Story of Rahab

Rahab, Harlot Of Jericho: Protector of Israelite Spies

Following Moses’ death, Joshua prepares to lead the Israelite army into Canaan. He sends two spies to scout out Jericho. News of the spies reaches the city’s king. He orders Rahab, a harlot whose house the spies were seen entering, to surrender the men. Rahab protects the spies, acknowledging the power with which God previously defeated Egypt and recognizing that God will give Jericho and the rest of Canaan to Israel. The spies guarantee the safety of Rahab and her family so long as all remain in the house, which is to be identified by a crimson cord tied around a window. Jericho is destroyed; Rahab and her family are saved.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “SEEING” GOD? Judaism recognizes that God has no corporeal body, although the Torah does present an anthropomorphic God and affords Adam and Eve, as well as Abraham, Moses and Israel’s elders, at least a glimpse—if not more—of Him. The prophets have visions of God as well. Moreover, God “appears” to Job out of a tempest. As the biblical narrative progresses, however, anthropomorphic images rapidly disappear. It is through God’s deeds that He makes Himself known both to Israel and the nations. God becomes visible both to Israelites and non-Israelites through such historic revelations as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues that strike Egypt, the parting of the Reed Sea and the victorious battles waged by Israel against the Amorites.

In light of these major events, it should not surprise us that the word of witnesses is likely to spread. While the grapevine of the ancient Near East lacked our technology, people were no less interested in news from near and distant places. Following the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the Reed Sea, Moses and the Israelites sing a song praising what God has done, including the phrase, “The peoples hear, they tremble.” (Ex. 15:14) As the Exodus concludes, the Canaanites not only hear of the size of the Israelite nation that has undergone a forty-year transformation in the wilderness, they observe this people poised on the east side of the Jordan River, across from Jericho. It might have been another of God’s miracle had word—and fear—not traveled quickly.

Indeed, fear of Israel plays a major part in God’s plan. In Egypt, prior to the onset of the seventh plague—hail—God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh that He could easily destroy him and his people and be done with the matter. “Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world” (Ex. 9:15-16). Likewise, following the giving of the law at Sinai, God assures Moses: “I will send forth My terror before you, and I will throw into panic all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn tail before you” (Ex. 23:27).

The fear of God will aid Israel in other instances, as well. In Numbers 22, this huge people that “hides the earth from view” frightens Balak, King of the Midianite confederation. So filled is he with dread that he calls on the prophet Balaam to curse and destroy the huge multitude encamped on his doorstep. (See Dissemblers and Provokers.) Centuries later, the armies of the Ammonites and Moabites, along with some Ammonim (Meunites), confront King Jehoshaphat of Judah. God causes them to turn on the inhabitants of the hill country of Seir, to the east, then on each other. No one survives. As a result, “The terror of God seized all the kingdoms of the lands when they heard that the LORD had fought the enemies of Israel” (2 Chron. 20:29).

As to Rahab, the Book of Deuteronomy concludes with Moses’ death and Israel, under the command of Joshua, ready to enter Canaan. The story continues in the Book of Joshua with D-Day at hand. God tells Joshua to prepare to cross the Jordan. In turn, Joshua orders to his officials:

“Go through the camp and charge the people thus: Get provisions ready, for in three days time you are to cross the Jordan, in order to enter and possess the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.” (Joshua 1:11)

Fear envelops Jericho. But at least one enlightened individual experiences reverent awe. This person understands that Israel’s flight from Egypt and journey to Canaan represents no earthly ambition for conquest but the unfolding of God’s will. This sense of God is achieved neither by a sage nor a mystic but rather a by harlot. A woman named Rahab, as we shall shortly see, comprehends God’s hand in history as well as His singular nature.

Of course, while God stands behind Israel, Israel in turn must accept responsibility for its destiny and carry out the attack against Jericho. As a capable general, Joshua seeks intelligence. However, he rejects the unfortunate precedent of Moses, who publicly sent twelve spies into Canaan only to have ten of them—Joshua and Caleb being the exceptions—fearfully warn the nation’s leaders against going up into the land. Joshua cannot risk another humiliating report of this kind. Instead, he secretly sends just two spies, unnamed in the biblical narrative but identified by the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 16:1) as Caleb and Phinehas.

The spies arrive at Rahab’s house and lodge there. Why this house? We cannot be sure. But the biblical text situates it within the city’s wall. Perhaps it offers minimal exposure to prying eyes, a quick escape route and a good view of the defenses to be breached. Why do they lodge with a harlot? Lust does not form part of the equation here. We find one possibility in the Hebrew word for harlot—zonah. Both the Targum—the translation and paraphrasing of the Bible into Aramaic—and commentators link zonah with mazon, Hebrew for food or meal. Rahab may be an innkeeper as well as a prostitute. Perhaps the spies believe that they will be taken for ordinary travelers and draw no notice.

As is typical, the biblical narrative discloses little else about Rahab. The Sages seek to fill in the meager outline of her portrait. The Talmud (Zevachim 116b) reports that Rahab was ten years old when the Israelites left Egypt forty years earlier; she is now fifty. During those forty years, she pursued harlotry with every prince and ruler in the region. Moreover, the Talmud (Megillah 14b) posits, Rahab was a dazzler. “There have been four women of surpassing beauty in the world—Sarah, Rahab, Abigail and Esther.” 1 Rahab was so appealing, claims R. Isaac, the very mention of her name brought men to orgasm. (The Sages may have lifted their eyes heavenward, but their feet remained firmly on the ground.)

The spies’ clandestine mission is compromised immediately. The king of Jericho learns that they have entered the city and lodged with Rahab. He orders her to produce them. Rahab has no intention of doing so and misleads the king’s officials:

“It is true,” she said, “the men did come to me, but I didn’t know where they were from. And at dark, when the gate was about to be closed, the men left; and I don’t know where the men went. Quick, go after them, for you can overtake them.” (Joshua 2:4-5).

Rahab compounds her treason by taking the Israelite spies up to the roof and hiding them under stalks of flax. The king’s men, buying Rahab’s story, head off towards the Jordan in pursuit. Only then does she reveal to the spies her reason for protecting them.

“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. 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. When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you…” (Joshua 2:9-11)

How has news come to Jericho? Abravanel suggests that Rahab learned of Israel’s power from the blessings issued by none other than the Midianite prophet Balaam. (Leibowitz/Bamidbar, 305)

Rahab’s reaction takes her well beyond simple fear. The God of Israel appears to be no ordinary god, and her understanding of this surpasses that of the people with whom she lives. Under no illusion that Jericho can mount a successful defense, she returns to the roof to explain herself, acknowledging that, “the LORD your God is the only [italics mine] God in heaven above and on earth below.” (Josh. 2:11) Her statement echoes Abraham’s instruction to his servant, Eliezer, to “swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth” (Gen. 24:3) as well as Moses’ instruction to Israel: “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the LORD alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other” (Deut. 4:39).

As readers, we may be a bit skeptical or even cynical. Does Rahab realize the truth of the One God? Or does she simply use her feminine wiles to ingratiate herself?

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