After the death of Moses the servant of God, God spoke to Joshua, Mom’s assistant.
“Moses my servant is dead. Get going. Cross this Jordan River, you, and all the people. Cross to the country I’m giving to the people of Israel. I’m giving you every square inch of the land you set your foot on—just as I promised Moses….Don’t be timid, don’t be discouraged. God, your God, is with you every step you take.”
Joshua son of Nun secretly sent out…two men as spies. “Go. Look over the land. Check out Jericho.” They left and arrived at the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
The king of Jericho was told, “We’ve just learned that men arrived tonight to spy out the land. They’re from the People of Israel.”
The king of Jericho sent word to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you to stay the night in your house. They’re spies; they’ve come to spy out the whole country.”
Rahab had taken the two men and hidden them.
She said, “Yes, two men did come to me, but I didn’t know where they’d come from. At dark, when the gate was about to be shut, the men left. But I have no idea where they went. Hurry up! Chase them—you can still catch them!”
(She had actually taken them up on the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax that were spread out for her on the roof.)
So the men set chase down the Jordan road toward the fords. As soon as they were gone, the gate was shut.
Before the spies were down for the night, the woman came up to them on the roof and said, “I know that God has given you the land. We’re all afraid. Everyone in the country feels hopeless. We heard how God dried up the waters of the Red Sea before you when you left Egypt, and what he did to the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you put under a holy curse and destroyed. We heard it and our hearts sank. We all had the wind knocked out of us. And all because of you, you and God, your God, God of the heavens above and God of the earth below.”
“Now promise me by God. I showed you mercy; now show my family mercy. And give me some tangible proof, a guarantee of life for my father and mother, my brothers and sisters—everyone connected with my family. Save our souls from death!”
“Our lives for yours!” said the men “But don’t tell anyone our business–when God turns this land over to us, we’ll do right by you in loyal mercy.”
She lowered them down out a window with a rope because her house was on the city wall to the outside. She told them, “Run for the hills so your pursuers won’t find you. Hide out for three days and give your pursuers time to return. Then get on your way.”
The men told her, “In order to keep this oath you made us swear, here is what you must do: Hang this red rope out the window through which you let us down and gather your entire family with you in your house—father, mother, brother and sisters…”
They left and she hung the red rope out the window.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
When Pastor Donna asked me to preach back in March, she said, “It’s an important Sunday—it’s the transition between my departing and Bethany’s arrival.”
For this important Sunday I wanted to center my talk around a narrative of transitions. There is, of course, in this passage I just read, the transition from Moses to Joshua. I could think of the transition when Jacob blessed his sons, or Elijah rose up in the chariot with Elisha running below, or Jesus passing his ministry on to the disciples. I could think of lots of transitions—but not one involving one woman, much less two. So, I made one up.
All right, let’s get my name straight to start with. I’ve heard you English speakers say it—RAY hab you say. There goes RAY hab. To me, it sounds like a dog’s name, so ugly, such hard vowels. In Canaanite, my home language, it’s softer, somehow. You say it like this: Recháb. Make sure you get that “Chhhh” Recháb. What? That’s too hard for you. All right—you can call me by my nickname—it’s Donna.
Go ahead, ask me. Everyone wants to know. How did you become a prostitute? I’ll tell it to you straight.
My family has had an inn in the walls of Jericho for generations—the doors on one side open to the city, and on the other side, the doors open outside the gates, right by Jericho Road. Guests like it. They can come late, after the city gates or shut, or leave early, before they’re opened. We have a corral on the Jordan side where people can store their animals. I loved it when I was a girl, meeting all the travelers from all over, learning all the different languages, learning to cook foods from all over from the servants of the wealthy travelers who gathered in the courtyard.
I didn’t really think of my future—I just figured it would be ordinary—a husband, kids. That is, until the night of the thieves.
We had just hosted a big group of wealthy merchants from the south. They had paid us in gold coins before they departed in ceremony, their caravan of camels in their silks and tassels marching leisurely out into the desert.
I guess it was too much ceremony. Too much attention. Late that night, my parents and I woke in the sleeping room to the sound of someone in the inn. We woke up, our eyes gleaming in the dark at each other, before we all got up, my abba in the lead, to defend our own.
They were too much for us. They not only took the merchants’ gold, they took my parents’ health and me—they took my virginity. That was the end of any dream I had of an unremarkable future. No marriage, no family for me—I was a soiled woman, untouchable—no one in Jericho would every marry me.
The only consolation is that my little brothers and sisters slept through it all, but when I got up in the morning, our inn and my reputation in shambles, my parents with their broken bodies, I knew it was up to me to pay the rent, any way I could. We had the building; we had my body, which everybody thought of as filthy anyway—we had 7 mouths to feed—it didn’t seem like there were any other options.
I don’t want your pity. I’ve made it work. I’m much more careful now, I use better judgment, and I’ve become a master of discretion. That caravan with their fancy camels is the last display that ever left our little inn. Discretion works, I’ve found, and knowing a few secrets, gets a person a long way when you’re dealing with the men of this world, including the king.
So when the king and his guards came banging on the door in the middle of the night, demanding to search the place for the two spies from the people of Israel, I wasn’t surprised, but I also played my cards close. Something about those spies, and the God they couldn’t stop talking about, made me want to protect them most of all, even if I had to lie to do it.
The funny thing about those spies is the dreams. I started having them about a week before they came the first time. In my dreams, I would be walking out in the desert down by the Jordan ford, and there would be this red cord, just hanging down from the sky, like a crimson braided rope. Then I would pull it, and the spies would come sliding down it from up in the sky, right onto my roof, and then all of a sudden all of us would be there, my abba and my ima and my brother and sisters, and we would all be smiling at each other, the spies and us, and all of a sudden we would all reach out for the rope and would be flying on the rope, over the desert, like that rope had the power of the birds somehow, a red eagle of a rope, that could carry us all the way to the tents of the people of Israel. I kept having that dream about the red rope, and the two men, and when they showed up with that f knock on the door the night the king came, it was like I knew them already, and trusted them already.
Those dreams were telling me what I had been feeling ever since I heard about what happened at the Reed Sea and that Moses guy and the people of Israel’s God. A God who can part the sea—a God who can rule the waters—that’s no ordinary god. I wanted to know that God, and know the people who had been claimed by such a God.
Somehow, I knew it was the end of our time in Jericho. The inn had served us well, and I had kept our family fed and safe for years since the attack. But the dreams were a sign—we needed to move on.
I started taking stock of what we had, and what we could take with us, and what needed to stay behind. I noticed that I started missing my inn, even before we left. I found myself patting a wall, or a chair, or a tapestry, each one a reminder of a particular day, a particular person. I found myself wrapped up in the past, saying to my family, “Remember when?”
But I also wanted to look to my future. Now, whenever a storyteller tells a story in my culture, it’s really important to look at what the names of the main characters in the story mean. Take my name—Recháb. It means “Vast, great,” I don’t know what ima saw in me when I was a baby, but she gave me a name that signaled accomplishment and fulfillment from the time I was a wee thing. And Jericho—“the city of the moon”—how the full moon shone in each of my red cord dreams!
There’s one other name to my story, and let me tell you about it’s meaning before I tell you who it is. I’d been searching in my mind, thinking if there was any way the inn could not only be a memory of survival, but a legacy of hope for someone else. The inn was still in abba’s name of course—but everyone knew who would be making the decisions if we were to legally pass it on to someone else.
I searched my mind, and then I thought of her. She lived on the other end of town, so I didn’t know her well, but I was always happy to cross her path when I was at the well fetching water or visiting her market stall. She liked bright colors, like me, and I could tell by the sparkle in her eyes or the times she would slip an extra pomegranate in my basket or hold back a particular spice that was hard to find, that she somehow knew me, and knew what I liked. And not just me. She was a watcher, that one, good with numbers and people, too. Like me, I often saw her in the early morning, while the dew was on the grass, walking in the shadow of the walls as the sun came up over the mountains and the birds were singing their hearts out. We nodded and smiled, but never talked at that hour.
We shared something else in common—she was just as an ineligible as I was, the scars that covered her face from when she had pulled a scalding pot of water on herself as a child marking her as sure as my rape hadmarked me. No man in Jericho would look at either of us.
Oh–and her name, almost the opposite of mine—“house of figs.” Where I come from, after the harvest of figs, the figs are taken to a special house set up with racks where the figs are dried in the sun so they can provide for you for months to come. A houseful of figs is a name that signals potential, a storehouse for the future. What a perfect name for my successor.
When I think back to that night, after the spies left from my window, shimmying down that very crimson cord that had shown up in my dreams, I knew my family’s time to live in Jericho was short. The next day, I gathered my family and explained that we would be leaving Jericho soon, that it was time for us to start a new life. There was a tribe nearby, I explained, whose God wanted to be our god, too. There was a sign, I said, and showed them a cord, and explained that in my dreams, not only were the spies flying through the air as if the cord were an eagle we could ride through the sky, but they were, too.
There was just the matter of the inn to consider. We’d taken good care of the property, and though when I took over from abba I needed to make money quickly, in time the rooms and my cooking and the view from our rooftop were making almost as much money as the trick stuff was. Someone with a good head for money, a watcher who knew how to please, could run it as a legitimate inn and make a good living out it, too.
I knew the spies and their people would be coming for us soon. I heard them marching around the city each night, blowing their shofars, announcing an invitation to come join their people and their God.
The dreams kept coming, and it was time.
I approached her in the market, asked her to come in the evening to share a meal, some tea. “You’ve never seen my inn, have you?” It was a risk—not everyone was willing to break bread with me, even after all these years. But I was sure she would come, and she did.
The final night the People of Israel came and blew the trumpets and shofars and marched in with their army, the wooden gates of the city fell in flat and the soldiers rushed in to take our city. Most everyone had expected the invasion to come—the white flag of surrender was flying before the dust had settled from the first wave of soldiers.
By then my family and I were long gone—those spies kept their word, and a whole platoon of soldiers from the People of Israel had knocked on what they called “The Red Cord house” and ushered me and my family out the back door to the ford of the Jordan River and across to their tents before the full moon rose to the height of the sky.
The people of Israel? They’ve been so good to me and my family. Word of me hiding the spies got us a fine welcome, and all those years of learning other languages and foods prepared us well to fit in here. There’s also something about their God—a God of love, and justice, and fairness—it feels like I’m getting treated in a new way, too. There’s even this fellow—Salman. He’s been coming by in the evening to talk to my father, and sometimes I think they’re talking about me. Maybe a God of forgiveness and second chances makes people more likely to give and take second chances themselves—maybe even me.
And the inn? I’ve asked the travelers who come from Jericho if they’ve heard how it’s doing. They say the inn is flourishing—that it’s just an inn now, no funny business. They say that the story of the spies and the red cord has made it a famous place, and that she has been among the people from Jericho most eager to hear from this God of Israel from the newcomers. There’s ben one change, though–the new owner has renamed the place after herself.
She calls it “Bethany’s.”