In his first act as the big cheese of the Israelite people, Joshua sends out two spies to get a feel for the territory, instructing them to pay special attention to Jericho. Unfortunately, Joshua experiences a bit of the first timer’s misfire, picking quite possibly the most ludicrously unqualified of all the possible spies available to him. Thankfully, he also has a fair bit of beginner’s luck, as we shall soon see.
These bungling spies head out from the Israelite camp and seem, almost immediately, to end up in the home of a prostitute. To be fair, they’ve been hanging out in the wilderness their entire lives, but still. There’s no word that they even attempted to do as Joshua instructed.
My poor study Bible, apparently trying to provide a more flattering excuse for the spies’ priorities, includes a note saying that the spies chose to approach Rahab because, as a prostitute, strange men coming to her house would have been less conspicuous (p.264). Nice try, editors!
As Abbie from Better Than Esdras points out, that’s not even the worst of their blundering, because Jericho’s king hears of their presence in the city almost immediately.
Which is where the beginner’s luck comes in. Rahab, the prostitute, just so happens to be on the Israelites’ side, so, in an episode worth of Don Juan, she hides the spies among the flax stalks on her roof when the king’s guards come a’knocking.
She tells the guards that the spies had been there (but that she hadn’t known they were spies), but had already left. The guards, on her instruction, rush out to find the two spies.
Back on the roof
Back with the spies, Rahab explains that word of God’s power displays among the Egyptians and Amorites travelled much faster than the Israelites did, so some plural “we” heard of them and “our hearts melted” (Josh. 2:11). It’s not indicated whether she’s referring exclusively to her own family, or more broadly to the residents of Jericho, or even to the residents of Palestine.
In any case, she makes them swear that they will spare her and her family in exchange for her having sent the guards away. Interestingly, her family members are listed as her father, her mother, her brothers, her sisters, and all their households. It would seem that she is unmarried and, perhaps also, living with her parents. At first, this made me wonder how old she is supposed to be. Then I wondered if this means that her parents are complicit/involved in her prostitution.
The spies agree to her terms, telling her to tie a red cord in her window and gather her whole family together in her house. Following her advice, they will hide in the hills for three days until the guards give up, and then head back to Joshua.
Conveniently, Rahab’s home has been built into Jericho’s wall, so she tosses a rope out the window and the spies are able to make their escape.
The red cord that the spies tell Rahab to tie in her window may be a way to connect her to the last prostitute heroine we saw, Tamar:
Remember Tamar, the woman who pretended to be a prostitute with Judah back in Genesis? When her twins were born, a red cord was tied around the hand of one, Zerah. That cord provides a symbolic connection to the red cord Rahab dangles out her window. (Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.150)
I also saw a connection between the red cord in the window and the lamb’s blood the Israelites were to paint onto their door frames during the Passover.
With regards to prostitution, Brant Clements points out that we’ve seen no moral judgement on men who’ve bought the services of prostitutes:
It is interesting, at the least, to notice that Israelite men consort with prostitutes and no moral judgment is pronounced upon them in the text. When Judah slept with Tamar (Genesis 38) he was not judged for patronizing a sex worker, but for withholding his son Shelah from his widowed daughter-in-law.
Prostitution in general seems to get something of a pass as far as sexual morality goes. There’s the prohibition on Israelites (of any gender) becoming cultic prostitutes in Deut. 23:17-18, but that’s all I can think of. Meanwhile, in both narratives featuring actual prostitutes (or, at least, acting in such a capacity for a single client in Tamar’s case), the women are pictured as heroines and rewarded.
In other words, there seems to be no connection between prostitution and any sort of moral degeneracy. I didn’t expect to find this attitude at all, though I suppose I shouldn’t be as surprised as I have been. While a woman clearly isn’t allowed to lie about her virginity (as evidenced in Deut. 22:13-21), lack of virginity itself doesn’t seem to disqualify a woman from having positive reputation – as we see in discussions about remarriage after divorce, or the requirement that women marry their sexual partners (so long as the sexual encounter doesn’t meet Deuteronomy’s criteria for rape, as explained later in Deut. 22).
David Plotz wondered why so many of the women who get narrative time are prostitutes (or, at least, having sexual encounters outside of the marriage bed – a definition expanded to include Dinah from Genesis 34). He theorizes:
I have a rudimentary theory about this. In many tribal cultures, women have been essentially banished from the public sphere in order to control their virtue. We see this in strict Islamic cultures today, where women are punished for speaking to men besides their husbands and relatives. Throughout the Bible, the Israelites have been obsessed with controlling the sexual behavior of their girls and women—this is why there are so many darn laws about female purity, sexual misbehavior, and intermarriage. The Israelite women seem to have played no role in public life. Except for Moses’ sister Miriam (and, in passing, Noa and her sisters), there hasn’t been a single woman since the Exodus who’s had any kind of public responsibility. So, why do we read about prostitutes? Perhaps because prostitutes were the only women involved in the Israelites’ public life.
The last interesting facet of Rahab’s story is that she is rewarded for lying. I’ve frequently heard of the missionary tactic used by Ray Comfort where the missionee is asked “Have you ever told a lie?” If the answer is yes, the missionee is declared a bad person worthy of hell (and, therefore, in need of divine mercy, Christ’s sacrifice, and all the rest of the spiel).
This is certainly backed throughout our reading: Exodus 20:16, Exodus 23:1-7, Leviticus 6:2-4, Leviticus 19:11, and Deuteronomy 5:20. Nowhere is there any mention of mitigating factors. Nowhere is the “Anne Frank is hiding in your attic and the Nazis are at your door” thought-experiment invoked.
And yet when we see characters lie in the narrative, they are almost invariably on the Goodie side. Whether it’s Jacob tricking his brother out of his inheritance (Genesis 27), or the midwives lying to the authorities to save the Israelite babies (Exodus 1:18-20), or Rahab lying to save the Israelite spies.
This is precisely why, if we’re going to be talking about biblical morality, we cannot employ the “clobber-text” method. If we look only at the rules and not the narrative, we do not get to see the complete picture, because while the rules may be defined and, often, very stark, the narratives fill in the missing nuance.
In other words, Ray Comfort is wrong. Lying, alone, is not a sin condemned by God. Over and over again, God is pleased with lying, he even commands it (as in Exodus 12 where he gets the Israelites out of Egypt under a false pretext).
I really enjoyed Rahab’s narrative. It’s full of narrative details (the house built into the wall to facilitate the spies’ escape, the red thread, the hiding of the spies in the flax, etc.) the likes of which we haven’t seen since Genesis!