Who was the mysterious woman named Rahab?

No doubt those ancient cities said to be destroyed by the invading Israelites had a rich and unique culture – Jericho, for instance, had been there for thousands of years!  If Jericho was indeed destroyed, then what an incredible, utterly irreplaceable loss for humankind!  There are just no words to express the enormity of this tragedy! (as described in Joshua 2, 6-12).  I wish I could turn back the clock and somehow stop it before it happened – reverse time.

2013 01 02 living life

Living life in Jericho

In Jericho, people transitioned to farming during 9600 to 7500 BC and they had, even that early, ritual art – symbolic representation of surroundings such as animal carvings, and monumental architecture – a tower that was 27 feet tall and 30 feet wide.1  The people of Jericho started farming their land approximately 8,000 years before anyone had ever heard of Israelites in the so-called Promised Land.  By the time of the conquest by invading Israelites, Jericho had become a walled city.  Our collective grief over the loss of a such a phenomenally long-lived  community could never be assuaged.

How on earth were the inhabitants of Jericho able to avoid overpopulation, keep the soil productive, and keep the community together over that length of time – marvelous!  They must have had a tradition of welcoming strangers to promote trade and enhance reproductive success.  What did they have of art, literature, fine woven clothing, gold and silver jewelry and statues, gourmet foods, songs and musical instruments, joyous festivals??   Of course, I cannot be sure the region of Jericho was continuously inhabited all those millennia, but in the absence of armed marauders with metal weapons and genocidal violence, who were weirdly willing to kill even attractive women at the supposed word of a patriarchal god and “burn down the city and everything in it” (6:24), it does seem likely.

I’ll make a guesstimate that if the Israelite priests could parade around the city of Jericho seven times in one day (6:15), the perimeter of the city could not have been more than one or two miles – but if densely populated, the city could have had many thousands of people.  Assuming that at most, the area of the city was a square 2,640 feet on a side (half-mile) and the perimeter was two miles, and assuming 10 people per 2,000 square feet, we get a population of 34,848.  A perimeter of one mile and the same density yields a population of 8,712.  For what it’s worth, it’s in the ballpark with a 12,000 population figure given for a different city (8:25).  A city could have had thousands of citizens if supported in part by satellite villages.

It has not escaped me that the number seven is mentioned numerous times like a chant, seven this and seventh that, in the section discussing how many times the Israelite priests paraded around the city of Jericho (6:4-16).  So I suspect that seven is just a special number.  Maybe the priests could only walk the city perimeter once a day as they did for six days, and the perimeter of the city was greater than I guessed.  Maybe far more people were killed.  Or maybe far fewer if the accuracy of the account is in question.

According to allegations in the Hebrew Bible, the Israelite invaders killed all in the city, both men and women, both young and old in Jericho (6:21, 8:22, 10:1); no one was left alive but Rahab the prostitute and her household (2, 6:17, 6:22-23, 6:25).  It was a day when the gods failed; one god failed to edify the attackers, and one god failed to protect the victims, which raises the question – what does one expect of a true God?

“Prostitute” is a term often used derisively in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to denote a female adherent of the Goddess religion (derided as “harlotry”), who practiced sacred sex at a temple, who actually would have been well-respected in her community.  Perhaps Rahab was not only active in the temple, but a priestess, perhaps even a high priestess (like a queen); after all, she had a large household which included her brothers, sisters, parents, and others who “belonged to her.”  The KJV says it is the household of her “father” (6:25), but the NRSV corrects this.  (In a matrilineal society, the head of household would be a woman.)  If a priestess and not yet retired, Rahab would still have been fertile and in her prime.  That her mother is not the head of the household but rather Rahab, suggests that Rahab was not only active in the temple but had some role there that gave her greater rank than her mother.

When two young Israelite men who were spies came to her city, Rahab did what she was required to do by her code of hospitality, that is, she welcomed the two strangers on behalf of her city and gave them lodging during their visit.  (I’m saying that she did it on behalf of her city, not because she was necessarily the high priestess, but because anyone in that time and place would not think of themselves primarily as an individual as we do today, but rather, as a member of a their tribe or city.)  The biblical author cannot bring himself to acknowledge that the spies received hospitality from the city, hospitality received not only as individuals but as representatives of their own people, hospitality returned not in accordance with the author’s deeply held code of ethics, but rather with the most unspeakable violence by the invaders.  The glaring ethical problem is smoothed over – it was not the city that gave the hospitality, only that one woman in her house; and she and her household were later spared, but not because of the hospitality, but because she hid her guests.

Why did Rahab hide her guests from a king in the city who wanted her to give them up?  Because they were her guests and she was not going to violate her code of hospitality; not likely because she thought their deity superior to hers.  The biblical author has her say, “The Lord your God is indeed God” (2:11), but by validating their perception of the Divine, she was not necessarily denying her own.  She asked the spies for future protection for all who belonged to her family (2:13) and if she was high priestess, that might be all in the city, but the spies would promise safety only for those in her house.  The biblical author has her agree to this.  The city’s “king,” and supposedly there was one, would have been subordinate to a high priestess?? but could still make trouble.

It would seem that in this first of his many conquests in the land, the Israelite leader Joshua was not yet bold enough to murder a leading matriarch of a city that had afforded two of his men hospitality.  (I think I can say she was a leading matriarch by virtue of her having a role at the temple and being the head of a large household.)  His many followers, likely a coalition of groups from diverse backgrounds, maybe even other matrilineal cities, might not have supported such a violation of custom initially.  Even much later, in King David’s time, a woman leader challenges an aggressor saying her city is “a mother in Israel,” and I’m not sure what that means exactly, but he won’t cross that line (2Samuel 20:19).  One can speculate that prior to patriarchy, the practice of war among men would not have allowed the killing of women who were the representatives of the Divine Mother??  I notice that in chapter 12 of the Book of Joshua, 31 kings are vanquished by the invading Israelites, but no queens are mentioned.  Of course, the patriarchal author would not have recognized the authority of queens, but also likely did not want to emphasize that the invaders had committed sacrilege at 31 cities, given that neighboring territories did not worship a supreme male god.

Another possibility, if the biblical author has not told us the unvarnished story:  Maybe Joshua spared Rahab and her household so he could keep them as hostages.  If she was a ruler, Rahab may have been kin to kings and queens throughout Old Palestine (Canaan).  Perhaps Joshua used her as a human shield.

Imagine the sorrow of Rahab the priestess, one of a band of survivors of a civilization spanning something like eight millennia, left “outside the camp of Israel.”  Does “outside” mean she was not allowed to mingle with them, or is “outside the camp” the biblical author’s way of saying that she was not a hostage, that she was free to leave, landless and penniless.  Did she live out her years in a re-populated land, surrounded by neighbors (or guards) who abusively called her “the prostitute”?

I rather doubt her name was the Hebrew “Rahab” and don’t know what this word means (a contraction of rabbi and father (ab)??, meaning religious-leader-head-of-nation?? someone who was high priestess, leader of the people, representative of the Goddess??).  Maybe not, but it’s a good bet I can call her “Rahab the priestess.”

Oh, I just discovered there is a “Rahab” listed as a female ancestor of Jesus in Matthew 1:5, so I can get the Hebrew meaning for the word in Thayer’s Greek dictionary – it is:  “broad, ample.”  This meaning is from the days when wide female hips were prized as an indication of ability to easily give birth; pleasing plumpness seen as a sign of plenty and thus, beauty – a pertinent descriptor for a woman associated with a fertility religion.  If there is a double meaning, her name becomes something like:  she-religious-leader-head-of-nation-birthing-mother-beautiful-bringer-of-abundance.  Nice name.  Good name for a queen.

But some language clues on the wikipediaa page for Jericho (unconfirmed), lead me to guess that Rahab just means Jericho which is, according to that page, derived from the Canaanite re-ah (“same meaning as in Hebrew”??) or the Canaanite ya-re-ah (moon).  Maybe a related word – my Webster’s tells me that Rhea was a Greek goddess, the “Mother of the Gods.”  Maybe Rahab and her city were both named after the same goddess.  Or maybe the author didn’t have a name for his heroine and gave her a name similar to the city she lived in or the author just invented her.

But maybe, despite all my speculation about a priestess, it was just like the text says:  a prostitute hid the spies from her own people because she was in awe of the Israelite deity.  But how could the doings of an ordinary prostitute or even an ordinary priestess be of enough significance to warrant a chapter and more in the history of the conquest – maybe just to demonstrate that by repaying her kindness as promised by the spies, Joshua was being socially responsible?

That the patriarchal biblical author was willing to give readers the name Rahab speaks volumes about her significance.  We cannot know who Rahab was for certain, or know what she did exactly, but I suspect she cast a long shadow over Israel – perhaps there was some breaking of taboo that the author was trying to spin away?  Maybe a hospitality issue?  Maybe a hostage issue?  Maybe a transgression against a representative of the Great Mother, but Rahab’s confessing that “Your God is God” would have alleviated that, right?  Not if she meant one person’s perception of the Divine is just as flawed as the next person’s, and just as much a representation of “God.”

Another question that popped into my mind is how the invaders were able to burn a city presumably made of mud bricks and stone??  Maybe there’s a translation problem; maybe they burned the dead and dying and what was left of the city’s belongings after stealing what was valuable, such as bars of gold??  Not likely that a region that had been farmed for approximately 8,000 years still had forests nearby for building wooden houses.  Perhaps the people of Jericho imported timber??  Those pillagers who did not hand over certain types of booty to their leaders risked being brutally killed (Joshua 7:21-26).

We can justifiably question if Jericho was burned down because just a few chapters later, the city is given to the Israelite tribe of Benjamin as their own inheritance (18:21-24); one of 12 cities and associated villages.  How could these be considered an inheritance if they had been wiped off the face of the Earth??  Maybe it just means that the districts where cities and villages had once been were inherited.  Jericho was supposedly not rebuilt until the time of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (according to 1Kings 16:34).

The biblical author lets us know Rahab’s descendants were still in the land in his time (Joshua 6:25).  I hope they are still in the land today, but not still discriminated against “outside the camp of Israel.”  Perhaps if enough people envision all the current inhabitants of the land living together amicably, it will come to be.

I know you are asking, what about the wall of Jericho crashing down like magic as the Israelites shouted?  I suspect that Joshua (or one of his spies) had found a weak spot in the wall, maybe a structural defect.  But rather than march his army right up to that spot and have them meet the concentrated forces of the defendants, Joshua sent a parade of priests and armed men around and around the city, day after day for seven days, until he could be reasonably certain those inside had given up going around and around to confront it and had dispersed; then he struck.  The sudden noise of shouting after enforced silence would have instilled terror and panic.

Maybe the biblical author didn’t think it necessary to mention use of a battering ram.  The shouting perhaps was ordered to cover the noise of the battering ram, so that the inhabitants wouldn’t be able to locate it and rush there to defend.  I’ll guess lesser parts of the wall were only made of mud bricks, barely thicker than the wall of a house, and at most a few meters high – easily breached by a battering ram.

Or maybe there was an earthquake that toppled the wall and in the ensuing confusion, the Israelites attacked.

An interesting clue:  Rahab was still there in her own house and easily found when the spies went looking for her according to their promise, even in the midst of this horrific invasion, when the city’s inhabitants were on the move, either fleeing, fighting, dying, or dead.  Who but the queen would still be in her own house; who but the queen would stay put surrounded by her personal guard – to give direction to her warriors and to give courage to her own people.  Alright, maybe some nobles might have had their own security forces; maybe the very elderly did not try to run.   I suspect that the queen went with the spies only after she knew all had been lost (or she was forced to go with them).

Or maybe there was an actual prostitute who stayed in place according to some prior arrangement and did not move even when many thousands of armed men swarmed the city and the air was filled with the screams of women and children being butchered.  She just relied totally on the promises of a couple of spies and did not move.  And why not, if there was nowhere to run to.  And her trust was seemingly well-placed – the spies did indeed return to get her.  Presumably the army had been instructed by Joshua to spare the house with a “crimson cord” in the window, although oddly, despite the story having lots of detail, no such instruction is recorded, even though he does tell them to spare her.  I guess it’s just understood he did give them this vital piece of information about the crimson cord that identified her house.

Another clue: the house of Rahab was at least partly within the outer wall of the city and “she resided within the wall itself” (2:15).  Wouldn’t those tasked with the defense of the city, such as the ruler, officials, commanders, soldiers, etc., be the ones housed in the perimeter, in the best fortified part of the city?  The walled tower or citadel of the sovereign would likely constitute the strongest and highest part of the wall and be marked, yes, with flags and banners and all manner of decoration, if not crimson cords – unmistakable.  So all Joshua had to say was “spare all in the queen’s house” and all in the army would know its location and there wouldn’t be a problem if he failed to mention a crimson cord.  I believe there is this little problem in the account of how the army knew which house was hers because the biblical author was editing an earlier account?? perhaps that told in the Book of Jashar he cites in 10:13.

Another clue:  Rahab gives orders like a queen to those sent by the king, telling them to pursue the spies (when she had hidden them).  Of course an ordinary prostitute might have told them the same thing, but no ordinary prostitute would receive a report that, “the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords.” (2:7)  Only the sovereign would get the report on how far the pursuers went.  The spies left the city before their pursuers returned.  So how did this bit of information on how far the pursuers went eventually come to the biblical author?  It would seem likely that the biblical author could have had the results of the pursuit if the spies were told it by the queen herself after they went to “save” her later.  If the results of the pursuit had been reported to a sovereign king, that information would not have gotten to the biblical author, except very indirectly, because the king was killed (8:29, 10:1).  The biblical author could know how far the pursuers went if someone from the destructed city, who knew all the details of the story because she had been there, had written the book or had contributed to the book he was editing.

Another clue:  Rahab apparently knew the direction in which the pursuers went because she tells the spies to go in a different direction, and she knew how long the pursuers would be away (three days).  Did she order the pursuers to go in that direction and order them to search for a specified number of days?  Oddly, she tells them to go quickly to “overtake them,” after saying she doesn’t know where the spies went. (2:5)  Then how could the pursuers know which way to go?  Maybe they just headed toward the Israelite camp.  Maybe Rahab knew the direction the pursuers went because she saw what road they took or maybe she guessed it because she knew where the Israelite camp was, but how would she know how long it would be until the pursuers returned unless she had ordered it?  She tells the spies to wait for three days in the “hills” to avoid the pursuers.  The pursuers return as predicted, in three days.  By telling the spies to wait, she gave herself and her people three more days to prepare for an invasion.

Another clue:  Rahab knows a lot about the recent history of the Israelites, so she has a communication network – maybe Rahab has her own spies, like a queen?  Or maybe she just knows a lot of gossip?  That the spies were able to converse freely with Rahab in a common language could indicate that at least some of the Israelite peoples had not been isolated from the land for untold generations as slaves in a foreign country or it could indicate that the conversation never happened.

Another clue:  Rahab hides the spies on her roof under stalks of flax (a flat roof obviously, used as living space), where the spies could very easily be found.  Either she did not expect anyone to search her quarters or she did not expect any consequences if the spies were discovered.  Who but the queen could have such confidence?  No one searched her quarters.  Would messengers from a king defer thusly to an ordinary prostitute?

Another clue:  Before patriarchy began to take hold, the king would not necessarily have been the husband of a queen.  A high priestess-queen would have had no husband, and a king would serve only temporarily at her pleasure.  If such a queen, Rahab could be expected to give orders to a king’s messengers and be immune from having her quarters searched.  No husband is mentioned for Rahab.  Of course, an ordinary prostitute probably wouldn’t have had a husband either.

Another clue:  Rahab lets the spies escape out her window which was high up in the city wall using a rope (the crimson cord mentioned above).  But perhaps there was an ordinary prostitute who had a penthouse window that let her look out, just like a queen.

In a footnote, the editors of the Catholic Confraternity Edition have Rahab living in a penthouse, “The upper story of Rahab’s house was evidently higher than the city wall.  It was through the window of such a house that St. Paul escaped from Damascus,” pointing to the (um) inexplicable similarity between some Christian and Hebrew texts.  The CE editors were evidently troubled by the label “harlot.”  In a footnote they say, “this is the regular equivalent of the Hebrew word, but perhaps it is used here of Rahab in the broader sense of a woman who kept a public house.  Josue’s spies hoped to remain undetected at such an inn.”  So Rahab was an innkeeper (huh?) – what can I say – I think that is an interpretation very compatible with their view of history.

How many people were brought out of the city of Jericho that day with Rahab while the invasion was underway?  She had been promised that everyone in her house would be spared.  How many people could fit in her house?  Was the house of Rahab “broad and ample”?  Clearly she had with her the members of her immediate family – parents, sisters, brothers, and their families (spouses? children? in-laws?).  She brought out “all who belonged to her” – would that mean servants, slaves; and if she was queen, would her retinue include elite officials and special guards?   She brought out “all her kindred” – her own children, if any, but also second and third cousins and their in-laws?  If she was the queen, who presumably would have had the largest quarters in the city, how many thousands of “cousins” could fit in there?  Perhaps Joshua was a bit shocked to find he had preserved so many.

The biblical author says that the king of Jericho had been told that some spies had come (2:2).  Who told him?  Who knew?

It just occurred to me that if Rahab did have her wits about her, it was she who had arranged to have pretended messengers “with orders from the king” come to her door demanding the spies, so that the spies would become alarmed and she could exact a promise from them in exchange for the favor of “hiding” them under the flax laid out on the roof.  Her telling the “king’s” messengers that the spies had gone was not lying to the messengers; rather, a tale told with a sly wink of her eye to those just acting out their part.  They knew exactly where to “search for the spies” as she had previously told them to head out the road to the Israelite camp to scout out the area and report back to her on what the Israelites were doing??  Thus her spies were not identified as such to the Israelite spies who might have spied them going down the road and pursued them, and because the Israelite spies then headed for the hills, her spies could go down the road without being molested by them.

By the way, the Catholic CE in another footnote tells me that the flax would have been soaked in water then laid out on the roof to dry in the sun, as part of the process of linen-making.  Maybe Rahab let her guests “hide” under sopping-wet flax!  (There’s a lesson in here on how to get rid of unwanted guests.)  Did she offer the young men towels before she encouraged them to climb out her high window and rappel down a precipitous wall?  And just how dependable was that “crimson cord”!?!

Imagine the intimacy in the city of Jericho, where roofs were flat living areas and which perhaps could be used as thoroughfares where all could stroll from roof to roof, unless a street intervened or one house was too much higher or lower than the next.  Only with darkness at the end of day and withdrawal of ladders from roof openings would there be a pause in the constant visiting and commotion.  Everyone would know everyone else.  No one would be afraid to let their children run free over the roof tops, to learn from all in the city.  Compare this to children today, many raised secluded with a garbage-spewing TV and a lone parent who doesn’t know the neighbors, but who might give a little wave to see if they wave back as they drive past.

I can imagine that somehow Rahab the priestess made herself into a memorial to her people and their tragedy so that her name has resounded for more than 3,000 years, albeit in a document that attempts to belittle her.

She is remembered here in this post for being the ingenious protector of her people.


NRSV used in this post.

1 Early Jericho from National Geographic, June 2011, p. 42-43.


  1. care4earth says:

    If Rahab is said to be an ancestor of Jesus, does that mean that her religious beliefs are the forerunners of some of Jesus’ religious beliefs? Does Ra – h – ab have something to do with ‘sun-god’ or ‘ancestor’?

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