Monday, 19 June 2017

Rahab of Jericho - the prostitute (Part 4)



This follows on from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
The Mount of Temptation Restaurant, Jericho ~ June 2012


Rahab is consistently described as a prostitute (Heb. zônāh; Gr. pornē) which is the general term for a harlot (Josh 2:1; 6:17, 22-23, 25). Though the New Testament writers and Church Fathers praised her, they always referred to her as a prostitute (Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25; 1 Clem 12:1). Rahab never managed to shake off the label of her questionable background. It was not because her conversion was disputed or her righteousness doubted - the Bible refers to Rahab's profession without passing any moral judgment and Scripture does not explicitly condemn her for being a liar or a traitor - but probably to act as a constant reminder that the peculiar nature of God's merciful compassion towards the least likely to respond and towards the least righteous, is capable of bringing about complete transformation!

Nevertheless, many cultures of the Ancient Near East viewed prostitution as "an undesirable but necessary institution to keep the men satisfied" [1] and Rahab, already an outsider to the covenant people of Israel, would have been tolerated as a prostitute within the city of Jericho but also considered a social outcast. "Rahab is the quintessential outsider: apparently marginalized even among her own people to the extent that she feels no compunction about betraying them" [2]

There is some debate as to whether Rahab was a prostitute or an innkeeper. [3] Inns and taverns were known to sometimes serve as brothels and commentators have suggested that a brothel would have been an ideal place for the spies to get local information and protect their anonymity. 

Although there is an understandable reason for the Biblical writers continuing to call Rahab "the prostitute", the negative associations with this occupation are undeniable. This word might make one think of a woman indulging "in venal wantoness as traveling merchants came her way" [4], wilfully approaching men and indiscriminately selling her body for a profit. But for millennia it has been observed that in the patriarchal cultures which prevailed the authority of women was limited, their opportunities restricted, and their social status lower than that of their male counterparts, therefore prostitution would not necessarily have been entered into voluntarily. Prostitution in ancient times is a fairly broad topic that requires a more comprehensive discussion than what can be given here, but both then and now, it includes the sad reality that many of these women were handed over into situations of bondage for commercial advantage or religious service. History bears witness to the fact that prostitutes like Rahab are more often the ones being sinned against than the ones responsible for initiating and creating the demand for this type of sin. 

Rahab deserves the title of faithful much more than remaining labelled as a prostitute.


However, continuing to call Rahab "the prostitute" does provide a valuable reminder that God doesn’t ask for sinless perfection and moral purity before coming to him. If he did, we would never make it. And Rahab the prostitute also assures us that no matter your background or how sinful you are or the extent to which you have been used unrighteously by sinful people, you can find grace, mercy, and deliverance. No one is too sinful to be forgiven. No one is beyond the scope of God's loving kindness!

Don't allow the labels of your past to define your identity in the present!


(Read Part 5 here.) 
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[1] Richard R. Losch, All the People in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 356.
[2] Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans (eds.), The IVP Women's Bible Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 117.
[3] There is a strain of rabbinic tradition that maintains that Rahab was not a prostitute, but an innkeeper or held some other respectable occupation. However, attempts to cleanse her past in this way "seriously undercut the main tradition of the warm reception Judaism offered the repentant harlot... it was the transformation of the fallen woman into a mother in Israel that confirmed the rabbinic message that neither gender, foreign origins, nor a dubious past were a barrier to those who sincerely wished to join the Jewish people". Judith R. Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2002), 160.
[4] "Rahab", <https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/all-women-bible/Rahab> (Zondervan, 1998), accessed 18 June 2017.

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