A Prostitute and a Gallon of Milk

The surprising lesson Rahab teaches us about faith
A Prostitute and a Gallon of Milk
Image: ANGIE MAKES / SHUTTERSTOCK

Once, in a moment of supreme confidence, I decided to balance a gallon of milk on my head. I was young, and I was trying to make the oh-so-boring task of putting away the groceries a little more interesting. And it did get interesting, as my talents do not include balancing bulky beverage containers on my noggin. A beverage container that quickly made its way to the floor. A beverage that is a lot of work to clean up.

To clean up a lake of milk, you get down on your knees and sop it up, but you know the horrible truth: There are cracks in any kitchen floor where the milk will remain forever—dried lactose, sticky and (for awhile) smelly.

I wonder if some of us, when we consider what it means to “have faith,” think of someone doing a task comparable to cleaning up a gallon of milk. It’s a lot of work, and you’re never sure you got it all. You constantly wonder, Is that it? Have I gotten it? Or is there a little more out there yet?

Odd Woman Out

The author of Hebrews tells us what faith is: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NIV). The author goes on to give examples of people who lived by faith: Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph—the list goes on, tracing the faith history of the Hebrew people.

But there’s one name on that list that is seemingly out of place. Of the two women named in Hebrews 11, one is Sarah, wife of the patriarch Abraham. The other, Rahab, is a Gentile. The author of Hebrews records: “ By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (verse 31).

Yet when we examine the account of Rahab and the spies, what we uncover about faith may deeply challenge our assumptions. Not only is Rahab a prostitute, but in the account she never verbally proclaims her faith in God. In fact, she calls the spies’ god “your God” in Joshua 2:11. Nevertheless, she’s in the lineup. She joins the patriarchs of Hebrews 11.

Hebrews isn’t the only place Rahab’s faith is heralded in Scripture. In James’s epistle, she is listed alongside Abraham as an example of one whose faith expresses itself through works. Cue the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the others. . . .”

Rahab’s Anxiety

Imagine with me: Rahab is a prostitute, probably driven to her state in life by poverty. Her family, parents, brothers, and probably children live with her in a location that’s convenient for male travelers.

One day some travelers arrive, and Rahab recognizes their foreign accent. She realizes that they’re Israelites, part of the tribe that has been wandering around in the desert. Rahab remembers stories she’s heard of them and their god. She’s heard of how God opened the Red Sea before them. She’s heard about the awful fate of Sihon and Og—the kind of story people whisper around a campfire.

Rahab is afraid. Though her faith is never mentioned in the story, twice she describes the anxiety she and her fellow citizens feel. One Hebrew word she uses, ‘ey-mah, is variously translated as terror, fear, or dread, and the other, macac lebab, describes the inner self melting away, or the inability to breathe. And why are the people living in great fear and dead, wasting away internally? It is, Rahab says, because “the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:11).

Rahab’s Character

Despite her fear, Rahab protects the spies. She not only hides them on the roof but also lies cunningly on their behalf. I imagine her, standing in the doorway of her home, speaking to the king’s men, using her well-developed skills of flattery to convince them that of course they could catch the spies. (And, in a wonderfully comedic moment, of course the king’s men get locked out of the city!)

Rahab took risks for the spies. Her fear of Israel’s God spoke louder than her own fear of committing treason. Joshua 2 records Rahab’s first chapter of faith, but we can the future impact of her faith in the book of Ruth.

In Matthew’s of geneaology Christ, another lineup mostly of men, we read that Rahab married the Judahite Salmon and was mother to Boaz, the wealthy landowner. In other words, Rahab was Ruth’s mother-in-law. We may remember how Boaz welcomed Moabite Ruth—also a stranger, like the spies were to Rahab—into his household. Boaz learned this hospitable posture from someone—perhaps from his mother Rahab.

Working Hard at Having Faith

What does Rahab’s story in Joshua really tell us about what it mean to have faith? Or about what it means to do things by faith—especially when Rahab was not part of the covenant community, did not follow God’s law, and did not articulate personal faith in God?

As a model for faith, Rahab stands in contrast to the misconception that faith is something we need to work hard at. Often I feel like I haven’t done enough to acquire enough faith, so I put on my spiritual work clothes and get down on my knees with a scrub brush. I want to see what sort of stains my faith-elbow-grease will remove. I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something, like I’ve grown, like I’ve somehow achieved faith.

Is this because, deep down, I think acquiring faith should be hard?

Faith as a Posture Toward God

But what if we redefined faith as our posture toward God rather than something we must work hard to acquire? In Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris reminds us of Doris Betts’s famous line that faith is “not synonymous with certainty . . . [but] is the decision to keep your eyes open.” And, I would add, faith is the willingness to let God turn one’s head so that we can see and then do what God wants us to see and do.

It’s a little like going to the chiropractor. There’s this moment in chiropractic treatment when the doctor cradles the skull in his hands and turns it suddenly to manipulate the upper spine. It’s uncomfortably noisy. The first time I experienced this, I thought my head would pop off. It is challenging to let someone else reorient your head. Receiving chiropractic care requires a posture of humility.

Faith, too, requires a posture of humility. In the Old Testament, God’s people were sometimes called “stiff-necked.” When your neck is stiff, God can’t turn your head. But when we live in faith, we allow God to turn our head. Rahab allowed God to turn her attention to the two spies. And once her attention was drawn toward them, she cared for them, she protected them, and ultimately she risked her life for them.

We Can Trust God with our Necks

We can live in this posture of humility only if we remember the character of God. We can entrust our vision and attention to a God who is kind. God’s kindness in this story is demonstrated through the spies’ response to Rahab’s request.

Smack-dab in the middle of this account, Rahab says: “Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you” (Joshua 2:12). And they agree. God’s hands direct Rahab’s attention toward the spies and move the spies to respond kindly to her. God preserves the life of Rahab and her family when Jericho falls. Afterward, Joshua orders the same two spies back to Rahab’s house to rescue her, her parents, and the rest of her kin before the city is burned (Joshua 6:22–25).

Rahab’s story remind us that God’s kindness and faithfulness empower us to trust God’s direction—to trust the way God moves our attention toward the needs that surround us. God invites all of us to join the sixteen people listed in Hebrews 11. We don’t do this by putting on our work clothes and getting out our spiritual elbow grease. We can’t clean up all the spilled milk, and that’s okay. All we have to do is allow God to turn our heads, just like Rahab did.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence (MCS, Regent College) is a TCW regular contributor and blogger for Reformed Worship. She tells biblical stories, speaks about worship, and cares for her young children in Willowbrook, Illinois. Find her at PathlightStories.com.

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