Thursday, December 09, 2004

On the Theological Importance of a Harlot

Christmas drawing near, I've been thinking recently about one of my favorite Old Testament characters, Rahab the harlot. You know the story, I'm sure. Joshua sends spies into Jericho to get the lay of the land. They stay at the house of Rahab. The ruler of Jericho learns that there are spies in his city, and sends a message to Rahab, telling her to bring the spies out. Rahab responds that while the men did, in fact, come to her, they left the city and she didn't know where they went; but if they hurried, they might catch them. In reality she had hidden them under stalks of flax on our roof. And so she saved their lives. Before they went to sleep, she went to them and said:

I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away 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 who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.

And the men swore it, telling her to put a scarlet cord in her window; if anyone left her house, they could not guarantee their safety, but if anyone harmed anyone in that house, the blood would be on the heads of the spies. She let down a rope from the wall, and they went on their way. And when Jericho fell, Rahab and all her family were spared, and lived with the Israelites the rest of their lives.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews does not shy away from putting Rahab forward as exemplary in her faith: because she had faith that the God of Israel was God above and God below, she did not perish, but joined the people of God. And James does not shy away from using her as an example of why faith must have works, putting her (as the author of the letter to the Hebrews does) in the company of the likes of Abraham and Isaac.

Now what, you might ask, does all this have to do with Christmas? There is one other passage in the New Testament that appears to refer to Rahab. It is Matthew 1, the genealogy of Christ. Matthew mentions in this very patrilineal genealogy four women (besides Mary): Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba). Bathsheba was an adulteress; but she also saved her life and the life of her son. Tamar's case is really kind of odd; she pretends to be a prostitute because after she is widowed twice her father-in-law refuses to allow her to marry his youngest son for fear that he will die, too. There's not really a label for that. But she is explicitly mentioned in Ruth in the elders' blessing of the marriage between Ruth and Boaz, and, what is more, she is mentioned in the company of the likes of Rachel and Leah. Rahab, besides being a prostitute, was a Canaanite, and thus a 'foreign woman'; as, indeed, was Ruth, a Moabitess. As a rule, it was not couth to marry a foreign woman. but in both cases, the result ultimately was no less than King David:

Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

The truth about Matthew's genealogy is that it should be seen as being almost a hymn, a psalm in praise of divine providence. For God worked in every case, although in each case something was off, to bring about what was ultimately the greatest good of all. And so this brings us to Mary, the fifth woman mentioned in the genealogy. And you know her place in the scheme of providence; for from her it was truly shown that the God of the Israelites is God of heaven above and of earth below.

And what we have in the Christmas season is owed in some small measure to a whore in Jericho, who showed a faith in God that would put most of ours to shame. It is a sobering thought; and a joyful one. I don't know if I can explain it in a way that non-Christian readers of this weblog would understand; but I think my Christian readers know exactly what I mean.

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