Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
Stories of Rahab (Josh 2:1-24; 6:22-25)

Stories of Rahab as Host

(Josh 2:1–24 + 6:22–25)

Don C. Benjamin

Arizona State University

Stories of Rahab as Host begin when Joshua dispatches two warriors from Shittim on a reconnaissance mission. The destination of the warriors is not Jericho, but simply the land (Josh 2:24). They go directly to the house of a woman named Rahab. She greets these strangers with hospitality, in contrast to the ruler of the city, who will threaten them with violence. Almost immediately the ruler of the land sends soldiers to question Rahab about collaborating with Joshua’s warriors. The story ends when she rescues the two warriors with cleverness and courage.

The characters in the stories play roles in a society shaped by the tributary economics of Egypt at the end of the Late Bronze period (1400–1200 bce). Egypt stationed governors and military detachments, like the soldiers who interrogate Rahab, in Syria-Palestine to represent its interests. These governors leased the land to rulers, like the monarch in the story, to harvest raw materials like flax and to produce manufactured goods like rope for Egypt. Surrounding trade centers, like the city in the story, were villages of farmers and herders, like the household of Rahab. Governors set quotas of goods and services for each village. Representatives of these villages, like Rahab, lived in cities to protect their goods in transit.

The political reforms of Pharaoh Akhenaten (1364–1347 bce) plunged Egypt into economic turmoil. Egypt recalled its governors and soldiers from Syria-Palestine. Those Egyptian officials who remained were powerless to harvest and process raw materials. Households began to abandon their villages and pioneer new ones in the hills above the Jordan River. Some, like Joshua and his warriors, became raiders who attacked caravans moving to and from trade centers. Officials filled diplomatic pouches to Akhenaten’s government at Amarna with urgent appeals for help. These letters describe conditions similar to those in the books of Joshua and Judges.


Letter 244: 1-30[1]

To: Pharaoh, My Lord, My Sun
From: Biridiya, Your Loyal Client, Governor of Megiddo

I am your client, and I renew my covenant with you as my pharaoh by bowing before you seven times seven times.

Pharaoh should know that, since he recalled his archers to Egypt, Lab’ayu, the Governor of Shechem, has not stopped raiding the land of Megiddo. The people of Megiddo cannot leave the city to harvest for fear of Lab’ayu's soldiers.

Because you have not replaced the archers, Lab’ayu is now strong enough to attack the city of Megiddo itself. If pharaoh does not reinforce the city, Lab’ayu will capture it.

The people of Megiddo are already suffering from hunger and disease. I beg pharaoh to send 100 soldiers to protect Megiddo from Lab’ayu or he will certainly capture the city.

References to flax and rope in the stories may suggest that the household of Rahab made rope from flax for Egypt. Wild flax is a delicate plant with beautiful blue flowers and is native to Syria-Palestine. As early as 5000 bce, farmers began domesticating the first of some 200 species eventually used throughout the world of the Bible for linseed oil, fodder, cloth, and rope. The Gezer Almanac assigns a month for harvesting flax.

Gezer Almanac[2]

August-September to harvest olives,                              
October-November to sow wheat and barley,    
December-January to plant vegetables,    
February to cut hay,                                                                
March to harvest barley,                                                  
March-April to harvest wheat and distribute tithes,             
May-June to cut grapes,                                                  
July-August to harvest figs and pomegranates

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 (Judg 16:9), which made a coarse yarn. Flax and wool were the standard fibers used to weave clothing until the development of cotton.

Rahab is a nickname that praises YHWH for enlarging a household (1 Chr 23:17; 24:21). Nevertheless, the opening episode introduces Rahab as a prostitute. Joshua’s warriors may have gone to her house to have sex, but the relationship between the warriors and the woman may be much more sophisticated.

The stories contrast Rahab’s shameful title and honorable actions with the honorable title and shameful actions of Joshua. They use a label like prostitute for Rahab in its crisis in order to refute it in the denouement. With the exception of this label of shame, the stories treat Rahab with honor throughout.

Even though Rahab subverts the male establishments of both Joshua and the ruler of the land, 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 (1 Kgs 1:5–53). The stories contain no demurs insisting that Rahab is not a suitable candidate for her mission. In the books of Samuel-Kings, Jesse apologizes: …here remains yet the youngest, but behold he is keeping the sheep (1 Sam 16:11). In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet demurs: YHWH, my divine patron, I do not even know how to speak (Jer 1:6). Not one character in these Stories of Rahab as Host, however, apologizes that she is only a prostitute.

Later biblical and rabbinical traditions also treat Rahab with honor. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah-Chronicles (1 Chr 2:10) honor Rahab as the mother of Boaz. Respect for Rahab continues in the earliest translations and commentaries. Early Jewish translations (Aramaic: Targumim) of the Bible into the Aramaic language translate the Hebrew word for prostitute into Aramaic as innkeeper. Rabbis like Rashi argue that Rahab is a grocer. The Letter to the Hebrews honors her as a woman of faith (Heb. 11:31). The rabbis celebrate Rahab as one of the four most beautiful women in the world. The Talmud has Joshua marry Rahab, so that, ironically, he masters Syria-Palestine only to be mastered by Syria-Palestine’s most engaging woman. At least eight of their descendants were prophets of the stature of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Huldah (b. Meg. 15a).

The time when the Stories of Rahab as Host were told may offer one explanation for the contrast between her title and her actions. Like many traditions about Joshua, who lived at the end of the Late Bronze period, these stories developed during the reign of Josiah.

Josiah called all the people of Judah to the Temple in Jerusalem to renew the covenant (2 Kgs 23:21–23; 2 Chr 35:1–19).  Consequently, the book of Joshua portrays Joshua calling the Hebrews to the sanctuary at Shechem to renew their covenant with YHWH (Josh 24:1–28). The household of Rahab may have considered the Temple in Jerusalem as little more than a royal chapel, so may have continued to worship YHWH at the Gilgal sanctuary of Jericho. Josiah and the household of David could go up to the Temple to tell their stories of the great works that YHWH did in Jerusalem, but the household of Rahab would go to Gilgal to tell the stories of the great works that YHWH 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 (2 Kgs 9:22; Isa 23:16–17; Nah 3:4). She is a prostitute because her household was in political exile in the days of Josiah.

A similar use of prostitute to mean traitor or heretic appears in a Trial of Samaria in the book of Micah (Micah 1:2–7), which does not indict Samaria for failing to prosecute women and men who are sex workers, but indicts the state for negotiating covenants for trade and military assistance that provided luxury for a few and poverty for many.  

A Trial of Samaria

(Micah 1:2-7 DCB)

2 Hear, you peoples, all of you;
   listen, O earth, and all that is in it;
and let YHWH, our divine patron, be a witness against you,
   YHWH from the Holy Temple. 
3 For lo, YHWH is coming out of the sanctuary,
   and will come down and destroy all the other sanctuaries throughout the land. 
4 Then the mountains will melt under YHWH
   and the valleys will burst open,
like wax near the fire,
   like waters poured down a steep place. 
5 All this is for the transgression of Jacob
   and for the sins of the Household of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
   Is it not Samaria?
And where is the sanctuary of Judah?
   Is it not Jerusalem? 
6 Therefore I will make Samaria a ruin in an abandoned field,
   a place for planting vineyards.
I will roll her stones down into the valley,
   and dig up her foundations. 
7 All her sacred statues shall be broken into pieces,
   all her wages shall be burned with fire,
   and all her sacred statues I will destroy;
for as the wages of a prostitute she gathered them,
   and as the wages of a prostitute they shall again be used. 

Micah parodies the titles of the women, whose marriages ratified these state covenants, by labeling them prostitutes, and the goods and services that Samaria enjoyed from the covenants as the wages of prostitutes. Therefore, it was not the household of Joshua in early Israel that labeled Rahab a prostitute, but the household of Josiah during the final days of the monarchy in Judah.

In contrast to the other traditions in the book of Joshua, Rahab, and not Joshua and his warriors, is the protagonist in the story. Even more unusual, in contrast to Rahab who is wise, the story casts Joshua and his warriors as fools. The tradition celebrates Rahab as more faithful to YHWH than Joshua and his warriors, and as a better warrior. She also outwits the ruler of the land and his soldiers.

Joshua has seen all the powerful events that YHWH has brought about at the Red Sea and east of the Jordan Valley. Rahab has only heard about these great works. Yet Joshua is doubting, while Rahab is believing. Joshua sees, and does not believe. Rahab only hears, but believes.

When YHWH commissions Joshua to take the land, the appropriate response is for him to go and take the land. Instead Joshua sends out a reconnaissance mission. Today military science requires reconnaissance, but herem war in the world of the Bible forbids it.

Reconnaissance missions determine the strength of the enemy, which in herem war is irrelevant. Warriors are expected to go into herem war at a disadvantage in order to highlight the victory as divine rather than human. To prepare for herem war, chiefs like Joshua use prophets (1 Kgs 22:5), divination (2 Kgs 13:15), necromancy (1 Sam 28:6), and the ephod with its Urim and Thummim (1 Sam 30:7–8; 1 Sam 28:6), but not reconnaissance.

Reconnaissance characterizes warriors as petty (Num 13:1–14:15), cowardly (Deut 1:19–46), greedy (Judg 1:22–26), and heretical (Judg 18:1–31). Going into battle against a superior opponent is an act of faith that highlights the victory as YHWH’s, not Israel’s. Jerubba’al (Gideon) twice reduces the size of the tribe mustered to defend Israel against the Midianites (Judg 7:1–8:28). Likewise, Deuteronomy (Deut 13:13–19) assumes that the size of a city convicted of treason is of no consequence to the punitive expedition ordered against it.

Rahab has all of the military skills that Joshua lacks. Joshua personally selects the messengers to gather intelligence for him, yet they are so incompetent that the soldiers of the land detect them immediately. Rahab is a master of combat tactics. She is an expert in designing safe houses. She knows how to use camouflage and to distribute misinformation. She knows all the commando tactics necessary to scale down the walls of a city, and just how to avoid the soldiers who patrol the border along the Jordan River.

Rahab is also more faithful to YHWH than Joshua is. She has no doubts that YHWH will conquer the land. Therefore, she asks his warriors to spare her household when YHWH sweeps through the city as YHWH spared the Hebrews when a divine warrior swept through Egypt slaying their firstborn (Exod 12:23).

Like the Hebrews who celebrated their first Passover from slavery in Egypt by marking their doors with lamb’s blood, Rahab celebrates the Passover of her household by marking her window with a blood-red rope (Josh 2:18; 6:25).

Finally, Rahab is more powerful than the ruler of the land, who considers her both ambitious and capable of overthrowing him. He had her under surveillance. His soldiers also respect Rahab, and obey her orders to search for the messengers outside the walls.

The crisis episode (Josh 2:1) condenses the actions that appear in most hospitality stories (Gen 18:1–15; 19:1–22; Judg 19:1–30; 2 Sam 17:15–22). The commission that Joshua gives to the messengers now almost completely eclipses Rahab’s actions. Since Joshua is not the protagonist, it would be better to read his orders to the warriors as a clause that modifies the strangers to whom Rahab offers hospitality: …two warriors, whom Joshua ben Nun dispatched from a sacred grove of eucalyptus trees with the orders: ‘Go and scout the land, approached the gates of the land at sundown disguised as messengers. When Rahab the prostitute saw them coming, and went to meet them. She bowed to the ground and said: Please come to my house. Wash your feet and spend the night. Then you may rise early and go on your way (Josh 2:1).

The climax (Josh 2:2–7) reports the shrewdness with which Rahab defends the warriors. The Bible regularly celebrates the shrewdness with which Israel’s ancestors outwit foreign rulers. Abraham shrewdly outwits Pharaoh (Gen 12:9–13:1) and the ruler of Gerar (Gen 20:1–18). Isaac outwits a Philistine ruler (Gen 26:1–11). This stories cast Rahab as being as shrewd as Abraham or Isaac.

There are two episodes in the denouement (Josh 2:8–24). One recounts a Covenant between YHWH and Rahab (Josh 2:8–14), the other her celebration of Passover (Josh 2:15–24).

The first episode reports Rahab’s profession of faith. She ratifies two basic articles of Israel’s creed: it is YHWH who gives Israel land (Josh 2:8–9) and it is YHWH who sets the Hebrews free (Josh 2:10). Her vocabulary is almost all taken from Deuteronomy (Deut 25:5–9), which was the basis of Josiah’s reform (Deut 6:21–23; 26:5–10). She also promises to help Joshua capture the land (Josh 2:12–13). Joshua’s warriors react by granting Rahab and her household amnesty (Josh 2:14).

In the second episode of the denouement Rahab exercises her obligations as a covenant partner of YHWH by helping Joshua’s warriors escape (Josh 2:15–16). They reaffirm their promise of amnesty for her household (Josh 2:17–24). This episode uses prolepsis, which arranges events according to importance, not chronology. Rahab lets the warriors down by a rope (Josh 2:15) before negotiating a covenant with them (Josh 2:16–18). Chronologically, she would have negotiated with Joshua’s warriors before lowering them over the city wall.

The intention of the stories is to remind its audience that Rahab is not a renegade – a prostitute; she is the mother of a household. The household of Rahab snapped up Josiah’s label of prostitute and used the stories to refute it (2 Kgs 23:7). How can an ancestor like Sarah (Gen 12:9–13:1), Tamar (Gen 38:1–30), Shiphrah, Puah (Exod 1:12–21), the daughter of Levi (Exod 2:1–10), and Miriam (Exod 15:20–21) be a prostitute? How can a chief like Deborah (Judg 4:1–5:31), who delivers the Hebrews from their enemies, be a prostitute?

The stories warn the household of Josiah to remember that the hospitality that earned the household of Rahab honor in early Israel should not be taken away by someone whose own ancestors were its beneficiaries. The household of Rahab retains the label in introducing its ancestor Rahab, to question how a household that did not betray Joshua could betray Josiah. Without the hospitality, the military skill, and the unconditional faith of Rahab, the warriors of Joshua would have died in the gates of the land. The household of Rahab, in fact, is not a prostitute, but a covenant partner. Her household is hospitable, not hostile, to both Joshua and Josiah.

The Stories of Rahab as Host were told to defend her household against a new Joshua, named Josiah, who tried to excommunicate it for continuing to worship YHWH outside Jerusalem. The cruel irony -- that the household of Rahab had welcomed as strangers those whose descendants were trying to exterminate it -- may have led the household to question the value of hospitality as a means of survival. The stories reminded the household that the same YHWH who delivered it once from Joshua, will would deliver it again from Josiah. By contrasting Rahab’s gracious hospitality, outstanding military skill, and profound faith in YHWH with Joshua’s questioning faith and bungling strategy, the storytellers certified that her household should not be exterminated, but continue to enjoy all the rights and privileges of a covenant partner in early Israel.

The Stories of Rahab as Host introduce the books of Joshua and Judges to emphasize that the Hebrews conquer the land by accepting hospitality from Rahab. She hears what YHWH has done for the Hebrews, and negotiates a covenant of her own with YHWH for land and children. The Hebrews join the inhabitants of the land in overthrowing the monarchs who oppress them. The stories create a stark contrast between the violence of a Joshua and the other chiefs, who exterminate strangers, and the hospitality of a Rahab and her household, who welcome them. The land belongs, not to the powerful like Joshua and his warriors who conquer its peoples, but to the powerless like Rahab and her household who welcome strangers with hospitality.


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[1] Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, eds., Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East., 4th revised and enlarged edition ed. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2016).

[2] Ibid.