Rahab: The Biblical Prostitute in the 'Faith Hall of Fame'

By: Dave Roos  | 

Rahab, spies escape
Rahab helps the Israelite spies escape in this 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld. Wikipedia

It's one of the best-known tales in the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) — when Joshua and his Israelite army surrounded the great walled city of Jericho, sounded their mighty ram's-horn trumpets and "the walls came tumbling down."

And central to this action-packed story is a fascinating character named Rahab. Not only is Rahab a woman — rare enough in the Bible — but she's also a foreigner and a prostitute, not exactly the resumé for a biblical hero.

Yet this Canaanite "woman of ill-repute" demonstrated so much faith in the God of Israel that she and her family were the only citizens of Jericho spared by Joshua's army when the city was razed to the ground. And despite her notorious profession, Rahab is one of only four women named in the New Testament as ancestors of Jesus.

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A Twist on the 'Temptress' Trope

Let's set the scene. In the Old Testament, when Moses died, the Lord chose Joshua as the new leader of the Israelites, who were commanded to take possession of the promised land of Canaan. Before marching across the Jordan River, Joshua sent two spies ahead to check out the situation in Jericho, the largest Canaanite city.

The Book of Joshua in the Old Testament says that the Israelite spies lodged in the home of Rahab, who in the original Hebrew text is identified as a zonah or prostitute. There is some speculation that she might have been an innkeeper instead because the consonants are the same for both occupations: "znh." However, "zonah" is the same Hebrew word used by Israelite prophets like Hosiah and Ezekial to admonish the people for "prostituting" themselves to other gods.

Rahab recognized the foreign spies immediately, but instead of turning them over to the authorities, she hid them on her roof underneath sheaves of flax. When the king of Jericho asked Rahab about the spies, she told him they had already left, but that the king's men could catch them outside the city if they hurried.

Rahab not only saved the lives of the Israelite spies, but she professed her faith in their God, which went against everything that the Old Testament typically warned about the dangers of foreign women.

"Foreign women are the ones who sexually tempt you and lure you to give up your own god," says Hanna Tervanotko, a religion professor at McMaster University. "Rahab is quite remarkable."

The Book of Joshua says that Rahab "lived in the wall" of the city and she lowered the spies down from her window with a rope. In return, the spies kept their promise, and told Joshua to spare Rahab and her family from the terrible destruction of Jericho, in which every living inhabitant — "both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys" — were put to the sword. Rahab and her family were spared and she went on to live in Israel "to this day."

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Rahab in the New Testament

Rahab was such a well-established and beloved figure in Judaism that the authors of the New Testament repeatedly invoked her name as a model of Christian faith. In Hebrews, a letter to a community of Jewish Christians, the author (Paul or one of his assistants) includes a stirring treatise on faith, described as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

To drive home his point, the author of Hebrews created a "Faith Hall of Fame," a list of Old Testament prophets and notable figures also known as "Heroes of the Faith." And included among the likes of Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and Moses was none other than Rahab. "By faith," it says in Hebrews, "Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies."

Rahab, St. Stephen's Church, Germany
Rahab is depicted in this detail from the altar of women by Sieger Koder in St. Stephen's Church in Wasseralfingen, Germany.
Zvonimir Atletic/Shutterstock

Rahab is also invoked in the Book of James as a model of faith coupled with action. "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?" says James 2:14. "Can that faith save him?" James cites just two examples of such faithful action: Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac and Rahab. "[W]as not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?"

But perhaps the most striking mention of Rahab in the New Testament is her inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus recorded in the first chapter of Matthew. Rahab is one of only four women named in the genealogy, the others being Tamar (wife of Judah), Ruth (who married Rahab's son Boaz), and Mary, the mother of Jesus. King David's mother Bathsheba isn't mentioned by name but referred to as "the wife of Uriah."

"The fact that Rahab is mentioned in the genealogy in Matthew makes her an exemplary figure despite her not-so-exemplary profession," says Tervanotko.

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Could Rahab Have Been a Real Person?

According to biblical scholars, historians and archeologists who have studied the ruins at Jericho (also known as Tell es-Sultan), there is very little chance that the events described in the book of Joshua actually happened.

For starters, Jericho was far from a great and powerful city when the Israelites entered the Jordan River Valley. Jericho reached its peak as a walled settlement between 8,000 B.C.E. and 6,000 B.C.E., and the first archeological evidence of Israelites in the region wasn't until around 1,200 B.C.E., many thousands of years later. By that point, the famed walls of Jericho had long since been reduced to a massive pile of rubble.

"There was no settlement at Jericho at the time when the people we call the Israelites made their presence known," says Robert Ruby, a journalist and author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms." "It was deserted, and all they would have seen was a very high mound about 70 feet high."

Ruby's theory is that the authors of the Old Testament stumbled upon these massive ruins and concluded that it must have once been a great city. While decades of modern archeological excavations have failed to uncover evidence of a military conquest of Jericho, it probably looked that way to ancient travelers.

"If they created that story — of the miraculous destruction of Jericho — it would really inspire people to believe in the greatness of their ancestors and in the power of the God who led them," says Ruby. "That story of a conquest is much more about faith than events that occurred at the time."

Where does that leave Rahab?

"There is nothing in Rahab's story that would prove that it's historically accurate," says Tervanotko, "but it represents some interesting views that this community had about foreigners. Here's this pagan prostitute who became a hero. Since then, figures like Rahab have become quite a strong trope in books and film, the person at the margins of society who is actually the morally superior character. Doesn't that make it a really good story?"

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