Rahab and the Rope of Hope

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“Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim, saying, ‘Go, reconnoiter the region of Jericho.’ So they set out, and they came to the house of a harlot named Rahab and lodged there.” Joshua 2:1

According to Matthew 1:5 the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab, is one of Jesus’ ancestors. The ancient rabbis envisioned her as the foremother of priests and prophets, including Jeremiah and Huldah, even a foremother of kings. To make matters even stranger, they describe Rahab marrying Joshua!

Contrast this with the Law of Moses repeatedly cautioning the Israelites to avoid the seductive powers of the women of Canaan, who “prostitute themselves to their gods and will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods” (Exod 34:16b; cf. Deut 7:3-4; 31:16-18). Note that the spies were from Shittim, the same place where where Israelite men “prostituted themselves” with the women of Moab and worshiped Baal of Peor (Num. 25:1-9). The storyteller leads us to believe that this foray will also end in disaster.

“In what better way could the biblical writer create tension in this story than by first reminding the readers of the evil harlotries of Shittim through the use of this place name and then by introducing the main character as a prostitute, who interacts with two Israelite spies?” (Merling, p.33)

The irony, of course, is that this time the spies are successful but only with the help of the prostitute Rahab.

So what are we to make of this provocative tale? First, let’s start with her name which means “broad” or “wide open.” In Hebrew the term “the broad” has an even more vulgar, sexualize meaning than it does in English.

“In a language related to Hebrew (Ugaritic), the same word refers to the female genitalia. Granted, this is not a proper translation of the Hebrew word; but given the explicit description of Rahab as a prostitute… and the general meaning ‘broad’ or ‘wide,’ which is sexually suggestive for a woman of this metier, the name is almost surely to be taken as a not too subtle symbol of both her occupation and reputation” (Spina, p.55).

And to make matters more interesting, McKinlay notes that in Exodus 3:8, God promises Moses the land of the Canaanites which is described as tovah and rehabah, good and broad! 

The text states that Rahab’s house was part of the city’s exterior wall. “Since ancient city builders built their approach road to the city parallel to the city wall, the proximity of the wall and road would make a house on the wall an ideal vantage point for exhibiting wares to arriving sojourners” (Merling, p.35). Furthermore, it seems Rahab was not a mere prostitute, but the owner of a “house” of prostitution, a madam, if you will. The house was clearly not her family home since her parents and siblings were brought into her house in order to be saved (v 18). Rahab acted independently, without her father or brothers’ permission. “[S]he is a woman who by Israelite definition occupies ‘no man’s land,’ dwelling in a house headed by no man, not even her father (Josh. 6:22-23)” (Streete, p.48). In a role reversal, it is through her negotiations that she saved her father and brothers. “The Rahab story, then, is not only about the foreign woman who saves Israel, but also about the prostitute who saves her father’s house” (Camp, p.309). To confirm that she is the head of the household, when the spies arrived at her establishment, they acknowledged her authority by speaking directly to her.

Based on reports of the military success of the Israelites, Rahab understood that Jericho was about to be invaded. She made a calculated decision to help the potential conquerors by hiding them under flax drying on her roof. If Israel was unsuccessful, then she would have lost nothing. Perhaps she could turn them in for a handsome fee. If, on the other hand Jericho was defeated, she would have saved herself and her family.

When the spies interacted with her, she knew the state of mind of the people of Jericho: “all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you.” In addition, she anticipated that the king would inquire about the spies’ presence in her house. She seemed to be at the hub of the city, knowing the comings and goings of everyone. Campbell suggests that by owning a brothel/inn attached to the city wall, she “sustained a semi-official relationship to the [royal] court, advising the king of recent arrivals within the gates of the city. It was a position of responsibility, therefore, whatever activities went on inside the inn” (Campbell, p.243). It appears that she fulfilled a role similar to the “harlot” in the Epic of Gilgamesh who was employed to avert danger to the community (Streete, p.182) by civilizing the wild stranger in their midst.

As she anticipated, the king of Jericho “sent orders to Rahab” and said, “Produce the men who came to you and entered your house…” The king tried to cover all his bases by identifying the men as either her clients (“the men who came to you”) or lodgers (the men who entered her house). The king of Jericho seems to be saying to Rahab, “Bring them out whether you slept with them or not. They have come to spy on us. Don’t be deceived by them for they seek to destroy this city” (Zakovitch, pp. 84-5). Rahab replied wisely, “Yes, the men came to me,” thereby emphasizing her role as a prostitute. The king’s men would then assume the strangers had received her services and left, rather than taking a room on the premises as lodgers. When the king asked where her guests were from, she answered “but I did not know where they were from.” What brothel owner worth her salt would directly inquire into her client’s past? She made a very believable case for being “ignorant” of the reason for the men’s visit (Zakovitch, p. 87). The king was satisfied with her answer; he even seemed to trust her as a matter of course, further evidence that she enjoyed a relatively high status in Jericho.

The spies also believed that she would protect them. After she sent the king’s men on a wild goose chase out of the city in the opposite direction from the Israelites’ encampment, she attended to the two men cowering on her roof. In addition to being a practical woman, she exhibited great faith in Israel’s God. She spoke as if she had studied the teachings of Moses extensively. She declared that God gave the Israelites the land in a direct fulfillment of Exodus 23:27. Moses proclaimed the promise, Rahab announced its fulfillment. Throughout her speech she echos the words of God spoken at the Sea of Reeds. (For two really good comparisons between the Rahab event and the Exodus story, read Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women and Merling, “Rahab: The Woman Who Fulfilled the Word of YHWH.”) In all likelihood a later editor inserted the speech into the mouth of Rahab. Despite what her original words may have been, overall she is depicted as a righteous woman.

After her speech, she again demonstrated her authority. “[S]he leaves no detail to chance or to [the spies] initiative and supplies them with specific instructions: ‘Get to the mountain, lest the pursuers meet you. Hide there three days, until the pursuers have returned. After you may go your way'” (Zakovitch, p. 91). She pledged loyalty to Yahweh and she requested that in return the Israelites swear that they would spare her and her family. The spies acquiesced to her conditions. Campbell reasons that, “the covenant entered into by her with the spies was not a purely personal insignificant arrangement dreamed up by Rahab on the spur of the moment. It was rather a well-calculated political engagement” (Campell, pp.243-4). Rahab doesn’t just negotiate, she made a formal covenant with the spies, a set formula involving a preamble, prologue, stipulations, sanctions, the oath and finally the sign of the covenant: the scarlet cord. Rahab used “legal language to reflect the juridical important of this treaty transaction” (Frymer-Kensky, Reading, p.38). She could even be described as making a political allegiance.

Rahab then helped the spies escape by lowering them down a rope through a window leading outside the city. Now on the ground outside the city, the spies suddenly had the courage to backpedal on the oath they just made and require a further stipulation. They told her that they would be released from her vow unless she tied a crimson cord to her window.

The spies “evidently realize that the agreement they have made with Rahab represents a serious infraction of the divine directives for dealing with the inhabitants of Canaan; the Law of Moses permits no exemptions from the ban where the Canaanites are concerned (Deut 7:1-6; Exod 34:15)… three times the spies declare their innocence… as if the oath could be nullified by the claim that is was made under duress. ‘This was not our fault,’ they seem to say. ‘This is Rahab’s oath, and she made us swear to it'” (Hawk, Strange, p.95).

The spies made several other requirements, perhaps in an attempt to make it too difficult for her to keep her end of the bargain.

According to Spina (p.63), the word for “rope” in Hebrew is tiqvah which can also mean “hope.” Of course in the context of the story tiqvah obviously means “rope” or “cord.” In the end, it is Rahab’s faith and the display of this red cord which saves her when the walls come tumblin’ down. The red cord marking Rahab’s door also brings to mind the lamb’s blood painted on the doors of the Israelites during the slaying of the firstborn Egyptians. The narrator seems to be intimating that Rahab’s role is crucial to the salvation of Israel. The scarlet cord connects Rahab’s story with the twins that Tamar gave birth to after pretending to be a harlot (Gen. 38). The midwife tied a scarlet cord around the arm of Zerah to indicate that he was the first to emerge, an essential component in determining who received the birthright and thereby became the father of the tribe.

Many commentators argue that the induction of Rahab into the community of Israel marked the beginning of all the later troubles the new arrivals encountered in the land. They argue that Joshua exhibited a lack of faith by sending spies after God already promised the land to the Children of Israel. Then compounding that error, the spies made an oath with a dangerous foreigner when they knew God had commanded them to eradicate all the Canaanites. If this incidence is the beginning of the end so to speak, then why would the narrator depict Rahab in such a positive manner?

Alternatively, some commentators find in Rahab’s story another instance where a woman’s sexual power is directed toward perserving the Israelite male community.  McKinlay’s article makes the case that Rahab was complicity with the patriarchy. Though the arguement is well developed, I am left unconvinced. Rahab exhibits a great deal of intelligence and idependence directed at serving her interests, not the conquerors’.

As a loyal traitor, respectable prostitute and a Canaanite Israelite, Rahab represents the humanized outsider.

“She is the quintessential downtrodden from whom Israel comes and with whom Israel identifies. Just as her pious behavior reverses expectations of how prostitutes act, so her elevation is a reversal of the normal expectations for a prostitute’s future. Once again, as in choosing the younger sons and freeing the slaves, YHWH interrupts normative societal expectations by calling the poor and the downtrodden and raising them over others” (Frymer-Kensky, Studies p.218).

Each of us in our own way is as contradictory as Rahab. Her name is even similar to rakkhah, an ancient Hebrew word for chaos. (In modern Hebrew the word refers to being mixed up, compounded.) The inclusion of her story, serves as a reminder that despite how chaotic and mixed up we all are, we are still honored by God.

For Further Reading

Assis, Elie – “The Choice to Serve God and Assist His People: Rahab and Yael” Biblica 85 (2004) 82-90.

Berquist, J.L. – Reclaiming her Story: The Witness of Women in the Old Testament (St. Louis: Chalice, 1992)

Berquist, J.L. – Controlling Corporeality: The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel

Bird, Phyllis A. – “The Harlot as Heroine: Narrative Art and Social Presupposition in Three Old Testament Texts” in Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, Alice Bach, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1999)

Brenner, Athalya – “Wide Gaps, Narrow Escapes: I am Known as Rahab, the Broad” in P.R. Davies, ed., First Person: Essays in Biblical Autobiography. Biblical Seminar 81. (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002)

Camp, Claudia V. – Wise, Strange and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 320. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000)

Campbell, Ken M. – “Rahab’s Covenant: A short note on Joshua ii 9-21″, Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972), pp.243-44

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva S. – Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism.  A JPS Scholar of Distinction Book. (Jewish Publication Society, 2006)

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva S. – Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (New York: Schoken Books, 2002)

Hawk, L. Daniel – “Strange Houseguests: Rahab, Lot, and the Dynamics of Deliverance” in Reading Between Texts: Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible, Danna Nolan Fewell, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992) 89-97.

Hawk, L. Daniel – “The Problem with Pagans [Rahab],” in Reading Bibles, Writing Bodies: Identity and the Book, Timothy K. Beal and David M. Gunn, eds., (London: Routledge, 1997) 153-63.

Merling, David – “Rahab: The Woman Who Fulfilled the Word of YHWH,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 41 (2003), 31-43.

McKinlay, Judith E. – “Rahab: A Hero/ine?” Biblical Interpretation 7, 1 (1999) 44-57.

Spina, Frank Anthony – The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Eerdmans, 2005)

Streete, Gail Corrington – The Strange Woman: Power and Sex in the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997)

Wiseman, Donald J. – “Rahab of Jericho” Tyndale House Bulletin 14 (June 1964) 8-11 (available online at: http://www.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/library/TynBull_1964_14_02_Wiseman_RahabOfJericho.pdf )

Zakovitch, Yair – “Humor and Theology or the Successful Failure of Israelite Intelligence: A Literary-Folkloric Approach to Joshua 2,” in Text and Tradition: The Hebrew Bible and Folklore, Susan Niditch, ed. SBL Semeia Studies. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990) 75-98.

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