Tuesday, April 29, 2008

All's Fair in Prostitution and War: Joshua 1-2

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Another day, another book. We've left the Pentateuch or Torah now, and passed into what the Jews call the Nevi'im. According ot my always-helpful NIV edition, as we read Joshua we should "make your own choice to serve the Lord, to do his will, and to depend on him to give you victory over the evil one." Sounds like a nice idea, though you'll have to remember to interpret carefully, since this lesson is being drawn from God's assistance to the Israelites in repetated genocidal massacres. Much the same is true of the daily devotionals, the first of which draws, from God's orders to the Israelites to prepare for battle, the need to pray with one another for God's guidance in our lives - most of which don't involve the mass murder of Gentiles, though I suppose killing pagans and getting money to pay the bills are more or less equivalent activities.

God anoints Joshua to be Moses's replacement as general of the army and orders preparations for the upcoming invasion. Joshua apparently gains the respect and consent of the governed tribes with little difficulty; they promise to execute post-haste anyone who rebels or disobeys his orders. Joshua's first action is to mimic what Moses did years before: he sends spies into the land. Only two, however - perhaps in memory of the fact that only two of the original spies came back and told the truth way back in Numbers. The spies go to Jericho and enact the famous story of meeting Rahab the prostitute, who is promised immunity from murder in exchange for assisting the Israelites. If you are a militarist rather than a pacifist, you'll probably like this kind of story, because it suggests that deception and treason are honourable behaviour if it's for a good cause (Rahab does both on behalf of her spies).

On the one hand, Joshua provides a somewhat more gripping narrative once again, which is kind of nice after pages and pages of dry regulations and ordinances. On the other, it rapidly becomes clear how difficult those regulations would be to apply in practice. Should Rahab be celebrated for her treason to her hometown of Jericho? Is merely aiding Israelite spies - which she certainly does - enough to somehow gain her magic immunity to God's original order that she and all of her people be massacred?

The opportunity of coming across yet another prostitute in the narrative has prompted me to reflect on why there are so many. Is it just another manifestation of the Bible's contempt for women? I doubt it. The Levitican laws pretty much removed women from any of the major political and social relations which the Bible is most interested in recording, now that we've moved on from the patrimonial household affairs of Genesis. The only women who remain in the open are the prostitutes, so we hear about them a lot. And the fact that we only hear about them reinforces the Bible's apparent misogyny. Women can be invisible, or they can be prostitutes; pick one. The last woman who had any influence was Miriam, and God smited her for a sin he was happy to ignore when simultaneously committed by Aaron. There are severe and divinely authorized consequences for women stepping into places of influence. Or so goes the story, anyways.

There's another way to twist this, however. I've always heard Rahab described as a prostitute, which is convenient for two reasons - the gendered prejudices that too much of the church continues to embrace, and the fact that starting from a long ways back makes your "salvation" all the more striking. This, incidentally, is why churches prefer to have striking, dramatic testimonies from people who've beaten drug addictions, left a life of crime (providing they've served time in jail), etc.

It wouldn't be nearly as dramatic if we accepted the footnote alternative, which is that Rahab was an innkeeper, not a prostitute. I don't pretend to know which is true, but logically there's more than a prostitute; she must be a madam at least (there's another disturbingly gendered term). She owns a house - a large, multi-storey house built up against the city wall. Evidently she's affluent.

The Israelite spies come to Rahab for information. This doesn't really offer much either way, though if she truly is a prostitute, one has to wonder what their intentions were in going to her in the first place. Rahab offers some interesting claims: she suggests that she and possibly most others in Jericho has realized that the Israelite God is supreme because of his previous mighty deeds and his nation's wartime excesses. Therefore they are fearful and their courage has failed. The Israelites spend the night and then head back with this important bit of intelligence.

The king of Jericho is particularly brilliant in this story. To add a bit of drama to the story, the writer of Joshua claims that the king inexplicably knew in advance that Israelite spies were in the area, and knew precisely where they are, as well. He sent the police to Rahab's house to arrest the spies. Fortunately, Rahab bears false witness and says that the men have already left, and the police go away without conducting a thorough search.