Favorite Lessons from my Favorite (reformed) Harlot

July 13, 2009 | 28 comments
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Incidentally, Jewish tradition lists Rahab the Harlot (of Joshua 2) as one of the four most beautiful women in the Bible. That’s only one of the reasons I like her.

Lesson #1: The Atonement is Big

The text isn’t shy about Rahab’s sexuality.  First, her story begins in Shittim, the place where Israel began to “play the harlot” (Numbers 25: 1-5).  And then there’s the bit about her name. In Hebrew, rhb means “broad,” and in Ugaritic (a relative of Hebrew) the root refers to female sex organs. There is even something symbolic and suggestive in her letting down a “scarlet cord” as a sign to the spies.

Still, the Rahab story isn’t about her harlotry so much as her faith. When Rahab speaks to the spies, she bears testimony of the God of Israel, references Israelite history, and calls the Israelite God, “God in heaven above and earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11)–a phrase that deliberately rejects the polytheism of her nation. Whatever she used to be, by the time the spies arrive, she has clearly accepted the Israelite God. If the Old Testament isn’t clear enough on Rahab’s faith, both Paul and James refer to her as an example of faith in their discourses (Hewbrews 11:31 and James 2:25), not many women are so honored.

I like Rahab because her story illustrates how big the Atonement is. We don’t know everything that took place between Rahab as a harlot and Rahab as an Israelite heroine, but it’s clear that she repented. Even the sins of the harlot, through repentance and the power of the Atonement, can be as white as snow.

Lesson #2: God is not a check-list God

When Rahab is confronted by the King, she must chose between two evils, either lying to the King or acting against the oath she swore to the spies. Both John Calvin and Augustine get after Rahab for chosing to lie to the king—even if it was to a good end. I like Martin Luther’s take better, as he defends “a good hearty lie for the sake of the good.” (I feel safe assuming that God also approves of Rahab’s lie—afterall, He delivers her.)

Rahab is certainly not the first person in the Old Testament to tell one of these “noble” lies, there are the Egyptian midwives (Exodus 1:16-20), Abraham and his “sister” Sarah (see Exodus 12:11-17) and David in his lie to Ahimelech the priest (see 1 Samuel 21:1-3).  Each story suggesting that God, even in the thick of the Levitical law, deals with His children individually and not according to a set of fixed rules.

Elder Oaks said something nice along these lines, “The Final Judgement is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. . . . The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”

Lesson #3: It’s character that counts

I have a good friend who admits to feeling less than other members of the Church because she doesn’t have a pioneer ancestry. I think the Rahab story illustrates how little pedigree matters when weighed against our actions. The first story in the book of Joshua is Rahab’s. Immediately following the Rahab narrative, we are introduced to Achan (Joshua 7). The stories begin the same way (with spies) but end very differently. In the first story (Rahab’s), Israel is victorious and Rahab–the Canaanite–and her family are saved. In the second story (Achan’s), Israel is defeated and Achan–despite his choice heritage–and his family are destroyed. (Achan was punished for taking Jericho spoils.) The juxtaposition of these stories shows that God will not condemn or exalt a man because of his heritage. Rahab, the Canaanite, is saved because she has faith. Achan, the Israelite, is destroyed because he does not.

I think it is beautiful that each of the four Old Testament women who appear in Christ’s line (Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and yes, Rahab), each is a foreigner who becomes part of Isreal. Such is the inclusive nature of the Abrahamic covenant, a family that claims anyone who seeks it, for “as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name” (Abraham 2:10). We’re even told that Rahab, after forsaking Canaan, goes on to become the ancestor of at least eight priest-prophets, so that even though she did not have a covenant ancestry, her posterity–kings and priests to the Most High–were the very elect of Abraham.

28 Responses to Favorite Lessons from my Favorite (reformed) Harlot

  1. Amanda on July 13, 2009 at 4:48 am

    Reason #1 is just beautiful. It makes me think, if we do it right, our live aren’t as much about our sins as much as our faith and repentance.

  2. Thomas Parkin on July 13, 2009 at 8:34 am

    I loved every word.

    Thanks, Rebbecca. ~

  3. Julie M. Smith on July 13, 2009 at 9:49 am

    This is a great post. Thank you.

  4. Wilfried on July 13, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Excellent, Rebecca. These are compassionate insights in complex events.

    “I have a good friend who admits to feeling less than other members of the Church because she doesn’t have a pioneer ancestry.” Sad, but not surprising. “They” do it unwittingly, and you can’t blame them, when they mention, en passant in talk or testimony, their pedigree from past to present–8 children and 27 grandchildren. Difficult to beat for converts. But we can all be saved.

  5. Rebecca J on July 13, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Great post! Rahab is one of my favorite stories from the Bible. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  6. Marc Bohn on July 13, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Fantastic post Rebecca. A great reminder for us when we begin to feel entitled, ala the parable of the workers in the vineyard. We are all reliant on Christ’s atonement and through the opportunity this sacrifice offers us to repent, we can become just as clean as one another, whether we’re struggling with pride or fornication. Moreover, it doesn’t matter whether we can trace our stock to the 19th century pioneers or whether we ourselves just joined the Church after a lifetime of struggles. This is not a competition. We all have the same birthright.

  7. mehrsa on July 13, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Well said, Rebecca. I love reason #3. I think that it is one of the major points of the New Testament too.

  8. Justmeherenow on July 13, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I enjoyed this post.

  9. annegb on July 13, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I’d like to run this off and give it to my Relief Society president.

  10. Geoff B on July 13, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Rebecca, I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

  11. Bookslinger on July 13, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham (or pioneers) to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham (or the pioneers) “. Matt. 3:9, Luke 3:8.

  12. Karen on July 13, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Well, annegb, just do it.
    The post is beautiful. I come entirely from pioneer stock, and when I chose my husband, a new convert at the time, my father was outraged, even though Dad was only marginally active at the time. The traditions of our fathers run deep. Fortunately the atonement is for him too, and after a while he came to a better understanding and to activity.

  13. corktree on July 13, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Lesson #2 gave me something to think about. I love the words from Elder Oaks. It’s easy for me to get caught up in feeling inadequate because everything isn’t in the right place at every moment. It’s good to remember that we are the sum total of our lives, not just a snapshot. This was a lovely post to read, thank you.

  14. Lisa on July 14, 2009 at 7:36 am

    The messiness of the OT is something I love dearly and helps me cope with the questions I have regarding some of the more disturbing pioneer stories. Beautifully written, Rebecca.

  15. Amanda on July 14, 2009 at 8:20 am

    The hubs and I talk about number three a lot. Why does Pioneer Heritage make you any better? My father’s family was converted by Joseph Smith. My mom joined the church when she was 22. It annoys the heck out of my husband, so of course,every Sunday I find another pioneer heritage story to tell my husband about my family. He then replies “Yeah, well, my family members were Missourians.”

    We all have a family history.

  16. Jane Payne on July 14, 2009 at 9:03 am

    Yup. Yup. Yup. That’s why I love this story, too. Your articulate post sums it up so well and gives me more information, thank you.

  17. Eric Boysen on July 14, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Why do you limit the women in Christ’s line to these four? The wives of the patriarchs also apply. As shallow as the record in the scriptures is on the female side, when a woman is mentioned she is almost always a memorable figure, and many of them did amazing things.

  18. wdt on July 14, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Beautiful, Rebecca.

    Just to add to your point number 1, the story of Rahab illustrates how unimportant the past becomes when we become new in Christ. It’s interesting to me how little we know about the adolescent lives (or past transgressions) of spiritual/religious figures. The details of the indiscretions of youth become inconsequential in the “story” we tell of a life that ends in faith. For example, Joseph Smith makes brief reference to the foibles of youth, but that, of course, is not really the great story of his life – those details are so unimportant. We don’t even know much about the youth of President Gordon B. Hinckley, even though Sherri Dew spent hundreds of pages chronicaling his life. (that isn’t to say there there were sins or transgressions in President Hinckley’s youth – but interesting how lacking in detail those chapters are.) I think, as Paul taught, that becoming a man (or woman), and putting away childish things, is what Rahab did – her prior life became unimportant as she became a celebrated woman of faith.

  19. Rebecca on July 14, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Yes Eric, of course the wives of the patriarchs also apply. For every Abraham there is a Sarah. Also, one of the first things that jumps out at you in the Rahab narrative is that the spies goes to “Rahab’s” house–not to the home of her husband or her son or some other man in her life. This is in sharp contrast to most of the women in the OT.

    While I”m not saying there are only four women in Christ’s line, I do think there is something instructive in asking why name those specific women?

  20. Paradox on July 14, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    GREAT POST!

  21. DavidH on July 14, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    I thnk the selection of the women’s identities (Bathsheba is not mentioned by her name, but by her deceased husband’s) to include in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew, anticipated Sister Laurel Thacher Ulrich’s declaration that “Well behaved women seldom make history.”

    Our own Julie Smith explored the issue http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2006/06/jesus-female-ancestors/ Those who are more daring might read Parker Blount’s piece in the November 2006 Sunstone, Scarlet Threads in the Lineage of Jesus: Four Women of the Old Testament.

    Of course, Latter-day Saints are not the only ones who puzzle and strive to find lessons, intended or unintended in the list. Here is a short piece by a Roman Catholic priest on the issue: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=10491 My guess is that there are lots more articles like it from all the branches of Christianity.

  22. Julie M. Smith on July 14, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Eric, those are the only four female ancestors named in Matthew’s genealogy; that is why the focus.

  23. Rebekah on July 14, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Agreed. I think Matthew was purposeful in his mention of the four women in Matthew 1. As Rebecca noted, they were all non-Israelite by birth. Matthew addressed his gospel to the Jews and Jewish Christians of the time. One of his purposes was to convince them that Christ was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament and the fulfiller of the Law of Moses. At the same time, however, he wanted to show the Jewish Christians that all were welcome in the Church of Christ, including the gentile converts of the time. By showing that Christ’s line included non-Israelites, he diffused the idea that only Israel is accepted by God or into his Church.

    I think it’s also significant that some of the women mentioned were involved in some type of moral sin. Again, Matthew is highlighting that all are welcome into God’s kingdom upon conditions of repentance. The mention of adultresses and harlots is also meaningful when you consider the fifth woman of mentioned by Matthew: Mary. By all but a few, she was considered a fornicator and shunned. Once again, as Rebecca so eloquently outlined, God’s ways are not mans – nor is His measuring stick. Israelite or gentile, sinner or Sarah, all are invited, all are welcome.

    Just some thoughts…

  24. Lisa on July 14, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    That is one of the most underated biblical stories ever. Much can be learned from the 3 lessons.

  25. margy on July 14, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    This is beautiful. I love the line: “such is the inclusive nature of the Abrahamic covenant, a family that claims anyone who seeks it”

  26. Cyrus on July 15, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    That was a lot of research to come to those conclusions (I wish I had your energy). I wish people would all keep these three things in mind as central tenants, because a lot of strife and contention could be done away with.

  27. queuno on July 16, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    I like the sentiment that “we are all first-generation members”.

  28. American Yak on July 19, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Yeah, this is a great post.

    Your point about her heritage triggered a thought I’d never had before:

    One could make the case that Abraham himself was adopted, in more than just a metaphorical sense.

    Another similar story is the one about Hosea, who is commanded, of all things, to marry a harlot (Gomer), who becomes a symbol (she and the children) of the Lord’s mercy to Israel when they repent, and his justice when they do not. I have loved this story because of the miraculous compassion displayed by God. People say the Old Testament is harsh, but I read some of the most merciful stories from that book.