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Monday, August 15, 2016

A Lie from the Pits of Hell

Is it Rachab or Rahab? Well, it depends on your English translation of the New Testament, doesn’t it.

For some people, translations are a reason to get into a major snit. For example, this nice Jewish fellow says:

“The common teaching in churches is that Rahab the Harlot is listed in the genealogy of the Messiah. That is a lie from the pits of hell.”

From the pits of hell. Okay, then; that’s pretty serious. Let’s capitalize the word “harlot” too, just so nobody ever forgets where Rahab came from.

Messy and Distasteful

Our Jewish friend doesn’t want a reformed prostitute listed in the genealogy of Messiah, presumably because that’s too messy and distasteful for him.

As it turns out, he doesn’t want any Moabites in the Lord’s genealogy either, so he jumps through hoops here to prove Ruth was actually from the tribe of Reuben, notwithstanding the fact that she is plainly referred to as a “Moabite” in the text of Ruth and that every other commentator I’ve ever seen on the subject takes that fact as read.

So you can see the sort of credibility gap that’s opening up here.

The Tendency to Overreact

Still, this particular writer is illustrative of something we often come across in evangelical churches, and that’s a tendency to overreact to the magnitude of the differences that legitimately exist between Greek text traditions underlying the New Testament.

In this instance, the Greek text tradition behind the King James Bible tells our friend that the female ancestor listed in the Lord’s genealogy in Matthew 1:5 is someone with the Greek name Ῥαχάβ, generally transliterated as Rhachab or Rachab. On the other hand, the text tradition behind the New International or English Standard Versions, among others, has the word Ῥαάβ, or Rhaab. They are indeed two different Greek words, but the difference is precisely one character, the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, the letter chi. Some Greek manuscript copies have it, some don’t.

I’d say he’s overreacting just a tad.

Don’t Mix Up Your Rahabs

On this basis alone, our Jewish friend is prepared to distinguish the Rachab of Matthew 1:5 from this famous Old Testament character, the woman who hid Joshua’s spies from the King of Jericho and whose family were the only citizens of that city saved out the Israelite siege. Hebrews tells us:
“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.”
It’s a great story, and one that James uses to make this trenchant point about the necessity of combining works with one’s faith:
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
Rahab is New Testament evidence that, as Calvin corrected noted, while it is faith alone that saves, “the faith which justifies is not alone”. Rather, it is consistently accompanied by actions that demonstrate its reality.

Not a Historical Footnote

This fact on its own makes Rahab more than a historical footnote. No matter which New Testament text tradition you prefer — Textus Receptus or Westcott & Hort — you will find the Hebrews and James references cited above are to Rahab rather than Rachab. God is evidently able to work with ex-prostitutes and make something of their lives, much as he has done for all of us.

As Paul puts it:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
That’s what they WERE. Now they AREN’T.

What we were before we became believers and what we are afterward are two very different things. And there is no doubt from the New Testament text that Rahab was a woman of faith. Her former acts are relevant to the New Testament writers as useful and poignant illustrations of the grace of God, of the fact that it is faith that saves, or of the fact that works characteristically accompany faith.

Legally, however, her former acts are utterly irrelevant and off the board so far as God is concerned, and they ought also to be off the board with those who love him and seek to be conformed to his character.

When we look at one another in Christ, if we insist on seeing the harlot or the divorcee or the bastard or the homosexual or the alcoholic or the philanderer that used to be (and, if we are honest, may still rear its ugly head from time to time through momentary expressions of otherwise-abandoned ways of living and thinking), we have missed the point of our salvation, and perhaps misunderstood its mechanism.

Our “act” may have been cleaned up, but we are not Christians just because we have succeeded (for the most part) in cleaning up our act. Our salvation and security rest on an entirely different basis.

Parsing Matthew’s Agenda

In any case, if our Jewish friend wants to remove all blots from the genealogy of Jesus Christ, he’s got more work to do. Excising Rahab and Ruth will not get the job done. Matthew also makes mention that Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar and that David fathered Solomon “by the wife of Uriah” (no mincing words there, folks). If you want to find two more sordid Old Testament episodes you will have to do some serious page-flipping.

Clearly Matthew has no agenda to sweep the dubious moral or legal status of some of the relationships in the Lord’s genealogy under the carpet. In fact, I’d argue the very opposite: he’s effectively waving these women in our faces. It’s not as if Matthew mentions every godly woman and every garden-variety blissful and socially-acceptable marriage in the genealogy. He doesn’t. In fact, he specifically draws our attention to these four exceptions (and of course the case of Mary, who was suspected of pre-marital sex.

Their Sins and Iniquities

That being the case, I see no reason, whether logical, historical or moral, that the “Rachab” of Matthew 1:5 is not to be identified with the “Rahab” of Jericho fame.

There is a lesson here, absolutely, but it’s precisely the opposite of the lesson our Jewish friend would like us to draw from Matthew’s gospel. I trust it’s not too subtle for the rest of us.

As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, quoting from Isaiah:
“I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”
If there is a “lie from the pit of hell”, it’s that our status with God today is in any way related to our sins of yesterday.

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