Judaism's First Converts: A Pagan Priest and a Prostitute
The rabbis describe Jethro/Hovav/Reuel and Rahab as converts to Judaism. The two live but a generation apart; Jethro is Moses’ father-in-law, and Rahab of Jericho assists Joshua (in Rabbinic tradition, the two marry) by hiding his spies. Yet a great deal more connects these two.
Details found in the narrative descriptions about the encounters and relationship with Moses and his father-in-law Jethro (Exodus 2, 3, 4 and 18, and in Numbers 10:27-32) are found as well in the Rahab episodes (Joshua 2 and 6). For example:
Foreign Locale – Moses flees Egypt to Midian, the spies leave the wilderness to explore Jericho, in Canaan.
Danger – The visitor(s) are avoiding danger. Moses is fleeing from a rightful charge of manslaughter; the spies, if apprehended, will be executed for espionage.
Home – Moses enters Reuel’s (Exod. 2:21); the spies enter Rahab’s (Josh. 2:1).
Prominence – Reuel/Jethro is a Midianite priest (Exod. 2:16); Rahab is a zonah, a prostitute (though Josephus understands the word as “innkeeper”) with her own house and she is known to the king (Josh. 2:1, 3).
Parallel Positive Traits
Other parallels highlight the positive traits of these two individuals:
Knowledge of God – Both characters are aware of Israel’s miraculous rescue and recognize the power of the God of Israel (Exod. 18:1, 11, Josh. 2:9-11).
Jethro (Exod. 18:1, 11)
יח:א וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ כִּי הוֹצִיא יְ-הוָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם... יח:יא עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי גָדוֹל יְ-הוָה מִכָּל הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי בַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם.
18:1 Jethro priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.… 18:11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against the people."
Rahab (Josh. 2:9-11)
ב:ט וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל הָאֲנָשִׁים יָדַעְתִּי כִּי נָתַן יְ-הוָה לָכֶם אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְכִי נָפְלָה אֵימַתְכֶם עָלֵינוּ וְכִי נָמֹגוּ כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶם. ב:י כִּי שָׁמַעְנוּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הוֹבִישׁ יְ-הוָה אֶת מֵי יַם סוּף מִפְּנֵיכֶם בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם וַאֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם לִשְׁנֵי מַלְכֵי הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן לְסִיחֹן וּלְעוֹג אֲשֶׁר הֶחֱרַמְתֶּם אוֹתָם. ב:יא וַנִּשְׁמַע וַיִּמַּס לְבָבֵנוּ וְלֹא קָמָה עוֹד רוּחַ בְּאִישׁ מִפְּנֵיכֶם כִּי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת.
2:9 She said to the men, "I know that the LORD has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you. 2:10 For we have heard how the LORD dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds for you when you left Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings across the Jordan, whom you doomed. 2:11 When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you; for the LORD your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.
Tikva Frymer Kensky has noted this important parallel: “Rahab acknowledges God with the words I know [yadʿati], the very words with which Jethro pronounces his faith in God: ‘Now I now the Lord is greater than all gods’ (Exod. 18:11).”
Decisive Action – The hosts act quickly and decisively. Jethro urges his daughters to bring Moses home (Exod. 2:20); Rahab hides the spies on her roof (Josh. 2:4).
Defined by Chesed – When King Saul prepares to annihilate the Amalekites, he sends a warning to the Kenites, descendants of Moses’ father-in-law Hovav (1Sam. 15:6).
וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל אֶל הַקֵּינִי לְכוּ סֻּרוּ רְדוּ מִתּוֹךְ עֲמָלֵקִי פֶּן אֹסִפְךָ עִמּוֹ וְאַתָּה עָשִׂיתָה חֶסֶד עִם כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּעֲלוֹתָם מִמִּצְרָיִם וַיָּסַר קֵינִי מִתּוֹךְ עֲמָלֵק.
Saul said to the Kenites, "Come, withdraw at once from among the Amalekites, that I may not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt." So the Kenites withdrew from among the Amalekites. (NJPS)
Saul’s choice of words to describe the clan’s earlier action is chesed, lovingkindness/loyalty, the exact term used by Rahab and the spies three times in that narrative.
יהושע ב:יב וְעַתָּה הִשָּׁבְעוּ נָא לִי בַּיהוָה כִּי עָשִׂיתִי עִמָּכֶם חָסֶד וַעֲשִׂיתֶם גַּם אַתֶּם עִם בֵּית אָבִי חֶסֶד וּנְתַתֶּם לִי אוֹת אֱמֶת.
Josh. 2:12 Now, since I have shown kindness to you, swear to me by the LORD that you in turn will show kindness to my family. Provide me with a reliable sign.
יהושע ב:יב וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָהּ הָאֲנָשִׁים נַפְשֵׁנוּ תַחְתֵּיכֶם לָמוּת אִם לֹא תַגִּידוּ אֶת דְּבָרֵנוּ זֶה וְהָיָה בְּתֵת יְהוָה לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְעָשִׂינוּ עִמָּךְ חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת.
Josh. 2:14 The men answered her, "Our persons are pledged for yours, even to death! If you do not disclose this mission of ours, we will show you true kindness when the LORD gives us the land."
In both cases, the word chesed expresses the pact that Israel had made with these groups; the descendants of both Hovav and Rahab are not to be harmed.
Settling – Both eventually settle among the Israelites:
Hovav (Judg. 1:16)
וּבְנֵי קֵינִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה עָלוּ מֵעִיר הַתְּמָרִים אֶת בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה מִדְבַּר יְהוּדָה אֲשֶׁר בְּנֶגֶב עֲרָד וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיֵּשֶׁב אֶת הָעָם.
The descendants of the Kenite, the father-in-law of Moses, went up with the Judites from the City of Palms to the wilderness of Judah; and they went and settled among the people in the Negeb of Arad.
Rahab (Josh. 6:25)
...וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
…and she dwelt among the Israelites -- as is still the case…
The Bible does not have the concept of conversion. Nevertheless, the rabbis count Jethro and Rahab among the earliest converts to Judaism, claiming that prophets and righteous Jews descended from them (Pesikta Rabbati 40.3/4).
אמר ר' אלכסנדרי דן את האומות במישרים שלהם, ברחב ביתרו ברות, כיצד, אומר לאומות העולם למה לא קרבת אצלי, והוא אומר שהייתי רשע מוחלט והייתי מתבייש,
Rabbi Alexandri said: Judge the nations according to their best, namely Rahab, Jethro and Ruth. How is this? Say to the nations of the world: “Why have you not come close to me?” And they will answer: “Because I was entirely wicked and was embarrassed.”
והוא אומר לו וכי יותר היית מרחב שהיה ביתה בקיר החומה והייתה מקבלת את הליסטים ומזנה מבפנים, וכשנתקרבה אצלי לא קיבלתיה והעמדתי ממנה נביאים וצדיקים,
And He says: “Could you be worse than Rahab, whose home was in the city wall and she would accept brigands and whore with them inside [the city]?! And when she came close to me, did I not accept her and even cause prophets and righteous people to descend from her?
אלא יתרו כומר היה לע"ז, כשבא אצלי לא קבלתי אותו והעמדתי ממנו נביאים וצדיקים,
And Jethro was an idolatrous priest, and when he came close to me, did I not accept him and cause prophets and righteous people to descend from him?
אלא רות המואביה כשבאת אצלי לא קבלתי אותה והעמדתי ממנה מלכים.
And Ruth the Moabite, when she came to me, did I not accept her and cause kings to descend from her?”
God’s Presence Manifests Itself to Jethro and Rahab
Some rabbinic texts even describe God’s presence being manifest before Jethro and, even more striking, being manifest on Rahab (עליה) making them more than just converts but almost prophets.
ויצא משה לקראת חתנו. אמרו, יצא משה אהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל [ואחריהם כל ישראל,] ויש אומרים, אף שכינה יצאת עמהם.
ויש אומרים ששרתה עליה רוח הקדש, עד שלא נכנסו ישראל לארץ, וכי מהיכן היתה יודעת שחוזרין לשלשת ימים מיכן ששרתה עליה רוח הקדש.
|“And Moses went out to greet his father-in-law” (Exod 18:7) – Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders all went out [and after them all of Israel]. Some suggest that even the presence of God went with them. (Mekhilta, Amalek 3 [Yitro])||Some suggest that the holy spirit came upon her even before the Israelites entered the land (i.e. before she converted), for how could she have known that [the soldiers of Jericho] would return in three days? From here [we learn] that the holy spirit came upon her. (Ruth Rabbah 2:1)|
World Record Promiscuity in Idols and Clients
Making use of a tongue-in-cheek connection between Jethro and Rahab, the rabbis exaggerate their foibles to emphasize the heights they reached. The Mekhilta describes Jethro’s idol worship in promiscuous terms:
ומה ת"ל מכל האלהים, אמרו: לא הניח יתרו עבודה זרה בכל העולם, שלא חזר עליה ועבדה, שנאמר מכל האלהים. ונעמן הודה בדבר יותר ממנו, שנא' הנה נא ידעתי כי אין אלהים בכל הארץ כי אם בישראל.
And what does it mean “Than all gods” (Exod 18:11) – They say, there was not an idol in the world which Jethro failed to seek out and worship. For it is said: “Than all gods.” Naaman, however, knew better than Jethro, for it is said (2 Kings 5:15): “Behold now I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.”
וכן רחב הזונה אומרת, ה' אלהיכם הוא אלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת.
Likewise, Rahab the harlot says (Josh. 2:11) “For the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth below.” (Mekhilta ad loc., Lauterbach trans., adjusted)
The rabbis also emphasize Rahab’s promiscuity and, concomitantly, her popularity. Commenting on Rahab’s claim that “no man had any more spirit standing,” (וְלֹא קָמָה עוֹד רוּחַ בְּאִישׁ) the rabbis pick up on the word “standing,” (root ק-ו-מ) and offer a midrash (b. Zevachim 116a-b):
דאפילו אקשויי נמי לא אקשו. ומנא ידעה? דאמר מר: אין לך כל שר ונגיד שלא בא על רחב הזונה.
They couldn’t even maintain their erections. How would she know? For the master said: “There were no ministers or leaders who did not visit Rahab the harlot.”
Despite the rabbis’ willingness to be playful with their descriptions of her professional prowess, they also paint a very sympathetic portrait of the harlot who saved two Israelites and joined the Jewish people (Mekhilta ad loc., Lauterbach trans.):
אמרו, רחב הזונה בת עשר שנים היתה כשיצאו ישראל ממצרים, וכל מ' שנה שהיו ישראל במדבר זנתה, לסוף נ' שנה נתגיירה, והיא אומרת: רבש"ע, בשלשה דברים חטאתי, בשלשה דברים מחול לי, בחבל בחלון בחומה, שנ' ותורידם בחבל בעד החלון כי ביתה בקיר החומה ובחומה היא יושבת.
They said: Rahab the harlot was ten years old when the Israelites left Egypt. During all forty years that Israel was in the wilderness, she practices harlotry. At the end of her fiftieth year, she became a proselyte, saying: “Master of the Universe, I have sinned in three things, forgive me because of three things, because of the cord, the window, and the wall.” As it is said (Josh. 2:15): “Then she let them down by a cord through the window; for her house was upon the side of the wall, and she dwelt upon the wall.”
If Sincere, All Converts Are Welcome
In many ways it is easier to think about Jethro, the former priest of Midian, coming to recognize the greatness of Israel’s God and converting. After all, he is an important and respectable person. By contrast, Rahab is a zonah, a prostitute, a harlot. Prostitutes live on the margins of society and are often synonymous with sinners. And yet, the Bible places great words of praise for God in her mouth, words that overlap with those of Moses in the Song of the Sea.
|Moses (Exod. 15:15-16)||Rahab (Josh. 2:9)|
נָמֹגוּ כֹּל יֹשְׁבֵי כְנָעַן, תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד…
וְכִי נָפְלָה אֵימַתְכֶם עָלֵינוּ וְכִי נָמֹגוּ כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶם.
|All the dwellers in Canaan are quaking, dread and terror descend upon them…||Dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the dwellers of the land are quaking before you.|
Thus, from Jethro and Rahab, the rabbis derived a valuable lesson: if sincere, all converts are welcome.
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February 13, 2017
March 14, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David J. Zucker is an Independent Scholar. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham (UK), and Ordination and an M.A.H.L. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He publishes regularly (see www.DavidJZucker.org) and his latest book is American Rabbis: Facts and Fiction, Second Edition.
Rabbi Moshe Reiss, z”l, was a retired businessman and an Independent scholar. He was an ordained rabbi (private ordination) and served as assistant campus rabbi at Yale. He was a graduate of Brooklyn College and held an advanced degree in economics from Oxford University. At various points in his life, he taught at Fairleigh Dickinson and the Katholic University of Leuven. He co-authored The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views with David Zucker. Many of his Torah contributions can be found on his website, http://www.moshereiss.org/.
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