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Rahab - question the label

Friday 3rd December

Drew Van Tiem


Matthew 1:5

In Jesus’ genealogy, we are given the names of some remarkable women, who shaped the course of Israel’s history, even if they would not have been the people you would expect to have a direct line to the Messiah. Rahab is one of them.

Rahab isn’t often portrayed in the best light. The Bible identifies her as Rahab the Harlot. Like with all labels of people, this reveals how she is viewed and shapes how future people will understand her. This was and remains a stigmatised label. While it might not be many Christians first inclination, we’re free to question and challenge this label, even though it’s the Bible identifying her in this way. Let’s not shy from admitting, too, that it is a label that was given by men. By doing so, these men have significantly shaped how she is understood by commentators and readers today.

Take one example: Rahab is described by a significant male commentator and church leader from the US as a harlot, a liar, and a Canaanite, suggesting that it is remarkable that someone like that is considered a hero of faith in that famous list from Hebrews 11. He even asks, after reiterating and reemphasising that she is a prostitute and a liar, “Is there anything good that can be said about her?” It seems that he is keen to emphasise all the ways she should be considered bad and giver her all negative labels. But this labelling doesn’t give much thought to the humanity of Rahab. This line of thinking leads to his conclusion that God can use even the most sinful of people and offers grace to everyone, even prostitutes and liars. Of course, this is true and good. But it doesn’t give a very empathetic understanding of why a woman might be a prostitute and it robs Rahab of the credit she deserves for her bravery and courage.

Rather than going along with this negative label, we must reorient our view of Rahab and see her in a new light. Most likely, Rahab was a victim of sex trafficking. Understanding her as a victim can completely change how we understand her and her story. Apart from perhaps a few exceptions, prostitution was not a preferred choice of work for women in this culture. Being a woman was already hard enough, but to have been a prostitute would carry extra stigmatisation. It’s possible Rahab chose this out of complete desperation, having no other options (i.e. no husband or family to look after her, sadly what was needed for stability for a woman in this culture). But most likely, she was forced into it as a sex slave, carrying the stigma of what others (that is, men, initially) forced on her.

Despite the dire and tragic circumstances of being forced into prostitution, and despite the stigmatising label and lifestyle that men had forced on her, she found a way to subvert the powerful men in the story. She found a way to take her future into her own hands, taking it back from the men who had controlled her. Not only this, but she also was able to bring Israel into its promised future. Like the women who had saved Moses (the midwives, Pharoah’s daughter, his own sister and mother), yet another woman was protecting and saving the people of Israel.

It’s a remarkable story of courage. As we prepare for the coming birth of Jesus, let us remember that this woman’s bravery is part of who and where Jesus comes from. Jesus

comes from a mixed-raced bloodline of marginalised victims who found a way out of those circumstances to a better future. The women in his story are not nameless and, in many cases, such as that of Rahab, it was their courageous, bold, and disruptive action that changed the course of Israel’s (and others’) history. At the very least, this should lead us to challenge the labels we use, particularly that men give of women. But beyond that, it should also move us, embolden us, and inspire change in our own stories, both personal and collective.

Drew Van Tiem lives in Edinburgh and works for Communitas International, with particular interest in the areas of spiritual formation and contemplative retreats. He has numerous (but perhaps not enough) bold and disruptive women/girls amongst his family and friends.

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