. It may sound romantic to us today to have a house with a great view of the hills, but at that time it was poor folk lived in the city walls. Inside the city there were walled neighborhoods with greater protection, and that is where the wealthy folks lived, close to the centers of power.[11] Yet from her position literally on the margins, Rahab was able to act in faith and not only save herself but others. One of the commentators on the Bible Worm podcast imagines that when the Israelites took the city, Rahab fit in not only her family into the safety of the house marked by the red cord, but other folks who lived alongside her on the margins and that they too, with her, made it to the broad place where a new life was possible. I’m reminded a bit of Harriet Tubman, another brave and wise woman on the margins, who was not satisfied by escaping personally from her enslavers, but who was intent upon saving many more, becoming a Moses to her people. The story of Rahab is good news in a society where modern forms of enslavement and Jim Crow and oppression and violence continue to squeeze the breath out of so many people.

Second of all, Rahab’s story reminds us that God is good, all the time, and all the time…God is good. So when we come up against unjust laws (like the OT ones about adultery or the laws in this country today that hurt the vulnerable) and when we come up against violent interpretations of Scripture (such as the imperative to kill folks indiscriminately and take their land), we can be sure that as we meditate day and night on the heart of God’s law, on the good news of the gospel, we will encounter the God of justice and love and compassion that Rahab confessed as the God of heaven and earth, not a travesty of god or of religion that justifies violence and exclusion. And that is very good news in a time when religion of all kinds is too often used as an excuse to mistreat others rather than to love them.

And third of all (since I guess there has to be a third point), and maybe this is my favorite of all, the story of Rahab reminds us that Jesus came from a long line of women who used their God-given wits to make the best of difficult situations; real women, without the advantages of power or riches, who like Mary his mother trusted that God raises up the poor and the oppressed, and brings peace and justice to the land. And that is very good news in a society that despises the poor and blames them for their struggles.

If Rahab figured out what to do in her situation without resorting to violence, so can we, so will we, no matter how hard it seems, for we have been promised that the God who wants to take us out into a broad space, will never leave us or forsake us, and will be there with us to help us find a way forward. Glory be to God! Amen.

[1] Cf. Pekka Pitkänen, “A Settler Colonial Document of a Supplanting Society,” Settler Colonial Studies 4.3 (2014) 245-276, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2201473X.2013.842626
[2] Cheryl B. Anderson, Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies. The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 35.
[3] Ekaterina Kozlova, “What’s in a Name? Rahab, the Canaanite, and the Rhetoric of Liberation in the Hebrew Bible,” Open Theology 6 (2920), 572-586:  576.
[4] Walter Bruegemann describes this as a “circumstance-driven exclusion” which is answered in turn “by a circumstance-driven inclusiveness;” cf. his essay “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection,” Christian Century, January 3, 2001.
[5] Kozlova, 576.
[6] Kozlova, 580.
[7] Kozlova, 578.
[8] Cf. Peter S. Hawkins, “Dante’s Rahab,” MLN 124 Supplement (2009): S70-S80, S71.
[9] Cf. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Reading Rahab,” in Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg, ed. Mordechai Cogan, Barry L. Eichler, Jeffrey H. Tigay, 57–67 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 62.
[10] Cf. Hawkins, S72.
[11] Mercedes García Bachmann, “Evaluación de la prostitución desde los textos bíblicos,” Cuadernos de Teología 19 (2000) 23-35: 27.