February 05, 2008

Joshua 1-4: More wily women

Today's reading is Joshua 1-4 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers God's initial commands to Joshua; the two spies in Jericho and their encounter with Rahab; and the crossing of the Jordan River.

As the book of Joshua begins, the Israelites are on a war path. Moses is dead, along with the rest of the Israelites who left Egypt. Instead, we have a new, bold nation, headed by 40,000 fighting men. (Josh. 4:13) And, in charge, is a new, bold chief, Joshua. However, before Joshua sends his men onto the plain of battle, he needs what any good commander needs: information.

Like Moses before him (Num. 13-14), Joshua sends spies into the victim territory, specifically Jericho. (Josh. 2:1) While Moses had sent twelve men, one from each tribe, Joshua sends only two to scout the city. But even with these two, the king of Jericho hears about the intelligence-gathering mission and seeks to kill the scouts. Luckily for them, and unluckily for the king, the two men had taken refuge with a prostitute (possibly an innkeeper) named Rahab. (Josh. 2:2-3)

Now, Rahab knows a conquering army when she sees one. She, like many others in Canaan, have heard of the power of the Israelite army. She knows that they decimated Shion and Og, the Amorite kings, and sees the same army massed across the Jordan from her city. She wants to ensure that if the Israelites attack Jericho, as seems imminent, at least she will be spared.

First, she knows that she must get the scouts into her debt. So she hides them on her roof in stalks of flax and sends the pursuers on a wild goose chase outside the city. (Josh. 2:4-7) Knowing that the scouts now owe her their lives, she asks for a favour: that the Israelites spare her life and those of her family. The scouts agree, on a few conditions: first, the family must gather in Rahab's house. Second, she must mark the house by placing a scarlet cord on her window. Finally, she must keep quiet about the Israelites' plans. Forfeiting any of these conditions voids the bargain. (Josh. 2:12-20) Rahab agrees and lowers the scouts outside of the city walls and away to freedom. (Josh. 2:21) After spending a few days in hiding, the scouts return to Joshua and report on their encounter. The new chief, knowing an ally when he encounters one, agrees to spare Rahab's life and rejoices that the inhabitants of Jericho are already afraid of his army.

At this juncture, let us pause and examine the story. This is the first time a woman has played an important role in the Israelites' narrative for quite some time. The last important woman was Miriam, and she didn't have a positive role since Ex. 15 when she acted as priestess and sang a song of rejoicing after crossing the Red Sea. (She also appeared in Num. 12, upbraiding Moses, and contracted leprosy. Aaron needed to pray to God to remove his sister's illness.) In Num. 26-27, we had a brief encounter with Zelophehad's daughters, who asked for their father's inheritance since they had to brothers, and we granted it. But really, we haven't seen women play this important, and public, a roll since Genesis. And yet, in the very second chapter of Joshua, a woman takes front-and-centre stage.

Not only is this woman important, but she embodies all the characteristics we have come to expect in Biblical women: shrewdness, cunning, intelligence, and love for their own family. Rahab's actions mirror Rebekah's ploys to steal Esau's birthright and blessing for her own son, Jacob; Tamar's plot to force Judah to let her marry his youngest son; and Rachel's theft of her father's household gods. These women all wanted to protect their families (or, in the case of Rachel, her family's religion) and were surprisingly inventive in ways to do so. Rahab is just the same.

It is not surprising that the women of the Bible, at least the effective ones included in the text, are intelligent and cunning. Though women had some limited rights and privileges under Israelite law (and a few non-Israelite women, such as priestesses, may have had rights in their own nations), women for the most part were not public figures. They were not able to wield much power in the public forum. Thus, whatever power they did employ needed to be subtle and focused on manipulating men.

While Rahab is the first true prostitute we have encountered in the text (Tamar posed as a prostitute, but was not), it seems only fitting that she should be so. Prostitutes, unlike most women, had some measure of public presence in society. They were not expected to remain at home, but could go out into the community. Thus, Rahab was ideally placed to hear about the scouts from her contacts. Furthermore, prostitutes were likely not high on the social scale of Jericho, so Rahab would not have expected particularly strong protection from the guards, especially given that her home was next to the walls of the city. She may have deemed it in her best interest to ingratiate herself to the imminent conquerers instead of her native leaders. Even though she was a prostitute, she was nevertheless well-placed to help the Israelites and jumped on the chance to do so.

Regardless of whether we agree with Rahab's actions (and profession) or not, we must nonetheless give her credit for her shrewdness and her ability to manipulate the situation to her advantage. While other women may have worried about protecting their families during the Israelite attack, Rahab was able to find and implement a way to save hers.

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