Harlot or Hotel Owner: What’s in a Name?
“So the two spies entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there.” – Joshua 2:1
“Rahab the Harlot.” That’s what I first learned about the woman of Jericho who saved the lives of the two Israelite spies. Perhaps you did, too.
We may have learned wrong. The Hebrew text identifies Rahab as a zônāh, a prostitute. Yet as Prof. Anthony Frendo observes, she may have simply been an innkeeper, since the “consonants that make up the word ‘prostitute’ in Hebrew (znh (זנה) are identical to the consonants of the Hebrew word for a female person who gives food and provisions.” Moreover, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Rahab kept an inn (katagōgion in Greek).
It turns out that Rahab the Harlot may have just been Rahab the Hotel Owner. Perhaps she was both. Either way, I wish I learned that when I first learned about Rahab.
I also wish I’d learned that in Rahab’s time, as in ours, sometimes the only way for a woman to make a living and feed her children was to be a prostitute. I wish I learned more about the courage such work often takes and less about the judgment such work often incurs.
But I did learn about the courage it took for Rahab to hide the spies, and the chutzpah she had to stand up to the King’s soldiers, sending them on a wild goose chase while she got the men to safety. Yet I wish I’d learned to contrast Rahab’s story with that of Lot who, when also faced with armed men at his door, offered up his daughters.
Rahab: harlot or hotel owner? We’ll never know sure. So it’s best to remember her by her real name: Hero.
Thank you, God, for Rahab. Thank you, too, that there is always more light and truth to learn from your Word. Amen.
Talitha Arnold is Senior Minister of the United Church of Santa Fe (UCC), Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of Mark Part 1 and Mark Part 2 of the Listen Up! Bible Study series and Worship for Vital Congregations.