by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister (Designated Term)                   July 9, 2020

“The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.” Rahab (Joshua 2:11)

Every now and then, the question arises as to whether the Bible, particularly the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, has anything to say to us today. Even among those who look to Jesus for guidance and love the stories of his healings and ministry, may question the relevance of studying the stories of the Ancestors. After all, these individuals lived in such a different time and in such a different culture. Many of the Ancestors lived agrarian lives, some were nomadic, and some owned slaves. Can their stories really shed any light on the issues we face today?

We can just focus on the stories of Jesus in the gospels, and on the letters of Paul to the fledgling churches of the first century, and leave the rest of the Bible alone. Of course, we would miss out on the words of the prophets and the beauty and emotion of the Psalms. We certainly can do that. We can make this distinction between these parts of our heritage. But, Jesus didn’t. He said that he came to fulfill the law. And that law is found in the stories of the Ancestors. So maybe those stories do have something to say to us today.

In June, several members of the church joined me in a weekly Bible study during which we read and talked about some of the less-well known women in the Old Testament. As we read their stories, certain themes emerged. Perhaps the most dominant theme was the way God cares for and lifts up the marginalized. We read stories of women who were pivotal to the success of the people of Israel even though (and perhaps because) they were not regarded very highly by their society. One of these women was Rahab, whose story is told in the book of Joshua.

Rahab literally lived on the fringe of her society in the wall of the city of Jericho. She ran an inn and was a flax merchant. Her profession as an innkeeper was rather sketchy and she was not accepted in respectable society. Yet, she is the pivotal character in the story of how Joshua and the Israelites were able to take the city. And, if you look carefully at the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, there she is. Rahab, who was not born an Israelite, who was marginalized not only by her profession but also by her lineage, became the great grandmother of King David. What Rahab did have was faith in God and a recognition of God’s power.

We also read the story of Hannah, in the book of Samuel. When we first meet Hannah, she is barren and is suffering verbal abuse from her husband’s second wife, who has been very fertile. Not only is Hannah marginalized in her own household and in her culture, she is also in danger of becoming a marginalized member of her society should she become a widow without a son to take care of her financially. But, Hannah had faith in God and her prayers were answered with the birth of her first son, Samuel, who would go on to be an important leader and prophet. Samuel would be the one whom God would send to find the next king of Israel among the sons of Jesse – again, King David. As a side note, if you’re familiar with Mary’s Magnificat, you might want to check out the song Hannah sings upon the birth of Samuel.

In reading these stories, we did not neglect to recognize and talk about the violence that is part of this history. The utter destruction of Jericho (except for Rahab and her family), the destruction of the Canaanite army under Deborah’s leadership, as well as the death of Sisera at the hands of Jael all gave us pause. Even recognizing that the world has been a very violent place over the course of human history does not lessen the horror of that violence. And we should not, and cannot, neglect that part of our history for it shows us the damage that is done to human society when we make distinctions between “us” and “them,” and hold “us” in higher esteem.

So, is the Bible relevant today? Well, from the very beginning of biblical history, God has taken the side of the marginalized, caring for them and lifting them up. Rahab’s faith in God gave her the strength to act decisively and contrary to the ruling powers. Hannah’s faith in God changed the course of her life and, consequently, the life of the people of Israel. Both women did this from a place of conviction that God would not let them down, that God hears the plight of those who go unheard. They did not accept their situation as hopeless. They did not accept what their society said about them and about their future.

How did they find this strength? They knew the stories. Even before the stories about the Ancestors were written down and eventually bound in a book, the stories were told around shared meals. People told and retold the stories of how God had saved the people from bondage in Egypt, how God had been with the people as they wandered in the wilderness, how God had promised Abraham and Sarah a future beyond their wildest imaginations. And women such as Rahab and Hannah trusted that the God who had done all those things was still at work. The God who had championed the marginalized throughout history would hear their pleas and act with them and through them.

If the stories of Ancestors gave them such courage and strength to change their future, can’t we also find our courage and strength in these stories to bolster our own resolve. The God who worked for the marginalized in Rahab’s day and Hannah’s day is still working for the marginalized today. Perhaps we too can find our own courage and strength to keep working for justice in the stories of those who preceded us in this work. We know the work takes time and effort – Hannah prayed to God for several years for a child before her prayers were answered. But we also know that God has promised hesed – God’s steadfast love – to those who faithfully follow God’s leading. This gave Rahab her resolved, Deborah her strength, and Hannah her song. What will their stories give us? You may want to check out the next Bible study this July and find out.