Friday, June 6, 2008

The fruit of my week


Joshua 2:1-14 (My translation)
2:1 And Joshua son of Nun sent two men from Shittim to go about the land secretly[1], saying “Go survey the land of Jericho.” And they went to the house of Rahab the prostitute and they laid down there. 2 And the king of Jericho was informed, “Behold, this night, two Israelite men have come to survey the land.” 3And the king of Jericho sent them to Rahab saying, “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house because they have come to survey the land!” 4And she took the two men and she hid them and she said, “Yes, the men did come to me, but I did not know where they had come from. 5And as the gate was closing tonight, the men went out and I do not know where they went. Pursue after them to the hills because you can overtake them.” 6 Meanwhile, she hid the two men in the stalks of flax which she had organized on the rooftop. 7 And they pursued after them all the way to the fords of the Jordan and the gates closed behind them as they pursued after them. 8 And before the two men laid down, she went up to them on the rooftop. 9and said to them, “I know that the LORD has given you this land because terror of you has fallen upon us and the people of the land have melted from before you. 10Because we heard that the LORD made the Red Sea dry before you as you came out of Egypt. And because of what you did to the two kings of the Amorites, Sihon and Og in the land beyond the Jordan, totally exterminating them. 11 And when we heard, our hearts melted and no man could stand against you because the LORD your God is God in heaven above and upon the earth below. 12 And now you must swear to me in the LORD because I have been kind to you, you must give kindness[2] to my father’s house and give me a sign of faithfulness. 13 It will be for my father, my mother and my brothers and sisters, deliver all of our lives from death. 14 And the men said to her “Our lives in return for yours! If you do not speak a word of this[3], we will deal in faithful kindness to you when the Lord gives us the land.”

Israel has just experienced a great loss in the death of their leader and spiritual mouthpiece, Moses. Joshua son of Nun enters the scene as his predecessor and receives a double stamp of approval, both by God and by the people. He is commissioned by God to lead the people to take the land that had been promised to them. The reader can sense the mood of excitement and anticipation. God’s promises given centuries earlier were about to come to fruition. Joshua is going to lead them to a place they could call their own. By the end of the first chapter of Joshua, there is simply a momentum that seems to be in crescendo toward the climax. How then, do we end up with two Israelite spies and a Canaanite prostitute as the next story in this narrative?
Many questions and theological reflections have stemmed from this somewhat odd, but nevertheless captivating account in Joshua 2. It seems at first glance to be misplaced.[4] However, if one is able to understand the nuances implemented in the text, it will provide strong evidence for chapter two not only being a complete literary unit, but also a further fluidity within the entire Joshua narrative.[5] Thus, the task at hand is to examine the many components to this story[6], delve into some of the vast number of questions that arise out of these components and finally examine the theological ramifications which stem from what the text itself is saying.

Before an examination of the questions and reflections that can be gleaned from this passage can take place, a proper orientation to the context of the passage must be laid out. Three different aspects of context must be understood in engaging the story of Rahab and the Israelite spies.[7] The first of these is the literary context as it pertains to the overall narrative of Joshua. How does this section fit with the larger thematic understanding of the book? Second, is the role the text plays in the meganarrative. How is the context of God’s overall story in scripture reflected in this text? Third, is the historical context. What setting is the text found in historically? Culturally?

1. Literary Context
As mentioned earlier, chapter two does not seem to mesh with its immediately surrounding chapters. The crescendo of anticipated conquest in chapter one seemingly flows well into the initiative taken by Israel to cross the Jordan, which takes place in chapter three. Why then, interrupt this flow to make mention of a rather dubious story? As Yair Zakovitch puts it,
Why should the ‘Book of the Wars of the Lord,’ the account of God’s wondrous saving acts in settling the nation in its land, begin precisely at the house of a harlot? Why does the Jericho prostitute get such a prominent place in the story, on the very opening pages of the books of the Former Prophets?[8]
Furthermore, the text in this chapter is at best, choppy.[9] It appears to have been edited in some manner. Why then would such a text be at the outset of the conquest narrative? While many possibilities exist, there are three that seem to be supported in the literary context of the story.
First, Joshua has been told in chapter one that he is going to lead the Israelites across the Jordan to begin the conquest. Obviously, one could question whether his sending out of spies is an act of faithfulness or faithlessness.[10] Some have posed that the former is more likely.[11] Stek suggests, “The central question raised for Joshua and Israel by the commission they received in chapter 1 is not Can it be done?...The question is…What is the situation and the terrain?”[12] The latter view also makes sense. If YHWH has said he has given Joshua the land, why bother with the formality of sending spies to scope out the situation? He above all people should recall where espionage landed Israel 40 years earlier.[13] Whether it was out of faithfulness or faithlessness, Joshua did the typical military reconnaissance mission that is exhibited elsewhere in the scriptures prior to attack.[14] This would lend itself to why chapter two is there. It provides a link between the command in chapter one and the eventual destruction of Jericho in chapter six.
A second possibility is the use of irony within this portion of the narrative. At the end of chapter one the Israelites (at least Reuben, Gad and Manasseh) affirm Joshua as the successor to Moses and offer their allegiance and support to him. They declare in unison that “Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you.” (Joshua 1:17 NRSV) This should have made Joshua cringe. Did they not spend 40 years in the wilderness because they had not sufficiently followed Moses? It seems reasonable to assume the narrator of Joshua is playing off this motif. Thus, the reader should be filled with precaution as she continues reading. They should have red flags up in their minds about what the Israelites might do. That caution is validated in the first verses of chapter two which have Joshua’s hand-selected spies visiting a Canaanite prostitute’s home.
The third justification for Rahab’s story at the outset of the conquest narrative is the concealment archetype that it provides.[15] The motif of being concealed and then revealed is a key component to Joshua 1-12. While this does not justify the positioning of this passage at the outset of the conquest narrative, it does offer support for why the text connects well within the overall narrative.

2. Meganarrative Context
The larger picture of the biblical text is fairly simple to see. There are textual similarities between this story and the story of Sodom[16] (Genesis 19), and the account of Tamar[17] (Genesis 38) among countless others. Spy narratives are common as well, suggesting that this story is not of its own molding. Also, in the larger biblical context, New Testament writers pick up on the role of Rahab as a heroine of the faith.[18] Both James (2:25) and Hebrews (11:31) speak of Rahab as a protagonist and Matthew (1:5) lists Rahab as a direct ancestor in the lineage of Christ. Suffice it to say that the story of Rahab and the spies in Joshua 2 is used to continue the Meganarrative of God’s plan for deliverance. Joshua picks up where Moses left off in terms of leading the people and he is immediately proactive in sending the spies out to Jericho. The story continues after the spies hear Rahab’s statements on the view of the Canaanites in Jericho and her view on the role of YHWH.[19]

3. Historical Context
While the date of the actual writing of Joshua is difficult to assess[20], the timeframe of the events of Joshua is not. In other words, we may not know the date of the final form of Joshua, but we do have a general understanding of the era depicted in the narrative. Shortly after the death of Moses, Joshua takes command and initiates the reconnaissance mission. The more important context here is not how to identify the precise date of the conflict with Jericho. Instead, it is better to focus on the cultural significance of this era. With that in mind, perhaps the most significant area for our passage is the role of prostitution in an Ancient Near Eastern context (as well as a specifically Israelite context).
The role of prostitution is prevalent both in Israel and the broader ancient culture. The Hebrew word zona depicts a woman who receives payment for sexual services, but may also describe a woman who had sex before marriage.[21] Generally speaking, women who were prostitutes were accepted in society, but viewed in terms of lower-class. In Israelite culture, the notion of prostitution was generally looked down upon as levitic code opposed such behavior. However, multiple accounts of Israelite men interacting with prostitutes can be found in the scriptures.[22] Cultic prostitution also existed outside of Israel, though Rahab does not seem to be indicative of this type of activity.

The narrative of Rahab and the Israelite spies is clearly its own literary unit, comprising the whole second chapter of the book. The unit begins with Joshua sending out the spies (verse 1) and it concludes with the spies returning (verses 23-24). With that being said, it seems reasonable that there are two sections within the unit. Section one is ‘The Coming’ which consists of 2:1-14, beginning with the spies being sent out and ending with the spies establishing a covenant with the Canaanite prostitute. Section two is ‘The Departing’ which is made up of verses 15-24 and depicts the spies’ escape for Jericho, the contingent ‘fine-print’ regarding the covenant and finally a report to Joshua about their findings. The first section is of primary focus for this examination. I have placed verses 1 and 14 as standalone bookends to this pericope as they both are suggestive of secrecy. This understanding has significance that will be dealt with in a later section.
The structure of Joshua 2:1-14 is best understood in the following way[23]:
2:1 The Spies are Sent to Jericho in Secrecy
2:2-3 The King of Jericho Responds
2:4-7 Rahab Covers
2:8-13 Rahab Negotiates
2:14 Rahab and the Spies Establish a Covenant in Secrecy
Within this narrative, there are a couple of significant grammatical movements. The first of these is the wordplay. The narrator of this story incorporates a subtly humorous sexual tension throughout the 14 verses.[24] The verb translated as ‘entered’ (bo’) can also insinuate a man coming to a woman sexually. Further, the verb translated as ‘to lie down’ (sakab) is also used in biblical texts with the varied meaning of ‘to lie with’.[25] Even Rahab’s name has sexual connotation, meaning, ‘to open wide or stretch out.’[26] Those who propose that the primary emphasis of this story is that the Israelite spies needed a place to sleep and Rahab was simply an innkeeper, have a real tension of sexual innuendo that they must explain or dismiss. The text seems to be indicating that the spies’s intentions with Rahab were not particularly noble. Perhaps understanding this leads the reader to understand the significance of secrecy and discretion in this passage.
Another grammatical component to this passage is present at the end of verse 14.
אִ֚ם לֹ֣א תַגִּ֔ידוּ אֶת־דְּבָרֵ֖נוּ
This phrase is more ambiguous than the English translations lead on.[27] I have translated it, “If you do not speak a word of this” which seems to be more representative of the ambiguity present in the original text. It cannot be deciphered whether the spies are urging Rahab not to tell the king of Jericho about their presence in the city, or whether they are urging her not to tell Joshua or the rest of Israel what exactly had happened between her and the spies. NRSV and NASB are too narrow in referring to the spies’ ‘business’, which seems indicative of their reconnaissance moreover their sexual promiscuity. The way the whole story unfolds, it seems just as likely (if not more likely) that their plea is for her to keep their sexual encounter a secret from the Israelites. Nevertheless, Rahab seems content with this plea as long as she is spared from the attack.

Lexical Data
Two words seem to stand out in their importance in this pericope. The first is the word hesed. The word is repeated three times in three verses and describes first how Rahab feels she has dealt with the Israelites, then, how she demands to be treated by them in return, and finally, it is restated by the spies as how they would indeed treat Rahab and her family. As stated earlier, I wonder if hesed packs more theological punch than that which is allowed by translating it as “kindness” (TNIV, KJV, NRSV, NASB). Roughly two-thirds of the times hesed is used in the Hebrew Bible, it refers to God’s hesed for Israel. ‘Kindness’ does not even scrape the surface of the profundity of this word. Brown-Driver-Briggs inadequately suggests other words in addition to kindness, including: lovely, loving-kindness, fidelity, good, abundant in goodness, etc. Others have pointed out the link between covenantal language and the concept of hesed.[28] Routledge suggests,
In a religious setting God's people are expected to show hesed to God as their covenant obligation, expressed in faithfulness, obedience and devotion. They may also rely on the enduring hesed which God has bound himself to show to them on the basis of the relationship between them.[29]

The second key lexical component to Joshua 2:1-14 is the Hebrew word heresh. It is hapax legomena in the Hebrew Bible and is rendered by Brown-Driver-Briggs as meaning ‘secretly or in silence’. Based on my understanding of the structure of this passage and the ambiguity of verse 14, heresh brings further irony to the pericope. Not only did Joshua send the spies into Jericho secretly, but they returned with some element of secrecy. This motif of secrecy could shed some light onto the narrator’s interpretation of Joshua’s decision to send two men on a reconnaissance mission after YHWH had guaranteed the land. Perhaps this choice was exemplary of Joshua’s inability to wholehearted obedience to God.

The theological ramifications to this passage are numerous, but two motifs seem to be prevalent. First, is the role of Rahab. She is among the lowest of the low in Canaan. She earns a living that is looked down upon by the majority of the culture. She has probably been shamed by her own family (whom she saves anyways). Yet even in the midst of her lowliness, she exhibits hesed[30] to the Israelite spies. The risk and the cost were great. Hesed cost her national identity, her community, her friends, her job. She betrayed her city to show Hesed to two Israelites who were only interested in what she could do for them. The spies could not even formulate their own words in the story. All they were able to say was a recapitulation of what Rahab had already said.[31] Yet, even in the midst of this complex narrative, the words of God that were spoken originally to Abraham seem to be fulfilled.
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
(Genesis 12:2,3 NRSV. Italics added)
Second, is the notion of what it means to be the people of God. Even though the commonly held understanding among Israelites is that YHWH is first and foremost the God of Israelites, those circumcised and of the correct lineage, the fact of the matter is “The Lord God is God of heaven above and the earth below.”[32] Just as the aforementioned Genesis passage indicates, God came into covenant to bless all the families of the earth. It is this radical notion of the people of God that makes the kingdom so intriguing. Rahab did not have the ethnic lineage. She was in direct violation of levitical law and yet YHWH claimed her and has given her a permanent legacy in the scriptures as the opportunistic woman who, although she was an outcast, was saved to be part of the people of God.

How can we look to the book of Joshua and not reflect on the current war in Iraq? Joshua is certainly a complex narrative that depicts God in some ways that are rather unsettling, but this pericope should enliven us as followers of Jesus. With Rahab, we get a glimpse of what the enemy looks like. The enemy is no longer a Canaanite, Hivite, Amorite, Girgashite, Perizzite or Jebusite. The enemy is not some polytheist idolater with unclean rituals. The enemy is a woman; not only a woman but a prostitute who, even though she may very well have been used by the spies for their own sexual pleasure, still thought they were worth saving; worth committing treason for; perhaps worth dying for. The enemy has a face now.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this as we Americans, the new chosen people of God, seek to fight the “War on Terror” against “Jihad Terrorists”, “Muslim Extremists” and “Fundamentalists” or any other demonizing classification. These enemies have faces. They are the people of Iraq. They are not insurgents. They are not some entity or principality, they are people. Like Rahab, they have families, dignity, and heaven forbid they might understand a little bit about YHWH. They are us.
This notion that festers in our culture that we are a Christian nation is devastating. Not only does it deceive us into thinking that we are the new Israel, but when we oppress, steal and kill people from other nations, they think that is what Christianity is about. YHWH is not restricted to land or to people of the proper pedigree. It is time that we realize that we are more like Babylon than we are like Israel. The rest of the world already recognizes it. It’s only a secret to us.


Bird, Phyllis A. “The Harlot as Heroine: Narrative Art and Social Presupposition in Three Old Testament Texts.” Semeia 46 (1989): 119-139.

Goodfriend, E.A. “Prostitution, (OT)” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 5. 505-510 New York: Doubleday, 1992

Hawk, L. Daniel. Joshua, Berit Olam - Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2000.

McKinlay, Judith E. “Rahab: A Hero/ine.” Biblical Interpretation 7.1 (1990) 44-57.

Nelson, Richard D. Joshua: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.

Routledge, Robin. “Hesed as Obligation: A Re-examination” Tyndale Bulletin. 46.1 (1995) 179- 196.

Sherwood, Aaron. “A Leader’s Misleading and a Prostitute’s Profession: A Re-examination of Joshua 2.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31.1 (2006): 43-61.

Stek, John H. “Rahab of Canaan and Israel: The Meaning of Joshua 2.” Calvin Theological Journal 37 (2002): 28-48.

Woudstra, Marten H. The Book of Joshua, New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1981.

Zakovitch, Yair. “Humor and Theology or the Successful Failure of Israelite Intelligence: A Literary-Folkloric Approach to Joshua 2” Text and Tradition: The Hebrew Bible and Folklore ed. Susan Niditch. Atlanta: Scholars, 1990.

[1] The word translated ‘secretly’ here is hapax legomena, appearing only in this verse.
[2]The word translated kindness in the passage is hesed, which is a theologically rich word that to my knowledge has not been given an accurate English parallel. Hence, we stick with the commonly used ‘kindness’ (NRSV).
[3] NRSV has “If you do not tell of this business of ours.” This seems nuanced and is better understood in more simplified terms. The phrase seems to be vague. One can assume that “this business” is either that they were spying out the land or that they were visiting a prostitute. I am inclined to lean toward the latter. The king is already aware of the reconnaissance and the two spies probably have an understanding that they will conquer the Canaanites in Jericho (especially after hearing Rahab’s description of the overall mood of the people). Why then would the spies be concerned about Rahab informing the soon to be destroyed? It seems more likely that they are trying to cover up their actions to Joshua and the rest of Israel.
[4] See Aaron Sherwood, “A Leader’s Misleading and a Prostitute’s Profession: A Re-examination of Joshua 2,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 31.1 (2006):45-46.
[5]Hawk refers to this chapter as “arguably the most richly textured text in the book of Joshua…using elements of humor, irony, and folklore to disarm and engage the reader.” “L. Daniel Hawk, Joshua, Berit Olam-Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2000), 35.
[6]It is important to note that while the whole chapter is clearly one concise literary unit, I will be dealing primarily with the first 14 verses, which depict the scene up until the spies’ escape.
[7]These aspects of context stem largely from John H. Stek, “Rahab of Canaan and Israel: The Meaning of Joshua 2,” Calvin Theological Journal, 37 (2002): 29-36. While Stek adds a fourth aspect (canonical context), it is not necessary for our purposes here.
[8] Y. Zakovitch, “Humor and Theology or the Successful Failure of Israelite Intelligence: A Literary-Folklore Approach to Joshua 2,” Text and Tradition: The Hebrew Bible and Folklore, ed. S. Niditch (Atlanta: Scholars, 1990), 76.
[9]See Richard D. Nelson,. Joshua (Louisville:John Knox, 1997) 40-43. Also, Zakovitch, “Humor” 76-77.
[10] Sherwood “Misleading”, 44.
[11] See Stek, “Rahab” 30-31. Also, Marten H. Woudstra, Joshua (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1981) 68-69.
[12]Stek, “Rahab” 31.
[13]Numbers 13 is a divine initiated reconnaissance mission whereas in Joshua, it seems to be Joshua’s initiative. For more on this, see Zakovitch, “Humor” 80-81.
[14] Hawk, Joshua, 35.
[15] The concealment motif exists in Joshua 2 (Rahab concealing the spies), Joshua 7(Achan concealing his spoils), and Joshua 9 (the Gibeonites concealing their identity).
[16] Hawk, Joshua 36-40.
[17] See Phyllis A. Bird, “The Harlot as Heroine:Narrative Art and Social Presupposition in Three Old Testament Texts” Semeia 119-139.
[18] For an interesting perspective on this motif of Rahab as the protagonist, see J. McKinlay, “Rahab: A Hero/ine?” Biblical Interpretation 12.1 (January, 1999) 44-57.
[19] For more information on the role of Joshua 2 in the overarching meganarrative, see Stek, “Rahab of Canaan” 31-34.
[20]See Stek, “Rahab of Canaan” 34 and Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, 13 for some perspectives on dating the book of Joshua.
[21] All historical information on this topic comes from Elaine Adler Goodfriend, “Prostitution (OT)” in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 5. (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 505-510.
[22]See Bird, “The Harlot as Heroine” 119-139.
[23]While Stek, Hawk, Woudstra and Nelson all commend different structuring to the narrative text of Joshua 2, only Woudstra does not acknowledge a noticeable structural break or transition point after verse 14. He pairs 14 and 15 together, which is a minority approach.
[24] Again, see Zakovitch, “Humor and Theology” for more on this important commendation to how we responsibly approach the text.
[25] Hawk, Joshua 40-41 does an excellent job of understanding this sexual tension in chapter two in the broader context of Israel. Read especially his understanding on the role of Shittim in regards to the outset of the conquest narrative.
[26] Sherwood, “Misleading”, 50-51.
[27] NRSV and NASB, “If you do not tell this business of ours…” Here, TNIV is more accurate, “If you don’t tell what we are doing.”
[28] Much has been said about this word. One useful examination is Robin Routledge, “Hesed as Obligation: A Re-examination” Tyndale Bulletin 46.1 (1995) 179-196.
[29]Ibid. 196
[30] This is an odd but deliberate word choice here, especially if our understanding of hesed is indeed linked to covenantal devotion. There is a noticeable irony that a prostitute from Canaan would be covenanted with YHWH (and by the end of chapter two, to Israel as well.)
[31] For more on this, see Zakovitch, “Humor and Theology” 90-95.
[32] Joshua 2:11

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