Rahab by Julia M. O’Brien

Rahab is a literary character in the book of Joshua, the first of the four books of the Deuteronomistic History. According to most scholars, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings were edited into a coherent story intended to advance the themes of the book of Deuteronomy, particularly the claim that Israel’s fate depends on worshipping Yahweh alone.

In Josh 2, two Israelite spies sent by Joshua to scout the Canaanite city of Jericho enter the house of Rahab, “a woman of prostitution,” and spend the night. When the king of Jericho orders Rahab to turn the men over, she falsely reports their escape and then offers the men safety in exchange for protecting her family when the Israelites invade. They agree and tell her to mark her house with a crimson cord; when the invading Israelites see the cord, they will spare the house, and all within it will be saved. During the attack of the city (Josh 6), Joshua honors the promise, sparing Rahab and her family from the annihilation of Jericho.

Over the centuries, interpreters have debated what Rahab’s profession really was. Josephus describes her as an innkeeper, explaining “prostitute” as a slur. Based on her ownership of the house, some have viewed her as “madam,” managing rather than personally providing sexual services; claims that she ran a linen business are based on the story’s reference to flax stalks on her roof (Josh 2:6; and see Prov 31:13). Most likely, however, the narrator depicts Rahab as an active sex worker. The same phrase describes the woman visited by Samson in Judg 16 and the characterization of Israel and Judah as sister prostitutes in Ezek 16 and Ezek 23.

Rahab’s status as a prostitute helps dramatize the story’s deuteronomistic message. She is not only a Canaanite, marked for annihilation (Deut 20:17), but also a prostitute on the social and physical margins of society, living within the city’s walls (Josh 2:15). Dramatically, this outsider spontaneously bears witness to deuteronomistic truth: she “knows” Yahweh is lord of heaven and earth and that the land of Canaan belongs to the Israelites (Josh 2:9-11). Like other unlikely heroes in the Deuteronomistic History (the left-handed judge Ehud, the female judge Deborah, and the scoundrel Samson), Rahab’s story underscores the power of God.

Allusions to the exodus story further elevate her status as savior of God’s people: her speech echoes the Song of Miriam (Exod 15), and she resists the murderous order of a king, as do the Hebrew midwives (Exod 1). In addition, a red marker protects her home, just as it did Hebrew homes in the final plague (Exod 12).

Most later Jewish and Christian traditions have continued to read Rahab’s story with the deuteronomistic grain, praising her faith and bravery (Heb 11:31, Jas 2:25). She is one of three women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:5), each with a scandalous sexual history.

When the story is read against the grain, however, Rahab becomes a more ambiguous character. She betrays king and country in order to save self and family, and her confession of faith may be less pious than strategic, providing the spies with the story Joshua needs to hear (in Josh 2:11, they repeat her words from Josh 2:24). Is Rahab a heroine or a traitor? Must foreigners abandon their own culture to avoid destruction? What does the story of Rahab teach?

Julia M. O’Brien, "Rahab", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:


Julia M. O’Brien

Julia M. O’Brien
Professor, Lancaster Theological Seminary

Julia M. O’Brien is Paul H. and Grace L. Stern Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA. Specializing in prophetic literature, she currently serves as editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies and is completing a feminist commentary on Micah. Her publications include Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets (Westminster John Knox, 2008) and Nahum (Sheffield Phoenix, 2009).

Indirect references to another idea or document.

Related to the religious beliefs connected to Deuteronomy, which emphasized monotheism, the Jerusalem temple, observance of the Law, and the destruction of idolatry.

The history of ancient Israel contained in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, which shows the influence of Deuteronomy's theology.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Josh 2

Spies Sent to Jericho
1Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and en ... View more

Josh 6

Jericho Taken and Destroyed
1Now Jericho was shut up inside and out because of the Israelites; no one came out and no one went in.2The Lord said to Joshua, “See ... View more

Josh 2:6

6She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof.

Prov 31:13

13She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.

Judg 16

Samson and Delilah
1Once Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and went in to her.2The Gazites were told, “Samson has come here.” So they circled aroun ... View more

Ezek 16

God's Faithless Bride
1The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, make known to Jerusalem her abominations,3and say, Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem: Your ori ... View more

Ezek 23

Oholah and Oholibah
1The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, there were two women, the daughters of one mother;3they played the whore in Egypt; they played the ... View more

Deut 20:17

17You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has comman ... View more

Josh 2:15

15Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself.

Josh 2:9-11

9and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fea ... View more

Exod 15

The Song of Moses
1Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has t ... View more

Exod 1

1These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household:2Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah,3Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjam ... View more

Exod 12

The First Passover Instituted
1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the fir ... View more

Heb 11:31

31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

Jas 2:25

25Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?

Matt 1:5

5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse,

Josh 2:11

11As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on e ... View more

Josh 2:24

24They said to Joshua, “Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands; moreover all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before us.”

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