Bible text: Joshua 2
Whether one applauds or condemns a character is a Biblical story all depends upon the perspective from which the reader reads the story. A good example is Joshua 2.
In this chapter, the text tells the story of how Joshua, leader of the Israelites, prepares to invade the Promised Land to take possession of it. As part of his preparations, he sends two spies over the Jordan River to scout out the land. They make a stop in the Canaanite city of Jericho.
There they spend the night in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. Whether they took part in her services, we are not told. If they did, this story takes on more of a James Bond flavor than we might expect in a Biblical story.
When the city’s king hears about their presence in his city, he commands Rahab to surrender them. Instead she hides them under newly harvested flax on her house roof. Later that night she helps them escape through a house window that opens on the city wall.
She asks them to spare her and her family’s lives when the Israelites capture the city. The spies agree.
The text suggests her motivation, when verse 9 quotes Rahab as saying: “I know that the Lord has given you the land.” For this reason, she says, dread has descended upon all the inhabitants of the land.
Rahab looks into the future and decides to cast her lot with the future rather than the past. To the author of the text, that is prudent behavior, indeed possibly even faithful behavior.
Certainly later Biblical tradition saw it that way. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, includes Rahab within its genealogy for Jesus (Matthew 1:5). She is an ancestor of both King David and of Jesus. And the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews includes her in its great celebration of Old Testament saints (Hebrews 11:31). These two authors are looking back and judging Rahab from the perspective of the winning side of the story.
But what happens if you read the story of Rahab from the perspective of the king of Jericho and its inhabitants? Then Rahab appears a traitor. She harbors the spies and helps them escape. She is assisting the enemy. From their perspective Rahab’s behavior is something to damn, not praise.
This shows how a Biblical story can become very ambiguous depending upon the perspective from which you read it.
I like the story of Rahab because it suggests that this is often the way the behavior of religious people is seen in our contemporary world. Behavior which is admired and praised within the religious community may be soundly criticized and condemned by those outside or even by others within the community who do not share the same convictions.
An apt example is the career of Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s actions were deeply motivated by his Christian convictions. And for that reason, many religious people both black and white flocked to his cause. But to those who did not share his convictions he was a menace to civil order and a cause for great alarm, enough so that he could not be allowed to live.
Another apt example is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His decision to join the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler was motivated by deeply religious convictions. But was that decision an act of faithfulness or an act of betrayal to his nation?
In both cases, our judgment depends upon the perspective from which we are coming.
What this also indicates is the conflict that always arises when religious people are serious about living their lives on the basis of their religious convictions, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something other.
For the Christian the apostle Paul captures the conflict in his comment to the Christians living in Philippi that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Our primary loyalty is to the kingdom of God which is coming, not to the earthly country or culture in which we are currently living.
Our primary citizenship defines the ultimate values and practices by which we live, not the laws and customs and values of the culture into which we are born and raised. Christians may make very good citizens of their country, but that is not how others will always see it.
That’s why a deeply religious life will always be one that has to negotiate conflict. For loyalties will clash and be misunderstood by those who do not share our own religious perspective.