This is the first article in a series examining what Christians have been taught about women in Scripture.
Growing up in the church, it seemed to me that every woman in the Old Testament was a prostitute, a victim of sexual violence, or sexually immoral in some way. I thought their lives must have been so sad.
When I studied at Fuller Theological Seminary, I intentionally dug into the stories of these women. What I found really challenged my ideas about Bible women. And when I began studying rabbinic commentary on the texts and looking at the original context and culture, I was able to challenge those ideas even more.
Decades into this process, I believe it is time to boldly declare that these women of the Bible deserve far better than the labels of “whore,” “temptress,” “promiscuous,” or “prostitute.”
Growing up as a female believer, I needed female role models. I longed for women in the Bible that I could relate to. I looked for examples to follow in my own life.
What I had been taught about Bible women left me with a gaping absence of strong role models. This is a downright shame because the Bible is full of amazing role models for women!
Let’s dive in and talk about Rahab.
Today, it is commonly believed that Rahab was a prostitute. She is often called “the prostitute Rahab.”
I have even heard sermons arguing that Rahab knew the spies she helped were members of the Hebrew tribe because she had seen their circumcised genitals. Yet this detail is nowhere to be found in the story! In fact, the story tells us that she finds out who they are because the king commands that she turn them over.
The Hebrew word translated as “prostitute” or “harlot” in this story and many others is zanah. “Prostitute” or “harlot” are not inaccurate translations of this word. However, they are only two of the multitude of potential translations.
Zanah can also be translated as “adulterer,” “fornicator,” “common prostitute,” or a “cult prostitute.” Really, this word could refer to any woman who was not a virgin and was unmarried or widowed. The author does not inform the reader of what qualifies this woman to bear the label of zanah. All we know from the use of the word in Rahab’s story is that she is not a virgin and is unmarried.
One of the things that marked the Hebrew people as separate from their pagan neighbors was a moral code that called the Jewish people to holiness in every area of their life, including their sexuality.
Rahab was a pagan woman. The obvious assumption is that she was not a virgin and that she had probably participated in pagan sexual practices. Her culture did not hold sex in the same regard that the Hebrew culture did. There is no need to argue for spiritual purity on behalf of Rahab at the point we meet her in this story.
A pagan woman, who was sexually impure, had a room for rent in her home.
The spies were sent into the town, found their way to Rahab’s house, and rented a room for the night.
There is no indication in the story that anything sexual took place.
There was, however, a dramatic twist. Rahab informed the spies that she knew that they were Hebrew, and that everyone was afraid of them. She petitioned them to please, when it was time, save her and her family. She protected them. She saved them and hid them from the men who came to kill them. She conducted herself, in every way, as a righteous woman who wanted to attach to God. And she was willing to put her own life and the lives of her family at risk to do so.
The spies promised to save her and her family if she tied a crimson chord in her window when they conquered Jericho. They fulfilled their promise and rescued her family.
Zanah is also a word used to describe people who are unfaithful to the Lord. It expresses the idea that James presents when he speaks of people who are “double souled.”
There is a beautiful contrast in this story.
A woman who came from a community that did not uphold sexual purity responded to God with faithful righteousness. From her position of impurity, she clung to purity.
Rahab can be a source of hope for all of us. Her story is relevant to women today who have made questionable choices in the past. Rahab’s story tells women that God wants them. He might even want them to do something amazing!
Rahab married Salmon, a Hebrew man. She fully converted and is listed as his wife, which means that she had all of the rights of a Jewish woman, wife, and citizen. She also had a baby named Boaz who married another outsider—Ruth.
This family line exemplifies a tradition of receiving outsiders who want to cling to God, and of exercising great mercy and grace. There is a reason it is Jesus’ line!
This word that refers to a woman of impure sexuality must be interpreted based on the historical, cultural, and narrative context. In light of these factors, the story of Rahab has two potential plot lines.
1) The righteous men of Israel, entrusted to go into the town to spy and scout the enemy, arrived and visited a prostitute’s house. They slept with her, and she hid them and convinced them to save her and her family. The prostitute showed herself to be a decent person. So, they saved her and she was included in an amazing story of Jesus’ love for sinners.
2) The righteous men of Israel, entrusted to go into the town to spy and scout the enemy, arrived and found a room for the night. The king sent word to Rahab that they were Hebrew and demanded that she turn them over to be killed.
But Rahab had heard all about the Hebrews and their God. She not only protected them, but asked them to allow her and her family to join them, converting to the worship of their God and pledging allegiance to their people. The Hebrew spies saw her righteous acts and agreed.
She married a man in the line of Judah and bore a son who was full of grace, mercy, and wisdom. Boaz married Ruth. Ultimately, both women were included in the line of Jesus, offering a rich picture of redemption through time.
Rahab isn’t listed in the lineage of Jesus because women can relate to the “prostitute-gone-good.” This isn’t “Pretty Woman, Ancient Israel Edition.”
Rahab is listed in the lineage of Jesus because women can be inspired by a woman who wasn’t raised in the faith, but who recognized the righteousness of God when she encountered it. She is listed because she was transformed from an outsider to an insider by God’s grace. She is listed because her past mistakes did not keep her from being called by God and empowered for kingdom work!
Read part 2, Deborah the Judge and Jael the Just, and part 3, The Unnamed Woman With the Alabaster Jar, of this series.