Was Rahab really a prostitute?

Q. Was Rahab really a prostitute?

There’s no question, from the vocabulary and rhetoric of the Bible, that Rahab actually was a prostitute. In the Old Testament narrative about her in the book of Joshua, she’s described with the Hebrew term zonah, which unambiguously means “prostitute.” Rahab is also mentioned in the New Testament books of Hebrews and James, and in each case she’s described with the Greek term pornē, which correspondingly means “prostitute.” James, in fact, actually seems to stress this status when he emphasizes, in support of his argument that “faith without works is dead,” that “even Rahab the prostitute” was considered righteous because sheltered and protected the spies. The book of Hebrews also calls her “Rahab the prostitute” but it notes similarly that she protected the spies “by faith” and so “was not killed with those who were disobedient.”

I think that all of this leads us to an even more important question: Why was Rahab a prostitute? It seems quite likely from the Joshua narrative that she turned to prostitution out of desperate circumstances. Rahab acknowledges to the spies that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below,” and so she promises to shelter and protect them. But then she asks them, “Please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them and that you will save us from death.”

Who isn’t mentioned here? There’s no mention of Rahab having a husband or children. It’s quite possible (though this does involve reading between the lines a bit) that Rahab had been married, but that she was then widowed before she had children. Alternatively, she may have been a young woman from a large family that was poor and couldn’t afford a dowry for all of its daughters, nor could it afford to continue supporting them after they became adults. Either way, she would have been without financial support in this culture.

One further indication we have of poverty is the comment that Rahab’s house was “built into the city wall.” One excavation of Jericho found an area where houses had been built into the wall. One website suggests that this was likely a poor section of the city, “since the houses were positioned on the embankment between the upper and lower city walls. Not the best place to live in time of war! This area was no doubt the overflow from the upper city and the poor part of town, perhaps even a slum district.”

So Rahab was most likely a woman who forced into prostitution out of financial desperation. Poverty and human trafficking are almost always responsible for prostitution. The Bible seems to recognize this and not condemn Rahab, but rather praise her for her faith in the true God and her courageous service to him.

Indeed, the Bible ultimately tells a very hopeful story about Rahab, though it needs to be unambiguous about her circumstances in order to do so. According to the gospel of Matthew, Rahab later married an Israelite man and had a son named Boaz, who himself became the husband of Ruth, another foreign woman who married into the covenant community. As Matthew makes clear, Rahab and Ruth both became ancestors of Jesus himself.

So the story of Rahab in the Bible shows us that when God came into our world as a human being, He chose to come into a family line that included a woman who had once been trapped in prostitution, but who was rescued from it and began a new life. I hope this encourages us all to recognize that there is indeed great hope for those who are rescued from human trafficking and prostitution due to desperate circumstances. Perhaps the ultimate response to your question is that we should all support, through prayer, giving, and advocacy, the work of those who are continuing to fight in our world today against human trafficking and prostitution.

A drawing of Rahab protecting the spies, from an 1881 illustrated Bible. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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