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? This tactic would not be atypical of a woman who makes her living appealing to the vanity of men. Later statements from Rahab will reveal her sincerity. At the moment, Rahab focuses on survival. After rejecting all other gods and endorsing monotheism, she makes a very business-like plea:

“Now, since I have shown loyalty to you, swear to me by the LORD that you in turn will show loyalty to my family. Provide me with a reliable sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and save us from death.” (Joshua 4:12-13)

As a harlot, Rahab certainly understands the nature of trade between two parties. But credit must be given. She wants to do more than save her own skin. Rahab apparently has neither husband nor children, but she does have relatives and cares for them. In this regard, her request seems to bring her closer to Abraham than Noah. Abraham looks beyond himself, seeking mercy for Sodom and Gomorrah if only ten innocent people can be found there. Noah, when commanded to take his wife, sons and daughters-in-law on the ark, never asks God permission to bring others aboard.

The spies assent to Rahab’s request but on the condition that she not disclose them. She responds by lowering a rope, enabling them to climb out her window and down the wall then hide for three days until they can return to Joshua. At this point, a practical dilemma arises. How are the invading Israelites to identify her house? The spies propose a solution, which doubles as a warning:

“We will be released from this oath which you have made us take [unless,] when we invade the country, you tie this length of crimson cord to the window through which you let us down.” (Joshua 2:17)

Whether the crimson cord refers to the rope by which the men are to escape or to a piece of their clothing or equipment we do not know. Nonetheless, they have chosen an interesting sign whose crimson color suggests two things: the lifeblood that God holds precious and the protective blood applied by the Israelites to the lintels and doorposts of their houses before God slays the Egyptians’ first-born on the initial Passover evening.

The spies repeat their compact and warn that any member of Rahab’s family venturing outside the doors of her house will have his blood on his own head. “But if a hand is laid on anyone who remains in the house with you, his blood shall be on our heads.” (Josh. 2:19) The deal made, Rahab sends the spies off and ties the crimson cord to her window.

The conquest of Jericho unfolds. The Israelites cross the Jordan. Following God’s instruction, they march around the city, making one complete circuit on each of six days. On the seventh, again as instructed, they circumnavigate the city seven times, after which the priests blow their horns. Joshua commands the people:

“Shout! For the LORD has given you the city. The city and everything in it are to be proscribed for the LORD; only Rahab the harlot is to be spared, and all who are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers we sent.” (Joshua 6:16-17)

The Israelites shout, and the walls of Jericho collapse. Slaughter follows. Men, women, children and animals fall to the sword. The Israelites then burn the city since proscription—cherem—demands total destruction. This proscription is so intense that Joshua curses anyone who will rebuild Jericho. Maimonides explains that, “the effect of the miracle was to remain for ever, so that any one who would see the wall sunk in the ground would understand that it was not in the condition of a building pulled down by human hands, but sunk through a miracle.” (Maimonides, 2:50)

Only Rahab and her family survive. Her house also is spared, although David Kimhi, the twelfth-thirteenth-century commentator, offers that only the portions of the walls directly opposite the Israelite army fell; Rahab’s house stood elsewhere on the wall. (Soncino/Joshua, 30)

The proscription of Jericho—or of any city for that matter—presents an issue both troubling and hopeful. Michael Fishbane notes that this total destruction was also imposed on every man, woman and child in every town ruled by King Sihon of Heshbon (Deut. 2:34) as well as in the seven Canaanite nations (Deut. 7:1-2). No one was spared. But events unfold differently in the Book of Joshua. “We must therefore assume,” Fishbane writes, “that the text in Joshua rejects the harsh law of cherem and opts for mercy to those who display kindness. A silent protest (albeit hedged with signs and oaths and conditions) thus lies at the heart of the narrative. The human face of the enemy makes a compelling claim.” (Etz Hayim, 856)

Rahab’s is indeed a human face, and the biblical narrative presents her as a righteous woman worthy of heroine status. In this regard, she resembles Tamar in Genesis 38 who disguises herself as a harlot to seek justice from Judah and has twin sons by him, becoming an antecedent of King David. And why should Rahab not deserve great praise? It is the human spirit—not just the Israelite spirit—that seeks closeness with God. Rahab clearly recognizes God’s signs and wonders. In this light, the narrative completes Rahab’s story, reporting that, “she dwelt among the Israelites—as is still the case” (Josh. 6:25). Rahab becomes, at the very least, a ger toshav—a resident alien who lives by the laws of Israel. The Talmud (Megillah 14b), however, elevates her position, relating that she marries Joshua and bears him daughters. Eight prophets, including Jeremiah and the prophetess, Huldah, descend from her. 2

While no formal conversion process exists in the Bible, a case can be made for Rahab as a true ger tzedek, accepting the God of Israel and the Torah as her own. This follows from a comparison of the statements of two of “God’s others,” who also acknowledge God. Following the Exodus, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, declares, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods…” (Ex. 18:11). The Sages laud Jethro, although he seems to leave open the possibility that other gods exist. (See Egypt: Slavery and Redemption.) Naaman, the general of Aram, takes a stronger monotheistic view. Cured of leprosy by the prophet Elisha, he states, “Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel!” (2 Kings 5:15). (See Kings and Commoners.) The word translated by JPS as “world”—aretz—usually means land or earth and thus appears to limit God’s sovereignty. Rahab’s statement goes beyond these, declaring, “for the LORD your God is the only [italics mine] God in heaven above and on earth below” (Josh. 2:11). She endorses the God of Israel as the God of all creation.

How does a non-Israelite in a polytheistic world arrive at monotheism? Rabbi Abraham Cohen writes eloquently: “The unity and omnipotence of God were one of the fundamental tenets impressed upon the children of Israel in the wilderness. Strange though it must have appeared in those days, it may well have percolated to other peoples and gained credence from some individuals among them.” (Soncino/Joshua, 10)
We may marvel that a “lowly harlot” understands the power of God while kings and priests maintain their loyalty to idols. But Rahab demonstrates—as the Bible consistently informs us—that wisdom depends not on power or position but the openness of the soul to its Creator.

1 Sarah’s beauty draws the attention of Pharaoh and Abimelech, king of Gerar. (See The Era of Abraham.) Abigail provides food to David and his followers, and later becomes David’s wife (1 Samuel 25). Esther is the well-known heroine of the Book of Esther who saves the Jews of Persia by foiling the wicked intentions of Haman.

2 From the Christian perspective of the Book of Matthew, Rahab is the wife of Salmon (son of Nachshon) and mother of Boaz, ancestor of David (see the story of Ruth below) and thus of Jesus.