Wanting to cut down on excuses for my daughter not to send out her thank you cards for her graduation gifts, I went to the Dinkytown post office to pick up some stamps. Appropriately enough I found iconic Wonder Woman stamps. I dutifully bought a few sheets, but then noticed another stamp with a distinguished African American woman named Dorothy Height. How many of you know Dorothy Height? Me neither. So I did some Googling and found out that she was one of the greatest activists for civil rights of the last century. She advised Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson. In 1990, she formed African American Women for Reproductive Freedom. She died in 2010 at the age of 98 and was on the podium for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. I’m ashamed to say that I know more about the cartoon character than a real-life wonder woman.
We are at the second Sunday in a series of sermons focusing on four of the wonder women of the Bible. It’s a wonder more women are not told about in scripture. So when they are even mentioned my ears perk up. Matthew listed Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba in his genealogy of Joseph who would become the adoptive father of Jesus. Toward what are these women pointing us? Why don’t we know more about them? What have we been missing from the Christmas stories? I wonder. What do these women have in common with other wonder women that surround us? That’s the small task for these four Sundays.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba were all non-Israelites who married Hebrew men. All four engaged in sexually suspect conduct, including acts of prostitution and seduction.
Jane Schaberg puts their importance in this way:
Mention of these four women is designed to lead Matthew’s reader to expect another, final story of a woman who becomes a social misfit in some way; is wronged or thwarted; who is party to a sexual act that places her in great danger; and whose story has an outcome that repairs the social fabric and ensures the birth of a child who is legitimate or legitimated. That child, Matthew tells us (1:1), is “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narrative, 1987, p.33)
Today we are looking at Rahab. We know her as the supposed harlot that helped Joshua and company fit the battle of Jericho.
Was she a harlot, or just a woman with a mind of her own? “Harlot” was a way that men dismissed women. If a man sleeps around, he is playing the field. If a woman has more than one partner, she is labeled a slut, a harlot, or a whore. Men in Biblical times had many wives and concubines. Solomon was said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines (Kings 11:3). Ah, privilege. But have more than one husband and you are less than worthy. You are the object of scorn and judgment. What’s wrong with you that you cannot keep a husband?
Just think of the woman at the well from the fourth chapter of John’s gospel. She had to get her water from the well at noon, away from her sisters who got their water at daybreak. Jesus speaks a truth saying that she has had five husbands and is now with someone out of wedlock. But a man can choose to divorce a woman at any time for any reason. The woman had no such power. If she had more than one spouse, she’s a prostitute, a harlot, a whore. No longer a human being, let alone a woman. Some male commentators have even called Rahab “a good-hearted hooker.” (Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch 1997, p.250)
Some have speculated that Rahab was a priestess of a Canaanite fertility cult whose allure proved irresistible to Hebrew men. Think of the famous French veelas of the Harry Potter books. Their feminine wiles make the men around them obedient puppies. Slobbering puppies.
It appears that Rahab was in fact a harlot. This is in contrast to Tamar, who simply disguised herself as a harlot in order to trap and trick Judah into shaming himself. The result of course was life for Tamar and her offspring.
Some Rabbis even imagined that the two spies were Tamar’s children Zerah and Perez. Zerah, after all, had a red thread tied around his hand at birth. Rahab is saved by none other than a red cord hung from her window.
The Bible does not point out why she was a harlot. Was she doing it for survival? Was she scorned by one too many men in her life? She did have some power. She had a mind of her own and was trusted by the King of Jericho.
The Hebrew does point out that the scouts avail themselves of Rahab’s services and the implication is that the favors are not only lodging but also sexual in nature. And perhaps she gleaned information as part of the pillow talk. I imagine Rahab was an intelligence agent for both sides. Her reputation was well known. Her place was on the edge of town, not the center. She often entertained foreign visitors. She did not discriminate. So naturally, when the spies came to scope out the city, the officials assumed, correctly, that they had lodged with Rahab. Notice how the King of Jericho asks her for the information about the strangers. She is so trusted a source that when she sends the soldiers off on a wild goose chase, they dutifully obey. Her intelligence could be trusted. Did you notice that her house was not searched for the would-be spies? After the guards have gone, she cuts a deal with the spies to save herself and her family.
What made Rahab risk everything like this? If she were caught providing sanctuary, she would have been tortured and killed. Was it worth the risk? Remember, the men she harbored were foreign spies who wanted to destroy the town of Jericho. She was aiding and abetting terrorists. Should we emulate Rahab? The Bible is told from the perspective of the winners. So the story is good news, if you’re a Hebrew. If you are a Jerichonian, not so much.
We don’t know much about the people of Jericho. What we do know is that they loved their walls. The people were so proud of their walls. They thought that their walls would save them. That the walls gave them security. Rahab saw the writing on the wall, the graffiti that said that the wall can’t save you. The street art that said don’t just think of Jericho first. Think of God first. She lived on the wall, in the wall. The wall kept her in her role. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” penned Robert Frost almost a century ago.
Rahab had heard the imaginings of the rulers and the elite of the city-state in their pillow talk. And she had had enough. The Hebrew visitors offered her a chance to save her and her family.
Leviticus 18 says that unless the city or nation exercise justice then the land will vomit them out. Maybe Rahab knew of the cracks in the famous walls around Jericho.
Rahab was a brave woman, no doubt about it. What about her life had made her want to side with those who would overthrow it? What walls of patriarchy or racism or heterosexism do we want to see “a tumblin’ down?”
Maybe Rahab wanted to be known not as “the harlot on the city’s edge,” but as a wonder woman at the center of the birth of a new nation and eventually a part of a new narrative.
Rahab declared that YHWH is the God of Israel, but also the God of the world. (Joshua 2:11) She then asks the people to act like their God. “Since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by YHWH’s name that you in turn will deal kindly with my family.” (2:12) Rahab uses the word hesed, the kind of steadfast love and mercy that is attributed to God. She helps the spies remember who God is and what their responsibilities are. Mercy is as important, if not more, than conquest.
And so, when the walls come a-tumblin’ down, the Hebrew people remember Rahab and her family. They save her and she ends up as part of the story of this new nation.
Matthew says that Rahab is the mother of Boaz. But Joshua happens a good 200 years before the book of Ruth. The math in Matthew’s genealogy is a little sketchy. Maybe Clyde Steckel will solve that little riddle for us next week when we look at Ruth. Matthew is clearly playing with themes more than precise begatting. Rahab pointed to something about Jesus and his parentage, his mission and the women around him. She is said to have married Joshua himself. Joshua is the same Hebrew name as Jesus.
Okay, this is all well and good. But doesn’t Rahab’s story make you a little bit queasy? I know it does me. Is the Bible telling us to house would-be spies who might give intelligence to terrorists? That’s what some have accused those of us in the sanctuary movement of doing. Are we only to befriend certain foreigners? And if so, how do we discern who is the good and the bad? And if we do that, then are we any better than those whose immigration policies we abhor? What are we to do with this story of this wonder woman?
I get some hope in the fact that the Hebrew people’s story starts out with befriending people whom organized religion would cast out. That is good news. It’s good news that we can and should find ways to embrace a better narrative.
I get some hope in how Rahab chooses to offer sanctuary, rest, and shelter. In this space they get a chance to hear each other’s stories. They get a chance to know one another. They get a chance to become changed. The Hebrew people learn that there are good and worthy people of Jericho. Don’t destroy them all. We don’t know how large Rahab’s family was but we can assume it was large enough to be of import. Rahab the wonder woman devised a way, when all hope for the city seemed lost, to save herself and her family.
I think of Tin Aye, a single mother of six boys who came to the US from a Thai refugee camp on the edge of Burma. We at UBC helped her get settled and have watched her sons grow into responsible young men. All because, like Rahab, Tin Aye helped them escape. She is a wonder woman.
There are wonder women in our midst. They demand our attention and our admiration. They may be named Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba. They may also be named Adele, Nadean, Mary Kay, Cynthia, Char, Tai, Faye, Harriet, Jane, Betty Bonnie, Marcia, Vicki, Marguerite, Doris, Louise and so many others.
And so we celebrate these women who not only do wonderful and brave things, but also inspire us to take the risks worth taking for the sake of our families and our community. Thanks be to God.