Things You Don’t Learn in Sunday School: Rahab


This may come as a surprise: the people in the Bible led very messy lives. We forget that because almost all of the stories we learn in Sunday School have been sanitized and made appropriate for young, school-aged children. Violence, prostitution, and deceit are not exactly the life-lessons you want children to learn in Sunday School!

I taught adult classes in all of the churches I served. The classes I taught on the Bible were, surprisingly, very well attended. Being able to connect the historical-cultural contexts with modern-day application was appealing to many. One thing that inevitably shocked people was what really was going on in those stories! Many in the classes had not read the stories since becoming adults themselves. They were surprised that many of these stories were adult themes! If it’s happening today, it happened in Biblical times. Human behavior hasn’t changed all that much over the millennia.

Many may have learned a little about Rahab in Sunday School. She was instrumental in Joshua being able to take the city of Jericho as part of the Israelites moving into the Promised Land. As a result of her providing safety to the Israelite spies, her family was spared when Joshua and his troops came in and wiped out the city. And that’s about the extent of what we learn about Rahab in Sunday School.

When you know a bit more about the real Rahab, she becomes more fascinating, and her story more believable and powerful. More importantly, you see how God will welcome anyone and everyone – no matter who they are, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done – and make the looses ends of their life meaningful, when they put themselves in God’s hands.

Joshua’s mission was to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua had been one of the original spies, 40 years before, who had scouted out the land promised by God to Moses. Unfortunately, that little adventure resulted in a 40 year detour in the desert and it was now time to get the mission done!

This time Joshua sent out two spies, probably without Israelite congressional approval, for reconnaissance purposes. It would be like sending in the Navy SEALS to check out the enemy’s weaknesses. This story is found in Joshua 2, if you want to get the full experience rather than my abbreviated version.

The two spies ended up at Rahab’s place of business. I doubt she was a high-end escort (like what we’ve been seeing in the news with certain U.S. government people!), since women only resorted to prostitution because they had no other means to support themselves or they were paying off a family debt. There were some women who were temple prostitutes, but that’s a different Hebrew word than is used in this situation. As offensive and inappropriate as that may be for us, there was some strategic use to staying there, not that the two spies were necessarily thinking strategically.

Rahab’s place probably had a lot of people coming and going and would be a great place to hear pieces of gossip and acquire information. Privacy and discretion would be part of the unspoken code because clients would not want it known they associated with or engaged with such an outcast.

Rahab was not an Israelite. She was a Canaanite, the very enemy the spies were gathering intel on. The Canaanites were on the Israelite’s To Destroy list, not too much different than the tension between Israel and Iran today. Already, Rahab has three strikes against her: (1) she’s a Canaanite; (2) she’s a woman; (3) she’s a prostitute.

The king of Jericho learns through his Homeland Security that there are two Israelite spies at Rahab’s. He sends his agents to question her and search her house. She acknowledged that two men had been to her house, but she said she knew nothing about them and that they had already left. She was intentionally deceptive and purposefully misleading to the king’s men. Hmm. That’s an interesting ethical conundrum we’ll have to leave for another time. Suffice it to say, she wasn’t struck dead with lightening or turned into a pillar of salt.

Rahab had already hidden the spies under the drying flax on her roof. When the coast is clear, she went up to speak to them. Something remarkable happens when she opens her mouth to speak. If they weren’t already laying down, they’d probably have to be scraped up off the dirt floor. She proceeds to recount to them all the things she heard God was doing for the people of Israel!

Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you.

Word had spread about this nomadic people and their God. Rahab could have been resistant to the stories she hear. She could have considered these two spies terrorists and  had them arrested. Instead, she tells the men: The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. She’s open to the truth of what she hears about their God.

Not only is she open to this truth, she is willing to act on it, negotiating a bold deal in the process. In exchange for hiding them and misleading the king’s agents, she asks for safety for her family and herself when they return to destroy everyone in Jericho. They negotiate the deal, to include gathering her family into her house and hanging a red cord from her window (Origins of red light district?) and the spies are on there way back to Joshua and the Israelite encampment.

Rahab, who begins as triply marginalized – Canaanite, woman, prostitute – becomes an oracle of God’s favor on the Israelites, and instrumental in the paving the way for the Israelites entering the Promised Land. This same woman is later remembered as the ancestress of Hebrew kings and prophets, even the Messiah Jesus (see Matthew 1:1-16 for the genealogy amidst a bunch of unpronounceable names!).

In many ways, we’re not so much different than Rahab and yes, we can also be used by God in ways still unknown. I’m sure Rahab never, ever would have guessed that she would influence a life, impact a community, or have offspring that someday would be instrumental in revealing God’s love to a lost and broken world. Who knows? God is in the business of changing lives, starting with our own.

Photo: The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies by James Jacques Joseph Tissot.

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