Bible Women: Rahab the Prostitute

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The Harlot and the Two Spies, James Tissot








Rahab the prostitute

Rahab means 'open' or 'wide' (her womb? Rahab's name may imply she had many children; this would explain why she risks everything to save not just herself but all her family)

Joshua means 'Yahweh/God is my salvation'

Main themes of the story

  • Trust in God, but keep your wits about you too. 
    Rahab does not stand still and let things happen to her. She makes them happen.

  • Even an ordinary person can further God's plan. Rahab was definitely from the wrong side of the tracks, but God used her to help His people.

  • Look at things in the long term. Rahab had to abandon the citizens of Jericho to save herself and her  family. The Bible doesn't mention this harsh reality but sometimes, as a last resort, you have to be ruthless with yourself or with others.

The story of Rahab had three episodes:
1  She hid the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2:1-7)  Bible text below  A woman in ancient Jericho, Rahab the prostitute, saved two spies who had been sent by Joshua to gauge the defences of the city. Rahab left a red cord at her window as a signal to the Israelite soldiers

2  Why did Rahab risk her life to save the spies?  (Joshua 2:8-14)  Bible text below  Rahab and all the other inhabitants of Jericho knew that Joshua and the Hebrew tribes would attack. Rahab did a deal with the spies to save herself and her family.

3  The spies escaped. (Joshua 2:15-24 Bible text below  Rahab helped them to escape. They promised that when the city was attacked, she and her family would be spared.

3  Jericho was captured (Joshua 6:12-25Bible text below   Joshua attacked Jericho and the walls came tumbling down, but Rahab and her family were saved.

Rahab has special significance for Christians: she is among the four women listed in Matthew's gospel as ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth. The others are Ruth, Tamar and Bathsheba.


Rahab hides the spies       Joshua 2:1-7

The Hebrew tribes led by Joshua came into Canaanite territory, where they encountered city states who did not welcome the intruders. Why should they welcome them? These shabby tribesmen were clearly looking for somewhere to settle, and the Canaanites were naturally reluctant to surrender. 

The path taken by the two spies sent by Joshua from Shittim to Jericho

Luckily for the Hebrews, the Canaanite city states were at a low ebb. Jericho's glory days were over: the walls had fallen into disrepair and most of the houses were in need of repair.

The city itself was surrounded by an inner and an outer wall, as most cities were at the time. The outer wall surrounded the whole city; the inner wall enclosed a central administrative compound for palace, temples, and large-scale food storage. Well-do-do people lived in the central compound; poor and disreputable people lived in the outer compound, between the two walls.

Interior of a tavern cut into the rock wallSomewhere in this outer compound lived a woman called Rahab, with her extended family. They made their living by running a tavern: down- rather than up-market. It was a rowdy place, frequented by men who were not troubled by scruples. Rahab 'comforted' her customers from time to time. In short, she was no better than she should be.

One night two strangers came into her tavern. She was a business-woman who did not ask too many questions - but she noticed that the two men did. Before long she began to suspect they were spies from the Hebrew encampment, gathering information. She knew there were large groups of Hebrew tribesmen nearby, and guessed this was where the two men came from. Rahab was clever. She knew there would probably be an attack on Jericho, and she looked for ways to help her family survive. Bundles of dried flax

During the night there was a banging on the door of her inn. When she answered, two soldiers stood there. They were looking for Hebrew 'spies'. But Rahab had already made her choice, siding with the two strangers. Earlier in the night she had hidden the two men on the flat roof of her house, under large bundles of flax that had been laid out to dry. She hid them well. The soldiers saw the sheaves but did not look under them - it was dark up on the roof. 

Rahab urged the soldiers to pursue the two Hebrew men, whom she said had disappeared into the darkness after they left her inn.

Why did she risk her life?    Joshua 2:8-14

As soon as the soldiers had gone, Rahab went up to the roof area to bargain with the men. She acknowledged that the Hebrews were a real threat to her city, and that Joshua had done an excellent PR job, putting terror into all the local inhabitants by recounting stories about the extraordinary power of his God. 

But, she pointed out, she had saved their lives and they owned her a debt for this. Moreover, she had not merely risked her own life, but the lives of her whole family. She extracted a promise from them: when the time came, they and their army would not molest or harm her family in any way. They would give her safe passage, even if they slaughtered everyone else in Jericho. 

The spies escape   Joshua 2:15-24

Meanwhile the two men were still in mortal danger, trapped in a hostile city. The resourceful Rahab took care of that too. Her house had small rooms, enough to house a family, built into the otherwise solid mass of the city wall. One of these rooms had a window large enough for a man to pass through, and she (with presumably some help from her family) let the two men down on a rope through this window to the ground below. She told them to escape into the hills and stay there for three days, by which time the coast would be clear. 

Before they left, the two men told her to leave a red cord hanging down from the window through which they had escaped. Strong red cord/rope This way, they and all the Hebrew soldiers would know which house/family should be spared the slaughter that the other inhabitants of Jericho would face.

Rahab agreed. She hung the red cord from her window, and the soldiers escaped. 

After a few days they returned to Joshua and told him about their narrow escape, and about their agreement with Rahab. Joshua agreed to her terms.

Jericho is captured   Joshua 6:12-25

Joshua seems to have been waiting for the spies' information. He sprang into action, giving the command to attack Jericho. 

The story of what happened next is familiar (you can read about it here, or the Bible text is here). After the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, the walls fell down, and the terrible slaughter began. No-one, human or animal,  was spared - except Rahab and her family. Joshua had given specific orders regarding her. She and all her family were to be saved: 'But Rahab the harlot, and her father's household, and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive; and she dwelt in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.'

Reconstruction of ancient Jericho, with outer and inner walls, walls in bad repair, and houses/rooms built into the outer wall itself; the collapsed walls made it much easier for Joshua and the Israelites
 to gain access to the city

The Bible text        Joshua 2, 6:12-25

1 And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, "Go, view the land, especially Jericho." And they went, and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there. 2 And it was told the king of Jericho, "Behold, certain men of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land." 3 Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, "Bring forth the men that have come to you, who entered your house; for they have come to search out all the land." 4 But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them; and she said, "True, men came to me, but I did not know where they came from; 5 and when the gate was to be closed, at dark, the men went out; where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them." Houses had flat roofs, often shaded with a thick woven cloth; women used this space as a work and storage area 6 But she had brought them up to the roof, and hid them with the stalks of flax which she had laid in order on the roof. 7 So the men pursued after them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords; and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut. 8 Before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, 9 and said to the men, "I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any man, because of you; for the LORD your God is he who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. 12 Now then, swear to me by the LORD that as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign, 13 and save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death." 14 And the men said to her, "Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the LORD gives us the land." 15 Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was built into the city wall, so that she dwelt in the wall. 

Rahab left a red cord at her window to save herself and her family. There are echoes here of the red blood on the doorways of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, when the Angel of Death passed over their house so that the family within was safe. 

16 And she said to them, "Go into the hills, lest the pursuers meet you; and hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers have returned; then afterward you may go your way." 17 The men said to her, "We will be guiltless with respect to this oath of yours which you have made us swear. 18 Behold, when we come into the land, you shall bind this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down; and you shall gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your father's household. 19 If any one goes out of the doors of your house into the street, his blood shall be upon his head, and we shall be guiltless; but if a hand is laid upon any one who is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head. 20 But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be guiltless with respect to your oath which you have made us swear." 21 And she said, "According to your words, so be it." Then she sent them away, and they departed; and she bound the scarlet cord in the window. 22 They departed, and went into the hills, and remained there three days, until the pursuers returned; for the pursuers had made search all along the way and found nothing. 23 Then the two men came down again from the hills, and passed over and came to Joshua the son of Nun; and they told him all that had befallen them. 24 And they said to Joshua, "Truly the LORD has given all the land into our hands; and moreover all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of us."

Man with shofar, photograph by Roie Galitz

12 Then Joshua rose early in the morning, and the priests took up the ark of the LORD. 13 And the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams' horns before the ark of the LORD passed on, blowing the trumpets continually; and the armed men went before them, and the rear guard came after the ark of the LORD, while the trumpets blew continually. 14 And the second day they marched around the city once, and returned into the camp. So they did for six days. 15 On the seventh day they rose early at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times: it was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. 16 And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, "Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. 17 And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction; only Rahab the harlot and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers that we sent. 18 But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction, and bring trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD." 20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. Roaring flames As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. 21 Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword. 22 And Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, "Go into the harlot's house, and bring out from it the woman, and all who belong to her, as you swore to her." 23 So the young men who had been spies went in, and brought out Rahab, and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her; and they brought all her kindred, and set them outside the camp of Israel. 24 And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. 25 But Rahab the harlot, and her father's household, and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive; and she dwelt in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.



Paintings of Rahab of Jericho

The Harlot of Jericho and the two spies, James Tissot

The Harlot of Jericho and the two spies, by James Tissot

Rahab lowers the two spies down the wall of Jericho

Rahab lowers the two spies down the wall of Jericho

Rahab, by Jan Collaert

Rahab, by Jan Collaert

Rahab the Harlot, artist unknown

Rahab the Harlot, artist unknown

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