The story of Rahab is chalked full of allusions — or references — to other Old Testament stories. For example, the author of Rahab’s story, probably Joshua, uses a very specific word in the Hebrew to make a very significant point. Chapter two, verse four: Joshua kicks off this story with a major reference to another story in Hebrew history. In our English Bibles, the verse reads, “But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them…” Makes sense, right? There were two spies; she hid them. Oddly enough, what it says in the Hebrew is “wattişpenehô,” or, “she hid him,” singular.1
That’s strange. Why would the author of our story do this when clearly she hid them? As modern Westerners, we find this word usage very curious, because our traditional historiography (the way we “do history”) is concerned with presenting all the collection of literal facts with empirical accuracy. The ancient Hebrew writers on the other hand, were much more literary, and while literal facts are important in our Old (and New) Testament texts, allusions are equally important.
So if we’re listening to the story of Rahab with Hebrew ears, we would hear that word wattişpenehô and right away we would recognize it. This word usage is obviously more than simply a means to an end; it’s more than simply a telling of what literally happened; it’s a very intentional allusion. So we ask ourselves, what is being referred to and why?
This root word şpn is only used four other times in the Scriptures. So already we’re dealing with a rare word. The third-person feminine imperfect—she hid him—is only used one other time. So, for the Hebrew, this reference is unmistakable. The only other time we see it this way is in Exodus chapter two, verse two: “Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.”
Who are we talking about here? Right, Moses’ mother. “The book of Joshua tells the tale of the entry into Canaan as a mirror image of the Exodus from Egypt,” and with one word Rahab is acknowledged as the midwife of Israel, the woman God uses to make entry into the Promised Land possible.2 The Exodus is a major theme in both Old and New Testaments. Why? Because that’s what God does. He frees us from captivity and journeys us Home.
This is only one of lots and lots of references and allusions in Rahab’s story, not only to the Exodus, but to several significant Old Testament stories (though the Exodus is the main reference). This story is laden with allusion after allusion after allusion, and why? Because Rahab’s story is yet another instance of God’s Big Story as it is told over and over and over and over all throughout Scripture, and indeed, in every story ever told—though, not always so intentionally. God’s Big Story is the story of the outcast and the marginalized being brought into the Family. And in Rahab’s case, she is an outsider among outsiders. To the Hebrews, she’s a Canaanite; to the Canaanites, she’s a woman; and even among Canaanite women, Rahab is a prostitute. Rahab, the outcast of outcasts, is one of the most marginalized members of society, and it is Rahab who is brought from her house of ill repute on the outskirts of town into the very Center of it all: the lineage of the Messiah.
Whoa. How mind-blowing is God? He is constantly turning social norms and hierarchies on their heads. And he is the only One who has the power, who’s arm of grace is strong enough and long enough to reach down so low and lift up so high. Despite the fact that we as Christians all too often marginalize others based on our own legalizing, the Scriptures obstinately tell God’s Truth-claiming Lovestory as compassionate rather than oppressive, inclusive rather than marginalizing, dignifying rather than reducing. In both Old and New Testaments, those who cry out for mercy are heard, those who are oppressed are delivered, and those who are outcast are canonized! Murderers, lepers, Gentiles, prostitutes. And that’s what I love about Rahab’s story! It is God’s story; and indeed, it is the story of all of our lives.
During my sophomore year of college I was reading through the Gospels, and when summer rolls around, I’m working at Pine Cove and I’ve made my way to Luke where I encounter “The Prodigal Son” really for the first time. Oh, I’d heard it before, of course; but not with ears to hear. I realized that summer that I was that wayward son. Previously, I identified more with the Older Brother. Maybe you can relate? I was a good kid who pretty much stayed out of trouble and did all the things I was supposed to do. I enjoyed church and mission trips and Bible study; but like the Older Brother, parts of me were held captive by the trappings of legalism. Well, God was burrowing into my heart—he had been living there a long time, and you know, every once in a while he’d make himself at home in more and more places, but this summer he was really digging in. Right after that story, Luke chapter seven tells the story of the woman who “loves much because she has been forgiven much.” And I realized, I am the one who’s been forgiven much. I wept and wept.
Finally, as if those two stories weren’t enough, later in the summer I was sitting in on our adult banquet dinner, listening to the speaker who bravely spoke on adultery and forgiveness. As he was talking, I began thinking, Wow. What an immense betrayal; I just don’t know if I could do that—forgive my husband for cheating on me. And then I heard the Lord gently whisper, That’s what I do for you. And a flood of passages from the Old Testament prophets came to mind [Hosea for example]. And when the speaker began to pray, I couldn’t hold it back any longer; I absolutely lost it. Fortunately, it was easy for me to sneak out through the kitchen, and so I hurried out through the back door to the large pantry, shut myself in and wept and wept. My sin was overwhelmingly painful and God’s grace overwhelmingly beautiful. Rahab’s story is my story (and yours).
Another symbol in Rahab’s tale that alludes to significant redemptive stories and themes is the “cord of scarlet thread” given to Rahab by the spies to mark her house so that those inside would be passed over while the rest of the city was slain. As a reminder that Rahab’s story is our story, and God’s Redemption Story our story to tell, I found a red shoelace, which I keep as a reminder that as believers in Jesus Christ you and I were brought out of spiritual prostitution and idolatry into the Family Tree of Jesus—brothers and sisters, co-heirs, and ministers of the very same reconciliation we have received to those who are outside; those who would stick out like sore thumbs if they walked in our churches or offices or Starbucks; those who don’t dress like us, talk like us, vote like us.
Christ Jesus hung from a Roman cross, like a blood-soaked cord upon the windowsill of the world. Claim his Passover Gift. Celebrate it. Find ways to remember you are tied into It All.
1. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation (New York: Random House, 2002).
2. Frymer-Kenskky, Reading, 36.