In a recent post, Ian Paul discusses the practice of allegorical interpretation, reflecting in particular upon a conversation he had with someone concerning the reading of the story of Rahab. Paul’s interlocutor argued strongly for an allegorical reading of the Rahab story, writing:
“Joshua is a type of Christ in the OT. He leads the Israelites to the promised land just as Jesus leads us to salvation. Joshua destroys the city of Jericho not by force, but with the representation of the Word of God based on the Law of God through the blowing of the trumpets while walking in front of the Ark. The family of Rahab is saved by two Israelites who represent the two witnesses or the two books of the Bible. Rahab makes a covenant with them just as Jesus makes a covenant with us through His Word. Ultimately, Rahab is saved by a scarlet cord that is draped out of her window. Obviously the scarlet represents the blood of Christ.”
Paul proceeds to criticize such a reading. Although he acknowledges its appeal, he maintains that it obscures the natural meaning of the text, subjects it to the service of our own concerns, neglects the genre of the text (perhaps with the inadvertent effect of denying its historical weight), and risks setting up the allegorical interpreter as a priest intermediating between the text and the reader.
When we talk about biblical typology or figural reading, this is often the sort of exegesis—or, should we say, eisegesis—that people have in mind. Such typology is usually characterized by tenuous or seemingly arbitrary connections between a biblical text and doctrines or truths within a Christian theology. The warrant for such connections often seems spurious, speculative, or esoteric, and, like Paul, many reject them for this reason.
The sort of reading that Paul’s interlocutor proposes involves a kind of short circuiting of the text, frying the narrative as a result. Is this a necessary characteristic of figural reading? Is it possible to read Scripture figurally in a manner that doesn’t neglect or overwhelm the historical sense? Within this article, I wish to present a case for this possibility. As typological or figural readings of the story of Rahab are familiar to many and have strong precedent in the history of the Church, I will develop a case for figural reading through a discussion of Joshua 2.
As I have argued in the past (see my four part discussion here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), reading Scripture figurally is essentially a matter of reading Scripture “musically,” recognizing the divine orchestration of history and the way that is communicated in a literary form. Both historical events and the recording of them in Scripture are richly and beautifully interconnected. When we listen to a text such as Joshua 2, we may believe that we are hearing snatches of the “Saviour’s Theme,” soft anticipations of the full presentation of that theme in the later movement of the New Testament. As with the slight hints of the hero’s theme in a film, we are offered a cue to recognize a pattern or connection, or are primed to anticipate an imminent development. Here the cues are literary, yet no less significant in helping us to make good sense of the account.
The sort of allegorical reading that Paul challenges risks overstating the relationship between the Rahab story and the story of Christ. Holding the two texts in direct and immediate juxtaposition, it is very easy to find imaginative theological correlates for every detail of the Rahab narrative, reducing it to a dispensable representation of truths that are established elsewhere. Yet the Rahab narrative involves much more than simply an anticipatory statement of the “Saviour’s Theme.” A rich confluence of themes and motifs are present in that text, themes and motifs which play off and enhance each other in various ways.
In discussing this text, it is important to recognize the interlacing of such themes and the fact that biblical meaning can never be reduced to a mere set of pure motifs. The story of Rahab, like all other such texts, is a complex interplay of repetition and variation, both elements being essential to its meaning. The variation and development of themes is no less illuminating than their repetition.
Typological readings of the variety that Paul’s interlocutor proposes are generally inattentive to context, yet the broader literary and narrative context of the Rahab story is crucial for appreciating its meaning. The entire Exodus narrative is bookended on one side by destruction of Egypt–Passover–Water Crossing and on the other side by Water Crossing–Passover–destruction of Jericho. Rahab’s story is a Passover narrative, as Peter Leithart makes clear. The display of the scarlet cord at the entrance to the dwelling in order that the building and its inhabitants might be passed over when judgment occurs is a Passover theme. It should already be clear that Rahab is part of something much greater than herself. Even within the literary structure of the text, she is placed in juxtaposition with the nation of Israel as a whole, opening up the possibility of a figural relation.
To the attentive reader, much in the Rahab narrative will be reminiscent of earlier scriptural accounts. Many will read the story and instantly recall the story of the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19). In the destruction of Sodom, two visitors came to a city to scout it out in preparation for judgment. They were taken in by Lot, while the men of the city sought to attack them. Lot made a night time meal of unleavened bread and there was a threat at the doorway. The visitors later escaped, rescuing those in the house, who were charged to flee to the mountain. Both are Exodus-style narratives, though each with key variations. Much the same pattern plays out in the story of the spies and Rahab, but now it isn’t angels but Israelites who act as the agents of divine judgment.
The Rahab story also recalls and displays the fundamental conflict between the serpent and the woman. The serpent deceived the woman, but thereafter the woman repeatedly deceives the ‘serpent’ figures, often to save the seed from being destroyed. Sarah deceives Pharaoh and Abimelech, Rebekah deceives Abimelech, Rachel deceives Laban, the Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh, Rahab deceives the men of Jericho, Jael deceives Sisera, Michal deceives Saul, Esther deceives Haman, etc. In each case, we see a sort of poetic justice, as the shrewd woman outwits the serpent at his own game.
Some of these stories resonate with the story of Rahab in a particular way. For instance, the story of Michal delivering David from Saul is a very ‘musical’ account, subtly playing with a number of themes of deception. Michal disguises a household idol as David using goat’s hair and lets David down through the window (1 Samuel 19:11-17). She is like Rachel, who deceived her father Laban concerning the household idol (Genesis 31:33-35). She is like Rebekah, who deceived her husband using goats’ hair in order to ensure that the right child received the inheritance (Genesis 27). She is like Rahab, who let the Hebrew spies escape from the doomed men of the land. Perhaps she is even like the daughter of Pharaoh, who rescued the leader of the people whose life was threatened by her father (Exodus 2:1-10).
These resonances all help us to understand the meaning of that text and help to characterize Saul (as the unfaithful father-in-law, the unjust and disobedient father, the doomed ruler of Canaan, and the arch-enemy of the people of God). In fact, by associating him with all of these characters and playing out the familiar trope of the woman deceiving the tyrant, the text associates Saul with the shadow agency of the serpent, representing Saul as one of the serpent’s seed.
There are odd yet significant details in the Rahab story. For instance, the scarlet thread is such a peculiar thing to highlight in the narrative. In the literary structure of the narrative, as Leithart observes, it has an association with blood, but that probably isn’t all that it suggests. A number of writers have observed that it recalls the presence of the same odd detail in Genesis 38, where the midwife tied a scarlet thread around the hand of the first child to emerge from Tamar’s womb.
That story has further interesting resonances with the story of Rahab. Tamar also acted as a harlot in that story. However, like Rahab, Tamar is a shrewd trickster who outwits an unjust and deceptive man (Judah) and ends up vindicated. Both Tamar and Rahab are highlighted in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:3, 5). Elsewhere in Scripture, scarlet is associated with harlotry. In Genesis 38:17-18, Tamar asks for a pledge from Judah and is given a signet, cord, and staff. In Joshua 2:12, Rahab asks for a sign of truth from the spies and is given the instruction concerning the cord. In both stories the presentation of the cord plays a role in saving the woman’s life.
The connections at this point are much less certain—this is definitely “deep weird” territory—but Gary North has drawn attention to a highly suggestive combination of details that raise the possibility of an association between the blood on the doorposts of Passover and the evidences of virginity mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (see Appendix F of James Jordan’s The Law of the Covenant for the connection between this and the incident of Exodus 4:24-26). The connection between circumcision, the woman’s evidentiary display of blood, and the blood on the doorposts all relate to the consummation of marriage and to the demonstration of righteous “virginity” (or at least the covering of sexual sin) in the context of it.
The broader Passover context was closely associated with themes of new birth and, within the wider thematic context, it would not be surprising to me to find themes of marital consummation or evidence of marital faithfulness (note the ‘bloody bridegroom’ reference in Exodus 4:25). Doors are associated with birth and death, and are a site of transition (e.g. Genesis 18:10; Judges 11:31; 1 Kings 14:17; 2 Kings 4:15-16). The womb has doors and is opened or closed (Genesis 20:18; Exodus 13:2; Job 3:10). The display of the bloody evidence of virginity is associated with the birth of the firstborn, whose life is under threat, and serves as evidence that the child is not a child of harlotry. The scarlet cord around Tamar’s firstborn’s hand and the scarlet cord on Rahab’s window may both play into this framework of imagery (note that the entire generation of the Israelites born during the Exodus were circumcised in Joshua 5, the chapter before Rahab displays the scarlet cord).
Rahab represents something even greater in the book of Revelation. In Revelation we see a woman arrayed in scarlet, described as the Mother of Harlots. Once again, the colour of scarlet has various resonances. It represents sin, the spilt blood of the martyred saints, and the harlotries of the city. There are also priestly undertones. This is the priestly city, which is why she is to be burned with fire for her harlotry (Revelation 17:16; 18:8; cf. Leviticus 21:9).
People are called out of the city of the harlot (18:4-5), but these people become the spotless bride. Note that this occurs through garments being ‘washed white’ in the blood of the bridegroom (7:14). Blood is the cleansing agent through which the harlot becomes a spotless virgin. Like Jericho, the great and wicked city of Revelation is defeated by the blowing of seven trumpets (8:1—11:19; cf. Joshua 6:16-21) and is then burned with fire (like the city in Revelation, Jericho also has associations with Babylon, Joshua 7:21).
As in the book of Joshua, where the harlot becomes one of the saints—note that the individual Rahab recapitulates the story of the Passover of the whole nation of Israel—the saints in Revelation are former members of the harlot. Rahab marries the heir of Judah’s line, Salmon; the bride in Revelation marries the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Revelation’s account also has several profound intertextual plays with the book of John at these points.
Already within Joshua, Rahab has a figural relation to Israel as a whole. In the New Testament that musical connection is further unfolded and she is discovered to be a type of the Church. All of this can emerge from close and attentive reading of the texts themselves. It is important to emphasize, however, that such a musical or figural reading doesn’t merely collapse Rahab into the Church, obscuring her uniqueness and particularity. Rahab stands for much more than a mere historical individual, but she does not stand for less.
The danger of readings such as that with which I introduced this article is that they wrench the story from its narrative and canonical context and develop intertextual and figural relations, not through an exploration of the diachronic unfolding of the themes and motifs of the Rahab story, but through a synchronic correlation of elements. The relations are short circuited and the narrative fried as a result. In the reading that I propose, none of the ‘natural meaning’ of Joshua 2 is left behind, but is organically developed and unfolded. Christ is discovered to be integral to the ‘natural meaning’ of Joshua 2 when we hear the fuller expression of the ‘Saviour’s Theme’ in the later movements of the divine symphony. Yet Rahab always retains her distinctness and historical particularity.
This is more than just a matter of parallels, application, or ‘significance’ as distinct from meaning. Scripture is musical and the divinely designed unfolding musical relations of Scripture are integral to the meaning of any passage. Just as the meaning of a given note in a piece of music only emerges through the movement of the musical piece as a whole, so the meaning of Rahab only emerges as we follow the movement of redemptive history. The Rahab story has direct meaning for us, and not just secondary significance for, or application to, us. In reflecting upon the deliverance of Rahab in light of the broader scriptural development of her themes, we can come to the startling realization that her theme is our theme as the Church, something that only becomes apparent as we follow the movement of unfolding typology.
Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.