Skeletons in the closet. Doesn’t everyone have them? The family member with the shameful secret, the relative we’d rather not talk about, the secret habits no one knows we have. Even in an age dominated by social media, in which we share and overshare details about our personal lives, we tend to carefully cultivate what people see. We have an image to maintain, even if that image bears little resemblance to the truth.
That’s what’s remarkable about the opening of Matthew’s gospel, the genealogy of the Messiah running from Abraham through David to Jesus. One could say that the purpose of the genealogy is to show that Jesus was in fact born of the line of David. But more than this, the list is notable for including the names of women with scandalous stories.
For example, when Matthew says that Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, he doesn’t have to say that their mother was Tamar — Judah’s daughter-in-law, who posed as a prostitute to entrap him. Furthermore, Matthew could just say that David was the father of Solomon; he doesn’t have to say that Solomon’s mother was “the wife of Uriah,” a designation that both refuses to name Bathsheba and highlights the adulterous nature of the liaison. It’s as if Matthew wants his readers to understand, Yes, these people are part of the story. Such is the lineage of a Messiah sent by a sovereign and gracious God to deal with human sin.
But there’s another scandalous name in the list: Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute (that’s two strikes already) who was the great-great-grandmother of King David. Far from being defined by her culture or way of life, both James and the writer of Hebrews consider her an example of living faith.
Rahab’s story is told in Joshua 2. Before the Israelites crossed the Jordan Riven en masse, Joshua sent spies into the city of Jericho. News had already reached the city of the people’s miraculous escape from Egypt, and the unstoppable military campaign of Moses on the other side of the Jordan. That, apparently, was enough for Rahab. Even if she knew nothing personally of this God, she knew that this had to be the real God, and that Jericho would fall to his people.
Joshua’s spies came to Rahab’s house. The king of Jericho, who must have had his own spies, knew, and sent messengers to Rahab, ordering her to turn over the intruders. But Rahab had already hidden them on the roof, and managed to send the king’s men off on a wild goose chase. When they had gone, Rahab went up to the roof and struck a bargain with the Israeli spies: I did you a favor, now I want you to do me one in return. I know God has given you this land. When you come and take it, spare my family. The spies readily agreed, telling Rahab to tie a crimson cord in her window to let Joshua and his army know which family was to be spared. That promise was later fulfilled when Jericho fell to the Israelites (Josh 6:22-23); Rahab’s family lived in Israel thereafter (6:25).
Thus, having used Abraham as an example of faith that results in faithful action, James adds Rahab to the mix:
Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? (James 2:25, NRSV)
It’s one thing for James to use Abraham as an exemplar of true faith, but Rahab? Is that the best way to convince a Jewish audience? Surely, Rahab would not have made anyone’s Top Ten list of Ancestors to Brag About. But even the writer of Hebrews thought it was a good idea:
By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish … because she had received the spies in peace. (Heb 11:30-31)
Along with the others listed in Hebrews 11’s roll call of faithfulness, the emphasis here is on faith translated into action. What Rahab did in hiding the spies, what Abraham did in obeying God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, they did “by faith.”
Each of these stories is scandalous in its own right. There is the scandal of Abraham ready to obey God even to the point of child sacrifice, a Canaanite practice that was clearly detestable to God (e.g., Lev 18:21). There is the scandal of lifting up a foreign prostitute as a moral exemplar. Her lifestyle was unholy, and even her so-called faithful behavior could be interpreted from the outside as nothing more than an attempt to save her own skin.
But beyond external appearances, beyond social distinctions and reputations, God sees what’s in the heart (e.g., 1 Sam 16:7). There’s nothing in Scripture that tells us that Rahab went on to live an exemplary religious life; that’s not James’ point. But she believed in a way that led her to act on that belief, even if it meant putting herself at risk.
And she’s been remembered for that ever since.