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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 71–73 

Hearing Rahab’s Story

Response to “Reading Rahab’s Story” by Gordon H. Matties 24/1 (1995): 57–70.

Lynn Jost

Orders to massacre entire populations! Histories written about events unsubstantiated by archaeological investigations. Contemporary readings of these stories that “plunder” the text itself. These are but a few of the problems that lead Gordon Matties to ask, “Why should we read Joshua at all?”

I was delighted with both the method of reading the story and the suggestions for appropriating biblical narratives in the Christian church. Matties made the reading of Joshua 2 a pleasure by thoughtfully addressing hermeneutical theory, exploring the nuances of the story as literature, focusing on Rahab as a paradigm for godliness, and offering guidelines for the appropriating of biblical narratives that at once respects the genre and expects the Scripture to function authoritatively in the life of the believer.


The interpretive scheme of an eschatological trajectory “in continuity with the Bible’s own tradition of interpretation” is suggestive. It implies that God changes to meet the special needs of each situation. The approach raises questions: What is the eschatological goal of biblical tradition? Is the trajectory guided by the gospel? Does it arise in Scripture? How can one be reassured that the unfortunate excesses of other creative methods (e.g., allegory and typology) will be avoided?


Matties is well aware that the questions one puts to the biblical text determine not only the text’s message but how it will be used by the reader. One of the working assumptions indicates that the questions the text is designed to answer are about identity (“Who are we?”) and mission (“What ought we do?”). While these are most helpful for moving toward the text initially, careful readings will raise more questions that grow out of the context of the reader. If the questions posed determine the reading of the text, how can one be assured that the questions posed are the ones {72} which will help appropriate the text? In what way does the text itself indicate which questions are most helpful?


The central tenet of the article establishes that the narrative genre functions uniquely for the reader. The story, it is held, offers us patterns/models/paradigms to shape our worldview and invites us to respond. Literary critical analysis appropriate to the genre is used playfully and creatively to uncover the indicated responses. Simple solutions are avoided.

This approach to the text is built on the assumption that meaning and form are inseparably linked. The crucial issue is the performative purpose of the story. The intention of the text leads the reader to ask, “What is the language of the text doing?”

We would do well to ask ourselves as teachers how the genre should affect not only our exegesis but also our pedagogy. As David Buttrick points out (“Preaching and Interpretation,” Interpretation 35, no. 1, January 1981: 46-58), talk about the text creates an object-subject split which prevents the immediacy and power of language. Given that it is the intention of the text and not its imitation that governs exposition, we may well choose not to tell a story (or retell the narrative under study). Good teaching will, however, be shaped by the fact that it is dealing with narrative. Because we have recognized that form shapes response, as teachers we will best appropriate the power of the story by choosing a narrative approach in our teaching plan. The insight that stories do not have lessons but that the language “does” in the consciousness of the reader will shape our teaching.


As Mennonite Brethren, we assume the authority of the Bible. Matties invites us at several points to reflect on how this authority functions in the reading of narrative. He indicates that “what lies in front of the text” (what it evokes in the reader) is more significant than what lies behind the text. It would be helpful to have a more precise definition of what it means to read “in front of” the text. Presumably, this reading appreciates that the reader approaches the text with the prejudices of one’s own tradition and engages in dialogue with the text until Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” of worldviews of text and reader is achieved. While this suggestion is provocative, we might also ask, Is it possible to read in front of the text and under the text simultaneously? How does the authority of the text govern or limit how one reads in front of the text? {73}


Matties also probes tentatively the question of the facticity of the narrative. He avoids the sterility which is almost inevitably the result of trying to prove how the events happened and recognizes that reconstruction of the event is not productive for appropriating the story. We do well to ask ourselves, however, whether the truth of the story changes if the narrative is fiction or historical fiction rather than history. How significant is it to our reading that the events of Joshua 2 occurred as they are described? How best do we define the role of the historical-critical approach in our reading of the story?


Jürgen Habermas takes issue with Gadamer’s hermeneutics by questioning his positive use of prejudice as a phenomenon in reading a text. Habermas contends that the social positions of the reader and the text itself distort the message. The examples cited by Matties suggest that he is aware of the issue. Might we ask ourselves how our readings of the text are shaped by our gender, race, and class? Should consideration of the social position of the text affect our analysis?

I am grateful to Matties for furthering our conversation with this text, reminding us of how fruitful it can be not only for reflecting on teaching, but also to be appropriated by the believer. His set of presuppositions and working assumptions are an invaluable asset in the church’s use of narrative.

Lynn Jost, on study leave, is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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