When the Israelites were preparing to enter the land of Canaan after the death of Moses, Joshua sent spies from Shittim to Jericho. Shittim was located in Transjordan, in the land of Moab, across from Jericho (Numbers 33:48-49). The purpose of sending the spies was to ascertain the strength of the city’s protection against an invasion by hostile forces.
Rahab’s story is told in Joshua chapters 2 and 6. According to the story, the two spies “came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there” (Joshua 2:1). Rahab received the spies and when their arrival became known, the king of Jericho sent men to apprehend the spies. However, Rahab hid them and helped them escape through a window of her house.
Some scholars believe that in addition to being a prostitute, that Rahab was also in the business of manufacturing linen and engaged in the art of dyeing, since the flat roof of her house was covered with stalks of flax put there to dry.
Rahab’s house was located on the wall of the city, probably near the town gate. The location of her house made it convenient for people to come into her house and easy for them to leave the city. Since traders and merchants would frequently pass through Jericho, they probably would patronize the house of Rahab and make it easy for her to be well informed of events outside of Jericho. This is the reason she was aware of the events in Egypt and what the Israelites had done in their journey toward the land of Canaan.
Rahab is introduced as a zōnāh, a word that means “prostitute” or “harlot.” And since she is also introduced as the head of the household, it is possible that Rahab may have been a madam. The spies went to Rahab’s house because they knew who she was, where she lived, and what her profession was. Thus, the arrival of strangers at the house of a prostitute would not raise much suspicion to the inhabitants of the city.
Joshua 2:1 says that when the spies arrived in Jericho, they “entered into the house of a woman that was a harlot named Rahab, and lodged with her.” The word translated “lodge” means to “sleep with” and may carry a sexual connotation. The same word was used when Potiphar’s wife asked Joseph “to lie” with her. The NET Bible translates Genesis 39:7 as follows: “Soon after these things, his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Have sex with me” (Genesis 39:7 NET).”
Some scholars have suggested that Rahab was a sacred prostitute or a qedēšā. The word qedēšā was a technical word used to identify the women who participated in the Canaanite fertility cult.
Thus, those who identify Rahab as a member of the fertility cult would then identify Rahab as a sacred prostitute and probably a priestess of the moon god. The view that Rahab was a priestess of the moon god is derived from a popular meaning of the name Jericho, a name that comes from a word meaning “moon” (yareah).
However, it is doubtful that Rahab was a sacred prostitute. The women who served as sacred prostitutes in the fertility cult were called qedēšā but Rahab is called a zōnāh, a word used to identify a common prostitute.
Josephus, in this work, The Antiquity of the Jews, V, 1, 2 said that Rahab was an innkeeper:
(6) Now those that met them took no notice of them when they saw them, and supposed they were only strangers, who used to be very curious in observing everything in the city, and did not take them for enemies;
(7) but at even they retired to a certain inn that was near to the wall, whither they went to eat their supper;
(8) which supper when they had done, and were considering how to get away, information was given to the king as he was at supper, that there were some persons come from the Hebrews’ camp to view the city as spies, and that they were in the inn kept by Rahab, and were very solicitous that they might not be discovered. So he sent immediately some to them, and commanded to catch them, and bring them to him, that he might examine them by torture, and learn what their business was there.
Based on Josephus’ view that Rahab was an innkeeper, one author came to the conclusion that Rahab was a successful business woman and that the word “harlot” was used as a pejorative because of her success. He wrote:
It is our considered opinion, based upon what we have read in the Bible and in the Writings of Josephus that Rahab made fine clothing (the reason for all the flax that she had on her roof, enough to hide the two spies in). Her customers, often having to travel long distances to purchase her fine linen needed to be put up. Rahab also ran a [sic] inn, and she often put her clients up in her inn. Why did people of that time label a successful business woman “a harlot?” Maybe her business did better than their business.
The reason Josephus was trying to play down the fact that Rahab was a prostitute was because of the role she played in Jewish history. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Rahab was one of the ancestresses of the prophet Jeremiah.
The writer of the book of Joshua says that the house of Rahab survived in Israel. He wrote: “But Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her family has lived in Israel ever since. For she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho” (Joshua 6:25).
This statement by the Deuteronomistic writer clearly indicates that the story of Rahab does not end with the book of Joshua. It is possible that Rahab became a proselyte and converted to the faith of Israel and that a group of people who were identified with Rahab survived in Israel. It is possible that the three hundred forty-five people from Jericho who returned with Ezra from Babylon (Ezra 2:34; Nehemiah 7:36) and the men of Jericho who helped Nehemiah in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:2) were descendants of Rahab.
As for Rahab herself, the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:5 ) says that Rahab became the wife of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, and the ancestress of Boaz who was Jesse’s grandfather. Thus, Matthew says that Rahab, through Salmon and Boaz, became the mother of the line from which David’s family sprang, and through David, Jesus Christ. Rahab was one of the four foreign women mentioned in the genealogy of Christ: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
Rahab also appears in the list of the people who lived by faith and who were saved by faith. In Hebrews 11:31 Rahab is praised as an example of faith:
“By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.”
In James 2:25 Rahab is praised for saving the spies and in the process finding justification through what she did for the cause of God:
“And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?”
There is no reason to avoid the embarrassment of calling Rahab a prostitute. Rahab stands as evidence of the transforming power of God. By believing in the God of Israel, Rahab, a woman who submitted herself to the desires of men, found forgiveness when she submitted herself to the will of God and was added to a great list of people whose lives were transformed when they believed in God.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary