Picture a woman who is betrayed by people she trusted, whose whole world falls apart and who builds emotional walls around herself to survive and avoid feeling the pain. Is this the author of a New York Times bestseller or a guest on the latest Oprah? Not exactly.
This woman is Rahab - the prostitute mentioned a few times in the bible - so skillfully brought to life by first-time novelist Tessa Afshar in "Pearl in the Sand" (Moody Publishers, 2010), that the story which takes place during and after the fall of the wall of Jericho transcends time and breathes life into a character full of the same fears, heartbreaks and joys we experience today.
The first reference to Rahab, in the Old Testament book of Joshua, tells how she hides Israeli spies in her house built into the wall of Jericho, brought down by Israel. Later we learn that she and her family, all spared during the siege because of Rahab's actions, settle permanently in Israel. She's referenced in other books, but no further clues about her destiny appear again in Scripture until we read in the Gospel of Matthew that she was married to a man named Salmon and had a son named Boaz.
Afshar has merged these few details with historical, biblical and archaeological information to create a sweeping tale of a woman's life and the complex relationship between her and Salmone (the author chooses an alternate, less "fishy" spelling for the name of her novel's hero). Just how does a prostitute from Jericho end up married to an important leader of Israel and the mother of Boaz, who was in Jesus' genealogy? The answers and the details laying their foundation make for excellent historical fiction, wrongly classified by some as romance.
The story involves some romance, of course, but the relationship between Rahab and Salmone hardly follows the formula of a handsome hero rushing in on a white horse to save a beautiful damsel in distress. Rahab has spent her whole life taking care of herself and doesn't exactly relish the thought of men coming into her life after having been sold into prostitution by her father as a means of providing food for the family. Society and religion brand her worthless and ruined. Salmone agrees, at least at first, until he's rebuked by Joshua.
"Pride is the bane of the righteous," the leader of Israel tells his soldier friend. "On the outside you may seem more upright than a woman with such a past, but God sees us from the inside."
Joshua places Rahab and her family under Salmone's care and he starts to get to know the woman hiding behind a wall of hurt and emotion.
The two marry, but the honeymoon never really begins as the couple can't figure out how to chip through the bricks of pain and insecurity that Rahab has erected, fortified by Salmone's judgment. Metaphorically, the fate of Jericho's and Rahab's walls are the same when God razes years of history and purges the past. It isn't until the dust clears that Rahab can see herself as a treasure, just like the pearl in the earrings given to her by her husband - a gem formed by years of protective layers protecting an initial hurt.
"Pearl" is a moving book. These are richly penned characters whom we get to know slowly and very well, much like we get to know people -- by journeying alongside each other through good times and bad. Discovering the depth of Salmone's feelings speaks to Afshar's skill in not depending solely on the point of view of the female protagonist.
The novel remains with us because of its relevance in modern times. Rahab's are lessons we're still learning today.
"I was really disappointed with God," yesterday, Rahab reflects, when he fails to answer her prayer request. "Why wouldn't the Lord answer my cry?"
She later comes to realize, however, that by not answering her prayer, God was able to enact a plan much bigger than the one she envisioned and one which offered an immediate solution to her being ostracized by the women of the village while bringing her faith to the attention of the man who would become her husband.
The story also remains with us because we'll never read again about the battle of Jericho without remembering there were people on the other side of that wall, or trudge through those long lists of "begats" without realizing that all of those names were real people with real stories just like ours.
Rahab struggles with her father's betrayal, with her self worth, with trying to separate past sexual encounters from the marriage bed and with forgiving herself. At one point she wonders whether she'll ever be remembered for anything besides her profession. Today we know her as a direct ancestor of the Messiah. That God can use any one of us, despite our pasts and mistakes, just like he did Rahab, isn't a bad lesson to learn in 2010 either.
Likely to be a contender for a 2011 Christy Award, "Pearl" is an oasis in the sometimes rather barren desert of Christian fiction. Readers must agree since the book, just released days ago, already is in its second printing.