This past weekend I had the privilege to preach on Rahab. It was perhaps my favourite week of study all year. Rahab was truly a remarkable women with a remarkable faith. As I studied this week, it was no surprise to me that she is lifted up as an exemplary woman in the Scriptures. Rahab first appears in the book of Joshua. She appears next in the genealogy of Jesus, and she’s highlighted in Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrews Chapter 11. What was so great about Rahab? She truly understood God’s hesed: God’s unbridled steadfast love and loving kindness. (This was the focus on my sermon, which you can listen to here). What I haven’t mentioned yet, is that Rahab was a prostitute. I didn’t get to hash this point out in my sermon, but I believe Rahab can significantly contribute to the current discussions in our culture surrounding prostitution and sex trade workers.
Prostitution in the ancient world
Rahab was a Canaanite. She lived in Jericho. Her culture was in every way the opposite to the nation of ancient Israel. Whereas Israel could be described as “conservative” regarding sexual ethics and practice, Canaanite culture was “liberal.” (Please know that I will use conservative and liberal and progressive in quotations as these are categories imposed from our framework onto the text).
Within Canaanite society, prostitution was acceptable. It was actually deeply associated with their religious practices. Now, we can’t know if Rahab was a cultic prostitute. Some scholars think she was but the text just doesn’t tell us. Either way, prostitution didn’t carry the same taboos that it does for some of us today or as it did for the nation of ancient Israel.
We’re told that Rahab had her own house. She had living family. Her father and mother were still alive. She had brothers and sisters. She even had people “who belonged to her.” There is no hint that she was a prostitute because of a series of bad circumstances. She wasn’t widowed or orphaned and pushed into this vocation. It’s quite the opposite. The text presents her as an affluent person with a full life. Prostitution is merely presented as her vocation. She could be called an empowered woman. Her career wasn’t frowned upon in her city. It was perfectly acceptable. And if she was actually a cultic prostitute, her career would have even put her in a place of influence.
What’s stunning about Rahab’s vocation within Canaanite culture is that this ancient woman and city are more “progressive” than progressive Canada.
A Step Forward or Backward?
Before I say anything more, I recognize that a man writing about prostitution and women’s rights is problematic. My primary aim is to lend my voice to Rahab, as I think she is worth listening to in the conversations surrounding prostitution and sex trade workers. My hope is to continue to be an advocate for women’s rights.
Since Bedford v. Canada, prostitution in Canada has been an ongoing conversation (which has by no means been resolved by Bill C-36). There are many in the public sphere advocating for sex trade work to be completely legalized — both buying and selling — because it’s a women’s rights issue. And while some Canadians’ vision of progress is rooted in the hope to move Canada forward in this regard, it’s not as forward as some think. These individuals see this this movement forward to legalization as progress. But this goal of normalizing prostitution and removing the stigma attached to buying sex is not new.
Others in history had accomplished this goal, like the ancient Canaanites.
But standing in the midst of her “progressive” society, Rahab discovered that it was in fact antithetical to God’s vision for human flourishing. She heard that God was about to bring swift judgment against her city and her culture. Rather than fight for her values and way of life, the twist is that Rahab abandoned her city and culture and vocation. Rather than die defending Jericho’s culture and vision of “progress,” she instead aligns herself with Israel. She does this despite Israel’s culture being significantly more restrictive than her own, especially in regards to sexual ethics and practice.
Why would Rahab digress from being empowered and progressive to being constrained? To the modern reader, it looks as if Rahab has made a huge mistake (cue Gob Bluth). She could easily be accused of being self-preserving and a traitor to the cause of women’s rights and equality. But I don’t think this accusation stands.
Rahab abandons Jericho and all that comes with it, because she encounters God’s hesed. She gets a taste of the unbridled loving kindness of God. And she comes to see that true human flourishing, true cultural flourishing, true social flourishing, can only be found in God and not in the visions of human culture — let alone any notion of “progress.” And while her actions may seem backwards and primitive, Rahab doesn’t end up becoming a disempowered woman.
What I love about Rahab’s story, is that she breaks with convention in an awesome way. Yes, she leaves behind her vocation. But she doesn’t just become a pawn within a patriarchal system. In her day, the family unit was led by the eldest male. But here, Rahab negotiates on behalf of her extended family. Remember, her father and brothers are still alive. And yet it’s Rahab who asks for her whole family to be delivered from death. Does that sound like a woman who has succumbbed to self-preservation? Does she look like a woman who has abandoned being empowered?
Rahab remains a strong, courageous and progressive woman. These aspects of her beautiful personality aren’t suppressed at all by God’s vision for culture. Because the greatest strength, the greatest beauty, the greatest flourishing is found in the love of God. When Rahab encounters God’s hesed, she doesn’t become less of a woman or lose her empowerment. She gains it in incredible ways. She ends up being among the women that God used to bring his Son into the world. This is just how far God extended his loving kindness to her.
When considering the issue of prostitution and the rights of sex trade workers in Canada, Rahab would suggest we turn to the living God for direction on issues of cultural and social renewal before we trust the voices arising from within in our culture. And while this seems a backward approach in our modern and progressive society, Rahab reminds us that true human flourishing and progress can only be discovered in the hands of our Creator, who is “God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11).
An alternative picture of human flourishing
When it comes to cultural and societal progress, the removal of certain constraints and social taboos may look like a step forward, but they may actually be a step backward. When it comes to progress, the retaining and advocacy of certain constraints and social taboos may look like a step backward, but they may actually be a step forwards. How are we to know from within our limited perspective on time and space? We can’t know if our visions of progress will truly bring flourishing. We need the “God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.”
In God’s economy, cultural renewal always begins with the individual. Each of us have to choose to value the women who find themselves in this situation, the majority of them driven there by inequitable social and economic forces. Unconstrained forces in many other parts of society (such as misogynistic perceptions of women, unrestrained capitalism) are also antithetical to true flourishing, and contribute to this situation. We must remember that many of the women and men in the sex trade in Vancouver are not Rahab’s peers in power, compensation, safety and family support. We should commend Rahab’s modern peers who bravely fight for the safety and protection of those in far more dangerous circumstances. But we must also offer an alternative vision of human flourishing, which involves liberation from the very trade they find themselves within.
Rehab’s voice reminds us that unconstrained freedom is antithetical to true flourishing. Maybe along the lines that God calls us to advocate for women’s rights and break with oppressive aspects of human culture (such as the abuse that can come from patriarchy) while at the same time being constrained from certain activities (such as unconstrained sexual ethics and practices). Please don’t mishear me. This isn’t about women’s sexual ethics and practices but society as a whole. For example: what does unconstrained sexual ethics and practices ultimately do to the buyers? What does unconstrained sexual ethics and practices say about what it means to be human? Rahab would remind us that whatever constraints God offers us, after all, are not only for our good but so that we can all be most truly human. Rehab would advocate that individuals and society will flourish the most when they are gripped by hesed: God’s unbridled steadfast love and loving kindness.