Scripture: Joshua 2:1-14
As I was preparing this week, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Hitch. It came out when I was in college and in it Will Smith plays Hitch, the “Date Doctor,” a guy who sets people up professionally, but doesn’t actually seem to have a lot of game himself. When he meets a woman he’s interested in named Sara, he has the idea to take her on a fun and romantic expedition to Ellis Island to see one of her ancestor’s names in the log they kept of immigrants entering the country. He keeps his plan a secret from her, though.
They ride jet skis over to Ellis Island and are wandering around the museum when they come upon the registration book where her great-great-grandfather’s name is written, and Hitch casually stops and gestures for her to look. When she sees the name she tears up, and he’s smiling to himself, until Sara cries out angrily and starts actually crying and runs away. In the next scene they’re walking and Sara is saying to Hitch, “…and my family never saw him again, well, except on the Wanted posters.” And Hitch says, “When I saw it on the computer, it said ‘The Butcher of Cadiz.’ But I thought it was a profession, not a headline.”
She says, “It’s just one of those horrible family legacies we’ve all tried to forget.”
I asked last week if any of you had anything interesting in your genealogy. Have any of you come across something or someone you’d rather erase out of your family tree altogether?
Rahab could have easily been one of those people in Jesus’ family tree. She was no Butcher of Cadiz, I mean, but she was a prostitute, and that’s one of those things you maybe don’t mention in your seventh-grade family tree project. But as it turns out, not only does she make it onto the family tree, she’s one of only five women who does in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. So what’s she doing there, and why does Matthew think she’s so important? What does Rahab have to tell us about her descendant Jesus and who he is and what God is doing through him?
Well, let’s back up and hear her story.
Rahab’s story takes place just as the wilderness years are coming to an end and the Israelites are camped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, about to enter the promised land of Canaan. She and her family live in the city of Jericho, the first city in the promised land to fall. You might remember the song – Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a-tumblin’ down? Rahab and her family actually lived inside the wall of the city, which confused me until I visited the city of Cartagena, Colombia, where the wall was actually wide enough to stroll on at sunset and have shops and such inside it. Anyway, this is right before that wall and all its wall-houses come a-tumblin’ down.
Moses has died, by this point, and his assistant Joshua is in charge. God tells him to “be strong and very courageous.” If he and his people act in accordance with the law that God gave them through Moses, God promises him, God will be with them. Before Joshua leads the Israelite army into Jericho to take it over, though, he wants to scout it out, see what they are up against. So he sends two spies into the city for a little recon mission.
The spies enter the city and the very first thing they do is go to Rahab’s house. Very important spy work going on there, I’m sure. The Bible simply says they entered her house and spent the night, but as one writer, Tom Fuerst, put it, “Two unnamed soldiers in the house of a prostitute does not stretch the imagination.”
But while they are there, the king gets wind of the fact that some spies have entered his city. They must not have been very good spies, but, so the story goes. So the king sends some of his guys to Rahab’s house to find them.
Rahab must also have heard that they were coming – I suppose word travels pretty quickly in Jericho – because she ushers the men up to the roof, where flax is drying from the recent harvest, and hides them there under the drying stalks. And when the king’s men knock on the door, she tells them, “Oh yeah, they were here, but they left. I think they went that way,” and the men thank her very much and ride off. Then she lowers the spies out through the window on the outer side of the city wall with a rope and tells them to literally run for the hills. (Notice they haven’t done much spying.)
We are reading this story, of course, from an Israelite perspective, and so Rahab immediately goes from Canaanite prostitute to Israelite hero. We read about her in Hebrews 11, listed as a paragon of faith. We read about her in the book of James, as someone whose faith was shown through her actions. But Rahab was a traitor. She harbored two enemy spies, people who would literally cause the walls of her city to come a-tumblin’ down. Why would she do it?
Maybe, as one of my commentaries suggested, she was not the polished professional, the madam, that we might picture, but a poor girl from a poor family forced into her line of work to repay debt or help put food on the table. Maybe, given her marginal social status, she didn’t feel much loyalty to the powers that be. That first part – her poverty – seems likely. Still, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t have cared if her whole city was destroyed.
Here, though, is what Rahab tells the spies. She says, “I know that the Lord has given you this land. We’ve heard what you all did in Egypt, how your God dried up the waters of the Red Sea, how you went to war against some kings across the Jordan and one. We are all afraid of you.” And she says, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”
Rahab believes when she has no reason to believe. She stakes her life on a God her people don’t even worship. For that, we are called to emulate her faith.
Then again, it’s possible Rahab’s faith might have been a little more calculated than miraculous. If she really had heard these stories of Israelite military victory, then maybe she simply wanted to make sure that when those walls came a-tumblin’ down, she’d be standing with the winners than the losers. Is this faith, or is this just telling these men what they want to hear – something she must be very practiced at – in a desperate gamble for her own survival? How much of a difference is there?
Either way, the spies agree to her request: she has saved them, and they will save her too.
As they head down the wall and toward the hills, though, they do give her one condition: that she and all her family tie a red cord in their window, so when the invading army comes, they will know to pass those houses over. Sound familiar? This Canaanite family gets a Passover of its own.
So that is Rahab’s story. Here’s the thing, though: it’s not just Rahab’s profession that made her an unlikely candidate for Jesus’ family tree. It’s not even just that she was a non-Israelite, though that was a strike against her at the time, too.
It’s that most of the book of Joshua is based around the divine command to utterly destroy everything and everyone in the land of Canaan. In Hebrew this is known as herem, sometimes translated into English as “the ban.” When the Israelites entered the promised land and took it for themselves, not one person, not one animal, not one thing that might cause them to assimilate to another culture, was to be spared.
This is not an aspect of our theological heritage we tend to talk about a lot in church, because it doesn’t actually make us look very good. Especially if we affirm – as Jesus would have – that the God of the Old Testament is the same God we meet in Jesus in the New Testament. Who, these days, wants to worship a God who calls for the utter destruction of the people already in the land? They weren’t even the invaders – just the people going about their business in the place where they presumably always had.
This is one of those big theological problems for pretty much anyone who has any sliver of compassion, and no one has a great way out of it. We could spend a lot more time on this, but for now let me simply recognize the problem and also mention that we can think about it symbolically, our need to cut everything out of our lives that is not of God, no questions, no exceptions. (Recognizing that it is also problematic to think of people only symbolically.) Or we might say that that is how people understood God’s will at the time, but times change, and it’s possible they were wrong, just as it’s possible we’re wrong in some of the ways we understand God’s will today.
In Rahab’s story, though, that command is violated. Had the Israelites followed the rules—the rules they understood to be from God—Rahab and her family would have been toast. Instead, she lives to become the father of Boaz, who will marry Ruth, who will give birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the ancestor of Jesus. Rahab represents a branch of Jesus’ family tree that might never have been.
The beauty of Rahab’s legacy is that someone who was apparently supposed to be blotted out of God’s story gets written back in.
And maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, because God’s story is full of people who by some standards shouldn’t have been a part of it, from Jacob, who tricked his way into the family tree, to Moses, raised as a son of the enemy king, to David, chosen and thoroughly fallen, to Paul, who hunted down the very people he would become a pastor to—to a baby, born to an unwed mother, whose first bed was a feeding trough, and who would die a criminal’s death.
“Advent,” writes Tom Fuerst, “opens our eyes to the ways in which God’s love is bigger than we possibly could have imagined.”
In Jesus’ time, too, we hear of people who might otherwise have been written out of the story: of Mary Magdalene, who had seven demons. Of lepers, banned to the outskirts of the community, and paralytics, begging outside the Temple. Of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, complicit in his own oppression. Of a Roman soldier who lost a child. Of a woman married five times who showed up at a well when she thought no one else would be there. Of – once again – a Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed.
They were outcasts, enemies, people living in the margins. And what did Jesus do? He healed them, forgave them, showed mercy on them, healed their children, invited himself over for dinner. He wrote them back into the story. He made them believe that maybe it wasn’t God who had written them out, after all.
Maybe you know someone who seems like an unlikely candidate for being part of what God is doing in our world. Maybe they’re an addict, someone who has wasted their life and potential and brought only misery to others. Maybe they’re needy in a way it’s hard to feel sorry for, always taking and never giving. Maybe they are just not a good person, always looking out for number one without regard for how their actions affect others.
Or maybe you are someone who wonders if you yourself have been written out of God’s story—if God has simply left you to the devices of the people or forces who would destroy you. If your past or even present has made you unworthy of your place at the table, unworthy of doing God’s work.
I know one Canaanite woman who would tell you otherwise.
What are we waiting for during the season of Advent? Maybe this is a season of waiting to be written back in. Because when you think about it, all of us are unworthy to be part of God’s story. All of us are unworthy to do the work that God has for us to do in the world. So maybe this is a season of waiting for the grace that includes those of us who might otherwise have been excluded. A season of preparing ourselves to be able to recognize it when we see it. A season leading to the birth of the one who gives us reason to believe we were never written out.
So this is your job this second week of Advent: Remember that God’s love is bigger than we ever thought possible. Try to look at others in that light, and try to look at yourself in that light too.
 Tom Fuerst, Underdogs and Outsiders: The Untold Stories of Advent, p. 34.
 New Interpreter’s Bible: Joshua
 Underdogs and Outsiders, p. 31