November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
September 21, 2015
The story of Rahab begins early in the Joshua narrative. As the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan River, they launch their conquest on Canaan by sending spies west. Two spies stay with Rahab in Jericho and she protects them from capture by hiding them on her roof and deceiving the Jericho authorities. Rahab later lowers the spies to safety and asks for her family’s protection as reward for her help. The spies promise to spare her in return for her support and silence. Rahab ties a scarlet cord in her window as a sign of this agreement, and her family is spared during the invasion—eventually they come to live among the Israelites after the conquest ends.
Feminist and womanist readers have often understood Rahab as a created or co-opted character who is used to reinforce the broader Deuteronomistic themes in Joshua, such as covenant and providential promise. For example, rather than a liberational clarion call, Rahab’s speech in Joshua 2:8–13 echoes the language and theology of the Deuteronimistic editors. Hebrew Bible scholar Amy Cottrill writes that “[Rahab] embodies the ideals of a colonizer . . . [showing that] even the conquered recognize the validity of the actions of God and the colonizers.” However, biblical characters carry multiple interpretations. Although Rahab gives theological justification for Israel’s brutal conquest, useful to the broader “colonizing blueprint” in Joshua, her character also offers emancipatory potential. Toward that aim, I offer a queer reading of Rahab, one that while not definitive in scope builds upon and expands existing conversations.
To interpret Rahab as a queer character is not to make assumptions about her sexual preferences or practices, nor does it force a sexual identity upon her. Rather, reading Rahab as queer builds upon a more expansive definition of queer that is often employed by queer, feminist, and womanist theorists. Feminist scholar Eleanor Wilkinson defines queer politics as “Attempts to move beyond issues surrounding sexuality and instead [position] itself in opposition to all hierarchies, exclusions and inequalities.” Although the word queer encompasses many who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender non-conforming, and transgender, it more broadly represents the politicized other—the outcast unwilling or unable to assimilate to hegemonic demands. As a character marginalized by her status as a woman, Canaanite, and (likely) sex worker, Rahab lives within a queer social location on the margins of society. Building on the work of Ken Stone, biblical scholar Erin Runions offers a similar understanding of Canaanites as a queer people:
“Canaanite” is similar . . . to the term “homosexual,” in that it acts as a discursive outside to a normative identity position (Israelite, heterosexual). . . . “Canaanites” and “homosexuals” are queer in that they blur lines of identity and power relations. . . . Likewise, Rahab is a queer figure in the way that she troubles sexual and ethnic identity divides. Most obviously, she does not conform to biblically sanctioned demands of heteronormativity (associated as those demands are with monogamous and reproductive heterosexual relations). She perhaps engages in heterosexual sex acts (though the text is ambiguous on this point), but she is not heteronormative.
But I argue that reading Rahab as queer is necessary even apart from such biblical justifications. Our willingness, even if temporarily, to imagine Rahab as queer provides a critical entryway into the biblical text for dispossessed persons. This theological choice asks queer people to imagine themselves into the hostile text—to claim agency as readers and shapers of the narrative. These queer addenda expose the heterohegemonic assumptions of dominant biblical interpretation and clarify the purpose of biblical texts. Biblical texts do not transmit a singular, authoritative interpretation; they act as a means of encountering the Divine in community. Moreover, an imaginative hermeneutic exposes the social construction of dominant biblical narratives. Inserting the self into the story offers alternative readings and much-needed grounding within the religious tradition.
Queer people are present in the biblical story not because our queer ancestors were recognized and recorded but because the queer God still breathes through that story today. If the biblical story is to maintain theological and political utility for the oppressed and colonized, such an expansive reading is demanded. Queer persons must be able to identify themselves historically within texts and, when necessary, imagine themselves into the often-walled cities of hegemonic biblical discourse. Today, imaginative queer readings of Rahab might sway the walls of churches and Jericho alike.
Toward a Queer Reading of Rahab (and Joshua)
Rahab’s story is one of traumatic survival. In anticipation of Israel’s coming invasion (Josh. 5:13–6:27 NRSV), Rahab acts to save her family and herself. Rahab’s survival and concurrent betrayal of her initial community, Jericho, is of particular interest to queer commentators on this text. As a community defined by self-disclosure of one’s sexual and gender identities, queer people know all too well the temptation to betray one’s community for survival or personal gain. We are a community that has been betrayed frequently by clergy and politicians who are willing to hide their identities because of the potential benefits to themselves and their families.
Conversely, queer people can also sympathize with Rahab’s decision. The choice to closet or disclose is never simple. Further, binary constructions of outness and identity fail to capture the complex reality of queer experience. Queer readers know firsthand the unfair intersections of multiple communities and identities. Lived experience fails to fall neatly within singular lines of identity: we experience our sexuality at the intersections of race, class, and gender. Although it is tempting to label Rahab’s actions as mere opportunistic betrayal, a queer perspective offers needed nuance on Rahab’s intersectional location—both critique and grace. Moreover, the realities of Rahab’s context present a different conception of community and identity altogether. Amy Robertson, a Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible and religious leader, notes that Rahab identifies neither with the invading Israelites nor with Jericho. She writes,
Rahab clearly has very little reason to feel a vested interest in the city of Jericho as it is. She is tolerated there but is far enough outside of mainstream Canaanite society to be able to envision something else for herself. Perhaps this vision—and the sense that she has little to lose by bringing about change—helped move her to risk what she had, in order to see what else could be.
Like Rahab, many queer readers can identify with a lack of communal belonging. Specifically within Protestant communities of faith, queer Christians are oppressed by Christian institutions, whereas within predominantly secular lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities, they are seen as suspect. Rahab’s story of identity negotiation not only presents parallels for queer readers searching for their place within the biblical story, it also offers a point of reflection and critical analysis for current struggles for liberation.
Identity and Violence
Rahab’s identity negotiation, her choice between existence as an outsider in Canaan or becoming an outsider in Israel, is initially a practical matter. In considering her identity (re)formation, we must also consider the intersections of that identity with violence. Identity and violence are inextricably linked throughout Joshua. Divine violence does not occur at random in Joshua; it follows distinctive ethnic, tribal, and religious lines. Likewise, violence exerted by Israel against the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites (Josh. 3:10) redefines both the identities of the land’s native inhabitants and the identities of the Israelite tribes. So, too, does violence redefine Rahab’s identity. The impending violence against Jericho necessitates Rahab’s initial negotiation, but violence also structures and limits her deliberation and choices. Physical violence forces Rahab to choose between life on the perimeter of Jericho and life on the periphery of the emerging Israelite community (6:23)—both realities created and maintained by systemic intracommunity violence.
The intersections of identity and violence also shape the experiences of queer people of faith today. Regardless of their particular faith traditions, queer people navigate identity and understand themselves as people of faith through a web of violence. Bullying, homophobic and transphobic hate crimes, and self-harm stemming from internalized hatred physically mark the self-actualization of queer people. Within this context of pervasive heterosexist and transphobic violence, however, queer persons of faith must also survive systemic intracommunity religious violence.
Questions of identity, which pose a hidden, implicit violence, define key aspects of Christian worship and religious practice: How are members of a dispossessed community claimed by God in baptism? How does one share Eucharist with those who are unwelcome in a congregation? How does one follow a vocational calling when ordination or formal church leadership is denied because of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity? For queer people, a decision to be a Christian today is a decision to traverse a traumatic terrain. Like we see with Rahab, the threat of violence is ongoing; surviving physical violence in the broader culture does not provide protection from the systematic violence within the Protestant Christian traditions. Central questions of Christian identity are conscripted by heteropatriarchy: How is one a Christian? In which places? In which communities? In which ways? In Joshua, divine violence is constructed along ethnic and religious identity lines; today, religiously sanctioned violence is also drawn along lines of gender and sexual identity, as these identities intersect with other oppressive systems. For the modern Protestant church, reparative therapy and excommunication may have replaced swords and hailstones (Josh. 10:11), but religiously sanctioned violence still justifies the conquest and colonization of queer bodies and communities.
Implications for Queer Religious Community
Considering a queer reading of Rahab and the larger Joshua narrative offers hope to the church today and liberation to LGBTQ people of faith. Today, the mainline Protestant traditions are in transition. Amid declining church attendance and religious identification, the Protestant church must adapt or perish. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is struggling through a period of marked transition sparked largely by efforts toward greater inclusion for LGBTQ people; in that struggle, our denomination is not alone. Ergo, the Rahab story presents another interesting parallel. Like in Joshua, queer Protestants must negotiate their identity within a context of simultaneous violence and cultural transition; perhaps it is in an analysis of identity in transition that this biblical story is most instructive.
The book of Joshua is literally a transition place in the broader biblical canon. Scholars have noticed the transitional function of the book in two ways: (1) it provides a narrative transition from the anticipation of the land to Israel’s life in the Promised Land, and (2) it represents a shift in literary genre from a “literature of anticipation of the land” to a “literature of possession of the land.”
Within a grander story of transition, Rahab occupies a specifically liminal space. Rahab lives on the periphery of Jericho in the walls of the city (Josh. 2:15). As her city is invaded, signaling a major transition in her initial community, the walls themselves, in which she lives, hold specific importance for the story. Joshua describes the siege of Jericho beginning with a procession around the city and a loud cry from the Israelite army; then “the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it” (6:20). In The Queer Bible Commentary, Michael Carden writes, “As the walls of Jericho collapse bringing together inside and outside, Rahab, the woman of the walls, collapses the distinctions between Israelite and Canaanite.” Currently, amid mainline denominational decline and changing cultural attitudes toward LGBTQ persons, the proverbial walls of Christendom are falling, as well—or at least they are beginning to crack. As a peripheral people, or a people of the walls, the question for queer people of faith is: When the walls fall, will we be liberated? Or will we be crushed?
Reflecting upon the transitional status of her own Chicana community, scholar and poet, Gloria Anzaldua suggests a similar position of liminality. The mestiza, or mixed race woman, also occupies a transitional space, a borderland, much like these crumbling walls or changing ecclesial and social realities. Anzaldua, however, understands her social location as an opportunity:
That juncture where the mestiza stands, is where phenomena tend to collide. It is where the possibility of uniting all that is separate occurs. This assembly is not one where severed or separated pieces merely come together. Nor is it a balancing of opposing powers. In attempting to work out a synthesis, the self has added a third element which is greater than the sum of its severed parts.
Anzaldua conceptualizes her social location not as a competing duality but as a place where something new is created. Rahab, too, posits an alternative model of identity in a context of violence and transition. She is not solely Canaanite, nor does she become solely Israelite; rather, she synthesizes a new identity for her and her family.
Earlier in her reflection, Anzaldua writes,
The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.
Surviving violence and transition requires Rahab to develop a tolerance for ambiguity. As queer people of faith today, we must learn to think beyond binaries like Rahab. We, too, must sustain contradictions and turn ambivalence into something transformative.
When Rahab lowers the Israelite spies to safety (Josh. 2:15), they instruct her to tie the same crimson cord in her window so that she will be saved:
If we invade the land and you do not tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down, and you do not gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family. If any of you go out of the doors of your house into the street, they shall be responsible for their own death, and we shall be innocent; but if a hand is laid upon any who are with you in the house, we shall bear the responsibility for their death. . . . She said, “According to your words, so be it.” . . . Then she tied the crimson cord in the window. (2:18–21)
In this story, the crimson cord becomes salvific for both the Israelites in their escape and for Rahab’s Canaanite family during the Jericho invasion. This story, in its resolution, gives the reader a powerful image for reconciliation and life in community: the crimson cord. Not only does this shared cord provide safety for both Israelites and Canaanites, it also represents the future community in which they will both live, together. Furthermore, the cord’s red color acts as a subversive counter to the often blood-defined boundaries of the Joshua narrative. Rather than serving as an oppressive boundary marker of tribe and clan, these sanguine strands offer a queer vision of blood-as-bond. Anzaldua writes, “The mestizo and the queer exist at this time and point on the evolutionary continuum for a purpose. We are a blending that proves that all blood is intricately woven together, and that we are spawned out of similar souls.” For queer people today, we must utilize our own subversive images of blood and rope. We are called to weave similar cords of disparate identities and experiences. One day, that shared cord will become salvific for all people because, beginning with that cord, we will learn to live together.
Rahab’s cord also represents a willingness to bring separate identities together in a process of weaving. Rahab’s rope and identity are never resolved; rather, they are always in process. In the process of weaving, distinctive threads are not assimilated into a single, pure strand; instead, they remain distinctive in the weaving and, through the joining with other distinctive threads, they reinforce one another and make a unique, strong, communal cord. Likewise, Anzaldua uses rope imagery to describe her personal identity negotiation: “I walk the tightrope with ease and grace. I span abysses.” Like Anzaldua, Rahab’s rope is taut. The weaving together of distinctive strands builds off of the tension of many threads being pulled in many different directions. So, too, is the rope of queer identity in religious community fraught with tension; however, with Rahab as a model, we can weave ropes that save our friends, families, and even the broader community by showing a path other than violence, a path of mutual living and respect—a path of imaginative ambiguity.
Toward an Imaginative Praxis
Joshua both records the painful truth of continual violence in the name of God and offers subversive alternatives. One such alternative is found in the story of Rahab. Through the stories of queer-identified Christians today, alternatives to religiously sanctioned heterosexist and transphobic violence can also be created. By exploring a queer reading of the text, new possibilities are opened and the character of Rahab challenges modern readers again: we must develop a greater tolerance for ambiguity in our own identities; we must weave together disparate identities into communal cords of salvation; we must abandon static forms of identity and adopt a process of continual weaving. These are just a few of the challenges over which we must pray and ponder and persevere.
In this paper, however, I have also argued that a queer reading of Rahab requires a radical, uniquely queer imagination. Queer hermeneutics both reinterpret existing narratives and imagine new stories rooted in, but not shackled to, the existing canon and hegemony. Within a context of trauma, imaginative storytelling is a means of survival. Perhaps Rahab’s struggle for survival will embolden those who navigate trauma today. It is, after all, Rahab’s imaginative response to conquest and violence that saves her own life and her family’s. Queer people truly are present in the biblical story today, not because our queer ancestors were faithfully recognized and recorded but because the queer God of imagination and daring still breathes through these stories. Queer imagination is our hope—for survival and salvation.
 See Musa Dube, “Rahab is Hanging out a Red Ribbon: One African Woman’s Perspective on the Future of Feminist New Testament Scholarship,” in Feminist New Testament Studies: Global and Future Perspectives, ed. Kathleen Wicker (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 177–202; Cottrill, “Joshua,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, and Jacqueline Lapsley (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 105; and Dora Mbuwayesango, “Joshua,” in Global Bible Commentary, ed. Daniel Patte (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2004), 64.
 Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?,” in Feminist Frontiers, eds. Verta Taylor, Nancy Whittier, and Leila Rupp (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2009), 596–612; Gayatri Gopinath, “Funny Boys and Girls: Notes on a Queer South Asian Planet,” in Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives, eds. Carole McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003), 265; and Wilkinson, “What’s Queer about Non-Monogamy Now?,” in Understanding Non-Monogamies, eds. Meg Barker and Darren Langrdridge (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), 354.
 Runions, “From Disgust to Humor: Rahab’s Queer Affect,” Postscripts 4, no. 1 (April 2008): 44–45.
 Billy Kluttz, “Outness and Identity in Context: Negotiating Sexual Disclosure in LGBT Campaigns,” Sexuality and Culture 18, no. 4 (December 2014): 789–803.
 Robertson, “Rahab and Her Interpreters,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 111.
 “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS, October 8, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.
 Bruce Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence Freithheim, and David Petersen, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2005), 177–78.
 Carden, “Joshua,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, eds. Deryn Guest, Robert Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache (London, UK: SCM, 2006), 158; and Kluttz, “Outness and Identity.”
 Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 2007), 101–2.
 Ibid., 107.
 Anzaldua, “La Prieta,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (Latham, NY: Kitchen Table, 1983), 209.
A North Carolina native, Billy Kluttz works at the intersections of faith and queer activism as a faith community leader, experimental liturgist and musician, and cheerleader for creative community organizing. He holds an MPA from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and is currently a graduate student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He works as the evening services coordinator at Immanuel Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in McLean, Virginia, and he is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In his free time, he writes for the Reconciling Ministries Network blog; enjoys country, folk, and bluegrass music; and passionately watches University of North Carolina and Syracuse University basketball.