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"Rahab, The Joan Rivers Perspective," Andrew Warner, Sept. 21, 2014

posted Oct 26, 2014, 9:05 PM by Andrew Warner   [ updated Oct 26, 2014, 9:18 PM by Andrew Warner ]

The baseball season started so well for the Milwaukee Brewers - first place!  But then came August, and the Cardinals.  I watched a recent game; a heartbreaker.  And I thought, “This is how a fan of the Chicago Cubs feels.  There’s always next year.”

But still, with the World Series not far away, I was recently reminded of some of the more famous games and famous plays in the series.  Back in the 1960’s, the Mets faced off against the Orioles.  In the fifth game the Orioles were up over the Mets, 3-0.  The Orioles pitcher threw a ball, which landed, turned, and bounced into the dugout.  The batter claimed the ball hit his foot, an automatic base run, but the umpire ruled it a strike.  Then the manager of the Mets dashed out of the dugout with a baseball marked by black shoe polish.  The umpire reversed his ruling, energizing the Mets, who went on to win the game and the series.

Forty years later a controversy erupted.  A Mets player claimed the manger had marked the baseball with polish from his own shoe, fabricating the evidence.  This hard to believe claim - who could think so quickly as to pull it off -  was further undercut by the poor reputation of the player making the claim; another player remembered the manger just picking up the ball.  Then a third player came forward with yet another memory: the ball had bounced into a bag of baseballs and the one the manager grabbed just happened to have a black mark on it.  

Where’s the truth?  What really happened?  If eyewitnesses to a game - players in the dugout - can’t agree on what happened, how much harder it is for us to reconstruct something as long ago as the story we heard this morning of Joshua, Rahab, the spies, and the king.  This story could be told from many perspectives, and there’s a lesson in them all.  Rahab reminds us of the expansiveness of God’s love, the dangers of exploitation, and the complexity of life.  From almost every perspective, we can see a bit of ourselves in the story of Rahab.

Nearly everyone who knows the name Rahab associates one word with her: prostitute.  Or perhaps, in the translation of King James, harlot.  Rahab the prostitute. Rahab the harlot.  

One perspective on the Rahab story could bear a simple title: Prostitute saved for good trick.  This perspective understands Rahab as a heroine who deceives the king because of her faith in the God of Israel.  Believing in the God of Israel, she sheltered and saved Joshua’s spies.  Her confession of faith - “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” - echoed words God said in giving the law to Moses.  In other words, Rahab expressed just the right kind of faith. And because of her faith, she was spared when Joshua defeated the city and she went on to live among the Israelites.

The ancient Rabbis carried the story beyond what we have in scripture.  According to legend, the God-fearing Rahab converted to Judaism and married Joshua; the ancient version of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.  The now married prostitute became the mother of nearly every famous man in the Bible, from King David, to Jeremiah the prophet, and even, in the New Testament, Jesus.  

The Pretty Woman version of Rahab appeals for many reasons, most of all because it comforts all of us who don’t measure up to social expectations in some ways.  The Virgin Mary was always a bit too much of a goodie-two-shoes.  But Rahab, someone who’s been around the block, we can all relate to.  And so we’ve long told her story because, basically, if she can be a celebrated heroine then any one of us can too.  If there’s room for Rahab in the heart of God, there’s room for us too.

And yet we might doubt the Harlot-to-Heroine perspective.  The push to a happy ending glosses over the glaring violence of the story.  Specifically, what are we to make of Joshua slaughtering all the people of Jericho other than Rahab.  Is this not a case of colonial conquest, Israelites invading Canaan, a disturbing Holy War?

Mindful of the conquest of Canaan, we might question Rahab’s faith statement.  “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below,” sounds too perfect of a statement, too theologically correct, too much like propaganda: Rahab as the token Canaanite supporting the conquest of her land.

This Rahab might be called “the Pocahontas of Canaan.”  Pocahontas of Virginia aided colonists, married one, became an object of curiosity displayed in England, and watched with surely-felt pain as all her tribe were persecuted, oppressed, and killed in the name of settling Virginia.  Pocahontas became a foil onto which racial stereotypes of Virginia’s colonists could be projected.  Her marriage symbolically absolved the colonists of the moral guilt of conquest.  

The Pocahontas perspective on Rahab focuses, in particular, on the end of the story, as Rahab walks out of Jericho for the last time.  What pain did she carry in her heart as her longtime neighbors died on either side of her?  

It’s a haunting question.  One which may make us aware of the ways scripture and tradition silences Rahab’s voice.  Does faith, or church, or spirituality do that to us?  Or does it happen in our families and relationships?  Are we boxed in like Rahab, required to play the part, required to repeat the propaganda, to be good when all we want to do is cry?

The Pocahontas perspective reminds us of the pain we can carry in hidden ways, pain caused even in the name of God.  But this perspective turns Rahab into a victim of her own life, a passive foil of other people.

A third perspective came to me as I thought about Rahab; we might call it the Joan Rivers perspective.  For I think Joan Rivers would have loved this story, because more than most Biblical stories, it’s filled with sexual innuendo and lines meant to make us laugh.  

Honestly, it’s a bawdy tale.  Think of it: Joshua sends two spies on a military reconnaissance mission.  This is their first chance to get out of the desert.  And where do they go?  A brothel, to survey the prostitutes.  You can imagine one saying to the other, “Joshua told us to get a lay of the land.”   The spies and their attempts at sex serve as a comic subplot all the way through the story.  The words we translate as “entered” and “slept” would have carried more than a hint of sexual meaning in Hebrew - just where did they enter, with whom did they lie down.  Of course throughout the story the bumbling spies never succeed in their quest for sex - they enter a brothel then have to hide from the king’s soldiers, they had lain down but were not asleep when Rahab disturbs them.  The spies can never quite get the job done: surveilus interruptus.  

The sexual humor even comes out in the name of Rahab.  It’s a shame we don’t translate Biblical names, because they often carry meaning.  In this case, it seems Rahab was an urban slang term for vagina.  She was “Miss Vjayjay.”  

But there’s more; Rahab shared her name with one of the primordial monsters mentioned in the Psalms and prophets, a dreaded creature named Rahab whom God battled and killed.  It says something about the patriarchal fears of the authors of the Bible that they named a monster “vagina.”  And it says something about how people in Jericho saw Rahab that they nicknamed her for a beast.

Joan Rivers would have loved the crassness of Rahab’s story.  But like Joan Rivers, the humor in this story hides a fair bit of pain.

Recently I heard a replay of an NPR interview with Joan Rivers.  Terry Gross pressed Joan Rivers about her body image jokes, asking, “Do you still tell jokes about being heavy?”  And Joan Rivers replied, “Of course. I get on a scale twice a day. And I am still heavy - I’ve seen myself in a bathing suit.... My thighs - a family of 18 could live on them for a year if you put ketchup on them.”  

Terry Gross laughed, as Joan wanted.  “I think that's a very funny joke, but I look at you and I think that you know, you’re seeing somebody different in the mirror than who you really are.”  And in a revealing moment, Joan said, “I hope so. I hope so because what I see in the mirror - boy, I don't like.”  All the plastic surgery, high fashion, dieting, and success could not erase for Joan Rivers the pain of being teased as a child or spurned as a young adult for her looks.  As she explained, “You don’t forget it when you come down the stairs in college and a blind date says out loud to the guy standing next to him, ‘Why didn't you tell me?’ These are things scar you very, very deeply. And stay that way, you know - that’s it.”

The interview between Terry Gross and Joan Rivers reminded me of the messiness of life, the pain we carry behind our jokes, the need for a transforming grace.

And so, my Joan Rivers perspective on Rahab atunes me to the messiness of her life.  What did it feel like to walk down the street called “Miss Vjayjay?”  Perhaps she adopted it as her professional name; and so, of course, we know it meant Rahab kept an inner life apart for herself, a place she could be free in her own thoughts.

The details of the story give us a sense of the pain in her life.  Rahab lived on the wall - her house built into the defenses of the town.  She was literally pressed to the edge of the city.  And in that detail one gets a picture of how people saw her.  

People turned to prostitution in the ancient world because of debts - either they paid their debts through prostitution or they (or their children) became slaves.  I wonder if she owed her debt to the king - King Pimp of Jericho; or perhaps he was just another client, King John.  Whether as pimp or john, the King knew where to go when looking for the spies.  The King breaks into her house, leeringly asks, “Have the spies entered your home?  Have they entered you?”  

Pushed to the wall, forced into prostitution, treated without respect: no wonder Rahab brought down Jericho.  In the ancient world, fortified cities were very hard to defeat, nearly impossible without siege works; and even so, most successful attacks relied on someone on the inside turning against their city.  Rahab became that person; and I think she did it because she was tired of being pushed around and victimized.  It’s no wonder she felt more kinship with the freed slaves of Egypt than she did with the townspeople who reviled her.

And yet we ought to be suspicious of her sudden confession of faith.  We ought to wonder: was she faking it?  Her words are too perfect, too much just what the spies wanted to hear, a little too breathy when she says, “Yes, yes, you’re the best.”  

Instead of looking for signs of her conversion - whether by choice or by force - I see Rahab negotiating a complex world on her own.   All the men in the story either passively take her directions or constantly fall for her misdirections; in either case, Rahab remained in control.  And, as such, she made sure to protect what mattered most to her: her own loved ones.

A different detail in the story helps me understand what it may be all be about.  Details throughout the story would remind a Jewish audience of Passover.  Rahab hid the spies underneath sheaves of flax, the harvest which takes place just before Passover.  And, in hiding the spies, she took on a role like the midwifes who hid baby Moses.  Later she hung a red cord by her doorpost, another passover reference, this one recalling doorposts marked by lamb’s blood.  Beyond these allusions, lay the overall parallel - a person of no account, oppressed and marginalized, liberated by God.

In the end, the Book of Joshua said, “she has lived in Israel ever since.”  But it didn’t say, “she became one of us.”  No, Rahab remained a woman who charted her own path.  If the passover connection reminds us of God’s eternal commitment to free those oppressed, then the independence of Rahab at the end of her story reminds that God offers the grace of transformation without enforcing conformity.  Rahab could be freed, but she didn’t have to become Joshua’s wife or Jesus’ great-great-great-something.

I treasure Rahab, because in her story I see grace arising from the messiness of life; the grace to live on her own terms, with her own sense of dignity, having asserted her own sense of worth in the face of all who tried to demean her or co-opt her.  And for that reason she may be a model for us all. Alleluia and Amen.


  • Barstad, Hans M., “The Old Testament feminine personal name ‘Rahab’: an onomastic note,” Svensk Exegetisk Arsbok 54 (1989)

  • Charles, Ronald, “Rahab: A Righteous Whore in James,” Neotestamentica (2011)

  • Gross, Terry, “With Age, Joan Rivers Learned To Say Anything: 'It Has Freed Me Totally'” Fresh Air NPR, (Sept. 5, 2014)

  • McKinlay, Judith E., “Rahab: A Hero/ine?” Biblical Interpretation 7 (1), (1999)

  • Mobley, Gregory, The Return of the Chaos Monsters and Other Backstories of the Bible

  • Runion, Erin, “From Disgust to Humor: Rahab’s Queer Affect,” Postscripts 4.1 (2008)

  • Sexton, John, Baseball as a Road to God.

  • Sharp, Carolyn J., “‘Are You For Us, or For Our Adversaries?’: A Feminist and Postcolonial Interrogation of Joshua 2-12 for the Contemporary Church,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 66(2)

  • Willimon, William H., “Best Little Harlot’s House in Jericho,” The Christian Century, (Oct. 26, 1983)