Reading the Bible With Women

Several years ago, I was invited to write the notes for a new women’s study Bible. The project was unexpected and felt unusual to me, because I’d never read a women’s study Bible myself and I was skeptical about the need for one. Why can’t we all just read the same Bible? But after praying about the offer, I felt led to accept—hoping I might be able to offer something of value to women who picked up the Bible. But I had no idea how transformative the project would end up being for me!

In my four decades working in Christian schools, churches, and other ministries—and with three degrees in Bible to my name—no one had ever asked me to read the Bible as a woman and for women. I had never approached the Bible while asking, What are women going to wonder about when they read this? What’s going to bother them? What will capture their attention?

Because my pastors and theology professors were all men, and most of the books I read about the Bible were written by men, I learned to read Scripture generically—ignoring myself as much as possible so I could see the world through their eyes. Some of my professors considered the plight of women or the roles of women, but none of them had embodied experiences which helped them enter the biblical stories of women. This was not their fault, and it did not make their teaching irrelevant, but it did make my understanding of Scripture incomplete.

As I reread the Old and New Testaments, focusing both on the women in the text and the women who would read it, so many biblical stories came to life for me in a whole new way. I was forced to wrestle with difficult passages that seemed hard on women. But as I wrestled with these stories with the help of others, I discovered profound insights about the goodness of God.

Reading on behalf of women also sensitized me to the female characters in Scripture who are too often sidelined or caricatured with one-dimensional labels like prostitute, sister, seductress, widow. Not only are these portrayals sometimes inaccurate, but they can often distract from more important facets of their character—such as their courage, loyalty, creativity, and determination—as well as their vital contribution to God’s redemptive plan outlined in the biblical narrative.

One such character is Rahab—to whose name we hasten to add—the prostitute. Rahab’s story is sometimes boiled down to a trite takeaway: that God is willing to use even the basest of sinners to accomplish his purposes, even foreign prostitutes! But her character contributes so much more meaning to Israel’s story.

Rahab was a citizen of Canaan, one of the “enemies” occupying the Promised Land whom Yahweh referenced in his promise to the people of Israel: “I will make all your enemies turn and run” (Ex. 23:27, NLT throughout). God’s plan involved dismantling Canaanite worship of Baal and other gods—one way or another. We should find it remarkable, then, that the first recorded conversation with a Canaanite in the book ends with God’s promise to protect her and her household.

Joshua often gets a bad rap for portraying a violent God who’s thirsty for Canaanite blood, but Rahab’s story reminds us not to read the book too absolutely. To right-size our expectations, let’s begin with God’s specific instructions of what exactly the Israelites were to do when they entered the land: “Break down their pagan altars and shatter their sacred pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols” (Deut. 7:5). You’ll find no blood in these verses, as the destruction God instructs is aimed not at people but at the stones they worshipped.

As for the Canaanites themselves, the Israelites were forbidden to marry them or to make treaties with them. The reason for this prohibition was not racial but religious: “For they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods” (v. 4). The people were herem, or off-limits for the Israelites. God’s plan A was to drive the Canaanites away from the land (which isn’t possible if they’re dead). Yes, Canaanites died when the Israelites entered the land, but killing them was not the point—dismantling their pagan worship and preserving Israelite faithfulness was.

In the 2010 DreamWorks movie How to Train Your Dragon, a Viking village expends enormous energy to defend and protect themselves against dragon attacks. Their children even learn how to kill dragons in school. But when a village boy (aptly named Hiccup) encounters an injured dragon (a “night fury” which he names Toothless), he doesn’t kill the dragon but befriends him, even inventing a prosthetic tail wing to help him fly again. Hiccup’s behavior is considered reckless and even treasonous by his village. Taming dragons was not the plan—and neither was “taming” the Canaanites.

Why, then, was Rahab spared the destruction that was to come in the battle of Jericho?

Let’s start at the beginning of the story, when Joshua sent two spies to scope things out in and around Jericho before the attack (Josh. 2:1). Ironically, given God’s instructions not to become sexually involved with the Canaanites, these spies took shelter in the home of a prostitute named Rahab. Perhaps a house of ill-repute was the only establishment in town where visitors could pay for a room, or maybe it was the safest place to stay under the radar and avoid undue attention.

Either way, the king still found them out and demanded Rahab turn the spies over. Instead, she hid them and lied, sending the king’s men on a wild goose chase. In exchange for their safety, the spies promised Rahab that she and her family would be spared in the impending battle. But the question here is, did the Israelite spies flagrantly disregard God’s instructions regarding the Canaanites? Or is Rahab a special case?

The key factor to consider is Rahab’s allegiance to Yahweh and Israel rather than to the king of Jericho. Her soliloquy to the spies is one of the most powerful statements of faith issuing from the lips of a foreigner in the entire Hebrew Bible: “I know the Lord has given you this land,” she told them. “We are all afraid of you. Everyone in the land is living in terror. For we have heard how the Lord made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt” (vv. 9–10).

Rahab recounted Israel’s victories over Sihon and Og, the Amorite kings who refused to let them pass by peacefully on their way to the Promised Land. She concluded, “No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! No one has the courage to fight after hearing such things. For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below” (v. 11).

Rahab’s testimony is unequivocal; she recognizes Yahweh as the supreme deity. Her words echo the song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15, which had announced:

The peoples hear and tremble;

anguish grips those who live in Philistia.

The leaders of Edom are terrified;

the nobles of Moab tremble.

All who live in Canaan melt away;

terror and dread fall upon them. (vv. 14–16a)

For all intents and purposes, Rahab is no longer a Canaanite. She has declared allegiance to the God of Israel. Sparing Rahab aligns with God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you.”

Returning to our movie illustration, Rahab is Toothless the dragon, and the spies are the Hiccup in Israel’s plan to drive out the Canaanites. But the writer of the Book of Joshua does not frame the spies’ behavior as problematic. In fact, Rahab is shown to save the day, and the Israelites save her life in return. And we know that Rahab’s story ends happily ever after because she marries into the Israelite community. Interestingly, Rahab’s husband Salmon was the fourth-generation grandson of a Canaanite woman, which might have shaped his perspective on so-called foreigners.

Rahab and Salmon later bear a son, Boaz, who becomes the great-grandfather of King David after marrying Ruth, a Moabite widow—another “off-limits” foreigner turned Israelite (see Ruth 4:18–22; Matt. 1:2–6). Through their loyalty to the God of Israel, these women become not just peripheral to Israel’s story but central to it. Rahab, just like Tamar and Miriam and Zipporah and so many others, are not just accessories but primary instruments in God’s plan for redemption as narrated in Scripture.

Like Tamar the Canaanite (Gen. 38), Jael the Kenite (Judges 4), and Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 1–4), Rahab becomes a model of faith and an ally to the people of God. In saving the Israelite spies, she humanizes the “other” and participates in carrying out Yahweh’s divine plan. Rahab stands as a shining example of what is possible: a world in which those destined for destruction can join the people of Israel in their worship of the one true God.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Rahab is listed in the Gospel of Matthew as an ancestor of Jesus, who also chose to save and “tame” those who were once enemies of God—though we too were destined for destruction.

Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament at Biola University. She contributed notes to two women’s study Bibles, the first of which will be released on April 23, 2024. Every Woman’s Bible (NLT) is available from Tyndale House Publishers.

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