As I mentioned in my post about my Old Testament class last semester, one of the papers I wrote was on the story of Rahab in Joshua 2. While I must be honest and say I had to rewrite it and only received a “Satisfactory” which I believe was the equivalent of a B, I post it here for two reasons: 1) it may prove helpful to those who take the class in the future and 2) for those who are interested in reading it just because. Though I’m not sure how helpful it will be, please feel free to use this for personal or group study.
RAHAB: PRAGMATIST, TRAITOR, OR PERSON OF FAITH?
Rahab is a minor character in some respects, but as the narrative in Joshua 2 is presented, Israel’s success in acquiring the land of Canaan is largely due to Rahab’s assistance. What were her motives in assisting the Israelites? Was she a pragmatist who figured she would rather be on the winning side? Was she a traitor with a grudge against her government or community? Or was she a faithful person who made the decision to serve the God of Israel? This essay will show that Rahab was not just one of these, but rather is a dynamic character who is a pragmatic, traitorous, person of faith.
PRAGMATIC, TRAITOROUS, OR FAITHFUL?
As an author develops a story line characters are developed to serve various purposes throughout their work. Whether the story of the Israelite spies and their interaction with Rahab is a factual story or not, Rahab does not function as a flat character, but as a dynamic and integral part of the narrative. In one respect, she is a pragmatist seeking to protect and preserve her life and the lives of her family (Josh 2:12-13). Since she tells the Israelites, “I know that the Lord has given you the land” (v. 9a) it is a very logical and pragmatic decision to choose the side of the victor who can preserve your life (vv. 12-13). Rahab is thus the savior of her family and herself. In this case however, Rahab’s pragmatism is also proves traitorous. While her family will more than likely be thankful to have their lives spared, when Rahab sent the king’s men away (vv. 4-5), the lives of those in her community were given over in order her family’s safety (vv. 17-20). From the standpoint of her fellow Canaanites then, Rahab is a traitor who handed them over to the enemy and gave their land to the enemy. And if hiding the Israelite spies (v. 4) was not enough to prove this, the assistance she provided to help them escape the city (v. 15) as well as her parting words on how to avoid the king’s men (v. 16) surely do. One wonders if Rahab has some reason to commit treason in this way.
The fact that Rahab sent away the king’s men (v. 4-5) could indicate that she was not happy with the leadership of her country. Or perhaps the economic situation in place at the time was not beneficial to her. Even though it is possible that Rahab, and maybe her family, sold flax for a living (v. 6), she was also a prostitute to bring in more money. While her decision to help the Israelites was most definitely pragmatic, in the eyes of the Canaanites, she a traitor. However, there is one more layer to Rahab’s dynamic presence in this chapter. True, her decision was pragmatic and traitorous, but it was also courageous! It took a great deal of courage and fortitude to assist the Israelites when the king’s men demanded to have the spies handed over to them (v. 3-4). While it is possible, there is no indication that she was asked, coerced, or forced to lie to the king’s men. It merely says that she “took the two men [referring to the Israelites] and hid them” (v. 4). Why would she take such a chance with her life and the lives of those she loved? One possibility is that the two Israelite spies “offered to allow her family to survive in lieu of payment for her services” as a prostitute. While Kugel admits that this is a cynical reading of the text, when Rahab says “I have dealt kindly with you” (v. 12), it could be read in this way. However, since Hebrew word used for “kindness” in this passage (v. 12) is translated from the word hesed, and the Jewish concept of hesed is often translated as “‘steadfast, loving-kindness,’” Kugel’s cynicism does not seem warranted.
Rather than cynicism, it seems Rahab is “celebrated as doing hesed towards Israel.” This, coupled with Rahab’s unequivocal statement of, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” (v. 11), indicates that Rahab is a person of faith. So while her decision is pragmatic and traitorous, it is her faith in Israel’s God that moves her to lie to the king’s men (v. 4-5). She “[has] heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea…and what [the Israelites] did to the two kings of the Amorites” (v. 10) and it seems as though this brought her to a place of belief. So while “there was no courage left in any of [them] because of [the Israelites]” (v.11a, emphasis added), Rahab exhibited great courage in assisting the Israelites. It seems as though the Canaanites fight to protect their land while Rahab fights to protect God’s people as well as those in her immediate family. Thus the Canaanites courage is misplaced.
In Joshua 2, Rahab is developed as a dynamic character that is integral to the plotline of the story as well as the end result of Israel acquiring the land. Though there is a sense of pragmatism in her decision, and while her community would deem her a traitor, Rahab is in fact a pragmatic, traitorous, person of faith who courageously and heroically saved who she could while assisting the people of the God. In this light, it makes sense that Rahab would be honored in Hebrews chapter 11 where it is as a result of her faith that she “did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace” (v. 31).
James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible (New York: Free Press, 2007), 373.
 Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith (Loiusville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 127.
 Ibid., 193.