Friday, April 22, 2011

The Hero and the Villain

Rahab and Delilah (Joshua 2, 6; Judges 16)

I want to compare two women from “the enemies” of the Israelites: Rahab and Delilah. Rahab betrayed her city and Delilah protected her city; Rahab became an ancestor of Jesus and a hero of faith, and Delilah became a cultural byword for deceit and faithlessness. Hmmm.

Rahab is a Canaanite woman in the city of Jericho. As the story goes, the Israelites are camping on the doorstep of Canaan, after being led out of Egypt and through the wilderness for forty years. Joshua, the leader, sends spies into Jericho, a walled city. They spend the night at Rahab’s house. Rahab is a prostitute; do they enter her house because so many people go in and out that no one will notice them? Or do they choose her house because she is a prostitute whose services they intend to employ? Or is her occupation innkeeper between seasonal sexual rituals? Whatever the case, she gives house room to Israelite spies.

When the king of Jericho sends to her to ask her to give up the spies, she hides them instead and lies to the king’s representatives. “They left before the gates closed,” she says. “If you hurry, you can catch them.” Then she says to the Israelites, “I know that your God has given you this land. It is clear that your God is more powerful than ours because your God dried up the Red Sea so you could cross and then destroyed the most powerful kings in the area. In this town, our courage has melted away because of your God, who is indeed God of heaven above and earth below.”

Rahab shows spiritual insight beyond the other citizens of Jericho, and she puts her own livelihood and life at risk to save the true God’s representatives. She also covenants with them for her life and the lives of her family when, as she sees it, their irresistible invasion will destroy Jericho. They agree she will be safe/saved if she hangs a crimson cord in the window of her house.

Some time later, after the Israelites have crossed the Jordan on dry land, have brought their circumcisions up to date (a ritual that clearly separated all the Israelite men from the Canaanite men), and have celebrated the Passover, Joshua and his priests and warriors circle Jericho silently once a day for six days and on the seventh march around it seven times, blowing their trumpets and shouting at the end of the seventh lap. The fall of the walls cements God’s reputation in Canaan, showing that the God worshiped by Israel is more powerful than the local warrior and fertility pantheon. Every time around the wall, the Israelites can see the crimson cord hanging from Rahab’s window. When the walls come down, Joshua spares her family’s lives, brings them out of Jericho, and settles them on the outside of the camp.

It is worth thinking about how this story introduces some ambiguity into the story of Israel. In Exodus 34:11-16, God told Moses that Israel is to make no covenants with the Canaanites; instead they are to destroy the Canaanites and wipe out their religious practices, including ritual prostitution. However, here in practice, Israelites make a covenant with a Canaanite prostitute. She lives outside the camp at the start because she and all her household are ritually unclean. However, at some point she is fully adopted into the Israelites: she marries Salmon, gives birth to Boaz (who marries Ruth) and becomes the great-great-grandmother of King David. And in the long run, she is one of four women named as an ancestor of Jesus Christ.

It is worth noting that Rahab did not so much reject her previous gods as embrace a better one. Because God validated the covenant with Rahab and included her in Israel despite quite clear prohibitions in the Law, we too need to acknowledge the ambiguity introduced into dogma by narrative. Rahab’s inclusion in the line of the Messiah requires all Bible-believing Christians to be more careful in how we apply the Old Testament.

While thinking about Rahab, who betrayed her own people in order to be saved by the God of Israel, I began also thinking of Delilah. She is far more famous outside the Bible than is Rahab, partly because of John Milton, partly because she is evidence to justify misogyny. Here is her story.

Sometime between Rahab and King David, Israel was a collection of tribes. The pattern set out in the book of Judges is that Israel would settle into Canaanite culture; then, to discipline and recover them, God would send other peoples to raid and rule them; the Israelites would then moan to God and repent, and God would send them a “judge” to free them from oppression and help them find their way back to worship of the true God. Some of these judges show up in Hebrews 11 as heroes of faith, including the judge Samson, who loved Delilah.

In the story, God raised Samson from a child to be the champion of Israel against the Philistines. However (and surprisingly), Samson’s first marriage was to an unnamed Philistine woman who wheedled the answer to a riddle out of him and betrayed it to her relatives, causing Samson to lose a bet for which he killed 30 Philistine men. He left her for betraying him, so her father gave her to Samson’s best man as a wife. So Samson took revenge on the whole village by burning their crops. Then the Philistines themselves tried to pacify Samson by burning the woman and her father. Samson slaughtered a great number of them in reprisal. I will skip his visit to the Philistine prostitute in Gaza, and will come to the meat of the story.

Samson fell in love with Delilah. When the Philistine lords knew of this, they offered her an enormous amount of money to find out the secret of his strength. It’s a well-told story of how she asked three times and he gave her bogus answers, and then each time she tested him, he broke all the ropes. Finally, she wore him down: “How can you say you love me if you won’t tell me your secret?” He was fatigued to death by her constant pressure, and he told her the truth. The story says that when he fell asleep in her lap, she called a man to shave him bald, and, sure enough, he was no stronger than a natural man. The Philistine lords paid Delilah off, gouged out Samson’s eyes, and made him a slave turning a millstone.

I always thought Delilah the lowest of the low, betraying a man who loved her; this shows I didn’t read the whole story very carefully. Then I read Samson Agonistes by John Milton. Milton makes her Samson’s wife, and, since this is a play, she gets some lines. After Samson repulses her offer to take him home and care for him, she asserts that she was led to betray him by powerful people who convinced her that public good is more important than private relationships; she further asserts that she is a hero to other Philistines for saving them from Samson.

Though he allows her to justify her actions, Milton is no friend to Delilah. The chorus generalizes from her to the flaws of women in general. God gave them beauty but no judgment of what is right and wrong; they have too much self-love and too little persistence in love. They seem at first malleable but when married turn out to be “a thorn intestine…a cleaving mischief” that prevents men from virtue and leads them into shame. “Therefore God’s universal law/Gave to the man despotic power over his female.” If he does not maintain the upper hand, she will usurp his power and he will live a life of dismay. And Milton is not the only Christian man to move from Delilah to a general condemnation of women.

What is wrong with this picture? It seems clear enough that Delilah was a Philistine hero, and as such of course an enemy to Israelites. But the Bible says almost nothing judgmental about her, draws no conclusions about women from her behavior. Why has she been used across centuries of Christianity as a reason to oppress and suppress women in general?

Suppose Milton had also written a play called Joshua Victorious. In this play, his chorus might generalize that God gives women insight into right and wrong; they risk their lives for truth, and they keep their promises. Women’s courage inspires men to live up to their best selves. Therefore, God gives both man and woman the responsibility in marriage to submit to the other. A believing wife is a means of grace for an unbelieving husband. Milton could have learned from Rahab to respect and value women in general.

Misuse of the Bible to diminish women has poisoned the well for all Christians. We need to come to Jesus and receive the living water he offered first to a woman who was additionally an ethnic and social outsider. “The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water gushing up into eternal life” (John 4:14). Rahab's inclusion in Jesus’s genealogy is a witness to the power of God to recruit from among the ranks of the ritually unclean, the dangerous outsiders, and redeem them. It reminds me that God meant for Israel to be a light to the nations, teaching them the way to the true God. What makes Rahab a hero of faith is that she believed that Israel’s God was the only God who matters, and she staked her life on that faith. She reminds me of the heroism of converts throughout history, women and men, who were and are willing to risk everything to be on God’s side because of God’s living water in them, gushing up into eternal life.