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Saturday 17th June 2023 28th Sivan 5783


Torah: Numbers 13:1–15:40; Haftarah: Joshua 2:1–24; Matthew 10:1-14


Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT

This week’s portion, Shelach L’cha, contains some obvious themes within a familiar narrative: Be bold! Do not fear! Trust God! The majority is not always right! The context, of course, is the twelve spies going into the land of promise and ten of the twelve bringing back troubling reports: “The land is filled with giants!” and “we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes!” (Num 13:33). The ten could only see the challenges, but the two faithful spies saw the promises of God fulfilled in the elaborate and large produce of the land (Num 13:28).

In stark contrast, though, the spies of our haftarah portion give us a renewed sense of hope. They went into Jericho after forty years of wandering and came out with a completely opposite opinion to that of their predecessors: “Truly the Lord has delivered into our hands all of the land; and moreover, all of the inhabitants of the land melt before us” (Josh 2:24). Not surprisingly, the spies had grown from the discipline of the wilderness. They had learned to trust the God of Israel in all the trials and challenges of living without any other guarantees of safety or provision. But there is a completely different story that is told in the haftarah, which contains significantly different themes if we explore what Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann has called the “counter narrative.”

To do so we must pay greater attention to another character in this story, the enigmatic Rahab. We are not introduced to Rahab until the two spies show up at her door. She not only gives shelter to the two spies but is willing to forsake her own safety and that of her extended family to protect them. In so doing she stands with Israel rather than her own people. It would appear that she believes the promises of Israel’s God and forsakes the protection of her own local deities.

But who is Rahab? The text describes that the two spies went to “the house of an isha zonah and her name is Rahab” (Josh 2:1). Upon first blush this would seem strange. Why would two upstanding Hebrew men go to the house of a prostitute (as the word zonah is classically translated)? Rashi sanitizes the situation, as he often does. He quotes Targum Jonathan who explains that zonah here means pundekita, the Aramaic word for someone who sells food such as an innkeeper or a grocer. The latter explanation obviously makes more sense in this case, as the spies went to stay at her home.

Others have concluded otherwise that she was in fact a prostitute. Perhaps she was both. What we might conclude is that she was of marginal status, since she appeared to have little regard for her “hometown” and, frankly, she was a female entrepreneur in an ancient world where women were regarded solely for their procreative capacity.

A friend of mine mused that Rahab might have made an interesting heroine of a Hallmark movie. These movies, from my limited experience, are relatively templated and almost always involve a woman entrepreneur who runs from the confines of her “small” existence to the unforgiving arms of success, fame, and fortune, only to eventually return to the simpler life. Well, maybe this doesn’t really fit Rahab, but she is an entrepreneur surviving in a world where women were generally expected to be either child bearers or sex workers. Surprisingly she finds a place in history and a better life by becoming part of another people in her own hometown. Rahab is recorded among the great people of faith in Israel (Heb 11:31) and becomes part of the ancestry of Yeshua the Messiah (Matt 1:5).

Rahab is a Gentile woman trapped in a dead-end life until God brings the walls that ensnare her toppling down. But this points to another hallmark, the equality of all people before God. In simplest terms, one of the boldest and most hopeful statements about how we should treat each other can be found in Galatians 3:28. It says that in the eyes of God, our differences don't matter anymore. Whether you're Jewish or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, we are all united as one in the perfect future.

Paul wrote this to show how our understanding of relationships between different people and groups of people should continue to evolve over time. He used these examples to suggest ethical standards for how we should interact with one another today. It's important to note that Paul isn't saying we should completely ignore our differences, but rather, he's highlighting a reality which is greater than our present reality where hierarchical divisions are breaking down.

It is incumbent upon us to seek the greater reality, to live in the light of the age to come, and to treat everyone as they are, created in the image of the Holy God.


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