Rahab the Harlot?

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

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 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.

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.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

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.

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.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 23, 2013.


Related Posts

Apr 12
Deborah in the Bible

By: Robin Gallaher Branch

Mar 23
Who Was Moses? Was He More than an Exodus Hero?

By: Biblical Archaeology Society

Mar 6
Anna in the Bible

By: Robin

36 Responses

  1. Melvin Kowsnovski says:

    From the Book of Joshua in Hebrew and the richly detailed video production of La tierra prometida in Spanish and Portuguese, Rahab is depicted as a kind, caring, brave woman, who had to balance daily dangers with faith. She and her family were protected from any destruction during the fall of Jericho. She converted to Judiasim and married Salmon, one of the Hebrew scouts she saved in Jericho, and they became the parents of Boaz, the future husband of Ruth. Rahab is also described as the wife of Joshua. She has been a true hero to the Children of Israel.

  2. Patrick Lafferty says:

    why don’t you cite the artist? bad form

  3. Frederick says:

    It’s inspiring to know that God can and will use anyone who will surrender and make themselves totally available to God. Despite your past, God can use YOU just as you are. It doesn’t matter how others perceive you.

  4. Eliz Levine says:

    Why is it so important to us whether Rahab a harlot or inn-keeper or combo of these? Aren’t the important things how she 1-willingly participated in this narrative, furthering God’s plans? and 2- serves as ex for each of us that NO MATTER OUR STATION in life, we can play a crucial and irreplaceable part in God’s plan?

  5. Steven Bowman says:

    Regrettably ancient Israelite prophets read ZONAH as a ‘prostitute’ and this has colored [red] all women and actions so designated. The Hebrew ZONAH is originally Canaanite and parallels the Aegean ZONH (the belt worn by unmarried girls indicating their sexual availability – an integral custom in their fertility societies). If we judge the past in its cultural context we can better understand the languages and attitudes without imposing our own biases, at least until the conclusion of an essay or sermon.

  6. May says:

    its amazing that even though Rahab was a harlot, Jesus was born through her generation….through Rahab we get the birth of Jesus….surely God is amazing

  7. Sterling says:

    Rahab is explicitly called a harlot (pornae) in Greek in the book of Hebrews.

  8. Dr.Howard Davis says:

    Liberal scholarship is a must when it comes for a need to check them out carefully. ‘Harlot’ in Hebrew as found in Joshua means what it says a prostitute! I have studied Hebrew for many years and I can say with full confidence she was a harlot! In the Septuagint the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible word in Greek means a prostitute when it mentions Rahab. The same Greek word is used in the book of Hebrews and calls Rahab a prostitute. Liberal theologians must be watched very carefully as they will say or do anything to -in some way small or large-to ‘weaken’ the Biblical record or Scriptures which they or at east most do not feel was ‘inspired’ of God. ll Timothy 3:16; ll Peter1:19-21

    Dating for Joshua was mentioned so a good article is found at See: Introduction to the Pentateuch.

  9. Kurt says:

    Then when Jericho’s wall fell down, Rahab’s house, “on a side of the wall,” was not destroyed. (Jos 2:15; 6:22) On Joshua’s orders that Rahab’s household be spared, the same two spies brought her out to safety. After a period of separation from Israel’s camp, Rahab and her family were permitted to dwell among the Israelites. (Jos 6:17, 23, 25) This former prostitute then became the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz in the royal ancestry of the Davidic kings; she is one of the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. (Ru 4:20-22; Mt 1:5, 6) She is also an outstanding example of one who, though not an Israelite, by works proved her complete faith in Jehovah. “By faith,” Paul tells us, “Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who acted disobediently, because she received the spies in a peaceable way.” “Was not also Rahab the harlot declared righteous by works, after she had received the messengers hospitably and sent them out by another way?” asks James.—Heb 11:30, 31; Jas 2:25.

  10. The Whore in the House of Jesse | Magdalene Rising says:

    […] of her society, literally. In the late bronze age when her story takes place historically, it was common for people to build housing adjacent to or within fortification walls like that of Jericho. She was a harlot who kept her family afloat by keeping her tavern well. […]

  11. Jonathan says:

    Also couldn’t Rehab have been both an Innkeeper and a prostitute (under room service charge)?

  12. Jonathan says:

    Actually if you base the Bible on the New Chronology and not the Old then Joshua and the destruction are at the same time.

  13. Jon says:

    @Jeff: I agree with some of what you say, especially about Deborah. But women aren’t all intended to be wives and mothers any more than men are all intended to be husbands (after all, Peter, Paul, John, and many other famous men of the Bible were single; Jesus was while he was on earth). 1 Corinthians 7 confirms this, where Paul says that some have the gift of marriage and others the gift of singleness. Take care not to criticise those who serve God better when single, whose “priorities are not divided”, as Paul puts it.

  14. Jürgen Rahf says:

    The whole story of “Jericho” is just a myth. Jericho was already long time before Joshua “arrived” by earthquake destroyed and not built up long time. See Finkelstein & Silberman. So when (better if…) Joshua ever arrived in Jericho there had been already ruins. So the whole story of Rahab belongs into the biblical trash can.

  15. Yochy says:

    Btw, theologically speaking, there is no reason to believe that gentiles don’t get reward. As long as they’re good people…

  16. Yochy says:

    @James Not sure I follow 100% what you’re saying. Explain more, if you get this. I don’t know Greek, but google translates it as prostitute woman. Interesting point you’re bringing.

    To be critical of what you’re saying from what I do see, here we go – “Theologically and prophetically, the fact that a sinner and an enemy of Israel was entrusted with a part in the plan of God is an indication of the role of the gentiles in the history of salvation.”

    If you look at it from a logical perspective, the city was going to get destroyed anyways. Look on in the other verses where she swore to the spies and mentions the fear amongst them. My guess is the people of Yericho all knew they were going to die. However, in order to minimize casualties and make it all go faster, Yehoshua sent out spies to scout out the city so they knew what they were in for. An additional reason/explanation, is that Jericho was the strongest city in the land and scouting it out would allow them to have a fair idea of what to anticipate.

    That being said, what better place to hide than a brothel? Or an inn. Or an inn owned by a prostitute? Any of the above are subject to scrutinization. So, since they obviously needed a place to hide, it’s fair to assume they would make a deal with the woman provided she swear under oath. They were running from the spies, as is described by later verses, so obviously it is logical to make a deal with her and make her tie a *SCARLET* thread – not red – from her window.

    A slight digression, blood is considered red. The word for blood is “dom – דם”, the word for red is “adom – אדם”. The two words are connected grammatically. I’m not going to explain the connection, but I assure you, blood is called red, not scarlet. Our word, however, is שני, shani – scarlet. If you can find me a place where scarlet alludes to blood, other than your own imagination (i.e. another verse or something), you can keep your drasha. But don’t just pull things out of a hat.

    The reason why they tied a scarlet string, was most likely for the logical reason that scarlet stands out as a marker. They used to mark the maaser beheimah with red, as it is recorded in the Talmud, specifically because it stands out. Maaser beheimah, is the tithing of the tenth animal. 10 of them would walk through the gate and the tenth one they would mark with chalk to seperate it for tithing. They marked it scarlett/red, because red stands out. I can think of many other similar cases. If you’re invading a city, mark the houses you’re going to spare with red before hand so the soldiers can identify. Please, don’t twist p’shat (simple meaning and try to tie this to JC. It has nothing to do with him AT ALL. Maybe Constantine decided it to be, but it doesn’t. Please don’t ruin a good book with such nonsense.

    Bonus question, how do you know that the word “Shani” means red and not the second string?

    “Translation of 2:21 is also important. She binds the scarlet line to the window. This is not a hole in the wall, but window on top of the wall used to secure the line. They don’t escape through the wall. They escape through the scarlet line which comes from above, wherein sin is represented by the harlot and the color of the line which reaches to earth as grace from heaven to earth as an act of mercy.”

    Also, it is more likely that they did escape through the wall and that her house was in the crack of a wall. The word language used in 2:15 is as follows:
    וַתּוֹרִדֵם בַּחֶבֶל בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן כִּי בֵיתָהּ בְּקִיר הַחוֹמָה וּבַחוֹמָה הִיא יוֹשָׁבֶת

    Firstly, the language here is bizzare. Even poetically. B’Ad HaHalon? B’ad in this case means from. Ki beita b’kir hahomah u’bhoma hi yoshevet? How do you translate that? B’kir means in the wall, b’homah means in the wall. Kir is obviously more like the wall of a room, i.e. one side of a wall or a smaller wall or the rim (i.e. of a wall). Where as homah is more like the wall of a fortification or a city or the whole thing, but bigger. So, translate like this: “Behold (because) her house was IN (not on) the wall of the wall (i.e. the town wall) and in the [town] wall she dwelt.” You Christians mistranslated it. Probably intentionally, too. The whole verse is roughly “She lowered the rope from he window, because her house was in the wall of the wall of the city, in the wall she dwelt.” Were the meaning of the verse to mean she dwelt on/upon the wall, it most likely would have said “al hakir” or “al hahomah”, not b’kir. “Al”, means on. When you have the beit as a prefix, it means usually “in”. It can mean “on” as well as “with” (in very limited cases) however, it is not as common of a usage when the word “al” can be used. And in this case it could of been written as “al hakir”.

    *Btw, the translation I gave is rough as it doesn’t really translate over to English so well. Based on the language, there’s no reason to believe she didn’t live in the hole inside the wall. Especially since poor people tended to live on the outskirts of the city and those kinds of areas.

    So, James, stop making up this nonsense.

  17. James Carvin says:

    The LXX has γυναικὸς πόρνης . This reflects the thought of Jewish translators in the 2-3BC era since Joshua would have been among the first of the books so translated as it is part of the Hexateuch. The Hebrews supplied the Vav, which makes it four letters ZONH rather than three ZNH in consonants only. The Masorites interpreted it and added the remaining vowels by the eveleventh century CE so the final result is זוֹנָ֛ה . Theologically and prophetically, the fact that a sinner and an enemy of Israel was entrusted with a part in the plan of God is an indication of the role of the gentiles in the history of salvation. The red cloth by which the spies were lowered to safety is a symbol of the saving blood of Christ, which dripped down from the cross for the sons of promise. Translation of 2:21 is also important. She binds the scarlet line to the window. This is not a hole in the wall, but window on top of the wall used to secure the line. They don’t escape through the wall. They escape through the scarlet line which comes from above, wherein sin is represented by the harlot and the color of the line which reaches to earth as grace from heaven to earth as an act of mercy. Mercy is shown to the sinner in the destruction and she is saved – indicating future salvation and pardon from sin for the gentiles.

  18. Yochy says:

    @ Kurt #11 & Scott #17

    Firstly, Kurt, you have no clue what you’re talking about. Both interpertations amongst “Jewish traditionalists” were equally upheld. The word can be read either way. Zonah, is translated in the Targum Yonatan (a tanaaic source) as “lady innkeeper”. The Talmud also states in different places, or at least infers, that she was very beautiful and had been a prostitute since the age of 10. So, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    The word itself, Zonah, by itself, means basically a prostitute. The root word of “Zonah” comes from “Zanah/Zani”. Which means to run to and fro, wander, run away from, run after,to run about as a prostitute, faithless, or to be unchaste. So, obviously, Zonah meaning prostitute is a simple reading of the word. Zonah, however, can also mean one who provides provisions. However, “Zan/Zeiyn/Zana(with an alef, not a heh)”, can mean quality, nature, kind, or species. I.e. Mazon, zoon, etc – all connotative of sustenance, support, nourish, etc.There is a close connection between the words. Again, there is a tanaaic aramaic translation of the book of Joshua, Targum Yonatan, which supports this.

    Moreover, the entire reason the author of this article knows that the word is Zonah and connotates one thing or the other, comes explicitly from the “Jewish traditionalists”, who preserved the tradition in how to read the words with their vowels properly. So, Johnny-come-2000 years late and his Jehovah Witness friends don’t really have a position to make such statements. Biblical scholars and anyone who reads Hebrew, only know the definition of Hebrew words because their definitions and how to read them were passed down as an oral tradition. So, having an Aramaic translation from some 1800 years ago holds a lot more authority than the Jehovah Witness understanding.

  19. scott says:

    i often wanderd how everyone came to that conclusion as my bible says inkeeper and in studying that word it dont say either from the strongs version weather it was an assumption as they were without the word i still dont know this doesnt quell anything im still in wanderment

  20. Bronwen says:

    Daniel, you seem ignorant of the fact that Biblical Hebrew used only consonants. The choice of vowels can alter the meaning, so the article asks an important question.

  21. Joe says:

    Another literary creation.

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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.

  25. 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:

  26. Daniel says:

    The word should be transliteration

  27. 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.

  28. Daffy 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.

  29. David R Lowden 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.

  30. 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

  31. Rachel Lewis Murphy 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.

  32. Parpinel Frederic says:

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

  33. Parpinel 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.

  34. evelyn reed says:

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

  35. Aldo says:

    How far can biblical archaeology go to foster religious fiction?

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend