This month’s “Vanity Fair” featured a story about Hollywood icon Meryl Streep, and noted a time when feminists thought she was bringing women down a wrong path.
It was Academy Awards season, 1980. Streep had just earned an Oscar for her performance in “Kramer vs. Kramer”, which one columnist accusingly said was a slap in the face to women.
“I don’t feel that’s true at all,” Streep told press at the time. “I feel that the basis of feminism is … liberating men AND women from prescribed roles.”
The idea of liberation from prescribed roles is not new. It is a precursor to strong leadership, which has been defined and redefined for centuries by philosophers and artists and authors.
Like the Author of the Bible.
Throughout the Bible, the Author picked an inordinately motley crew to showcase His criteria for leadership. They needed guts, critical thinking, humility and a keen understanding of culture at that time.
Oh, and one crucial silver bullet – loyalty to God. That plus a willingness to act landed a lot of characters into leadership roles that looked rather…unprescribed.
Case in point: Rahab.
Rahab’s storyline begins just as Moses’ ends. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for years and years and years and finally, (finally!) they were standing before the land that the Lord their God had promised them.
It was a crucial juncture. They’d faced the Promise Land before, but had been too scared to go. Cue the music for forty long, wandering years only to arrive where? The same place – standing before the Promised Land, deciding how to proceed.
This time there was a new leader in Joshua and a new population of Israelites.
Rahab was a prostitute whose house was in the wall surrounding a town called Jericho.
Joshua was tasked to lead the Israelites into Jericho, but he wanted to know the landscape inside Jericho first. He sent two spies to check it out.
The spies headed to town and decided to rest their weary heads at Motel Rahab.
Several tidbits about this story make it a page-turner. Rahab was a prostitute (yikes). The spies went to her “house” (curious).
The biggest bombshell of all? This prostitute believed in God.
In Jericho, everyone who heard about the God of Israel was terrified and avoided Him (Joshua 2:9). Rahab was terrified too, so she … believed Him.
Meanwhile, the king of Jericho got word that the spies were in town, so Rahab got busy. First, she hid the spies on her roof.
Then, she lied. She said to the king’s men who came looking for the spies, “Yes, the men were here earlier, but I didn’t know where they were from.”
Then she lied again. “They left the town at dusk, as the gates were about to close. I don’t know where they went.”
Then she pushed it one step more by saying, “If you hurry, you can probably catch up with them.”
Rahab believed in “the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below.” She chose to act on behalf of that God.
And the Author included it all.
What does that say about the Author of the Bible’s view of capable leadership?
To be precise, we can only comment on what the Author deemed capable about Rahab’s leadership.
First, Rahab was convinced that what she had seen and heard about the God of Israel was something she had the right and wits to form an opinion about herself.
The noise of life competes for our loyalty as much today as it did then. That Rahab could drown out falsehood and swear her loyalty to truth is a monumental achievement the Author of the Bible found worth noting.
Rahab was also skilled at influencing higher-ranking officials that neither valued her nor respected her. Her actions were precise, her delivery steady and her results were a well-executed solution to a murky problem.
That was not a feminine quality, or a prostitute’s quality. That was a leadership quality. Think otherwise? Tell that to the two spies whose lives were at stake up on her roof.
All of this might be overstating things a bit, we might say. Hers was a mere sidebar story! One that helped as far as that goes, but would not rank Rahab with Bible leader elites like Abraham, Noah, David, Gideon and more.
Of course we would say this. Who wouldn’t?
The writer of James (James 2:25).
The writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:31).
The Author of the whole Bible. Hundreds of pages later, when superstar-of-the-whole-show, Jesus, presents Himself in human form, the Author outlines Jesus’ lineage and guess who makes the exclusive list?
It is hard to wrap our heads around the overwhelming “unprescribing” God orchestrated around Rahab’s prescribed role. Perhaps not as hard for Rahab, who, once Joshua’s trumpets sounded and he entered the city gates, Rahab was rescued from her prescribed life and invited to live with God’s people.
Leading is hard. Walking out a purpose that brings us to places where we’ve never been before can shake us up. That’s a human condition that rings true no matter the time in history, for both believers and unbelievers alike.
This month’s Vanity Fair story illustrates that that was true for Streep as well.
Amid the glitz and glamour of a first Oscar win, Streep appeared cool when facing that columnist. However, before that? She had excused herself to clear her head. Having collected herself in a nearby restroom, she walked out, still a little rattled, evidenced by the fact that she forgot her Oscar on the bathroom floor.
If Rahab felt rattled, those bits didn’t make the editing cuts of her storyline.
However, neither “rattled” nor prescribed roles would knock Rahab out of contention as a leader upon whom the onward momentum of the entire nation of Israel hinged. Capable leadership rejects prescribed roles when the stakes are high and the storylines are personal.
With the Author of the Bible, that’s just how the story goes.