Harlot or Hotel Owner: What’s in a Name?
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers? (James 2:25a, KJV)
“Rahab the Harlot.” That’s what I first learned about the woman of Jericho who saved the lives of two Israelite spies. Whoever wrote the Letter of James learned the same.
We may have learned wrong. When the book of Joshua tells Rahab’s story, the Hebrew text identifies her as a zônāh, a prostitute. Yet as scholar Anthony Frendo observes, she may have simply been an innkeeper, since the consonants in the Hebrew word “prostitute” (znh) are identical to those of the word for a woman who gives food and provisions. Moreover, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Rahab kept an inn (katagōgion in Greek).
So Rahab the Harlot may have been Rahab the Hotel Owner. Perhaps she was both. Either way, I wish I learned that when I first learned about Rahab. I wish James had, too.
I also wish I’d learned that in Rahab’s time, as in ours, sometimes the only way for a woman to earn money to feed her children was through selling her body. 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 chutzpah it took for Rahab to hide the spies and 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 courage with Lot’s fear, who—when faced with armed men at his door—offered up his daughters.
Rahab: harlot or hotel owner? We’ll never know for sure. So it’s best to remember her by her real name: Hero.
Thank you, God, for Rahab. Thank you 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 Parts 1 and 2 of the Listen Up! Bible Study series and Worship for Vital Congregations.