David A. Davis
July 1, 2018
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The Gospel of Matthew 1:1 “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah who is Bathsheba. Four women named by Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus. Four plus Mary of course. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. All five here in the lineage of our salvation. All five listed on Jesus’ page on Ancestry.com. All five come with a story worth telling, a story you should know. This morning, Rahab.
Rahab was a prostitute and a non-Jew living in the city of Jericho. Joshua had sent two spies to scope out the city in advance of the “battle of Jericho” when the walls came tumbling down. Rahab’s house was their first stop. The king of Jericho had sources who told them a couple of foreign spies were with the prostitute and he demanded they be apprehended and ordered Rahab to hand them over. But she hid the two spies instead and reported back to the king that indeed they had been there but the men slipped out just at dark right before the city gate was shut. “Where they went, I don’t know. But I am sure if you went after them quickly you could still catch them.” The king’s men went off on a wild goose chase toward the Jordan River while the two spies were hiding under some stalks of flax up on Rahab’s roof.
Before the men went to sleep Rahab went up to the roof and talked to them. She told them that she knew and understood that the Lord had given their people the land. She told them how frightened her people were, and that they had heard about the Red Sea drying up for them, and that they had utterly destroyed, wiped out, eliminated the two kings beyond the Jordan. “As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted and there was no courage left in any of us because of you,” she told them, “the Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.” And then she asked for their protection. She asked for their mercy. She asked them to swear to protect her and her family in the siege that was to come. She begged for her family not just to stay together, but to stay safe, stay alive. I helped you. Now you helped me. “Our life for yours!” the spies responded. “If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”
Rahab then helped them get out through a window and they scaled down the wall with a rope. She told them to run toward the hill country which was opposite from the Jordan River and opposite the direction she sent the king’s men. They told her to keep a crimson cord tied in her window so that they and their people would know and keep the oath of protection, the promise of kindness and faithfulness amid the destruction and war that was to come. And Rahab the prostitute sent them off saying “So be it.” And as described a few chapters later Joshued Rahab and her family and all who belonged to her. As the book of Joshua sums it all up: “her family has lived in Israel ever since.” (6:25)
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. As the preacher in the book of Hebrews puts it, “By faith, Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.” (Heb. 11:31). And the Book of James in the argument about faith and works: “was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcome the messengers and sent them out by another road? (James 2:25).
It is as if the New Testament writers gave Rahab a last name: the prostitute. Rahab the prostate. The ancient historian Josephus refers to Rahab not as a prostitute but as an inn keeper. Rabbinic tradition tells of Rahab fully converting to Judaism later in life and lists her as one of the most beautiful women in history. Some in the Christian tradition lift her virtues of hospitality and mercy, repentance, and faith so as to fully overshadow what the New Testament writers don’t want the reader to forget: Rahab the prostitute. Actually some scholars of the ancient language and of the Hebrew bible suggest that the story, in its original telling and nuance, is much more racy than the English translation, or this sermon for that matter, would allow. The sordid tale of Rahab the prostitute and the two spies.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.
I participated this week in the dedication of a new monument in Princeton Cemetery marking the grave of a Revolutionary War veteran named Aaron Mattison. Aaron Mattison was a a quarter master in General Washington’s Army and was the first steward of the then college of New Jersey, living in the lower of Nassau Hall next door. As part of the occasion, the Princeton University Archivist Daniel Linke spoke about some early history. The few records that survived two infamous fires in Nassau Hall don’t mention much about Aaron Mattison. But, Dan Linke said, the earliest history of Nassau Hall still provides some context and relevance for the university today. He went one to talk about how the residents of Prince Town raised the money for the purchase of the original plot of land and that the then governor of New Jersey donated his library to the university. As the structure of Nassau Hall was being built, the first trustees of the then College of New Jersey voted to name the building after the governor. The governor politely, eloquently, and forcefully declined. How fortunate, the archivist opined, because the name of the governor of New Jersey at that time was Belcher. Belcher Hall? The archivist then wondered aloud if such prominence and stature would have ever come to the place had it been named something other than Nassau Hall. His point was about how the subtleties of history, the twists and turns, can inform how we understand our institutions, our traditions. How those subtleties can so often be lost and what we can learn by paying attention rather than glossing over some of the stories and tales that we tell over and over again.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.
With the Book of Hebrews and the Book of James tagging Rahab and her social media accounts throughout history as “the prostitute,” a reading of the story that judges her character or her sinfulness certainly dominates the tradition. Even today, that theme sort of leaps of the page at the reader. But those same scholars who point to the even more explicit material lost in translation also point out that a folk tale of a prostitute and two spies was not uncommon in the annals of antiquity. So what if the part about Rahab being a prostitute wasn’t the most shocking part of the story back then? What if there is a more compelling twist lost, not in translation, but in the timeless fascination with her profession? What if the most striking aspect of the tale is not Rahab’s act of civil disobedience in lying to the king and her secret deal with the spies? What if there is a stronger message being sent to the readers of Matthew’s gospel who come upon Rahab’s name there in the genogram? The genealogy of Jesus that actually doesn’t label her a prostitute. A subtle detail that would never, ever, ever have been passed over or missed or underestimated in the ancient world. In the ancient world where ritual religious law and ritual and practice so strictly defined purity. A subtle detail that should never, ever, ever be passed over and missed or underestimated in a world where religion and race and tribe are used to define and divide all of God’s people.
Rahab the prostitute was a non-Jew. She was a Gentile. A foreigner. By her own testimony she and her people understood that the intent of Joshua’s men, of Joshua’s army was to “utterly destroy” them because they were outsiders, they didn’t belong, they were not Jewish. Like those two kings across the Jorden who were wiped out, the kings and their kingdom, Rahab and her people, their hearts melted because they knew what that all meant for them. As the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, “the two kings beyond the Jorden whom you put under the curse of destruction.” Or as the Hebrew word could be translated, “to destroy, to root out, to ban.” Rahab and her people were non-Jews. They were non. And yet, Rahab and her family have lived in Israel ever since. It is a part of the story, part of the history, part of the tradition, so easily lost. It is a story that tells why, that explains, the justifies, how and Rahab and her family of outsiders, Rahab and her people, have lived in Israel ever since.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Rahab and her people, not just the outsider living in Israel ever since, the outsider, the foreigner, the non, living forever in the lineage of our salvation. Of course, the sin and shame of it all, is that so much effort has been put into Christian theology and practice pretty much since the time of Matthew 1:1, to determine, to define, to declare who is out and who is in. And the other irony so easily lost? The one the Apostle points out in Romans? When it comes to salvation history, before we were in, we were out. We’re the ones grafted in. In salvation’s ageless story, you and I, we’re with Rahab and her people.
Think of how different the world would be if people remembered that most of us, maybe all of us, really, are with Rahab and her people. It’s a subtle detail that should never, ever, ever be passed over and missed or underestimated in a world where religion and race and tribe are used to define and divide all of God’s people.
© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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