Rahab the Prostitute: Her Reputation Versus Her Role
We have no evidence, just the report of “Rahab the prostitute,” but there seems to be no forgetting it. Mention Rahab, and those who know her story add the title in their minds, if not vocally.
The reputation of a man is like his shadow: it sometimes follows and sometimes precedes him, it is sometimes longer and sometimes shorter than his natural size.— French Proverb
We first heard about her when Joshua, the Hebrew leader sent spies to check out Jericho, and the men secretly entered the house of “a prostitute named Rahab.” Whatever the reason she took them in, she acted kindly and sensibly. Seemingly, she had given up the old role of seducing men and was now offering to protect them.
Rahab stacked them under heaps of flax on her rooftop. In return for her kindness, the spies promised to save her and her relatives when they destroyed Jericho. So they returned to rescue “Rahab the prostitute.” (6:17)
When her name was inscribed in the Faith Hall of Fame (Hebrews 11) the narrator commended, “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (verse 31). Even in such a prestigious setting, her obedience, her bravery, and her wisdom were not enough to cancel the memory of what she used to be.
Finally, the apostle James referred to her in his letter to the churches. He told her story as an illustration of faith which proved itself by works. “Rahab the prostitute,” he wrote, “is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions . . ." (James 2:25). Why refer to a woman who was "right with God" by the name she obtained from her previous role which was offensive to God?
We do not have all the facts, but we can assume that on Rahab's list of values, kindness was higher than honesty; she protected the men and lied about it. She was not condemned for her dishonesty, but she was rewarded for her kindness. God judges the heart, we can judge only what we see.
Rahab confessed to the spies that their God was the true God. She was a believer. She believed that God would give them success over Jericho, and she demonstrated her faith by her unselfish request for the salvation of her entire family.
Then she let the spies escape. Her house was built on the city wall (a custom affirmed by archaeological evidence) so using a scarlet chord, Rahab lowered the men through her window to the ground on the outer side of the wall. Without her knowing it, the scarlet in the cord symbolized her salvation covenant.
Rahab, without any thought of her reputation, prepared to move on after Jericho had fallen. Instead of focusing on the past; Rahab determined to push on into the future. Her reputation went with her because human minds would rather remember what she was than what God restored her to be.
Athalya Brenner in I Am . . . Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories, asks, “Do we forget that prostitution—in this case, female prostitution—exists because of simple supply and demand processes?” Recognizing a female prostitute, was also recognizing that men—two, three, four, maybe more—were immoral too. It is just the nature of human minds to focus on the bad more often than the good. In Rahab’s case, her bad was easy to remember because it become a part of her name, meaning “broad.”
In defense of the Jewish commentators who discuss her story, some of them suggest that Rahab might have been an innkeeper and seller of food. The Hebrew word “zonah,” translated “whore” is similar to the words translated “food” and “feeding.” Josephus Flavius the ex-military Jewish leader who became a scholar of biblical history proposes that Rahab was an innkeeper from the beginning (Brenner). However, these attempts to lessen her dishonor are little known facts.
So are the facts about her marriage to Salmon, and that they had a son named Boaz, through whom she entered the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1). Boaz was the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David the recognized ancestor of Jesus. In the registry of forty generations from Abraham to Christ (a list of who fathered whom), only five mothers including Mary, the mother of Jesus and Rahab are included.
What About Our Reputation?
What are we to do when our reputation—what people think and say about us—describes our past negative behavior, instead of our character transformation? When people form opinions about us, it is difficult to change their minds. Some will judge our repentance and efforts to improve as a hoax.
We cannot spend our lives trying to change other people's minds about us. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama understood that. Neither of them formed his campaign slogan based on his reputation. No matter what the polls said, the two men keep focused on their decision to pursue their goals to the very end. One of them won despite the opinion of many that he should not.
That eventful night when Rahab came face to face with the Hebrews, she was determined to leave Jericho alive. Whatever the mileage, she was prepared to travel. In that crucial moment, her reputation could neither save nor destroy her. She and her reputation were distant from each other. That can become a reality for anyone.
A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.— Joseph Hall
We cannot control what people choose to remember about us, but we can live every day to the fullest, with the satisfaction of knowing who we are, and pursuing the task God assigned us to do. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). This verse certainly rings true in the life of Rahab. She was not the worst of sinners, but we have reason to say that if God made a success of her life, He can make a success of anybody’s—even yours and mine.
© 2012 Dora Weithers