By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. (Hebrews 11:31)
Rahab the harlot lived on the margins of her society, literally. In the late bronze age when her story takes place historically, it was common for people to build housing adjacent to or within fortification walls like that of Jericho. She was a harlot who kept her family afloat by keeping her tavern well. Rabbinical literature cites Rahab as one of the most beautiful women of the bible alongside Abigail, Sarah, and Esther. She is marginalized by her location within Jericho, living right on the perimeter just under the skin of the city and also metaphorically by her harlotry. But, it is this exact marginalization that makes her God’s servant. She is a woman very much in the right place at the right time with the right job: a whore whose tavern borders the town barrier on the evening of a reconnaissance mission before conquering it.
Sex Working and The Bible has some incredible commentary about this story from a roundtable discussion between incredible sex workers whose work has left inedible marks in the history of human rights activism. The ability to faciliate their analysis and to center it as valuable theological commentary is something that is rare and precious. Ipsen points out that Mary Magdalene is debatable but Rahab really is not unless you want to absurdly hold semantic ground. She’s a vital character to study because she is lauded by the bible for her actions and held as a model.
What the commentary from the sex workers really grabbed onto was the disenfranchisement that Rahab must have felt to be able to sell her city out. She is loyal to her house but she is not loyal to her city and based purely on what she had heard about the Isrealites and their escape from slavery with the miraculous support of their God who stands with the marginalized. To be loyal to her city would be loyalty to the hierarchy she is subject to and she hitches a ride to freedom with this quick and decisive act. It is very much what makes her a worthy matriarch for this powerful and divinely inspired lineage: she does what it takes to take care of her family and she has a keen vision of freedom and liberation.
And that ye will save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death. And the men answered her, Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business. And it shall be, when the LORD hath given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee. (Joshua 2:13-14)
Behold, when we come into the land, thou shalt bind this line of scarlet thread in the window which thou didst let us down by: and thou shalt bring thy father, and thy mother, and thy brethren, and all thy father’s household, home unto thee. And it shall be, that whosoever shall go out of the doors of thy house into the street, his blood shall be upon his head, and we will be guiltless: and whosoever shall be with thee in the house, his blood shall be on our head, if any hand be upon him. And if thou utter this our business, then we will be quit of thine oath which thou hast made us to swear. And she said, According unto your words, so be it. And she sent them away, and they departed: and she bound the scarlet line in the window. (Joshua 2:18-21)
The Scarlet Thread is a reference to the Passover of the Jews in Israel. This is the mark of protection for Rahab and her family and represents the Israelites becoming a protector forging a covenant. I think it specifically marks sexual laborers as being under the umbrella of protection as well as agents of Gods will. God freed the slaves of Egypt and carried them through the dessert and to the gates of Jericho with promises that they were now a major military power ready to establish a kingdom. On the precipice of achieving this, they changed their role from liberated to liberator.
There’s a lot less sexual morality in the Bible than many people presume. The lineage of Christ includes harlots and men with concubines and mistresses and multiple wives. David and Solomon are too of God’s beloved servants and great leaders and both had a hearty sexual appetite and took on many wives and upset God when they acted without consent. Unlike horror films, virgins aren’t the ‘final girls’ or heroines of the old testament Bible so much as those who have sexual experience. The changemakers are married women, concubines, widows, and harlot. They aren’t reproductively normative. Despite the patriarchy of the Bible, the women it hails don’t match the contemporary model of a good woman.
Part of what makes a solid matriarch is vision, hard work, and decisive action. They can recognize God in their midst as well as opportunity to rise. They are a reminder that God is present around us at all times but we must notice and engage. Rahab is not a woman lost in her own suffering, she is on the lookout for more and she can see it in front of her and has faith. She is in a situation where the best thing is that she play the harlot, the whore. It was because she took up this mantle that she was able to meet the Israelite spies. God brought them to her door and to her bed. It was because of transactional intimacy that she was able to see these men for what they were. This access wouldn’t have been available in many other capacities. It was her job that gave her insight into God.
Rahab is a very compelling character that contradicts so much of contemporary Christianity. She is not selected by God in spite of her harlotry but because of it. There were many in Jericho who were your average good people who probably did nothing more but lead a typical life as a citizen, working as a merchant or a farmer or bureaucrat but they didn’t have her vision or her faith and they were lost to the sands of time. There are no coincidences in a biblical story, so the intersection of WHO Rahab was, WHERE she was located, WHEN she ran into the Israelites, and WHAT she offered them were divinely ordained and written to instruct or remind us of something very valuable. Sin is not an inherently sinful act although there are acts of sexual immorality. In this story alone, God smiles on his children who both visit brothels as well as staff them so long as faith and action were present.