Rahab the Harlot?

The wall of Jericho yields insights into the home of Rahab in the Bible

Rahab the harlot? It may be a surprise to some readers, but Biblical prostitutes were commonly mentioned in the text. What was the profession of Rahab in the Bible? Here, she assists Israelite spies down what may be a casemate wall, within which her home may have been located. Image: CCI/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.

In the Book of Joshua, Rahab (a heroine nonetheless known as “Rahab the Harlot”) assisted two Israelite spies in escaping out a window and down the city wall of Jericho. Who was Rahab in the Bible? A Biblical prostitute or just an innkeeper? Did she live on the wall of Jericho or within it, in what is known to archaeologists as a casemate wall? Anthony J. Frendo addresses these questions about the life of Rahab in the Bible in the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Whether or not she was a Biblical prostitute, archaeology may at least be able to answer whether Rahab lived on or in the casemate wall of Jericho.

Rahab helped two Israelites when they came to spy out the land of Jericho. She hid them on her roof when the king came for them. When the coast was clear, Rahab let the spies down by a rope through the window.

So what do we know about Rahab the harlot? Was she a Biblical prostitute? The Biblical text identifies her as a zônāh, a prostitute (Joshua 2:1), but she seems more like a landlady. Indeed, the first-century C.E. historian Josephus reports that she kept an inn. The consonants that comprise the word “prostitute” in Hebrew are znh, which are the same consonants that comprise the Hebrew word for a female who gives food and provisions. The text doesn’t describe Rahab’s profession negatively, as one might expect from a description of Biblical prostitutes. The lifestyle of Rahab in the Bible continues to elude us. Whether we remember her as Rahab the harlot or innkeeper, she was a Biblical heroine.

To learn more about Biblical women with slighted traditions, take a look at the Bible History Daily feature Scandalous Women in the Bible, which includes articles on Mary Magdalene and Jezebel.

We may be able to understand the chronology of the story by examining whether Rahab lived on the wall of Jericho or in the city’s casemate. The structure of the city wall varied in different periods in ancient Israel. In the Late Bronze Age, the time in which the story of Rahab in the Bible was set, thick defensive walls were common; people could conceivably have lived on them. During the Iron Age II period (sixth century B.C.E.), when the Book of Joshua was thought to have been edited, Israelite settlements were often surrounded by a casemate wall, which was comprised of two parallel walls with periodic perpendicular walls, forming casemates, or rooms, that people lived within. Analyzing the Hebrew words for “within the wall,” which described the residence of Rahab the harlot, along with the chronology of defensive construction in ancient Israel, Frendo suggests that Rahab lived on the wall. Frendo proposes that an editor changed the Hebrew to reflect that Rahab lived in the wall of Jericho within a casemate wall, rather than on top of a thick defensive wall, to make the text understandable to people in Israel during the late Iron Age.

BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Was Rahab Really a Harlot?” by Anthony J. Frendo as it appears in the September/October 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

In his character study of Joshua, Elie Wiesel writes “The only moment of tenderness in this account is the story of Rahab in Jericho.” Read the full discussion for free in Bible History Daily.


Learn more about Rahab and the conquest of Jericho in the BAS Library.

Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Biblical Views: The Archaeology of Rahab,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2007.

Bryant G. Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1990.

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14 Responses

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  1. Aldo says

    How far can biblical archaeology go to foster religious fiction?

  2. Evelyn says

    I feel very sad for you, only truth can help .

  3. frederic says

    When done, Evelyn…
    It does make sense that Rahab wasn’t a harlot,, but a inn-keeper. Here is one other reason: when she asked the two Israelite spys to promess her that her family would not be hurt in any case. It would be obvious that a family , if it’s well grown, wouldn’t have a harlot among its members. It is a point of view that would be debated, I think.

  4. frederic says

    I meant “Well done, Evelyn”, not “When done” !

  5. Rachel says

    Why is it that every woman in the Bible had to be a wife or mother or harlot? Also, what I always had problems with understanding is that Jesus was suppose to have the human experiences in life. How can He understand the human experience if he never married or knew a woman? That is quite a large part of an adult’s life. Besides, the Bible has been translated from several languages and written by humans hundreds or thousands of years after the events. It is not always easy to find the exact translations for certain words or phrases. Also, there is a human factor of adding and deleting and changing words, phrases and stories. I read the Bible for the stories. I believe that to follow the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, Golden Rule and Faith covers everything in life.

  6. Jeff says

    @ Rachel **Debra was known not as a wife, mother or harlot, but as a judge who brought shame to the male leaders of her day because they were afraid to go to war without her. The bible seems to concentrate on the roles women were designed by God to perform–as wives and mothers–and the most obvious corruption of that design–harlotry. Some may discount this interpretation, but the fact that you had such a question points to the reality of my answer–God made women to be wives and mothers. it’s not shameful, nor degrading, nor belittling, but a glorious truth that women might find liberating to accept–my wife has.
    **Jesus was betrothed–to the church, with a wedding supper promised at the end after He comes to claim His bride. So He knew what it was like to be married, in a sense.
    **The stories in the bible are certainly vivid and memorable, but if they are just stories, why would one part of a story (like the 10 Commandments or the Beatitudes) be more trustworthy as rules to live by than any other part of any other story? Is it that you’ve decided you like those rules but not others? But if we get to decide which rules we like, that makes us the rule-makers, or in other words, puts us in the place of God. Even Jesus, who claimed to be equal with God, recognized the authority of His Father over himself, only doing what His Father wanted Him to do. This, too, is a liberating lifestyle–to acknowledge God as our supreme authority and to accept the death of His Son as payment for our sins. “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’” John 8:31-32

  7. David R says

    Aldo – Biblical Archeology need not go far to “foster religious fiction” man already does that regularly by himself. The better question is how far it can go to present truth and to clarify untruth which man continues to foster. And I think the answer is as infinitely as God’s will and love to provide the truths we need and seek through these investigations and reporting of them.

  8. COBB says

    Rahab is used poetically in Psalms 89:10 to mean Egypt. The spies sent to Jericho were culturally Egyptian. When informed of the Israelite spies The King of Jericho Sent to Rahab or Little Egypt so to speak. Where else would Egyptians go in Jericho.

  9. Daniel says

    Terrible exegesis. Taking “consonants” from a word to change the meaning of a word is not recommended. In this case the consonants that are claimed “znh” are english letters that are probably not even in the original Hebrew making this claim even more dubious (the “Zhn being from the Hebrew translation). Could she have been the “madam” of the whorehouse? Possibly … we do not know. But the meaning of the Hebrew word “zanah” is “to commit fornication … to be or play the harlot” but the NT writer of Hebrews describes her as “porne” which means “a woman who sells her body for sex.” That pretty much seals it. I would give this article zero credence.

  10. Daniel says

    The word should be transliteration

  11. Kurt says

    [Heb., Ra·chav′, possibly, Wide; Spacious]. A prostitute of Jericho who became a worshiper of Jehovah. In the spring of 1473 B.C.E., two Israelite spies came into Jericho and took up lodging at Rahab’s home. (Jos 2:1) The duration of their stay there is not stated, but Jericho was not so big that it would take a long time to spy it out.
    That Rahab really was a harlot, or prostitute, in the common sense of the word has been denied in some circles, especially among Jewish traditionalists, but this does not seem to have support in fact. The Hebrew word zoh·nah′ always has to do with an illicit relationship, either sexual or as a figure of spiritual unfaithfulness, and in each instance where it denotes a prostitute, it is so translated. It is not rendered “hostess,” “innkeeper,” or the like. Besides, among the Canaanites harlotry was not a business of ill repute.
    Read more:

  12. Carlos says

    Tradução Original no Hebraico:
    E enviou Yehoshua filho de Num, dois homens, desde Sitim, para espiar secretamente, dizendo: andai, vede a Terra e a Jericó. E foram e entraram na casa de uma mulher hospedeira, cujo nome era Rahab, e dormiram lá.

    Rahab, a “zoná”. Em Hebraico, esta palavra significa prostituta. Contudo esta palavra deriva do verbo “ZAN”, que quer dizer suprir alimentos, (Dona de uma Hospedaria) ou seja, “HOSPEDEIRA” e não “PROSTITUTA”.

    O comentarista judeu medieval Rashi afirma que ela era uma vendedora de alimentos no mercado em Jericó. O historiador do primeiro século dC Josefo menciona que Raabe manteve uma pousada.

    Nota: Não é porque o seu nome significa prostituta, que ela seja de fato uma prostituta. Existe também a prostituição espiritual. Todo aquele que não tem o D’us de Israel como seu D’us, comete prostituição espiritual.
    Sem falar que ela conhecia do D’us de Israel. “E disse aos homens: “Bem sei que o Senhor vos deu esta terra e que o pavor de vós caiu sobre nós, e que todos os moradores da terra estão desfalecidos diante de vós.
    Porque temos ouvido que o Senhor secou as águas do Mar Vermelho diante de vós, quando saíeis do Egito, e o que fizestes aos dois reis dos amorreus, a Siom e a Ogue, que estavam além do Jordão, os quais destruístes”. Josué 2:9-10. Fato que velou ajudar os espias.

  13. Jessie says

    @ Jeff… Amen to that!
    @ Cobb, high fives!
    @ Evelyn & Frederic, pray for the lost and keep strong to the TRUTH :)
    @ David, right on brother!
    @ Daniel, praise God for discernment right!

    Rahab, regardless of her “title” was used by God for God’s purpose as we are used throughout life. She understood what was required to be a follower/believer… “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Proverbs 9:10
    Our job now is to make disciples so they too can move the needle for the cause of the Kingdom right. She went from bad to good. I’m sure we all know that story all to well and use it to witness to others. Continue being the light in the darkness and let’s show the world who Jesus is today and back then!

  14. Randy says

    I think this story is a great illustration how anyone can be used of God. There are so many in the bible who are full of weakness and sin (according to the O.T. law). They experienced the grace of God and so can I.

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