.In those days folks were suspect of strangers, didn’t trust others from foreign lands. Fear had seized the hearts of the cities such that the ancient practice of hospitality had been all but lost.
She lived in the border town, was the woman who lived on the wall and saw it all go down—the bloodshed, the fighting, the wars so if anyone should have been afraid she certainly had cause.
I’ve seen her city with my own eyes, looked down from the craggy, dusty mounts of the biblical Moab to see the lush green valley and fertile fields of Jericho. The city on the edge of the Promised Land must have looked like heaven on earth for those who had wandered in the harsh, barren wilderness for forty long years. Ages upon ages later as I watched the palm trees sway in the balmy air and saw the sun dance on the water, I understood why the ancients called this, “the land flowing with milk and honey.”
The people in Rahab’s city had long heard of and feared Israel and her God so when those God people appeared on the horizon, the king of Jericho sent orders to keep watch for intruders and to report back any trouble to come their way (Joshua 2)." "That will fix it" the king thought, "Fear will force my people to find the others, the ones who are not like us." "And anyway, our city is safe" he reasoned, "We have a great, strong wall."
How she found her way to the wall is unknown to us, but suffice to say it is where you end up when you have nowhere else to go; no family, no support, no backup plan. It was how a woman survived when she had no other course, she sold her body so she could eat and feed any children she might have, she put herself in harm’s way to survive another miserable day.
The characters on the wall were not the elite of the community, no these were the wanderers,the alcoholics,the thieves, these were the ruffians, the ones who were lost and sought a moment of pleasure in their own miserable existence so depravity sewed depravity and the cycle was without end. Only Rahab’s story was different, because in her we see again how the זוֺנַה the harlot is God’s choice to be a conduit of grace and the one to birth redemption into her time and place.
When Joshua sent the spies to scope out the city after forty years in the wilderness, Rahab anticipated their arrival. She’d heard the stories of the “God who led people through the sea” the One who fed the wanderers bread from heaven, and “stood guard over their camps like a pillar of fire!” So when the spies arrived, the men who were sent from this God she decided to take a chance and put her life in the hands of the One who “brought this people out, so he could bring them in (Deuteronomy 6.23).”
The king, upon learning that spies had entered the city, rounded up his men to question the people on the wall. Grabbing her arm and holding her by the scruff of the neck the soldiers breathed venom into her face, “Have you seen these men?!” they demanded, “Tell us the truth whore! Your worthless life depends on it!” And just then her whole life flashed before her eyes; she knew she had a decision to make in the space of her breath. She could keep doing what she had always done, she could continue to eek out an existence on the wall entertaining men who thought more of the dust on their sandals than her happiness, she could continue to sell off parts of her self to survive one more hour, one more day until there was nothing left, or-- she thought with a flash--she could take a chance on the God of the storm and the sea.
“I haven’t seen them!” she lied, as her heart beat loud and fierce, her mouth went dry and her ears burned hot. She knew the men were hidden under the rushes and if the guards decided to look too carefully she and the men of Israel she was protecting would die. Instead, the guards believed her story and left her so she quickly helped the men scurry out of the city and up the mountainside to safety but not before they promised to spare Rahab and her household.
So when the armies of Israel returned to march around the city, she hung her scarlet thread outside her window, the same window where men had stared up at her and considered her price before, the same window where she probably considered throwing herself down from time and again. Instead, the deep crimson thread read like the blood over the doorpost to the armies of Israel so that Rahab and whatever people she had were spared and she was adopted into the family of God.
This Advent season when there are wars and rumors of wars, when our world is violence filled, when fear of the other has robbed our joy and stolen the power of embrace may we pause to remember the time long ago when God came to us in the most unexpected way.
Let us remember the time when the no good, down and out harlot became the heroine, when she chose to take a chance on this God and found a miracle in the strangers. Rahab's is the story of the prostitute whose risk lands her in the story of redemption history, establishes for her a place in the genealogy of the Christ (Matthew 1) and her inheritance is secured in the annals of faith (Hebrews 11). Her story calls out to remind us, God is the God of the harlot, the untouchable, the other. Her story beckons to us across the sea, and says "Be not afraid."
Times were hard to say the least, help seemed far off and options few. Folks left home in the morning and never returned again due to some unforeseeable act of God. When this happened to her the first time the ancient custom kicked in and she was married to her husband’s brother. The plan was for the brother to take care of her, giver her children, grant her security in the cold brutal world. Only this man was no good, he paraded around, took the accolades, let everyone pat him on the back for doing the right thing-- the hard thing, but in secret he was using her for his pleasure and denying her any hope of a future.
Her name, Tamar, means little palm tree. She was a Canaanite girl likely married into the family of Israel-the one who struggles with God-at the tender age of twelve or thirteen; wed to Judah's son Ur and widowed shortly thereafter. Her second husband Onan, more wicked than his elder brother, took the praise of being Tamar’s goel, deliverer, redeemer, but deceived the entire community every night when he took her and spilled his seed on the ground ensuring that Tamar’s child wouldn’t usurp his inheritance (Gen.37).
After Judah’s second son was struck dead Judah was through with the black widow Tamar and he sent her packing back to her father’s house where they said, “What are you doing back here, we don't need another mouth to feed?” “We told you not to get involved with those people!” She endured her life as a desolate woman and waited for the chance to marry Judah’s third son but word never came and soon she knew Judah never intended to send for Tamar. It was at this point Tamar had to choose between two evils, to remain in her father’s house as an image of shame and failure that in her culture would bring down the entire family or she could find a way to make it back into the family of God.
And then here is where it gets sticky, and why it's hard to share this passage at women’s conferences, the reason we skip this whole beautiful and terrible narrative on our syllabi in Bible courses, because there is too much sex and semen and outright prostitution. But to skip over this piece of hope is to fail the consideration of the whole counsel of God and if we are going to take passages restricting the roles of women in leadership we must also consider the texts where God is on the side of the prostitute.
Tamar's story is dirty, harsh, unsavory and the truth is we want clean, gracious good wives as heroines so we sanitize the Scriptures and create idols of what we wish were in the text, what is permissible to say in Sunday School and refuse to embrace the miracle of the text that is.
What’s true is Tamar did the only thing she thought she could do, she dressed up like a prostitute and lured her father in law into sexual relations with her. When it became known that she was with child and they stormed her tent to drag her out into the street to burn her alive she was able to produce Judah’s staff and seal and prove he was the father of the child. Then-and only then-Judah did the first decent thing in his life, he testified to her righteousness and his sin and took her in as his own.
And so this lovely, inglorious story has a remarkable and redeemed end in that God blesses Tamar’s risk, somehow understands the desperation of her life, takes account of the men who have used and abused her and grants her with not one, but two sons and a place in the story of Jesus. Tamar becomes then one of the five named women in the genealogy of Christ—women who were known to their communities as harlots and whores, forgotten, desperate and soiled (Matthew 1). In Matthew's Gospel Jesus is not only the son of Abraham but also son of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah's wife and Mary the Virgin.
Perhaps this Christmas it helps us to reflect on the women God used to birth forth Christ, to reckon with the truth of their less than perfect lives and to see what God sees in the broken, the left out, the displaced and forgotten, the shamed and the lowly. Maybe this Advent we can adjust our gaze and see what is true in this blood soaked weary world, God is with and for those whom the system has turned away, the ones whose safety net has failed. God who could have come to us by any means chose to do so through women abandoned and betrayed.
So it was and may it ever be.