This post is the second in an Advent series on the women listed in Christ’s lineage recorded in Matthew 1: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary of Nazareth.
Read Rahab’s story in Joshua 2 & 6.
In the Christian tradition, we often assign nicknames to characters in scripture, such as “Doubting Thomas” and the “Virgin Mary”. These nicknames are not always a bad thing, but they do affect our understanding of certain characters and stories. For example, always describing Thomas as “doubting” brings negative connotations into stories in which Thomas doesn’t show signs of doubt. Likewise, perpetually understanding Mary as “the virgin” ignores the fact that she went on to have other children after Jesus (Matt. 13:55-56).
Nicknames can be helpful, but they can give us a simplified version of the story, and not necessarily an accurate one. This is important to keep in mind when learning about Rahab, because very few stories are as misunderstood, due to nicknames, as hers.
RAHAB “THE PROSTITUTE”
Rahab is commonly referred to as Rahab “the prostitute”. This isn’t surprising when we consider that scripture also calls her this, but it can be problematic. The difficulty with this nickname isn’t that it is incorrect, but that it limits our understanding of who she was.
In Christian tradition, the word “prostitute” is almost synonymous with “great sinner”. “Prostitute” makes us think of a woman willfully selling herself in order to make a profit, but abolitionists will tell you that most of the time prostitution is not a voluntary industry. A more comprehensive view of prostitution includes the reality that most are victims of sex slavery. Perhaps “prostitute” should bring imagery into our minds about someone who is in bondage, not someone voluntarily living a “life of sin”.
Regardless of the circumstances, to focus on this as the primary indication of her identity misses the greater contribution she makes to the survival and history of Israel. Breaking free of the traditional view of Rahab allows us to learn afresh from the scriptures, and give us a fuller understanding of this ancestor of Jesus. The Bible has quite a lot to say about this woman, whom Church tradition has often sidelined as a harlot.
Here are a few more nicknames that might be helpful.
Rahab “the social outcast”
Rahab had three strikes against her: She was a foreigner, a woman, and a prostitute. In other words, she was the epitome of the social outcast.
She is not someone who we would expect to defy a king, save Israelite spies, and play a part in God’s people taking the Promised Land. But this is exactly what happens. Rahab is the first occupant of the foreign lands to show loyalty to Israel and Israel’s God, Yahweh, and is welcomed in as a new member of the nation.
Rahab’s story shows that God not only has a place for the socially marginalized and abused but God also raises them to do great things.
Rahab “the rescuer”
Frymer-Kensky observes that “the book of Joshua tells the tale of the entry into Canaan as a mirror image of the Exodus from Egypt”. Throughout Moses’ life, women saved him, from the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh, to his wife, Zipporah, who appeased God’s anger.
Similarly, Rahab acts for the spies as the midwives did for Moses when she defies the king’s commands in order to save them. Further correlations can be drawn between the two stories as Rahab even hides the spies from the king’s men, as Moses’ mother hid him from Pharaoh.
Rahab’s story reminds us that throughout the Old Testament, God uses women to protect the future of the nation of Israel.
Rahab “the prophet”
In Joshua 2:8-11, Rahab declares that Israel will successfully take over the land of Jericho. The Israelites do not yet know this to be true, but her words bear weight and they carry her message back to Joshua. Rahab’s foretelling of the work of the Lord causes Joshua to move into action. Frymer-Kensky says it beautifully,
“The first prophet after Moses to announce to Israel the paths of her history, Rahab becomes the first oracle of Israel’s destiny”.
Rahab “foreshadowing the coming Savior”
When we adopt the understanding that Rahab was more than likely a victim of sex slavery, we get a very different view of her than tradition teaches. Rahab would have been socially marginalized, not because of her own sin, but because of the abuses done to her.
It’s an interesting idea, and the more I learn about modern-day human trafficking, the more I believe that this would have been the situation. She most likely did not initiate or willfully consent to the acts of prostitution performed, yet she would have had to carry the weight of other people’s sin, through social stigma, as if it was her own.
Who else in scripture knows that kind of pain and burden other than Jesus? Jesus carried the weight of our sins on the cross as if they were his own. Furthermore, Rahab plays the temporary savior to Israel by protecting the spies, declaring their victory, and enabling God’s plan to move forward.
In these two ways, Rahab foreshadows the coming Savior, who will be one of her descendants, and who will bear the sins of the world.
RAHAB IN LIGHT OF ADVENT
Rahab is a courageous and clever woman, listed among Israelite heroes in Hebrews 11:31 for her faith, and mentioned in James 2:25-26 as an example of faith in action. Regardless of her nickname, this biblical heroine goes on to establish a family in the land of Israel, one that will continue for generations and will eventually include Jesus of Nazareth.
In Matthew 1 we read that one of Rahab’s descendants is Boaz, who marries the next woman listed in Christ’s lineage, Ruth. These stories prepare the way for the coming Messiah.
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 Frymer-Kensky, pg. 36, Reading the Women of the Bible
 Ibid, pg. 37
 Ibid, pg. 298
Thank you so much for this, Kate! I am loving this series already.
I appreciate the point you made at the beginning about nicknames. Recently, I’ve been completely captivated by the story of Martha, realizing her wonderful friendship with Jesus and that the views of her I’ve heard all my life are not based on the actual text (or the words of Jesus). She is now one of my favorite Biblical characters. Such a gift to look beyond the labels to the people.
I agree! Searching beyond labels gives us a much better picture of who these wonderful women were!
Great post, Kate. I love the parallels you drew with Moses and like thinking about her as a prophet.
Also, during the 1st century at least, prostitution was the typical profession of poor women, as they usually had no other means of survival.
Great point Heidi!
OK, this is hands-down the best article I’ve ever read on Rahab (and I’ve read tons about her). Prophet, rescuer, social outcast, shadow of Christ: what a woman!
Thank you Tim!
Wow! Such revelation. I never realised before that Moses’ life was saved repeatedly by women. And I completely agree with you that Rahab was more likely a victim than a seductress! I love that you call her Rahab the Rescuer! And so she was. Other stories put her forward as a brilliant business woman, but your article makes it clear that she was prophetic and full of courage and integrity, and like many others, she had an inner awareness of God even though she hadn’t had the knowledge and teaching of the Israelites. What a fantastic article. Ahhh… I love the smell of revelation! It changes everything.
Thanks for such encouraging feedback Bev! I am going to have to give credit to my mom on the “rescuer” title 🙂 I had a different one and she suggested that instead. I really enjoyed reading about the prophetic side of Rahab! I learned so many new things about her through writing this!
Kate, please write more about her if you have it… it would be great to read about her. It’s not just Rahab’s title but the whole article. I always love to read revelation, it’s got so much power to change lives.
“Throughout the Old Testament, God uses women to protect His plans for the future of the nation of Israel.”
Yo, what’s up with the masculine pronoun here?
Great article though, determining Rahab’s social location is important to unlocking her humanity instead of seeing her as an “object used to bring Christ.” I think the same goes for Mary, getting away from her virginal identity is an important metaphor to understanding her agency in the gospel.
I am sorry if the masculine pronouns offended you. I don’t mean for them to mean anything about the gender of God. I wish there was a better, gender neutral pronoun option to describe God!
Just a thought to sidestep the pronoun issue…’throughout the Old Testament, women were utilized in amazing, counter-cultural ways to protect God’s plans for the future of the nation of Israel’. I think that implies God did it.
Loved the article and the insight!
Thank you for shedding insight of Rahab taking part in prophetic work of the Lord’s will over Israel. It’s encouraging view her with the added spiritual power component to recognize the plans of God’s will for Israel, pointing her towards Christ Jesus. God is truly amazing in this way!
I like to note that there have been debates about her being a prostitute or an innkeeper. Either way, the amazing truth is that not only did she recognize God as a her Savior, she saw it worthy to risk her life (probably family too if she was ever discovered by the king) for a brand new life in Christ. That is courage and beauty combined!
Yes, I have heard some say that Rahab may have been an innkeeper. I looked into it during my short study and couldn’t find very solid evidence for it. Wouldn’t that be an interesting twist though? It is thought-provoking for sure, and I am curious to see what people find as they look deeper into that possibility!
What a great piece on Rahab!!!
Kate, thanks for shining light on this remarkable woman!
“A more comprehensive view of prostitution in Old Testament times (and even today, but that’s a different post) includes the reality that some women were victims of sex slavery.”
This quote reminds me of how concubines were also “taken” by men….they did not volunteer for this position.
Great point Anne. It is so important that we talk about what these situations would have actually been like for the women in them.
Rahab is one of my favorite women in the Bible! I appreciate everything you wrote!
In Jewish tradition there is debate over whether she had been a court or a temple prostitute during the years that the Israelites were wandering around in the Wilderness – as she knew all about them – or whether she was just an innkeeper who would be responsible for giving the king information about visitors. Josephus referred to her as an innkeeper.
Was Rahab a prostitute? or was she a woman who was not married, and not a virgin – maybe from fornication, or from adultery – she was a pagan after all and she was not part of Israel (Same word – all encompassed) – and she provided lodging for people who came to town? The Young’s literal concordance translates the word as “harlot” and defines it as “fornicator.” So, yeah, she’d had sex, with someone(s) not her husband. And I think this may be why the text mentions that she is a ‘harlot’ at all . . . whatever someone’s past, there is the potential for conversion and redemption!
I have a much easier time believing that the righteous spies sent out from an ‘Israel matured and ready to enter the Promised Land’ found lodging with a woman who wasn’t/isn’t pure sexually but turns out to be righteous in that she fears and honors the Lord by protecting the Israelite spies and working on behalf of the Israelite Nation, than I can imagine that the righteous spies from Israel stepped foot in Jericho and ran straight away to the local whore’s house and she happens to see the big picture and do the right thing.
Also interesting to me is the Jewish tradition that after her conversion she marries Joshua and they have 8 sons. I find that tradition to be so much more rich and encouraging, as a woman, than the one dimensional “every woman in the OT is a prostitute” traditions I was raised on 😉
Crystal, thanks for sharing that additional information! I had heard that in Jewish tradition Rahab marries Joshua, although as far as I know, there isn’t enough scriptural support for that to say for sure. The implication that she may have been an innkeeper are fascinating and I’ve tried to research that as well – it makes sense as her place was in or near the city walls and it seems as though her family members may have lived there with her. If you’re interested in in-depth discussion of women in the OT I highly recommend Jewish scholar Frymer-Kensky’s book “Reading the Women of the Bible”!