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Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, is depicted in the Bible as an unlikely hero to the Israelites.

Rahab helps Joshua’s two spies escape (Joshua 2). Illustration from a 15th-century French manuscript of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. Bibliothèque nationale de France

Rahab is a literary character in the book of Joshua, the first of the four books of the Deuteronomistic History. According to most scholars, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings were edited into a coherent story intended to advance the themes of the book of Deuteronomy, particularly the claim that Israel’s fate depends on worshipping Yahweh alone.

In Josh 2, two Israelite spies sent by Joshua to scout the Canaanite city of Jericho enter the house of Rahab, “a woman of prostitution,” and spend the night. When the king of Jericho orders Rahab to turn the men over, she falsely reports their escape and then offers the men safety in exchange for protecting her family when the Israelites invade. They agree and tell her to mark her house with a crimson cord; when the invading Israelites see the cord, they will spare the house, and all within it will be saved. During the attack of the city (Josh 6), Joshua honors the promise, sparing Rahab and her family from the annihilation of Jericho.

Over the centuries, interpreters have debated what Rahab’s profession really was. Josephus describes her as an innkeeper, explaining “prostitute” as a slur. Based on her ownership of the house, some have viewed her as “madam,” managing rather than personally providing sexual services; claims that she ran a linen business are based on the story’s reference to flax stalks on her roof (Josh 2:6; and see Prov 31:13). Most likely, however, the narrator depicts Rahab as an active sex worker. The same phrase describes the woman visited by Samson in Judg 16 and the characterization of Israel and Judah as sister prostitutes in Ezek 16 and Ezek 23.

Rahab’s status as a prostitute helps dramatize the story’s deuteronomistic message. She is not only a Canaanite, marked for annihilation (Deut 20:17), but also a prostitute on the social and physical margins of society, living within the city’s walls (Josh 2:15). Dramatically, this outsider spontaneously bears witness to deuteronomistic truth: she “knows” Yahweh is lord of heaven and earth and that the land of Canaan belongs to the Israelites (Josh 2:9-11). Like other unlikely heroes in the Deuteronomistic History (the left-handed judge Ehud, the female judge Deborah, and the scoundrel Samson), Rahab’s story underscores the power of God.

Allusions to the exodus story further elevate her status as savior of God’s people: her speech echoes the Song of Miriam (Exod 15), and she resists the murderous order of a king, as do the Hebrew midwives (Exod 1). In addition, a red marker protects her home, just as it did Hebrew homes in the final plague (Exod 12).

Most later Jewish and Christian traditions have continued to read Rahab’s story with the deuteronomistic grain, praising her faith and bravery (Heb 11:31, Jas 2:25). She is one of three women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:5), each with a scandalous sexual history.

When the story is read against the grain, however, Rahab becomes a more ambiguous character. She betrays king and country in order to save self and family, and her confession of faith may be less pious than strategic, providing the spies with the story Joshua needs to hear (in Josh 2:11, they repeat her words from Josh 2:24). Is Rahab a heroine or a traitor? Must foreigners abandon their own culture to avoid destruction? What does the story of Rahab teach?

  • Julia M. O’Brien

    Julia M. O’Brien is Paul H. and Grace L. Stern Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA. Specializing in prophetic literature, she currently serves as editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies and is completing a feminist commentary on Micah. Her publications include Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets (Westminster John Knox, 2008) and Nahum (Sheffield Phoenix, 2009).