This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.
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 2013 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.
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.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 23, 2013.
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.