*trigger warning: please be advised that some of the content in this article may be triggering for those who have experienced sexual violence.
My face turned fuchsia as it was inclined to do when I was reminded of my sinful past back then, the one that I thought would catapult me out of that holy room the minute any of those blameless bystanders were on to me.
I didn’t know her full story, but I couldn’t help wonder: did any of these people know that I was like Rahab? That I, too, gave away a part of myself, turning the temple of me into a nuclear waste dump so often that I started to believe what I was made of was worth as much: fluorescent nothing.
I looked down and saw my hands intertwined, my fingers wringing. I bit the inside of my mouth and cleared my throat. Then, I took a sip of coffee as I prayed to God like I did in most group settings (and still do if I’m honest):
“Lord, please don’t make me talk.”
The small group leader began to read:
Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
The king of Jericho was told, “Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”[i]
Like a Moth Around a Fire
In my imagination, she moves, all hips, down the dirt road in the heat. A swath of what used to be white cloth is tied around her forehead to keep the sweat from blinding her eyes, eyes that are rich and reddish like varnished cherry wood. Her skin is smooth from far away but if you get close, you can see the rough spots and faint lines, the way the dust has settled in. Her hair tumbles black down her back, thick as tar. She looks like a young Catherine-Zeta Jones. Or for those of you who weren’t in love with the remake of Zorro (or old enough to know what the heck I’m talking about) think of Kylie Jenner before all the surgeries and billions of dollars. Real beauty.
She is alone, moving through the crowds like a moth around a fire at night. She is a sea with mysterious horizons. There is a vastness[ii] about her. Faraway has to be her soul’s perimeter. How else does she get through the day—or night? How else can she live with herself? Be herself? Be okay? As she stops to pick up supplies for the strangers, she looks away towards something in the distance, above the mountainous dusk-smoke at the edge of the city gates.
Rahab has a secret.
She doesn’t want this life: to be available for whichever wine slobberer or prison guard or polished politician—the who’s who in Jericho who desires her. She wishes she can escape it. Her past. Her family. The stale, stringent smell of wine breath. In fact, she calls out to God to do just that: to rescue her when they slink into her room at night or wait as she makes the rounds to the regulars, knocking like a frightened child. The dim shadow of candlelight. The sound of deep breathing. A past that haunts.
Rahab grew up and lived in Jericho, a place where idolatry was rampant and innumerable gods and idols worshiped. Jericho has been described as a city “whose sin polluted the entire land like a plague.”[iii] She lived during the time of Joshua, which for those Bible dorks out there – I am not one of them—you already know that this was around 1400 BC when the Israelites had already entered the promise land.[iv] They had meandered for forty years (the wandering, dusty-footed Israelites) and were all set to take over the land of Canaan and in it, the first city of Jericho.[v]
Not much is known about her birth or her family, though in reading Joshua Chapter 2, we know that she is a Canaanite and does have family in Jericho. We learn at a couple points throughout scripture that she is a sensual artist (or to put it more bluntly), a prostitute.[vi] She does quite well financially, having a house all to herself, possibly with rooms to rent out for even more cash. One Boss Babe. I like to imagine her surroundings: plush, crimson velvet lounges and pillows with black tassels and dusky firelight. Something like a 19-century brothel (thanks HBO, for the imagery).
I’m just venturing an educated guess here, but Rahab was likely “ruined” at a young age and/or from an impoverished family. She, like for so many women in biblical time (and modern women in modern times in many places today), the ability to live and move freely in society or within a marriage was stifled. She was a shrewd business woman, made that way by a society and family that gave her no other choice. Or perhaps to add to the muck of her life, as some scholars and writers suggest, Rahab came from a place of “deep brokenness and childhood trauma.”[vii] However it happened and however she got there, her position in life was solidified like a character living in Downton Abbey.
She had to sell her body to survive.
I knew what it felt like to grow up in a land that didn’t make sense, somewhere that everywhere I looked someone was bowing down to something else. Something that didn’t last. Golden refuse. I knew fear well, too, like a younger brother always needling. I understood shame, that heavy coat; and condemnation, a slow drip. Like the unknown singer of Psalm 120 who laments: “woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar.”[viii] I understood what it felt like to not belong.
I also knew what it was like to give my body away.
To feel like I didn’t have options.
To stare at the ceiling.
To think about something else.
To hasten it to end.
To be a Christian with secrets.
To pretend I was in another place, in another land, perched on the top of the ceiling fan like a carousal ride or peeking in through the blinds looking in at myself moving like an ice skater or a ballerina or more like what I felt like: a strung-out roller derby queen.
One of the things I learned in this Bible study, the one I forced myself to attend so I could get through the Old Testament, was that Rahab is also one of four women who are listed in the genealogy of Jesus, himself. Matthew 1:5 if you’d like to look it up.
As is God’ incredibly ridiculous fashion, he includes a whore, two other similarly sexually promiscuous or impure ladies (Bathsheba and Tamar) and Ruth who was a Moabite, which was seen as a grungy, strung-out version of a Gentile. Sinful surprises in the gene pool for the Son of Man, himself. My Courtney Love to your Reece Witherspoon. So, what at first glance is a boring history of descendants that I skip over (sorry, it’s true), is much more.
This place where Rahab so lovingly resides conveys an important message:
[…] even the worst sinners can be restored and used of God. Indeed, the Savior of the world was descended directly from Rahab. He can redeem and transform the worst of sinners as well as turn their lives around and use their lives for His own glory.[ix]
In other words:
God can redeem anything and make it beautiful.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
But I’ve often wondered: is it true? Is healing and release from the brokenness of our lives (whether something inherited or something we’ve done ourselves) possible? Can women like Rahab, like me, ever really be free? And free enough to be used by God? Sure, Rahab, the sneaky spy-harborer and street walker, was in the lineage of Jesus, but what does this have to do with me? Really?
The arms of my family tree, like the one that Rahab inhabits, are mangled and bruised and scarred. There are tattoos in fading ink that have crept into our blood stream over time. There are dark sunglasses that you can never quite see through. There are stories that have been hushed around silent tables. There are leers that haunt. There is fear. There are lines upon lines written on yellow legal pads and old thirty-pound laptops by hands that have grown tired. There are hearts at once freezer-dried and blown apart by love. Yet there is also a story, like Rahab’s, of mysterious and gritty and grace-painted redemption.
[i] Joshua 2:1-3 [ii] Rahab means “broad, spacious, vast.” [iii] Bible Study Fellowship Notes: The Unexpected King, Matthew’s Account of Jesus. [iv]Rahab Character Bible Study Background and Lessons. Retrieved from: https://studyandobey.com/character-studies/rahab-character-study/. [v] Retrieved from: https://lisaappelo.com/lessons-from-rahab-in-lineage-of-jesus/. [vi] Joshua 2:1, 6:17, 25, James 2:25, Hebrews 11:31 [vii] Retrieved from: https://lisaappelo.com/lessons-from-rahab-in-lineage-of-jesus/. [viii] Psalm 120: 5 [ix] Retrieved from: https://studyandobey.com/character-studies/rahab-character-study/.