Rahab betrays her people. She betrays the security of her nation. She helps two foreigners cross the walls into Jericho. She welcomes two immigrants, even though her people call them enemies, even though her country considers them as threats to society. She extends hospitality to strangers who sneak through the night, who climb a wall and hide from Jericho’s patrol units. Rahab provides shelter for invaders. She harbors fugitives. This is a story about sedition against the state. This is a story about hospitality as treason.
Rahab welcomes two Israelites into her house, two men sent by Joshua to scout out the land, two spies to find the weak points of the city. They are there to hatch a plan for the destruction of Jericho. And somehow they find their way to Rahab.
There’s so much loaded into that first verse of our chapter, the beginning of the story. So much is left unsaid. We’re left with more questions than answers: “So they went, and entered the house of a sex worker whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there” (Joshua 2:1). We don’t know if the two Israelites find her or she finds them. We don’t know who seeks out the other. But what we do know is that the story hinges on the hospitality of a sex worker—her offer to harbor these two foreigners, these fugitives.
This story reaches beyond conceptions of piety, beyond the morality of the establishment. This story about Rahab and the Israelite fugitives would make you nervous, if you’re committed to reading the Bible as a lesson in the morality of family values.
What’s striking to me is that this story about Rahab doesn’t embarrass the author of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. The people who tell the story of Jesus aren’t nervous about Rahab. Because when we read the genealogy of Jesus, when we read about his family tree in that first chapter of Matthew, Rahab is named as a great-grandmother of Jesus. There’s no Jesus without Rahab, there’s no church without the hospitality of this sex worker.
Something about her place in society marks her as the most likely person to receive these two illegal visitors. Something about what’s she’s learned of the men who run the world makes her welcome these undocumented aliens into her protective care.
Something about who she is makes her the one to offer sanctuary.
There’s a theology of power here, which has something to do with morality: about where God finds conspirators for the work of liberation. This story gives us a glimpse of where God looks for partners to do a new thing in the world. Not everyone is ready for God’s plan, for God’s new thing as it shakes the foundations of the world as we know it. There’s something here, in the story of Rahab, about who God chooses when a society needs an earthquake to set people free.
When Rabab welcomes these two foreigners into her house, she chooses against her own people. She breaks the law. She disobeys the King. “The king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab,” it says in verse three—the King says to Rahab: “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” And what does it say Rahab instead? Verse 4: “But the woman took the two men and hid them.”
She even ends up lying to the authorities to protect the foreigners who have found sanctuary with her. Rahab hides them on her roof and says to the king’s agent—this is verse 4 and 5: “The men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. Where the men went I do not know.” She would do anything for these strangers, even betray her people, even risk her own punishment. Their safety depends on Rahab—her hospitality against the law.
We live in a kind of Jericho. And the question for us is whether we are willing to be like Rahab. Are we willing to let her life become our life, to betray this society for the sake of people who our rulers have identified as enemies, as threats to our national identity, as threats to our peoplehood? That’s what we have done, here, at our church, with offering Rosa a place to live, in defiance of government orders.
We live as traitors, as people unfaithful to this country, living in defiance of the borders, the wall, like Rahab. But this way of being a traitor is a kind of holiness, a holy betrayal of the legacy of the founders of this country, the fathers—their genocide, their slavery, their patriarchy, a heritage handed on from generation to generation, the lifeblood of U.S. political power.
To be people like Rahab, to be one of her descendants, like Jesus—that’s the call of the story. To betray the foundations of this country with our lives. To harbor people who bring a new world, a different life. The president has said that immigrants destroy the European foundations of this culture. I think he’s right. And his supporters realize that. That’s what it means to be committed to white supremacy—to make sure that that culture dominates all the others. We are living in the midst of their culture war, as the federal government refuses refugees and deports immigrants, as the passport applications of U.S. citizens in Texas are denied because their parents were immigrants. These policies all come together in a desire to protect the European foundations of this culture, a racial dominance, a racial purity—to control who will be your friends at school, to determine your neighbors and your coworkers.
This is about cultural formation, about the making of a peoplehood. This is about who you are, about your life. The political has become personal, reaching into the intimacies of our friendships, of who we belong to and who belongs to us, as a people, in our families and in our churches.
The witness of Rahab is that she’s a traitor to the powers that be, to the people in charge, and opens her life to a new world—where strangers become her friends, where foreigners become her family.
That’s the world of Jesus, we learn later in the Bible, when we find out that this woman, Rahab—a foreigner to Israel—becomes part of the family, one of the ancestors of Jesus. She’s a Canaanite mentioned in his Jewish family tree.
She becomes part of the enemies of her people, a central character, to the story of another people, a founding mother, through a holy betrayal.
To be like her, like Rahab, means that we betray the foundations of this country because we believe in a world yet to come. A holy betrayal, so that we can become part of a people not our own.