I’ve been working my Adult Sunday School class through the middle of James 2, figuring out the matrix of faith-works-saved. Rahab becomes James’ last example of how faith-works-saved works together.
Rahab herself is a fascinating character in the story of Israel as picked up by the New Testament. She is included by Matthew in Jesus’ genealogy. She is made more presentable by Josephus who sees her as an innkeeper who lets the spies in for dinner. James in his usual “in your face” way calls her a prostitute.
What Did Rahab Ever Do For the Poor?
It is easy to read James one-dimensionally as someone who reduces the gospel into helping the poor. James hits the helping the poor button as hard as any in the New Testament. Helping the poor for James is a key work of faith. It is for this reason that Rahab is such an interesting illustration for James. When do we find Rahab helping the poor?
What does Rahab do to earn her rescue from the impending destruction of her city? She gives shelter to the Hebrew spies and lowers them down surreptitiously. What kind of work is this for James?
What Could Rahab know?
What might a prostitute of Jericho know? I doubt she was much of a theologian. I would imagine a bronze age woman who plied her trade giving men what they wanted would know a great deal about power and opportunism.
Many of the Old Testament books start with an amazing women rescuing Israel. Rahab stands with the Hebrew midwives, Hannah and others.
Unlike Hannah, Rahab has no formal relationship with Yhwh, no “faith” as we might expect a devout woman to exhibit. What she has is information that this Yhwh has kicked the butts of superpower Egypt’s gods, parted the waters to bring Israel through, and now her cost/benefit analysis has moved her towards siding with Yhwh over her town. We don’t get the sense that she imagines Yhwh is morally superior to her polytheistic alternatives, he just seems to be on the winning side.
James’ picture of faith is interesting. Demons have knowledge and are motivated by fear but lack this faith that James is pointing to. Rahab has almost no knowledge, seems clearly to be motivated by opportunistic fear and then jumps both feet into Yhwh’s camp on the chance that she might be rescued not only from the impending invasion but perhaps also from the life she has known. If we want to embrace Matthew’s genealogy it would seems she marries someone from the tribe of Judah and gets enfolded into the nation. From that point we hope she only needed to please one man who would take a chance on her.
Faith for Rahab is the opportunity to meet Yhwh and the courage to leap into a commitment she can hardly understand. Given humanity’s propensity to do this in all kinds of directions, good and bad, what distinguishes her is the fact that in this case she’s connected to the right god. We would call that “luck”, the Bible has other words for it.
The faith of Rahab is of course not that uncommon. There are other characters in the Bible that grab onto Yhwh and his camp when an opportunity presents itself. As a pastor I see it work out similarly with people today. They hitch their wagon to God in Christ on the chance that they will be rescued in this age and the next. According to James God honors this when it is done in a risky or costly way.
James calls this works that perfects faith. Faith it seems is not measured in how much information we might have about Yhwh, but in how much we are willing to risk to be near him.