Rahab: Harlot or Host?
(Josh 2:1-24 + 6:22-25)
By Don C. Benjamin
Philosophical & Religious Studies
Arizona State University
The Stories of Rahab (Josh 2: 1-24+6:22-25) emphasize that the land belongs, not to the powerful like Joshua who exterminates its people, but to the powerless like Rahab who welcome them. Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.) and his political heirs claim the land by violence which led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. by Babylon and the deportation of the household of David. The people of the land like the household of Rahab remained in the land because they claim it with hospitality.
The characters in the stories play roles in a society shaped by the tributary economics of Egypt during the Late Bronze period (1400-1200 B.C.E.). Egyptian governors leased land to indigenous rulers -- like the ruler in the stories and provided them with soldiers -- like those who interrogate Rahab. Each ruler managed a trade center -- like the city in the stories – surrounded by villages of farmers and herders -- like the household of Rahab. Villagers harvested raw materials and manufactured goods for Egypt. Representatives of these villages -- like Rahab -- lived in cities to protect their goods in transit. The political reforms of Pharaoh Akhenaten (1364-1347 B.C.E.) plunged Egypt into economic turmoil. Egypt recalled its governors and soldiers. Villagers fled, and some -- like Joshua and his warriors -- became raiders who attacked caravans and trade centers.
The household of Rahab manufactures rope for Egypt. Flax is a delicate plant with blue flowers native to Syria-Palestine. As early as 5000 B.C.E., farmers began domesticating the first of some 200 species used for linseed oil, fodder, cloth, and rope. Farmers pulled the stalks when the seeds were ripe and dried them. Refiners pressed the seeds to extract linseed oil. The dregs became animal fodder. After soaking the stalks to ret or loosen the outer fibers, they spread them on rooftops to dry. Weavers hackled or combed the fibers from the inner core and spun them into thread. The short, tangled fibers left over from the combing were tow, which made a coarse yarn. Flax and wool were the standard fibers used for clothing until the advent of cotton.
The stories introduce Rahab as a prostitute. Joshua's warriors may have gone to her house to have sex, but their relationship is more sophisticated. With the exception of this label of shame, the stories treat Rahab with honor throughout. They use the label in the crisis in order to refute it in the denouement. She subverts the male establishments of both Joshua and the ruler of the land, but her behavior is neither prohibited nor scandalous, like the behavior of Ruth (Ruth 3:1-18), of Tamar (Gen 38:1-30), or of Bathsheba (l Kgs 1:553). There are also no demurs insisting that Rahab is not a suitable candidate for her mission.
The time when the stories were told offers one explanation for the contrast between her title and her actions. Stories about Joshua developed during the reign of Josiah. Joshua was Josiah’s hero. His storytellers drew clear parallels between the accomplishments of Josiah and Joshua. For example, Josiah called the people of Judah to the temple to celebrate Passover; consequently, the book of Joshua portrays Joshua calling the Hebrews to the sanctuary at Shechem to renew their covenant with Yahweh.
The household of Rahab may have considered the temple in Jerusalem little more than a royal chapel, and so, despite Josiah’s decree requiring all the households of Judah to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem, the household of Rahab may have continued to celebrate Passover at the Gilgal sanctuary of Jericho. Josiah could tell the stories of all that Yahweh did in Jerusalem at their temple, but her household would go to Gilgal to tell the stories of all that Yahweh did at Jericho. Consequently, Josiah's prophets labeled Rahab a prostitute, not because of the work she did in the Late Bronze period, but because of the political position that her household took in the Iron Age.
In contrast to other stories about Joshua, Rahab is the protagonist here. Even more unusual, they celebrate Rahab as a better warrior than Joshua, and as more faithful to Yahweh.
Reconnaissance determines the strength of the enemy, which in herem war is irrelevant. Warriors go intoherem war at a disadvantage as an act of faith that highlights the victory belongs to Yahweh. To prepare for herem war, chiefs may use prophets (l Kgs 22:5), divination (2 Kgs 13: 15), necromancy (l Sam 28:6), and the ephod with itsurim and thummim (l Sam 30:7-8; 1 Sam 28:6), but not reconnaissance. Chiefs who use reconnaissance are petty (Num 13:1-14:15), cowardly (Deut 1:19-46), greedy (Judg 1:22-26), and faithless (Judg 18: 1-31).
Joshua personally selects the reconnaissance team, yet they are immediately detected by the ruler of the land. In contrast, Rahab is a military genius. She designs safe houses, uses camouflage and distributes misinformation. Her ruler considers Rahab’s competence serious enough to have her under surveillance. Yet the soldiers he sends to interrogate her instead take orders from her. Finally, she knows all the tactics necessary to scale down the walls of a city, and just how to avoid patrols along the Jordan River.
The stories cast Rahab as being as shrewd as Abraham or Isaac. The Bible regularly celebrates the shrewdness with which Israel's ancestors outwit foreign rulers. Abraham shrewdly outwits Pharaoh and the ruler of Gerar. Isaac outwits a Philistine ruler.
The first denouement reports Rahab's profession of faith: it is Yahweh who gives Israel land and who sets Israel free. Her vocabulary is taken from Deuteronomy, which was the basis of Josiah's reform.
In the second denouement, Rahab exercises her obligations as a covenant partner of Yahweh. She never doubts that Yahweh will conquer the land. Therefore, she asks Joshua’s warriors to spare her household when Yahweh sweeps through it as Yahweh swept through Egypt. Like the Hebrews who celebrated their first Passover by marking their doors with lamb's blood, Rahab celebrates the Passover of her household by marking her window with a blood-red rope.
The Stories of Rahab defend her household against Josiah, the new Joshua, who tried to excommunicate it for continuing to worship Yahweh outside Jerusalem. By contrasting Rahab's gracious hospitality, outstanding military skill, and profound faith with Joshua's questioning faith and bungling strategy, the storytellers certify that her household should continue to enjoy all the rights and privileges of a covenant partner in early Israel. For the book of Joshua the land belongs, not to the powerful like Joshua who conquer its inhabitants, but to the powerless like Rahab who welcome strangers with hospitality.