Can Faith-Based Biblical Interpretation Contribute to Mainstream Scholarship?

It is worth considering whether something valuable is being lost when elements of faith-based biblical interpretation are overlooked.


See Synopsis of Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?

See Misusing Scripture: A Brief Rejoinder

See Response to Jim West, “Misusing Scripture: A Brief Rejoinder”

See On Critical Thinking

See Can Reverence and Objectivity Go Together?


By Leonard Greenspoon 
Creighton University
October 2023

Whether writing a commentary or an article, authors typically limit the (re)sources they cite for reasons of space or for ideological considerations. I am at present writing on the book of Joshua for the Jewish Publication Society commentary series.

Under these auspices it is not unexpected that I will cite midrashic elaborations from antiquity to the modern world. At the same time, I have found space for early Christian interpretations as well, especially those that find in Joshua of the Hebrew Bible a precursor to New Testament Joshua, aka Jesus. For the wide swath of scholarship that we describe as mainstream, space is apportioned for much but not all of these exegetical enterprises.

But it is only rarely that elements of faith-based biblical expansion find their way into the mainstream. This lacuna, if you will, seems to be in accordance with generally accepted scholarly practice. But is something valuable being lost when elements of faith-based biblical interpretation are overlooked? I think this is worth consideration, something that I have not seen discussed coherently or cogently.

Although I will focus my attention on Joshua 2, I want to point out some midrashic elaborations found elsewhere in this biblical book in a broad range of commentaries. Let us first look at chapter 10, which among other features narrates Joshua’s ability to make the sun and moon stand still. We must always keep in mind that midrash characteristically moves in several mutually exclusive directions. So v. 12 begins with the temporal expression “on that occasion,” which the classical rabbis often understood to be a reference to Shabbat. Following this approach, the lengthening of hours of daylight ensured that the Israelites would not need to fight on Shabbat. Since there are other sources that not only allow for, but mandate fighting, especially defensive, on Shabbat, we can apprehend that this approach would be perceived as worthwhile by some but not all Jewish authorities.

Traditional Jewish exegetes were not especially concerned with advocating for literal applications of biblical language. But they often found diverse explanations through word play or multiple meanings, especially of rare words. So some authorities pointed to what they understood as another meaning for the Hebrew terms translated here as stopping motion. This other definition is to be silent or quiet. In accordance with this insight, we are to imagine that the sun and the moon, which, like all other divine creations, constantly praised God, are silent during this period of time. This would seem to provide the necessary conditions for elongating the time available for the Israelites to be victorious, but without insisting that the regular movement of sun and moon be halted.

The expression “on the seventh day,” which is more explicit than the wording in chapter 10, appears in the book of Joshua at 6:15. For six days the Israelites marched around the walls of Jericho in what looks very much like some sort of liturgical procession. “On the seventh day,” with musical instruments playing and Israelites shouting, the walls fell, leaving only Rahab and her family alive (we will turn to this below). Because of the wording of this temporal expression, there were rabbinic exegetes who placed the fall of Jericho on Shabbat. Seen halachically (that is, from a legal perspective), this interpretation allows for, perhaps insists on, fighting on Shabbat even when it is not defensive in nature. Discussing these passages together, in addition to their individual features, allows for authors, as well as their readers, to discern differing approaches to the question of fighting on Shabbat. Sometime in the second century BCE, these issues were adjudicated, so 1 Maccabees 2:29-41: “Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day.” But not all authorities saw things the same way.

These exegetical developments would be at home in a wide swatch of commentaries. Most often they are simply included to get exegetical breadth. But as we have seen here, a more sophisticated approach yields, perhaps unexpectedly, substantive results.

Chapter 2 begins with Joshua’s sending two of his men to spy out, or reconnoiter, the city-state of Jericho and its environs. They may have spent the day surreptitiously locating barracks and stores of weapons. But we don’t know. As recorded in the text, the first action on their part was entering into an establishment where Rahab, described as a prostituting woman, presumably plied her trade. They rely on her to hide them from the king’s men, that is the king of Jericho. She hides them once, maybe twice, but lies about this. Instead she avows that the two men had been there, but they left just before the city gates were locked for the night. Surely, she insisted, these Jericho soldiers could catch up with the spies. She even gave them pointers on the likely route the two Israelites took. So it is that Rahab compounded her prevarication.

The narrative describing these scenes is ambiguous in more than one place. Whether Rahab was confused, which I doubt, or practiced as a prevaricator, which I think is the case — both of these options, in addition to combinations there of, are possible. But, let me say it one more time: there is little reason to hold her to some strictly enforceable truth telling. Now there are many features of this narrative, and its conclusion in chapter 6, that attracted the attention of the rabbis or other early Jewish interpreters. Two of them essentially slice Rahab apart. She was either an innkeeper, thereby supposedly elevated in her status, or she was a serial sex worker, who slept with her first man when she was age 10. As if by coincidence (if such a thing exists in the Bible), Rahab turned 10 just as the Israelites left Egypt in the exodus. Forty years of wandering for the Israelites coincided with forty years of Rahab’s non-stop prostitution, which ended when the Israelite men entered the establishment where she apparently worked.

Each of these characterizations yields exegetical enhancement (at least in someone’s eyes). The first verses of Joshua 2, in addition to describing Rahab’s heroic actions (or so I would term them), narrate the goings and comings of the spies. In the Hebrew text several of the verbs used to describe the spies’ actions could be understood as sexually nuanced. But if Rahab was an innkeeper, presumably the x-rated interpretation would not hold up as valid. If, on the other hand, Rahab was the mother of all prostitutes, then her acknowledgment and acceptance of the God of Israel is all the more startling. By the way, I think that Rahab was a madam.

Be that as it may, there is no tradition within Judaism that called attention to Rahab’s lying as a crime or maybe a sin. She did what she had to. As a result the Israelite spies returned safely to Joshua in the Israelite camp. Moreover, Rahab was able to wrangle a vow from the Israelites that she and her family, so long as they were in her house, would be protected from the destruction that would lead to the death of every other resident of Jericho.

Likewise, traditional Christian exegesis views Rahab positively as an ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:5) and an exemplar of both good deeds (James 2:25-26) and faith (Hebrews 11:31). However, among some evangelical Christians Rahab’s veracity or lack thereof has occasioned interpretive strategies not found elsewhere. So, for example, it may seem to us that Rahab was lying. But somehow or other, terms for truth/lying meant something else in antiquity, around the same time Jericho fell. Or Rahab’s bending the truth is acknowledged, with the result that she was criticized for failing to rely on God’s omnipotence. So it goes like this—Rahab should have had sufficient faith in God that she would not have needed to lie. For these biblical interpreters and their intended audience, lying is a uniquely serious moral lapse.

Allow me, albeit briefly, to summarize some other Jewish midrashic elements. The other wise anonymous Israelite spies are identified as “Caleb” and “Phineas,” both of whom were renowned for their rectitude (As recorded in Numbers 13, Caleb, along with Joshua, was the only one of the twelve men who acted honorably when Moses sent them on a mission to spy out the land of Canaan. In Numbers 25, Phineas distinguished himself when he killed Israelite men who dared to debauch themselves publicly with Moabite women.) At some point after the destruction of Jericho in chapter 6, Rahab and her family were admitted to the Israelite community. This set the stage for the marriage of Joshua and Rahab, whose progeny included Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Baruch, and Huldah, among others. I could go on, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

Let me turn now to the question with which I began this essay: Are there distinctive approaches favored by faith-based interpreters that could profitably be included in mainstream scholarship? I don’t think there is a globally applicable response. For my JPS commentary I have included an admittedly brief discussion of Rahab and the Lie. Without it, I, and my readers, would never have even considered these associated issues. Are they more far-fetched or less likely than elements of Jewish midrash? I admit that I am not quite sure. But even to conclude in ambiguity is worth the effort. Or so I think.

There is another consideration as well. Arguments about Rahab’s truth telling also apply to Jael in Judges 4 and 5. Sisera, the enemy general, seeks Jael’s protection, which she seems to agree to. He asks for water, she offered him milk. No sooner had she given him liquid refreshment to drink than she drives a tent pin into his cranium. So once again a seemingly heroic woman tells a lie when she could have, should have, told the truth and left punishment to God.

Let me say one more thing about the inclusion of Jewish exegesis in mainstream scholarship: It is not possible or even desirable to include every midrash in even the most comprehensive commentary or article. In connection with the passage in Joshua 2 that is at the center in this essay, the decision has been taken by many scholars to include Rahab as innkeeper but not Rahab as sex worker. We might feel more comfortable with the elevation of Rahab than with her degradation. But I don’t know that protecting or promoting our sensitivities is an appropriate determinant for the shape of our own scholarship.

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