Was Rahab really a prostitute?

Q. Was Rahab really a prostitute?

There’s no question, from the vocabulary and rhetoric of the Bible, that Rahab actually was a prostitute. In the Old Testament narrative about her in the book of Joshua, she’s described with the Hebrew term zonah, which unambiguously means “prostitute.” Rahab is also mentioned in the New Testament books of Hebrews and James, and in each case she’s described with the Greek term pornē, which correspondingly means “prostitute.” James, in fact, actually seems to stress this status when he emphasizes, in support of his argument that “faith without works is dead,” that “even Rahab the prostitute” was considered righteous because sheltered and protected the spies. The book of Hebrews also calls her “Rahab the prostitute” but it notes similarly that she protected the spies “by faith” and so “was not killed with those who were disobedient.”

I think that all of this leads us to an even more important question: Why was Rahab a prostitute? It seems quite likely from the Joshua narrative that she turned to prostitution out of desperate circumstances. Rahab acknowledges to the spies that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below,” and so she promises to shelter and protect them. But then she asks them, “Please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them and that you will save us from death.”

Who isn’t mentioned here? There’s no mention of Rahab having a husband or children. It’s quite possible (though this does involve reading between the lines a bit) that Rahab had been married, but that she was then widowed before she had children. Alternatively, she may have been a young woman from a large family that was poor and couldn’t afford a dowry for all of its daughters, nor could it afford to continue supporting them after they became adults. Either way, she would have been without financial support in this culture.

One further indication we have of poverty is the comment that Rahab’s house was “built into the city wall.” One excavation of Jericho found an area where houses had been built into the wall. One website suggests that this was likely a poor section of the city, “since the houses were positioned on the embankment between the upper and lower city walls. Not the best place to live in time of war! This area was no doubt the overflow from the upper city and the poor part of town, perhaps even a slum district.”

So Rahab was most likely a woman who forced into prostitution out of financial desperation. Poverty and human trafficking are almost always responsible for prostitution. The Bible seems to recognize this and not condemn Rahab, but rather praise her for her faith in the true God and her courageous service to him.

Indeed, the Bible ultimately tells a very hopeful story about Rahab, though it needs to be unambiguous about her circumstances in order to do so. According to the gospel of Matthew, Rahab later married an Israelite man and had a son named Boaz, who himself became the husband of Ruth, another foreign woman who married into the covenant community. As Matthew makes clear, Rahab and Ruth both became ancestors of Jesus himself.

So the story of Rahab in the Bible shows us that when God came into our world as a human being, He chose to come into a family line that included a woman who had once been trapped in prostitution, but who was rescued from it and began a new life. I hope this encourages us all to recognize that there is indeed great hope for those who are rescued from human trafficking and prostitution due to desperate circumstances. Perhaps the ultimate response to your question is that we should all support, through prayer, giving, and advocacy, the work of those who are continuing to fight in our world today against human trafficking and prostitution.

A drawing of Rahab protecting the spies, from an 1881 illustrated Bible. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

How could Jesus promise Paradise “today” to the thief on the cross if he didn’t go directly there himself?

Q. If Jesus went right after his death to preach the good news to the “spirits in prison,” as 1 Peter describes, how could he tell the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”?

We should indeed consider whether there is a discrepancy in chronology between Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion and what Peter says Jesus did after he died on the cross.

Luke records how Jesus was crucified “along with two criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.” One of them began to mock him, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other one said he should keep quiet. “We’re being punished justly,” he insisted, “we’re getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then this second criminal, often known as the “thief on the cross,” said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

We know that all three men died that same day, because, as John explains in his gospel: “It was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus, they found that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs.”

So the plain meaning of Jesus’ statement to the criminal who defended him was that the two of them would be together in Paradise that same day after their deaths.

Peter, however, writes in his first epistle that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” This statement and some similar ones in the Bible have led to the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell,” that is, the idea that after his death, Jesus journeyed to hell, triumphed over it, and released its captives. (I affirm this doctrine in my post on this blog entitled, “What did Jesus do for three days after he descended into hell?“)

We should note, however, that it was actually not three days, as we would reckon that time period ourselves, between when Jesus died on the cross and when he rose from the dead. In the Hebrew idiom, today is the first today, tomorrow is the second day, and the day after tomorrow is the third day. The gospels record that Jesus warned his disciples in advance, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; they will kill him, but on the third day he will be raised to life.” What he meant by that Hebrew expression was that he’d be killed and then after one full intervening day he would rise from the dead.

Sure enough, Jesus died on a Friday afternoon and rose on a Sunday morning. Even though we often speak of him being in the grave for “three days,” he was actually there for less than two days. Now the Bible also describes him leading the souls rescued from hell into heaven during that time. In Ephesians, Paul quotes from Psalm 68 and applies its words to Jesus: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives.” Paul then asks, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the depths of the earth?” So the understanding is that at some point after his death, but before his resurrection, Jesus led these rescued souls into heaven.

If we were going to assign an earthly time to an event that admittedly takes place outside of time, we would have to say that Jesus did this sometime between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, since he didn’t have these people with him when he reappeared to his disciples. And if we wanted to coordinate this account with the conversation Jesus had with the thief on the cross, we would have to conclude that this thief must have been among the ransomed souls Jesus led into heaven after his crucifixion. If we wanted to be very particular about it, we would insist that this must have happened on Friday, since Jesus promised the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (It does feel strange, however, to try to assign earthly times to events in heaven and hell.)

This may be the most we can say in response to this question. But let me  leave you with one last thought. Jesus seems to have led both the criminal who defended him on the cross and large numbers of people who perished “in the days of Noah” up into heaven after his own death. He would no doubt have stayed there with them long enough to ensure their acceptance and welcome. (In that sense, the thief was indeed “with him in Paradise.”) But Jesus then returned to earth for forty days so that he could teach and instruct his disciples, to prepare them for their work of spreading the good news about him all around the world. This question about the thief on the cross, in other words, reveals that Jesus left heaven and came to earth for us not once but twice, first in his incarnation as a baby, and then again after his crucifixion in a resurrected body. We can only imagine that after dying on the cross, where he suffered so greatly, Jesus was ready to leave this world and never see it again. But instead, he returned to the very scene of his suffering, for the sake of those he had died for. As the old hymn says, “Hallelujah! What a Savior.”

Where did Jesus go in his body after he was resurrected?

Q. If Jesus was resurrected, then where did he later go with flesh and blood?

I understand this question the way I’ve indicated in the title of this post: Where did Jesus go in his body after he was resurrected? According to Luke at the beginning of the book of Acts, “After his suffering [that is, his death], Jesus presented himself to the apostles he had chosen and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” So Jesus didn’t go very far at first; he stayed in Jerusalem and appeared to his followers, teaching and instructing them for forty days. It’s not too hard for us to imagine him doing this in a resurrected body, though his sudden appearances and disappearances, which the Bible also describes, certainly are unusual.

After that, however, as Luke then records, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Two angels appeared to the apostles and explained to them that Jesus had been taken up “into heaven.” Now we might wonder a bit more—can someone who is “flesh and blood” really go right into heaven?

At this point we need to bring in the discussion of the resurrection that Paul offers in 1 Corinthians. There he explains, in answer to a question very similar to yours, “Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

It’s hard to understand exactly what a “spiritual body” is; we think of bodies as physical and material, not  spiritual. But whatever it is, a person’s resurrected spiritual body is different in significant ways, as Paul explains, from the physical body they have when die. Nevertheless, even though it is characterized by glory, power, and imperishability, the spiritual body is still a body. A resurrected person is not a disembodied spirit.

So, to offer a simple answer to your question, after Jesus was resurrected, he first went around Jerusalem teaching and encouraging his disciples, and then he went up into heaven. To answer what might be the question behind your question, he was able to do this because his resurrected body was not exactly flesh and blood. It was a “spiritual body” that was different enough that he could enter heaven in it.

A 15th-century Russian icon of the ascension of Jesus.

Did a man in ancient Israel have to marry his brother’s widow if he were already married?

Q. You state in one of your posts that Levirate marriage applied to brothers who were married (as well as those who were single). Do you have an example or statement of that fact in the Bible? If not, where does this idea come from, as I am not able to confirm it one way or the other?

A good example can be found in the book of Ruth. Boaz is willing to marry Ruth so that she can have a son who will carry on the name of her late husband, a son who can also care for Naomi, who would be his grandmother, in her old age. But Boaz knows that there is someone more closely related to Naomi who needs to be asked about this first. He approaches this man at the town gate, and he replies that he can’t marry Ruth “or I will ruin my own inheritance.” What does that mean? One translation puts it this way, which I think is quite accurate: “I might harm what I can pass on to my own sons.”

In other words, this man must already be married with a family. But he can’t afford to have additional children in a Levirate second marriage because he doesn’t have enough land and other resources to pass on to Ruth’s children in addition to the ones he already has. On this basis he is released from the obligation and Boaz, who seems to have sufficient means, marries Ruth and helps her start a new family.

We can see a direct connection to Levirate marriage here by the way the other relative removes his sandal and gives it to Boaz. While the book of Ruth explains that this was “the method of legalizing transactions in Israel,” there’s some further background. The book of Deuteronomy also connects sandal removal with a man declining or refusing to marry his brother’s widow. It says: “If a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.’ Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, ‘This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.’ That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.

However, in the case of Ruth, it’s recognized that the other relative is a man of good will but limited means. So Ruth doesn’t remove his sandal (or spit in his face!). Rather, he removes it himself, and it is graciously accepted.

If men who were already married were not expected to fulfill the duties of Levirate marriage, Boaz would never have brought this man up or dealt with him in the first place.

Where does the Bible say we can ask departed loved ones to pray for us?

Q. I read your blog about your wife’s battle with ALS (Endless Mercies). Couldn’t see the words toward the end through my tears. I have no words. My best friend’s wife had cancer 7 years and had a similar, but shorter landing. Walking through it with him was a life changer.

My question is about something you wrote on one of your posts here: “As followers of Jesus, we may reasonably ask any of the saints in heaven (including our departed loved ones) to pray for us, just as we would ask a brother or sister in Christ to pray for us here on earth.” Can you tell me where it is in Scripture that states this? I’ve never heard this before and I’ve been a believer for nearly forty years. Thank you.

First, thank you so much for reading through the Endless Mercies blog. There I talk about how meaningful and valuable it was to have people walk some of the journey with us. You’ve become another of those people for me. My sincere sympathies to your friend on the loss of his wife, and to you as well. You were part of their experience, and the loss is also yours, though you speak too of what walking with them brought into you life.

Let me respond to your question. In the post you mention, I explain the reason why I think we can ask people in heaven to pray for us: “One of the most important ministries of those who have gone on ahead of us into the presence of God is to pray for us who remain here on earth.”

The Bible doesn’t say anywhere explicitly, so far as I know, that we can actually ask for their prayers. But we might consider a passage such as the one in Revelation where those who have given their lives for Jesus are crying out, “How long, Sovereign Lord?” (certainly a prayer) and asking God to bring justice on earth and an end to the persecution of his people. This is a case where those in heaven are depicted as praying for those on earth.

We might also consider more generally the statement in Hebrews that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” I know that some take this to mean that those in the crowd are witnesses to us of God’s faithfulness in their lives in the past. But I understand it to mean that they are witnesses of what God is doing in our lives in the present and of how we are responding. The statement says, after all, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders . . . and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” I take this to mean, “because people are watching us and cheering us on,” not just, “because they ran the race well themselves.”

In short, the idea that we can and should ask our “friends above” to pray for us, just as we ask our “friends on earth” to do so, is more a matter of inference from what seems reasonable to believe and conclude about them. As I said, there is no specific statement in the Bible that says we can do this, and if someone were hesitant to do so as a result, I would certainly understand that. But I think their friends above would keep praying for them just the same!

Does each person have their own star?

Q. Is it true that each and every person has their own star? If that is true, is it a star that they can see?

There’s nothing in the Bible that says or suggests that each person has their own star. However, there are a couple of ideas in the Bible that you could put together along those lines to realize something encouraging.

First, the Bible does say that God knows all of the stars. Isaiah says, for example:

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing.

Psalm 147 says similarly that God “determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.”

We can put that thought together with the Bible’s affirmation that God knows each person individually. Psalm 139 marvels about this, saying:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

So when you look up at the sky at night and see the stars, you can say to yourself, “God must be very great in knowledge, and he must care a great deal about His creation, to know all of the stars by name. And since there are many more people on earth than there are stars visible in the sky from the earth, God must be even greater in knowledge and love to know each person by name and care about them.”

You could even pick out one particular star in the sky, call it “your star” (or at least your “favorite star”), and when you see it, use it as a reminder of God’s love and care for you.

Does a person married to a divorcée need to divorce her if he becomes a believer?

Q. I have a question on marriage and divorce. I am married to a divorcée and I understand that we are both adulterers because of this situation. I also understand that we should repent and legally separate. After separating, would I then, having never been married before, be biblically free to marry another believer as my covenant wife? Thank you in advance for your kind help and I would appreciate any guidance and supporting verses in in order to bring clarity.

I have to read between the lines a bit in order to understand your situation, but it sounds to me as if you have now become a believer after already being married to a woman who was previously married and then divorced, and that she has not yet become a believer herself. You would like to be married to a fellow believer as a “covenant wife.” It also sounds to me as if you are reflecting on biblical statements such as, “Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

My guidance would be that you shouldn’t make any decision, let alone such an important decision, based on a single verse of Scripture. Instead, you should seek to know the “whole counsel of God” by looking at all of the places in the Bible that might address your situation, and you should compare what they say, in order to find a wise way forward.

I think the Scripture passage that applies most directly to your situation, if I’ve understood it correctly, is Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians to people who have become believers after already being married, whose spouses are not yet believers. Here’s what Paul writes:

If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

What this means, basically, is that you should not seek a divorce from your wife, because your influence on her as her husband may well lead her to become a believer herself. If you have children, this will benefit them as well. However, if she wants to be divorced from you, particularly if that’s because she doesn’t want to be married to you any more now that you are a Christian, then you should consent to the divorce.

The fact that your wife was divorced before you married her does not require you to divorce her now. In this same place in 1 Corinthians, Paul generalizes his counsel about divorce to apply to all situations in life. He says, “Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” In effect, the clock re-starts when you become a believer. God calls you to live out your new faith starting right in the situation you were in when you came to faith. “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” So not only don’t you need to be governed by your own past life, you and your wife don’t need to be governed by her past life either. A new start for you can be a new start for her as well.

It’s clear from Scripture that God does not like divorce, and so the Bible says many things to discourage divorce, such as the warning that marrying a divorced person can amount to adultery. (This is especially true if someone gets divorced in order to  marry someone else.) But the reason God doesn’t like divorce is that God wants to support and sustain healthy marriages. Though I don’t know your situation first-hand, I’d encourage you to envision how your present marriage can be transformed by the grace of God into a healthy, life-giving relationship for you and your wife. I can’t think of anything that would commend Christ to her more.

One final thought is that if you did divorce your wife, then any woman who married you would be marrying a man who was divorced and, to follow the narrow logic of the single verse we started with, she would be committing adultery and need to divorce you. On the other hand, if the clock could re-start for you if you divorced your current wife, then why couldn’t the clock actually re-start for you, and for her, at the point where you became a believer? So think about your present situation as one in which “the new has come” and you have the freedom to invest in your marriage as one that may ultimately become the covenant partnership you’re hoping for.