Rahab, the Prostitute

James Tissot, The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies.

Where do we find her in the Bible?

James Tissot, The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies.

James Tissot, The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies.

  • Her life story
  • Other references
    • Matthew 1:5 (She is an ancestor of Jesus, but see comment below)
    • Hebrews 11:31 (She is a person who demonstrates faith)
    • James 2:24-26 (esp. v. 25, where she is justified by her act [work] of saving the spies)

Who was she?

  • A prostitute who lived in Jericho before it was conquered by the Israelites
  • She hid two Israelite spies (who entered the city to reconnoiter before its conquest) and lied to the king about their presence in her home.
  • Because of this act of support to the spies, they promised that she and her household would be saved from the coming destruction.
  • Her house’s location, in (between?) or on the city walls insured that the spies could leave without detection.
  • This act is later accredited as an act of faith (Hebrews 11:31) and as a justifying work (James 2:25).

What lessons do we learn from her story?

  • To understand Rahab’s story, we need to understand a bit about the “Deuteronomistic History” of Israel.1
    • Much of the books Deuteronomy through 2 Kings were written, edited, and/or redacted during the reign of King Josiah (641-609 BCE).
    • When Josiah achieved maturity and reigned without his regents, he set out on a radical reformation of the economic and political environment.
      • He worked to consolidate the political, military, and religious power in Jerusalem.
      • He resurrected or “rediscovered” the books of the Mosaic law.
      • He destroyed the other holy shrines throughout his kingdom.
      • He overturned the power of the wealthy landowners by insisting that all debts be cancelled every seven years. No one could be indebted or indentured to another for life.
    • Rahab is a folkloric character. The Deuteronomist latches onto her story, hoping to align a populist character with the popular reforms of Josiah.
      • A woman is forced into prostitution (in the ancient world and today) because of economic misfortune (especially insurmountable debt). We cannot whitewash Rahab’s position/profession by calling her an innkeeper (as later tradition does) or a “madame.” Desperate times called for desperate measures.
      • She conspires against the “king of Jericho,” seeking redemption (the remission of indebtedness) for herself and her family.
      • She was a Canaanite, not an Israelite. Many of those who were indebted to the local landowners in Josiah’s time were Canaanites. “If Rahab could overturn her creditor(s) by her collusion with the Israelites, perhaps we can, too.”
  • She and Sarah are the only two women mentioned by name in the “roll call of the faithful” in Hebrews.2
  • Other thoughts on Rahab
    • Some scholars debate whether or not she was a prostitute.  Some call her an “innkeeper.” Why do you think this is?
    • The long phrase in v. 15, describing her house, occurs in the Masoretic Text, but not in the Septuagint (which is older). It seems to be a late explanatory addition that accords poorly with the fall of Jericho’s walls and survival of Rahab’s house (6:20, 22). It is sometimes suggested that Rahab’s house stood miraculously while the rest of the wall fell down. This is unlikely, since it finds no association or resonance elsewhere in the text.3
    • How might the story of Rahab influence our thinking about long-term indebtedness, poverty, sex workers, etc., in the Twenty First Century?
    • A different Greek spelling is given for the name “Rahab” in the Matthew passage, so it’s possible that was a different person.4

  1. New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2 

  2. Deen, Edith, All of the Women of the Bible (New York: Harper & Row, 1955)., pg. 67. 

  3. NIB, op. cit. 

  4. Wikipedia article on Rahab 

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