Rahab the Harlot: Her Place in the Hebrew Bible

Rebecca Lyn Mcconkie, “Rahab the Harlot: Her Place in the Hebrew Bible,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium, 2004 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 79–91.

Rahab the Harlot: Her Place in the Hebrew Bible

Rebecca Lyn Mcconkie

Rahab is one of four women listed in Christ’s genealogy and one of two women cited by Paul and James as an example of faith. Jewish tradition lists here as one of the four most beautiful women in the Bible, sometimes calls her an innkeeper, and reckons that she is the ancestor of at least eight priest-prophets. [1]

Why all the positive attention for Rahab the harlot? The story of Rahab is just one example of why the first time I started reading the Old Testament, I secretly felt like I had stepped into murky water. It’s a book of rape, incest, genocide, blood, inebriated deceit, trickery; all of the things I had been trained to associate with wickedness. So I frankly admit there are a lot of things in the Old Testament that don’t make sense to me. What man of God summons she-bears to devour wayward children? What patriarch is allowed to lie about his wife? How does the dishonest son end up with the birthright? Why did Jonah, the petulant prophet, get to be a prophet? Why did Gideon, the seeker of signs, get to be a judge? And why, of all people, was it the harlot’s life that God spared?

The reality is that if one accepts the Bible as a book of God, when it does not make perfect sense and contradictions threaten to confound, the reader has two choices: either God’s character or the reader’s understanding of God’s character is a little misguided. In line with the latter, my thoughts have led me to acknowledge that there are divers possibilities as to why Rahab the harlot may have stood out in Canaan.

The Story Of Rahab

Rahab’s story doesn’t begin on the most promising note. The action begins in Shittim, the site where Israel began to “play the harlot” (see Numbers 25:1–5), and the spies are reminiscent of Joshua’s first spy story, which ends with dismal warning, “The Lord will not be with you” (Numbers 14:43). [2] In this spy story, Joshua’s spies come to “an harlot’s house, named Rahab, and lodge there” (Joshua 2:1). Having discovered that the spies were in Rahab’s house, the king of Jericho sends for Rahab, who not only hides the spies on the roof of her house, but lies to the king and tells him she “wist not where they were” (Joshua 2:4). Deepening her deceit, Rahab the harlot urges the king to pursue the spies into Jordan, and sends them with a vote of confidence, “pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them” (Joshua 2:5). When Rahab gets home, she makes a covenant with the spies, promising them help and silence in exchange for the Israelite protection of her and her family.

The story itself is remarkable in its treatment of Rahab—who emerges as the heroine of Jericho. Alice Laffey notes, “The first thing one notices in reading this story is that its major character is a woman. She is named, in sharp contrast to the two Israelite spies who remain anonymous. One notes also that references are made to ‘her house,’ not to the house of her father or her husband, which would normally be the case.” [3] Rahab demonstrates courage, intellect, and though the Old Testament reader is not expecting it, independence.

The Harlotry of Rahab

On the surface, there are several points of contention about Rahab. The first is her status as a prostitute. The text is not shy in recognizing that Rahab is a zona, or prostitute. Even her name, the Hebrew rhb, means “broad,” a term that may refer, especially when we are dealing with a prostitute, to a woman who is “sexually experienced and perhaps socially marginalized.” Furthermore, in Ugaritic, a relative of Hebrew, the root refers “to the female sex organs, suggesting that the subtle biblical allusion is a sexual allusion.” [4]

Additionally, Rahab hangs a scarlet cord from her window as a symbol to the spies (see Joshua 2:21). For many, it is significant that the cord is scarlet. As Liz Higgs, author of Bad Girls of the Bible, notes, “Scarlet. Now there’s a color that makes a statement. . . . Scarlet reeks of fallen women, of red-light districts, of Scarlett O’Hara sauntering into Miss Melanie’s party in a shocking red gown.” [5]

The Jews have attempted to deal with her harlotry by turning her into an innkeeper. Josephus interprets the word to mean ‘hostess,’ and calls her an innkeeper, or, one who keeps a public house. [6] In the notes of Josephus’s Antiquities, translator William Whiston writes, “And observe, that I still call this woman Rahab an innkeeper not a harlot; the whole history, both in our other copies, and especially in Josephus, implying no more. It was indeed so frequent a thing that women, who were innkeepers, were also harlots, or maintainers of harlots, that the word commonly used for real harlots was usually given them.” [7]

In response to the tendency to make Rahab only an innkeeper, a more Evangelical approach states that “we must be content to take facts as they stand, and not strain them to meet difficulties; and it is now universally admitted by every sound Hebrew scholar that zonah means ‘harlot’ and not ‘hostess.’ It signifies harlot in every other text where it occurs, the idea of ‘hostess’ not being represented by this or any other word in Hebrew, as the function represented but it did not exist. There were no inns; and when certain substitutes for inns came into use, they were never, in any Eastern country, kept by women.” [8]

Note that sexual sin is not the only point of discrepancy in the story. If the story is read in the context of the Deuteronomistic history (as opposed to simply reading it as a portion of the Joshua story), then there is seemingly more at stake. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are given two specific commands in regard to seven great nations, including the Canaanites: “Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them” (Deuteronomy 7:2). It is interesting then, that as soon as the spies get inside the walls of Jericho, they proceed to enter into an oath with a Canaanite (violating part two of the commandment). The irony, of course, is that it is an oath that essentially swears that they will not utterly destroy Canaan (violating part one of the commandment). [9]

The Faith of Rahab

But the essence of the story comes in the recognition that the text is significantly less interested in the harlot-ness of Rahab and far more concerned with what comes across as palpable faith. Both Paul and James refer to Rahab as an example of faith, giving her a place in their discourse among Hebrew men such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paul writes, “By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace” (Hebrews 11:31; see also James 2:25). It is semidifficult to determine from the Old Testament account why New Testament writers call Rahab faithful, but we trust their evaluation partly because of their office and partly because they had access to manuscripts we no longer have. [10]

Even without the help of the New Testament writers we can ascertain Rahab’s standing with the Lord. She establishes her faith in word when she acknowledges to the spies that “the Lord hath given you the land” and bears a resolute testimony that “the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath” (Joshua 2:9, 11), then establishes her faith in deed when she acts as an instrument in God’s hand. After hearing the spies’ account of Rahab, Joshua remarks, “Truly the Lord hath delivered into our hands all the land” (2:24). Thus, Rahab, a Canaanite and a harlot, becomes a heroine in the Israelite world.

Rahab’s reference to Israelite history further demonstrates her faith. The spies were preceded by an Israelite reputation, and Rahab tells us that “your [Israelite] terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you” (Joshua 2:9), and then she cites two great events in Israelite history: the parting of the Red Sea and Israelite victories over Sihon and Og (see Joshua 2:10; see also Exodus 14, Numbers 21:21–35).

More impressive is her next statement, that “the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11). David Howard points out the significance of such a statement, particularly from a Canaanite. “Rahab affirmed that Israel’s God had dominion over the realms of the heavens and the earth—an extremely broad scope that surely encompassed the domains of any of the gods that her people worshipped. . . .Here was Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who presumably knew her culture’s religious traditions, affirming that Israel’s God ruled over the very heavens and earth that her own religious traditions asserted belonged to Baal, Asherah, and others.” [11]

Furthermore, the exact words “in heaven above, and in the earth beneath” appear only three times in the Pentateuch. Two of those three references prohibit idol worship, and the third flatly denounces polytheism. [12] Thus, Rahab’s reception of the Israelite God came as a deliberate rejection of Canaanite theology. [13] Howard concludes, “When we read these words coming from Rahab’s mouth, we cannot escape the implications: she was doing far more than merely trying to save her skin or that of her family. She was acknowledging that this God she had heard about was the one and only true God, the only one—out of dozens that she as a good Canaanite knew about—who was worthy of worship and allegiance.” [14]

Reading into the story, it is easy for a reader to supply details that make Rahab’s actions seem even more intrepid. The text is virtually silent regarding Rahab’s life after she left Jericho in the protection of Israel, [15] but it can be assumed there was a fair degree of personal suffering. True, she and her family had been saved, but the price was severe. Her home and country were utterly destroyed, and she escapes the destruction with the knowledge that it was her assistance that made the conquest possible. With her new life in Israel there were probably times when she felt less like a new Israelite and more like an ex-Canaanite. Whatever the circumstances really were, the reader can be certain that Rahab’s sacrifice did not end when she left Jericho. When Rahab chose the God of Israel, she did so with a faith that required personal sacrifices that would affect the rest of her life. Joseph Smith taught that sacrifices like the sacrifice Rahab offered require “more than mere belief or supposition that [you] are doing the will of God; but actual knowledge, realizing that, when these sufferings are ended, [you] will enter into eternal rest, and be a partaker of the glory of God.” [16]

Perhaps the fifteenth-century depiction of Rahab by the artist Belbello de Pavia is an adequate summation: she is not dressed like a Canaanite prostitute but rather wears the garb of a medieval nun.

The Consequence of Repentance

What do we learn from Rahab’s account? We have already established that Rahab is a woman of faith, so it is not her character that comes into question. Perhaps the Lord includes the story of Rahab so that we may better understand His nature.

Rahab’s story can be read as a powerful commentary on the power of repentance: even a harlot’s sins may be white as snow. If that is the case, then surely the story suggests that the scope and the power of the Atonement is bigger than we may realize.

Despite her colorful past, Rahab’s acceptance of Yahweh is token enough of a repentant heart, and if that is the case, then the story of Rahab is really a description of the vast nature of the Atonement.

When Commandments Conflict

Apart from her sexual offences, Rahab comes under fire for dishonesty. John Calvin admits that Rahab’s lie was to a good end but nevertheless writes: “Rahab . . .does wrong when she falsely declares that the messengers were gone, and yet the principal action was agreeable to God, because the bad mixed up with the good was not imputed. On the whole, it was the will of God that the spies should be delivered, but he did not approve of saving their life by falsehood.” [17] Similarly, Augustine treats the deceit of Rahab and the Egyptian midwives as a sin and writes that the women were rewarded not because they were sinless but because God is merciful. [18]

Plato, however, is more inventive, and perhaps more insightful, when he suggests the existence of what he called the noble lie, meaning that some lies are in fact noble because of the means that they accomplish. Martin Luther comes across as someone who has read Plato when he defends a “good hearty lie for the sake of the good, . . . a lie in case of necessity, a useful lie.” [19]

Certainly God’s mercy is at play, but is there the chance that life is not so much a set of rules as it is a turn with principles? The Rahab narrative demonstrates that even during the thick of the Levitical law, God deals with His children individually. Rahab is not alone here; she is joined by the Egyptian midwives (see Exodus 1:16–21), Abraham and his “sister” Sarah (see Exodus 12: 11–17), and David in his lie to Ahimelech the priest (see 1 Samuel 21:1–3). Each of these stories offers a type of condolence to any person who has ever been in a situation where two laws contradict each other, and in each case the Lord rewards the lie. For example, after the midwives lied to Pharoah, the text says that “God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty” (Exodus 1:20). [20]

When Rahab is confronted by the king, she is theoretically caught between two evils. She must either lie to the king or act against the oath she swore to the spies. Because she swears allegiance to the God of Israel before she will swear allegiance to the king of Jericho, Rahab chooses the lesser evil, the equivalent of choosing the right.

I am disenchanted by a God who would put His children in a lose-lose situation. I like much better the God of Rahab, who is an encouraging reminder that He is better than we are and who teaches us, as Lehi testified, that “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24). This reading beautifully illustrates that we are not dealing with a checklist God, a Judge who is anxiously weighing our actions. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks teaches: “The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. . . .The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.” [21] The assertion is that regardless of the individual deconstruction of Rahab’s actions, she is judged not on her specific actions but on the overall conversion of her character.

The Wickedness of Jericho

Even with such a reading, the God of the Old Testament is often criticized as a harsh God, largely because He orders the destruction of entire nations as opposed to individuals. He is not a politically correct God, and in the context of the modern era. He is often despised for what comes across as a blatant show of favoritism. His covenant people are bullying and when they get to Canaan, they come in and assume that it belongs to them. Joshua and Caleb (the Old Testament’s premier spies), announce: “The land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land. If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, and the Lord is with us: fear them not” (Numbers 14:7–9).

The speech is troublesome for some because it shows God favoring one group of people over another. They think He is a cruel God: He places men on earth as Canaanites and then orders the utter destruction of all Canaanites. God defends Himself when He tells Moses, “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee” (Deuteronomy 9:5). He repeats this message three times as the chapter opens so that the message is clear: the Canaanites are not destroyed because they are Canaanites, “but for the wickedness of these nations” (Deuteronomy 9:4).

Early in the Old Testament the Lord established a pattern when dealing with wickedness. He sends a messenger first. He makes this specific promise to the Jews, saying that “never hath any of them been destroyed save it were foretold them by the prophets of the Lord” (2 Nephi 25:9). We can assume that this same pattern would be followed in other instances and would apply to more than just the Jews. After all, He sent Enoch to the wayward children of Adam (see Moses 6:27–31), he sent Noah to preach to the “sons of God” before He sent a flood (see Moses 8). He sent Jonah to Ninevah, Jeremiah to Judah, and Daniel to Babylon. It is only fair to conclude, then, that the Lord also sent missionaries and messengers to Jericho, a notion solidified by Rahab’s understanding of Israelite history and theology. [22] We conclude also that the Canaanites rejected their message because unlike Nineveh, who repented, Canaan was still destroyed. The Israelites aren’t presented as ideal crusaders of righteousness; all we know is that Canaanites were worse. Thus, God did not reject Canaan because they were not children of Israel; He rejected Canaan because they had already rejected Him.

Rahab’s story is a microcosmic look at this bigger principle: because Rahab did not deserve to be destroyed, God did not destroy her. (This is the same God who was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah “for ten’s sake” [Genesis 18:32].) Immediately following the Rahab narrative, the book of Joshua introduces us to Achan, the son of Carmi. The bookend stories in Joshua begin the same way. Joshua sends spies to “go up and view the country” (Joshua 7:2), but the endings are vastly different. In the first instance, Israel emerges victorious; in the second, Israel is defeated by the people of Ai. In the first, Rahab, the Canaanite, and her family are spared, in the second, Achan the Israelite and his family are destroyed (see Joshua 7; compare Joshua 2). Achan is guilty of taking Jericho spoils, and so regardless of his choice lineage (detailed in Joshua 7:1), he is destroyed. The juxtaposition of these two stories exonerates God by showing that He will not condemn a man or woman for his or her heritage. Frank Spina writes: “In a remarkable reversal, the quintessential Canaanites, whose very occupation epitomized Canaanitism from the Israelite perspective, had become an Israelite. . . .If Rahab is the quintessential Canaanite who becomes part of Israel, Acahn is the quintessential Israelite who betrays his people. Achan’s story picks up where Rahab’s ends.” [23]

The Rahab story takes this principle one step further when Rahab appears again in Matthean geneology. Of the four Old Testament women that appear in Christ’s line (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba), each is a foreigner who becomes part of Israel. Such is the inclusive nature of the Abrahamic covenant, a system that refuses to deny admittance to anyone who truly seeks it, for “as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name” (Abraham 2:10; see also Genesis 12:2–3). [24] Character always trumps lineage.

Christ will minister unto those who seek Him. The Greek woman with a vexed daughter was not entitled by blood to Christ’s ministry, but He would not refuse her faith. “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt” (Matthew 15:28; see also Mark 7:24–30). Perhaps the story of Rahab is included to remind readers that God is less concerned about our heritage and our family than He is about our own actions and allegiance to His covenant.

Conclusion

Read from this perspective, Rahab’s conversion story is a marvelous discourse on the power of the Atonement and the nature of God. Her story says that the Atonement is powerful—even powerful enough to help a harlot—that God is wise enough to be the Judge and that His judgments are based on His children’s merit, not an arbitrary designation of chosen people. Then the story of Rahab becomes a discourse that, despite seeming contradictions, fits perfectly the overarching theme and purpose of the Old Testament.

Notes

[1] See Louis Ginzberg, The Legend of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938), 4:5.

[2] See Gordon H. Matties, “Reading Rahab’s Story: Beyond the Moral of the Story,” Direction 24 (1995), 65.

[3] Alice L. Laffey, Wives, Harlots, and Concubines: The Old Testament in Feminist Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 86.

[4] Frank Anthony Spina, “Reversal of Fortune: Rahab and Achan,” in Bible Review 17, no. 4 (August 2001): 26. Spina also uses the scarlet cord as sign of Rahab’s status, 28.

[5] Liz Curtis Higgs, Bad Girls of the Bible (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 1999).

[6] See Flavius Josephus, The Words of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Boston: Samuel Waker, 1849), 2:v.

[7] William Whiston, trans. In Josephus: Antiquities, 2:v.

[8] The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopedia and Scriptural Dictionary, ed. Samuel Fallows (Chicago: Howard-Severance, 1911), 3:1424, s.v. “Rahab.”

[9] Again, the Jewish position on this matter may be of interest. Some sources say that Rahab belonged to one of the seven nations, and as such the spies broke a commandment. The issued punishment was a charge to Jeremiah, one of Rahab’s descendants, to prophecy about the destruction of the temple. However, the converse argument also appears in Jewish literature, “According to some authorities, Rahab did not belong to one of ‘the seven nations,’ whose extermination God had commanded” (see Ginzberg, Legends, 6:174).

[10] Both Paul and James would have used the Septuagint. There is evidence that they also got information from other sources. For example, the Old Testament tells us that Elijah sealed the heavens for three years (1 Kings 18:1), whereas when James refers to the episode he says that the heavens were sealed for three years and six months. The assumption is that James got the extra six months from a different source.

[11] David M. Howard Jr., “Rahab’s Faith: An Exposition of Joshua 2:1–14,” in Review and Expositor 95 (Spring 1998): 274.

[12] See Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 4:39; Deuteronomy 5:8.

[13] For Old Testament references that cite Canaanite as polytheists, see Exodus 23:24, 32–33; 34:15; Deuteronomy 11:16, 26; 12:2–3. 30–31.

[14] Howard, “Rahab’s Faith,” 274.

[15] Even though we know nothing of her later life firsthand from the Bible, Jewish tradition says that she became Joshua’s wife, and the Matthean genealogy says that she married Salmon, the ancestor of Boaz (see Ginzberg, Legends, 4:5; and Matthew 1:5).

[16] Joseph Smith, comp., Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 68.

[17] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua, trans. H. Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 47–48.

[18] See Augustine, To Consentius: Against Lying in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1978), 3:32–34.

[19] Martin Luther, cited in Allen Verhey, “Is Lying Always Wrong?” in Christianity Today, 43, no. 6 (May 24, 1999): 68.

[20] The most important example is that of Adam and Eve, who transgress one of God’s commands that they may abide by another, and do so for the salvation of the entire human family.

[21] Dallin H.Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, November 2000, 32.

[22] For a more detailed explanation of Rahab’s understanding of Israelite theology, see Howard, “Rahab’s Faith,” 274–75.

[23] Spina, “Reversal of Fortune,” 53.

[24] Richard Bauckham writes, “The four women were understood to be Gentiles, and were included in order to show that the Messiah, whose male ancestors in his direct descent from Abraham could not, by definition, be Gentiles, nevertheless has Gentile ancestors, thereby suggesting his suitability to be the Messiah for Gentiles as well as Jews.” In this same article, Bauckham defends the labeling of Tamar as a Gentile, and answers why Rahab is considered the wife of Salmon and mother of Boaz, when “neither the Old Testament nor any extant Jewish tradition casts her in this role.” See also U. Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary, trans. W.C. Linss (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1990), 109–10.