Rahab the Faithful Harlot
A Canaanite Harlot Faithful to the God of Israel
When Joshua takes over as leader from Moses and prepares to cross the Jordan and attack the city of Jericho, he first sends two spies to examine the city, who go to the home of a prostitute named Rahab. Surprisingly, when the king of Jericho sends officers to her house to look for the Israelite spies, Rahab hides them under straw on her roof. She later explains to the spies that she has heard about the God of Israel, and proclaims both her faith in this God and her certitude that the destruction of Jericho will be successful.
In exchange for her assistance, the spies promise that when they return to destroy the city, they will spare her and her family. She is instructed to hang a scarlet rope from her window to mark her home, and to take her family inside with her. Indeed, when the Israelite army returns and the city is destroyed (ch. 6), her home is left safe and sound.
The term harlot (זונה) in the Bible can refer to a prostitute who is paid for sex, or more generally to a promiscuous woman. In either case, the term is meant negatively. Rahab, however, is a positive character, who shows great faithfulness in YHWH despite being Canaanite. For this reason, some commentators have tried to avoid depicting her as a prostitute, and looked for alternative translations for the term זונה.
For example, Josephus (37–ca.100 C.E.) refers to Rahab as a keeper of an inn, katagōgion (καταγώγιον; Ant. 5:7), a translation that may be based on context or alternatively, from a creative understanding of the word as deriving from the alternative root ז.ו.נ, meaning “to feed.” This same translation appears in the early to mid-1st millennium C.E. Aramaic translation, Targum Jonathan, who describes Rahab as a pundakita (פּוּנְדְקִיתָא), tavern-keeper, a loanword from the Greek, pandokeuo (πανδοκεύω).
This translation is quoted approvingly in the comments of the 12th century French glossators (ad loc.), who also include yet another possible retranslation:
זונה – פונדקיתא שמוכרת מזונות ומכלכלת עוברים ושבים. ויש אומרים שמזנה אחרים ביופיה.
“Zonah”—Innkeeper, who sells food (mezonot) and supports travelers and wayfarers. And there are those who say [that it means] she nourished (mazneh) others with her beauty.
The second interpretation still avoids saying that she is a sex-worker, claiming that men sought only to contemplate her beauty. Nevertheless, the simple meaning of the term in the Bible is harlot, and this is how the Bible introduces the hero of the story. In fact, her very name, meaning “wide,” may be a rather crass reference to her sex work.
Yet, this is not the story of a woman who had once been a harlot and now joins the community of the faithful; rather Rahab proclaims her faith in the God of Israel while still working as a prostitute, a profession that, despite its endurance through the millennia, is hardly honorable.
Upending of Power Structures Motif
On one level, the Rahab story is one in a long line of biblical stories of God working through the “underdog” or the powerless. In Genesis, Jacob, the younger tent-dwelling son, becomes the namesake of the people Israel, not his elder, warrior brother Esau. In fact, it was his mother Rebekah, not his father Isaac, who favored Jacob and successfully pressed for his advancement, despite living in a society in which men’s wishes were afforded greater attention.
Other examples abound in the Bible: Gideon is the youngest son of a small family when he is chosen by the angel to be a leader (Judg 6:15); Jephthah is the son not of his father’s wife but of a harlot (בֶּן אִשָּׁה זוֹנָה), who had been exiled by his brothers (Judg 11:1–2); David was the youngest son of Jesse, a small boy compared to his tall oldest brother, when Samuel chooses him as the next leader (1 Sam 16:6–12); Solomon is the son of the woman with whom David committed adultery, and he is not David’s oldest son. Again and again, God chooses unlikely human instruments, either flipping systems of social power or making it supremely clear that the true power belongs to God alone, or both.
To be sure, Rahab represents such marginality in several ways: She is a woman – and a single, childless woman at that. She is not part of Israel, but one of the people of a city that is about to be conquered. And finally, of course, she is a prostitute.
Living in the wall that circles the city, she literally and symbolically inhabits the boundary of society. Yet, despite her marginality, she is not depicted either by the text or by its interpreters as lacking power: she is both powerful and marginal, both shameful and formidable. Indeed, according to rabbinic exegesis, her work directly informs her ability to aid the Israelite spies, an understanding which helps them deal with the gnawing question: Why do the spies go straight to a brothel?
Knowledge is Power, Whatever the Source
Josephus, who as we saw earlier, understands Rahab as a simple tavernkeeper and not a prostitute, embellishes the story with a description of all the spying the men did before they turned in for the night at Rahab’s tavern (Ant. 5:5–7, Brill ed.):
For, initially undetected, they had inspected their entire city at their ease, noting which of the walls were strong and which did not have this capacity for security, as well as which of the small gates would be suitable, given their weakness, for entry by the army. Those who encountered them ignored their looking about, attributing their careful examination of everything in the city to that curiosity natural to foreigners, rather than to a hostile mindset. When evening came, they repaired to a certain inn…
This addition has no basis in the text, which describes their appearance at Rahab’s house without any intervening espionage:
יהושע ב:א וַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן מִן הַשִּׁטִּים שְׁנַיִם אֲנָשִׁים מְרַגְּלִים חֶרֶשׁ לֵאמֹר לְכוּ רְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת יְרִיחוֹ וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיָּבֹאוּ בֵּית אִשָּׁה זוֹנָה וּשְׁמָהּ רָחָב וַיִּשְׁכְּבוּ שָׁמָּה.
Josh 2:1 Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim, saying, “Go, reconnoiter the region of Jericho.” So they set out, and they came to the house of a harlot named Rahab and lodged there.
Some modern literary scholars understand the story as humorous, making the reader laugh at the spies’ expense. Moreover, the contrast highlights the surprising nature of Rahab’s piety: the Israelites shirk their responsibilities and go to a pleasure house, only to meet a Canaanite prostitute loyal to YHWH, who can quote from the Song of the Sea.
Traditional commentaries, however, did not read the text as criticizing the spies, who are assumed to have been pious individuals, uninterested in a physical liaison. Therefore, the need to explain the spies’ “unorthodox” choice of destination for espionage emerged.
A Woman with Connections and Inside Knowledge
While society does not imbue prostitutes with traditional forms of social status or power, the rabbis note that sex work can give a woman considerable practical power: she hears the stories and secrets of the men who visit her, and sees powerful men in their most vulnerable moments.
One rabbinic midrash assumes that she had been plying her trade at this point for forty years, and thus had an extremely broad client base (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Amalek 3 [Yitro]):
אמרו, רחב הזונה בת עשר שנים היתה כשיצאו ישראל ממצרים, וכל מ’ שנה שהיו ישראל במדבר זנתה…
They said, Rahab the harlot was ten years old when Israel left Egypt, and she practiced her harlotry for all forty years that Israel was in the wilderness…
The rabbinic commentator, Malbim (Meir Leibush Ben Yehiel Michel, 1809–1879) assumes that the Israelites were aware of Rahab’s important position in Jericho, and suggests that this explains why Joshua’s two spies head straight for a brothel of all places:
מפורסמת בשמה אצל גדולי הארץ, נגלו לה סתרי גדולי הארץ וסודותיהם. ואצלה יחקורו כל הנעשה בארץ, ולכן לא הלכו לשום מקום רק “וישכבו שמה”
Her name was known to all of the great men in the land. They would reveal the secrets of the land to her. If the spies stayed there they would be able to find out about all of the aspects going on around the land. Therefore, the spies did not go to any other place, they just “slept there” (Josh 2:1).
According to Malbim, it is only natural that the Israelite spies, men seeking knowledge about the city, seek out Rahab: They know that she holds many secrets. Thus, when the Canaanite king hears in Joshua 2:2 that Israelite spies have come to his land, he immediately sends orders to Rahab to produce these men. The king’s confidence that this is where the spies were to be found underscores the assumption that all men of note pass through her home.
The Awe of the Harlot…
The assumption of Rahab’s strategic importance brought with it the concomitant desire to explain: What made her so popular? Thus, the rabbis posit that she must have been unbelievably beautiful. For example, the Babylonian Talmud (Meg 15a) states:
תנו רבנן ארבע נשים יפיפיות היו בעולם ואילו הן שרה רחב אביגיל ואסתר
Our rabbis taught: There were four women of extraordinary beauty in the world, and these are they: Sarah, Rahab, Abigail, and Esther.
The other three are all pious Jewish women, from the first of the Jewish people to the heroine of the Purim story. If this comparison seems rather tame, the text continues with a description of Rahab’s beauty as bordering on the supernatural:
וא[מר] ר’ יצחק כל האומר רחב רחב מיד נקרי
And Rabbi Isaac said: “Anyone who says ‘Rahab, Rahab’ immediately experiences a seminal emission.”
This extreme physical reaction to even the mention of her name is ostensibly due to the arousal of desire caused by Rahab’s great beauty.
In response to Rabbi Isaac’s statement, in a comment that I can only imagine happening during a basement poker game,
אמ[ר] ליה רב נחמן אנא אמינא ולא איכפת לי אמ[ר] ליה כי קאמינא ביודעה ובמכירה ובמזכיר שמה
Rav Nachman said to him: “I have said it, and it does not affect me.” [Rav Isaac] responded: “I was referring specifically to a man who saw her, knew her, and said her name.”
Clearly Rahab’s sexual power—her ability to elicit from men a response that they cannot control in a way they find both thrilling and terrifying—caught the imagination of rabbinic interpreters.
Even with R. Isaac’s commonsense caveat, this is quite some sexual power, almost god-like. Nevertheless, Rahab’s sexual power is no match for the power of God.
…And the Fear of God
In Joshua 2:9–11, as Rahab explains to the spies why she saved them, and recounts what she has learned about the God of Israel, she says that her people have heard of the feats accomplished by God,
יהושע ב:יא וַנִּשְׁמַע וַיִּמַּס לְבָבֵנוּ וְלֹא קָמָה עוֹד רוּחַ בְּאִישׁ מִפְּנֵיכֶם
Josh 2:11 When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man’s spirit could stand anymore because of you.
Joshua 5:1, from three chapters later, relays a very similar fact. The kings of the Amorites have heard about God’s many feats,
יהושע ה:א וַיִּמַּס לְבָבָם וְלֹא הָיָה בָם עוֹד רוּחַ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
Josh 5:1 They lost heart, and no further spirit remained in them because of the Israelites.
The point is the same, but the word choice is different: Here it says that the no spirit remained but Rahab says than no spirit could stand or remain erect (ק.ו.מ). Rabbinic interpreters seize upon this to relate back to Rahab’s sexual encounters with men, claiming that out of fear of the Israelites, the Canaanite men could no longer maintain an erection (b. Zevachim 116a-b):
מאי שנא התם דכ[תב] ולא היה עוד בם רוח ומאי שנא הכא דכ[תב] ולא קמה עוד רוח באיש מפניכם דאפי[לו] אקשויי לא אקשו מנא ידעא דא[מר] מר אין לך שר ונגיד שלא בא אצל רחב הזונה
What is different there that it says “and they had no further spirit in them” and what is different here that it says “and no man’s spirit could stand anymore because of you”? That they could not even maintain an erection [when visiting Rahab]. How did she know? For the master said: “There was no minister or prince that did not pay a visit to Rahab the harlot.”
Reading these two rabbinic descriptions together, we learn that even a woman who can bring about spontaneous emissions simply by the mention of her name is no match for the fear and awe that accompany the retelling of God’s power.
Rahab as a Model of Teshuva (Repentance)
Rahab welcomes the wonders God does for Israel, and decides to join the Israelite camp. For the rabbis, this meant that she converted to Judaism. In fact, the rabbis claim that this once childless harlot marries Joshua himself, and gives birth to a line of prophets and priests. Bavli Megillah 14b lists 8 prophets as her descendants, with the possible addition of a 9th—Huldah the prophetess.
This last suggestion may be a play off the name of Huldah’s mother Tikvah, which means “hope” but is also the word for “cord,” calling to mind the cord Rahab is to tie upon her house to let the Israelite invaders know that she is a friend and should not be harmed:
יהושע ב:יח הִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ בָאִים בָּאָרֶץ אֶת תִּקְוַת חוּט הַשָּׁנִי הַזֶּה תִּקְשְׁרִי בַּחַלּוֹן אֲשֶׁר הוֹרַדְתֵּנוּ בוֹ.
Josh 2:18 And it will be that when we invade the country, you tie this length of crimson cord to the window through which you let us down.
Huldah is the child of the saving scarlet cord, a child of faith and a faithfully kept oath.
The Greater the Sin, the Greater the Repentence
By positing a completely new life for Rahab after her conversion, the rabbis reinforce a simple story of the extremes of good and evil, portraying Rahab as a Canaanite prostitute who morphs into an Israelite woman of valor (Midrash Mishlei 31:22). In fact, Sifrei Zuta, (Beha’alotecha 10:29) begins its praise of Rahab by highlighting her depravity:
ר’ יהודה אומר ארבעה שמות של גנאי היה לה נקרא שמה רחב הזונה… שהיתה מזנה עם בני המדינה מבפנים ועם הליסטים מבחוץ שנא’ כי ביתה בקיר החומה ובחומה היא יושבת
R. Judah says: “She had four disgraceful names. She was called Rahab the harlot… for she would whore with the men from inside the city and with the brigands from outside, as it says (Josh 2:15), “for her home was in the city wall, and she dwelt upon the wall.”
But the midrash’s intention here is not to simply insult Rahab but to emphasize the significance of her righteous and repentant behavior:
ומה אם מי שהיתה מגויי הארץ וממשפחות האדמה על שעשתה מאהבה נתן לה המקום מאהבה על אחת כמה וכמה אלו היתה מישראל.
If someone who was from the gentiles of the earth and the peoples of the land acted out of love, God rewarded her out of love, how much more so if she had been an Israelite.
Taking this one step further, Pesikta Rabbati 40:3 uses Rahab to demonstrate that there is nobody who is beyond God’s saving power. The text states that in the future, when God judges the world:
אומר לאומות העולם למה לא קרבת אצלי, והוא אומר שהייתי רשע מוחלט והייתי מתבייש, 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?
[God] will say to the nations of the world “Why did you not bring yourself closer to me?” and they will respond “I was an utterly wicked person and I was embarrassed.” [God] will then reply: “Were you more wicked than Rahab, whose house was in the city wall and who received robbers and prostituted with them within? Nevertheless, she drew near to me and did I not welcome her and raise up prophets and righteous people from her?”
The gravity of Rahab’s sinful life and the fullness of her conversation is so stark that she becomes a sort of a fortiori (kal v’chomer) example: If Rahab can repent and be welcomed by God, the thinking goes, certainly you can, too.
From One Extreme to Another
Rahab’s dual roles as the ultimate sinner/outsider and as the profoundly faithful ticket to Israelite success make her short biblical story interesting to many interpreters – Jewish and Christian, ancient and modern – each piecing together a character broad enough to contain all of these truths in one way or another.
Ancient interpreters who see in her a model of teshuva – the hope that anyone can turn from an ungodly path to a godly one – underscore the perceived shift from one extreme of being to another. At the same time, this focus creates what we might call a “flat character” with very little complexity –a character who serves primarily as an instrument to the plot or as a means to make a point.
Indeed, the rabbis seem to imagine that Rahab moves from one moral extreme to the other with the proverbial flip of a switch – from a sinful life of sex work as a Canaanite woman, to a pious life as the matriarch of prophets among the people Israel.
In this change from one type of woman to another, Rahab exemplifies, sequentially, a symbolic embodiment of strangeness and folly, and a symbolic embodiment of goodness and wisdom, “part of patriarchy’s perennial classification of all women as either all-good or all-evil” that is most clearly exemplified in but not limited to Wisdom literature. The overlap between the “bad” and the “good” chapters of Rahab’s life is treated as irony.
Personal Change or Change of Circumstances?
But if we read this biblical story and the midrash that surrounds it with attention to Rahab herself, in the context of her life as we can best imagine it, do we indeed witness a personal transformation from sinful to good? Has Rahab herself changed, or does the arrival of the spies simply allow her an opportunity to express the faith she seems already to have had, and formally throw in her lot with those who share that faith? Put another way, is it Rahab who has changed, or the world around her?
Reading Rahab in relation to the power structures around her enables us to envision a fuller, more complex character who, in addition to being a Canaanite harlot, was also an intelligent woman who seems to do the best she can with the power she had at any given time.
As explored above, rabbinic interpreters acknowledge Rahab’s power and how it shifts and accumulates over time. She is shockingly beautiful, and this gift leads to her success in her unseemly career. The rabbis write without any apparent discomfort that her harlotry began when she was 10 years old.
Their point, of course, was that she was an “expert” in her career and had developed a wide network of connections. But if we want to imagine the life story of Rahab, this conjecture has very different impact. Are we to imagine that a 10 year old becomes a sex worker because of a sinful nature, or do we imagine that life circumstances pressed them into this path?
It is then from her harlotry that Rahab gains faith in the God of Israel. Though many others in Jericho apparently know the story of the parting of the sea in Exodus – they are the ones who have recounted it to her – it is Rahab alone, in this story, who proclaims faith in the God of Israel.
Working with Available Social Roles
Are we to imagine that she could have acted on this faith earlier, but chose not to? Could a 50-year-old woman, a harlot of 40 years, have found a different role in Canaanite society if the social order had not been overturned with the destruction of Jericho? On the contrary, it is more realistic to imagine that, at her core, Rahab herself has changed very little. Instead, the world around her changed – thanks in part to her savvy and bravery – and these changes meant she was no longer stuck in her social role.
Modern readers who are attuned to the power structures at play in our own society may see a reflection of our society in Rahab’s story, knowing that a person’s circumstances and relative privilege (or lack thereof) have at least as much influence as our moral core on the life path we walk. When an individual has few viable choices for livelihood, attaching moral judgment to what seems an unseemly path can easily lead to inappropriate assessments of character.
Surely, Rahab illustrates that people’s stories can change over time. The question is to what extent, for Rahab, that change became possible because of internal changes as opposed external ones. It behooves us, as readers and citizens of the world, to consider both.
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June 27, 2019
November 16, 2019
Dr. Amy Cooper Robertson is the Executive Director of Congregation Bet Haverim, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Atlanta. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion in the area of Hebrew Bible from Emory University. Her dissertation, “He Kept the Measurements in His Memory as a Treasure”: The Role of the Tabernacle Text in Religious Experience is available online through the Emory library.
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