Rahab, the harlot, is a heroic figure in the biblical tradition. She attained this status not just because she saved the lives of the two spies sent by Joshua to scout out Jericho but even more so for her recognition of the God of Israel. Her full-throated statement of faith displayed an enthusiasm rarely matched even by those who actually experienced God’s providence in Egypt and in the desert: “And we heard [of God’s miracles], and our heart failed, and no spirit arose in any man before you, for the Lord your God, He is God in the heavens above and the earth below.” (2:11)
Her declaration echoes one of Moses’ professions of faith to the people: “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.” (Deut. 4:39) This verse was adopted as the culmination of the first paragraph of the Aleinu prayer because it expresses God’s sovereignty over both realms of existence, the heavens and the earth.
Moses’ statement of faith was founded on his unparalleled religious experience. How could Rahab express thoughts similar to those of Moses when her religious experiences were so much more limited. This question was taken up in the following midrash: “Rabbi Joshua from Sikhnin in the name of Rabbi Levi: Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Rahab: You said: ‘For the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below’ (2:11) It makes sense when you say ‘on earth’ [since you are aware of this], but are you there in the heavens above [that you can make a similar claim]? You are saying something that you own eyes have not seen. By your life, your son will stand and see that which no other prophet has seen, as it is written: ‘the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.’” (Ezekiel 1:1) (adapted from Midrash Shmuel 9:6, Lifshitz ed. p. 37)
This midrash asks how a person can make a claim which is not based on actual experience. It concludes that Rahab’s expression of faith was an extension of her experience. It was her trust in God on earth which brought her to faith in God in heaven. And this faith was deemed a tremendous gift to God. It made her profession of faith even greater than that of Moses. On account of her enthusiasm, God granted the prophet Ezekiel, whom the midrash counted among Rahab’s progeny, with a vision that confirmed her beliefs.
Rahab’s faith-filled enthusiasm was intended to be an inspirational model, one which would resonate throughout the generations. True sincerity can have just that effect.