Many of us are familiar with the story of the Israelites’ conquest of Jericho, how they marched around the high walls blowing rams’ horns until the walls toppled over. I have always read the story of the conquest of Jericho without question, until recently. It was not the tumbling of Jericho in particular that concerned me, but rather the naming of a particular woman in Joshua 2:1. The spies of Israel are sent out by Joshua, and they come to a woman’s house in the city of Jericho. Scripture repeatedly refers to the woman, Rahab, as the harlot (some versions render her “the prostitute”).
With a tug of suspicion, I went on a search regarding the term “harlot” as interpreted by translators in reference to Rahab. My research was a helpful exercise. The Hebrew word zonah which describes Rahab’s “occupation” was often interpreted not only as harlot, but also as an inn-keeper or tavern-keeper. This information helped enlarge my perspective on the person of Rahab, and my searching led to further study. The Christian commentator Adam Clarke, the famous Jewish Bible commentator Rashi, as well as the Jewish historian Josephus all interpreted Rahab as being an inn-keeper, not a harlot. According to the text, the authorities within Jericho demanded that Rahab bring out the men whom she was hiding in her home because of the concern that they were Israelite spies. If Rahab was a harlot in a brothel, then the leading authorities would have been at liberty simply to walk in and arrest her “guests.” However Middle Eastern custom maintained that guests in anyone’s home were honorable and were treated more highly than family members, therefore the authorities had to ask permission from Rahab in order to seize her guests. Furthermore, because the spies desired the blessing of God and were treating their mission with the utmost sanctity, it is unlikely that they would have entered into a house of ill-repute.
It could be that translators—who may be blind to their gender bias—have guided the translation of Joshua 2 and have negatively marred our perception of a woman who is in the genealogical line of our Messiah. As was the case with the mistranslation of the name of Junia, we do well to go “behind-the-scenes” and listen to the voices of the women who have gone before us. Our suspicions should lead to questions, and our questions to investigations, as we seek to more fully and accurately understand the Word of God.