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Numbers 13:1-15:41 and Joshua 2:1-24: The 'Broad' Living at the Edge of Jericho

05/29/2013 03:16 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2013
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When Moses sent 12 scouts across the Jordan to tour the land (in Hebrew, "latur"), 10 of them came back scared by the "giants" they found there (Numbers 13:28-33). The spies' panic spread among the Israelite people, resulting in 38 more years of desert wandering (Numbers 14).

The bilingual Hebrew-English pun of latur and "tour" helps us to understand the failure of the 10 spies: they acted as "tourists," glancing here and there, making surface observations, but never gazing deeply, never connecting intimately with the land at which they glanced. Ironically, to this very day, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism uses as its symbol the picture of two ancient Israelites -- from among the scouts Moses sent to the land of Canaan -- carrying between them a gigantic cluster of grapes (based on the description in Numbers 13:23).

A version of this same word latur is also used in the final verses of this week's reading in reference to the tzitzit (fringes) we are to tie on the edges of our four-cornered garments (Numbers 15:37-41). Here, too, the verb taturu is used to describe the danger of glancing or casting about and not seeing deeply -- and thereby whoring (zonim) ourselves after trifles that we erect into false gods. Gazing at these fringes is supposed to teach us to look deeply into the world and to walk in God's ways.

The rabbis assigned as the haftarah (prophetic selection) to be read with this Torah portion a report on the scouts whom Joshua sent into the land 38 years later, as the Israelites approach the city of Jericho, a high-walled Canaanite redoubt.

These scouts find themselves in the house of a woman named Rachav. Her name means "broad." Think of Psalm 118:5: "From the narrow place I called out to God; God answered me with a broad, open space" (merchav, from the same root as rachav). And note that the Hebrew word maitzar (narrow) sounds like Mitzraim (Egypt), the narrow place of slavery from which the Israelites in our story have just recently been redeemed. It is a broad and open woman who opens the land to the scouts.

Rachav is specifically called a whore (zonah) in the opening line of this episode (Joshua 2:1). She lives on the edge, both figuratively and literally: for she entertains her guests in her home at the edge of the walled city of Jericho (Joshua 2:15). But there is something different about this zonah, different from the whoring (zonim) our Torah portion warns us against, when it tells us to gaze upon the fringes on the edges of our garments.

Rachav, the "Broad," has heard of the great redemptive acts of the God of Israel, who turned a pariah people living on the edges of Egyptian society into a force for transforming history. She has opened her heart to YHWH and to the Israelite nation. Not only does she welcome the two spies into her home, but she also hides them from the king of Jericho and helps them escape to safety. This band of runaway slaves is now bringing their revolutionary vision to Canaan, facing a city famous for its walls. She expects the world to be turned upside down -- or right-side up -- again.

I do not think that in introducing Rahav as a key figure in Israelite history, the Torah is affirming sexual promiscuity or prostitution. What it is affirming is that this woman has learned from her experience living on the edge. Rachav knew this wisdom because she lived on the edge like the tzitzit -- not only geographically, but socially. Open to visitors, open to a people living on the edge, open to the God of new possibilities.

In a surprising twist of events, it is this zonah who teaches us how to see the deep truth embodied in the practice of tzitzit: Do not go about life touring and whoring (zonim) after the false gods of giants, imposing walled structures or anything else that skews our vision of ultimate reality.

Rahav stands among various "outsider" and "transgressive" women in the Hebrew Bible who play a decisive, if unexpected, role in bringing healing and redemption to their people (Lot's daughter, Tamar, Ruth, etc.). Most of biblical tradition is dominated by men and is strongly committed to "insiders" and boundaries.

Can we lift up the stories of these women in new ways? What can we learn from these "fringe" figures about the possibility of transformation and the different types of people who can act as agents of change?

The scouts brought calamity upon the people through their surface vision. Rahav offers us a counter-model. Can we follow her lead and learn to see more broadly and deeply? Are we still committed to the God of "fringiness," the God who lives on edges? Can we peer through the walls of self-aggrandizement, the idols of distraction and the towers of fear to behold a God ready to turn the world upside down on behalf of a band of runaway slaves?

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.