Were Rahab’s Sisters Saved?
The Spies Agree to Save Rahab’s Family
In preparation for the conquest of Jericho, the first city to be taken after the Israelites cross the Jordan River, Joshua sends two spies, who arrive at the house of Rahab, a harlot, in Jericho. She hides them, and lies to the king’s messengers, sent to apprehend them. When the messengers leave, Rahab helps the spies escape, but not before demanding a sworn oath that her family will be saved and not harmed at the upcoming conquest of the city:
יהושע ב:יב וְעַתָּה הִשָּׁבְעוּ נָא לִי בַּה’ כִּי-עָשִׂיתִי עִמָּכֶם חָסֶד וַעֲשִׂיתֶם גַּם אַתֶּם עִם בֵּית אָבִי חֶסֶד וּנְתַתֶּם לִי אוֹת אֱמֶת.ב:יג וְהַחֲיִתֶם אֶת אָבִי וְאֶת אִמִּי וְאֶת אַחַי וְאֶת (אחותי) [אַחְיוֹתַי] וְאֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם וְהִצַּלְתֶּם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵינוּ מִמָּוֶת.
Josh 2:12 Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my father’s house. Give me a sign of good faith 2:13 that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and (sister) [sisters], and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.”
The spies agree, and Rahab lowers them down the city wall. Once they are on the ground, they again promise to do what she asked, but add specific stipulations: none that are in Rahab’s house, to be marked in advance by a scarlet string, will be harmed, but anyone who ventures outside the house, will be liable for his (or her) own life.
A later list in the spies’ speech responding to Rahab’s request differs from the earlier one:
יהושע ב:יח…וְאֶת-אָבִיךְ וְאֶת-אִמֵּךְ וְאֶת-אַחַיִךְ וְאֵת כָּל-בֵּית אָבִיךְ תַּאַסְפִי אֵלַיִךְ הַבָּיְתָה.
Josh 2:18 … your father and mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household gather into your house.
The term “sisters” (אחיותי) is missing here, and the brothers are directly followed by the “house of your father” (בית אביך), the biblical term for a small extended family (the larger unit is generally called משפחה).
Who Was Saved?
Chapter 6 tells the story of the conquest of Jericho, including the saving of Rahab’s family (Joshua 6:22-23):
יהושע ו:כב וְלִשְׁנַיִם הָאֲנָשִׁים הַמְרַגְּלִים אֶת הָאָרֶץ אָמַר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֹּאוּ בֵּית הָאִשָּׁה הַזּוֹנָה וְהוֹצִיאוּ מִשָּׁם אֶת הָאִשָּׁה וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתֶּם לָהּ. ו:כגוַיָּבֹאוּ הַנְּעָרִים הַמְרַגְּלִים וַיֹּצִיאוּ אֶת רָחָב וְאֶת אָבִיהָ וְאֶת אִמָּהּ וְאֶת אַחֶיהָ וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָהּ וְאֵת כָּל מִשְׁפְּחוֹתֶיהָהוֹצִיאוּ וַיַּנִּיחוּם מִחוּץ לְמַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Josh 6:22 Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house, and bring the woman out of it and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.” 6:23 So the young men who had been spies went in and brought Rahab out, along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and all who belonged to her—they brought all her kindred out—and set them outside the camp of Israel.
These verses do not mention Rahab’s sisters, and instead of again saying “house of her father,” it includes:
- “All that was hers” (כל אשר לה) – ostensibly a synonym for her family and a phrase Rahab used about her family’s family in 2:13.
- “Her kindred” (משפחותיה) – a new term, often representing a larger unit than the “house of the father” (בית אב), and functioning here as a kind of summary statement.
It is striking that Rahab mentions her sisters explicitly in ch. 2, but the spies later in ch. 2, and the narrator of ch. 6 list her father, her mother, and her brothers (as she did) but omit Rahab’s sisters. These verses include catch-all terms such as “house of her father,” “all that was hers” or “her kindred” in addition to the more specific terms father, mother, and brothers. In contrast, the second summary statement in chapter 6 uses none of these more specific terms:
יהושע ו:כה וְאֶת רָחָב הַזּוֹנָה וְאֶת בֵּית אָבִיהָ וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָהּ הֶחֱיָה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ.
Josh 6:25 Rahab the harlot and her father’s house along with all that belonged to her were spared by Joshua.
Thus, the Hebrew text of Joshua is inconsistent about whether Rahab’s sisters are to be included in the list of family members saved.
Ancient translations demonstrate that the question of the sisters bothered several ancient scribes. Specifically, two opposite directions are taken relative to the Masoretic text. The Peshitta—the Syriac (an Aramaic dialect) translation of the Bible that became the official translation of the eastern, Syriac speaking Christians, and that probably goes back to the second century C.E. and is one of the earliest full versions of the Bible at our disposal—includes the word “sisters” in the spies’ response (Josh 2:18):
…וְאֶת אָבִיךְ וְאֶת-אִמֵּךְ וְאֶת אַחַיִךְ וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִיךְ תַּאַסְפִי אֵלַיִךְ הַבָּיְתָה.
…your father and mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household gather into your house.
ולאבוכי ולאמכי ולאחיכי ולאחותחי ולכלה בית אבוכי אעלי לותכי לגו ביתא.
Your father and your mother and your brothers and your sisters and all your father’s household bring up into your house.
Thus in the Peshitta, the proximate lists of family members Rahab requests to be saved and that repeated by the spies is identical. Nevertheless, even in the Peshitta, the sisters remain missing in the rescue story of ch. 6, where the word is absent.
The Greek translation of the Bible makes no reference to sisters at all, even in Rahab’s request (Josh 2:13):
…you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and my sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.
and spare the house of my father and my mother and my brothers and all my house and all that belong to them and deliver my soul from death.
Instead of “my father,” the LXX reads “the house of my father,” anticipating the phrase in 2:18, and instead of “my sisters,” the LXX reads “all my house.” Thus, the sisters are not “missing” in the LXX’s version of the spies’ response or the rescue story, since they were never listed to begin with. Thus, the LXX, compared to the MT and the Peshitta, offers the most consistent version of the story.
Were Rahab’s Sisters Saved? – Two Reading Strategies
How are we to understand the differences between the MT, the Peshitta, and the LXX?
A. Literal Reading: No Sisters Were Saved
The different versions could reflect different understandings of how the story played out:
Sisters not Included in Request (LXX) – In the LXX, Rahab never mentions sisters. Read literally, this could be because the story-teller assumed she didn’t have any sisters and thus, never asked that they be saved. Alternatively, the story-teller might be imagining that her sisters were married, and thus now part of their husband’s families. Finally, the story-teller could be using the term “brothers” in the broad sense of siblings. However we understand this, the LXX’s text is unproblematic and might even reflect an earlier text than that of the problematic MT and Peshitta. Conversely, this smoother text could be an attempt by a later scribe or even the translator to solve the problem of the discrepancy. (See Excursus, “The MT versus the LXX.”)
Sisters Aren’t Saved (Peshitta) – In the Peshitta text, Rahab asks for her sisters to be saved and the spies agree to save them, and yet, in ch. 6, they are not saved. This might suggest that Rahab’s sisters were married and did not make it to the house. This is reminiscent of the story of Lot, in which he tries to convince his sons-in-law to escape with him and they laugh (Gen 19:14), and thus neither they nor their wives (Lot’s married daughters) escape from Sodom. This reading of the Peshitta, however, is improbable—it involves filling in too many details.
Spies Refuse to Save her Sisters (MT) –MT suggests that Rahab asks for her sisters to be saved but the spies don’t agree to Rahab’s explicit request. This is odd since the spies do not explain why they reject her request, nor does Rahab object to their death sentence.
This analysis presents us with a serious problem. The LXX, the smoothest reading, looks secondary—if it were original, why would someone have added sisters to the other versions in such an inconsistent fashion? That said, the inconsistencies in both MT and Peshitta are unsettling when read in the above manner. We must thus consider an alternative possibility, that the slightly different phraseology used is not significant.
B. Stylistic Variation: Everyone Was Saved
It is likely the story assumes the rescue of all of Rahab’s family, including any sisters. Phrases like “all her father’s household” (בית אביה), “all of theirs” (כל אשר להם), and “her kindred” (משפחותיה) were meant include everybody. The family members’ list here was not meant to be exhaustive and the fluctuating inclusiveness of the sisters would be due to scribal or stylistic variation. Most likely the sisters were mentioned, whether originally or secondarily, in order to show completeness of the family that was saved.
“All Her Families”
Although the Sages and later commentators do not discuss the discrepancy between the verses that include or exclude Rahab’s sisters, they pick up on a different anomaly. Josh 6:23, after listing the family members (sans sisters) and all that was hers (כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לָהּ), adds a summary phrase “וְאֵת כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחוֹתֶיהָ הוֹצִיאוּ.” The phrase is a double plural, literally “all of her families.”
Critical commentaries attempt to deal with the anomalous double plural in a number of ways. For example, Shmuel Aḥituv, in his commentary on Joshua, suggests that it could simply be a stylistic phenomenon paralleling the plural of the previous word “brothers.” He notes parallel examples, such as Num 2:34:
וְכֵן נָסָעוּ אִישׁ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָיו עַל בֵּית אֲבֹתָיו.
And so they marched, each with his clans according to his fathers’ (=plural) house.
Aḥituv also suggests that the plural “families” could be meant to reflect the fact that Rahab’s brothers’ families would also be saved. This is similar to the midrashic interpretation of R. Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) which appears in the Talmud (j. Sanhedrin 10:2):
תני ר’ שמעון בן יוחי: אפילו היה במשפחותיה מאתים אנשים והלכו ונדבקו במאתים משפחות, כולהן היו ניצלין בזכותה.
R. Shimon ben Yochai taught: “Even if all of her family members equaled two hundred people, and those people went and attached themselves (through marriage) with two hundred (different) families, all of them were saved due to her merit.
The eleventh century midrashic compendium, Yalkut Shimoni, quotes this interpretation and continues with the following conclusion (Nach 5:22):
אמר הקב”ה אני אמרתי ואם לא תורישו את יושבי הארץ והיה אשר תותירו מהם לשכים בעיניכם ולצנינים בצדיכם כי החרם תחרימם והם לא עשו כן אלא ואת רחב הזונה ואת אביה ואת אמה החיה יהושע הרי ירמיה מבני בניה של רחב ועשה להם לישראל דברים של שכים בעיניהם…
The Holy One, blessed be He, said (Num 33:55): “But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live” But the [Israelites] did not do this, rather “Rahab the harlot, and her father and her mother… Joshua saved.” Jeremiah was one of the descendants of Rahab, and he acted towards Israel like stings in their eyes…
The tradition that Jeremiah was a descendant of Rahab is found in b. Megillah 14b, listing Rahab’s many important descendants, which include eight prophets and a prophetess. Christian tradition makes the descendants of Rahab even more central; the Gospel of Matthew (1:5) lists Boaz, and thus David and Joseph, the father of Jesus, as descended from her.
The idea that Rahab’s line continued within Israelite society fits with the biblical tradition about Rahab’s family joining the Israelites, noted at the end of the Jericho account (Joshua 6:25):
וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
and she dwelt among the Israelites — as is still the case.
This verse raises the possibility that the author of Joshua was primarily interested in Rahab, not because of her putative role in saving the spies, but because her (assumed) progeny was living among the Israelites at the time of the story was written.
The MT Versus the LXX
The MT and the Peshitta refer to Rahab’s sisters whereas the LXX does not. Which is the earlier text and which the adjustment(s)? Although it seems likely that the LXX may have deleted the word “my sisters” in order to avoid the problem of contradictory lists of family members, the reverse is also possible, namely that “my sisters” was a late addition to a Hebrew manuscript that is reflected in the translation of the LXX. This may be supported by the qere-ketiv in the MT, with the ketiv (written text) “my sister” (אחותִי) in the singular and the qere (recited text) “my sisters” (אחיותי) in the plural, since the existence of a qere-ketiv attests to the unstableness of this word. This might be a sign that it was added at a later point and that the addition was not clear to the later scribes.
Alternatively, the qere-ketiv might reflect confusion due to a later scribe’s misreading of the un-pointed text (=without niqqud). The reference to sisters is clearly meant to parallel the previous referent, brothers, which, in the un-pointed biblical text, could be read as either the singular אָחִי, “my brother” or plural אַחַי, “my brothers.” Perhaps originally it said אַחַי ואחיותי, but a scribe mistakenly reading the first un-pointed term as a singular (אָחִי – “my brother”) adjusted the second term to be singular as well (אחותִי – “my sister”) to fit with it. (The opposite is also possible, but the singular would be a strange choice for the author here, as the text is trying to expansive.)
Nevertheless, such a confusion occurs only with the sisters, highlighting their single appearance, and, thus, singular position.
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June 13, 2017
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Dr. Shira Golani teaches at the Department of Biblical Studies at Gordon Academic College (Haifa) and is a visiting researcher at the Hebrew University Bible Project (Jerusalem). Her Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University. Among her articles are “Three Oppressors and Four Saviors – The Three-Four Pattern and the List of Saviors in I Sam 12,9-11,” ZAW 127 (2015), 294-303, and “Swords that are Ploughshares: Another Case of (Bilingual) Wordplay in Biblical Prophecy?,” Biblica 98.3 (2017), 425-434.
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