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The story of Rahab during the early days of the Israelite conquest or settlement of the Promised Land has been told and retold for generations. Her story in Joshua 2:1-21 and 6: 17, 22-25 is a narrative of struggle—insider verses outsider, male verses female, landowner verses newcomer—and its particular irony and one of the central themes of the story is that life is not always controlled by the whims powerful men.[1]

Rahab, a brothel owner living on the edge of town in ancient Jericho (2:15),[2] was convinced that her city was about to undergo a significant change: the Canaanites, who had wielded power for so many years, were about to be overthrown by the menacing armies of Israel. Perhaps because of her marginalized status in Jericho, she wanted to secure a future for both herself and her family (2:8-11). To that end, she hid the Israelite spies who were sent to reconnoiter the territory before attacking Jericho, directed the attention of Jericho's soldiers away from the brothel in order to protect the spies, and then sent the spies safely on their way in the opposite direction. Her only request was that the attacking armies of Israel would spare her family.[3] The Israelite spies readily agreed and returned to Joshua, the new commander of the armies of Israel, with a positive report—it was time to move against Jericho.

For centuries, Christian writers have struggled with how to make sense of such a woman. Was she a common harlot,[4] or some type of temple functionary? Did she remain a gentile after her contact with the spies, or did she profess some type of faith in the God of Israel and join the ancient covenant community? The fact that Rahab is mentioned not once but three times in the New Testament made her all but impossible to ignore by later Christian writers. Early on in the book of James (late 80s or early 90s CE) she is an example of faith that/with works: "Was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road" (2:25 [NRSV, here and following])? Again in Hebrews she is remembered as an example of faith because she welcomed the spies into her home: "By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace" (11:31). In Matthew, right at the beginning of the NT, she is mentioned in passing as a member of the lineage of Christ (1:5).[5] Obviously then, Christian exegetes could not dismiss her from their theological deliberations.

In commenting on Matthew's genealogy of Christ (1:1-17), Raymond E. Brown summed up Christian queries well when he asked, "Why the women [referring to Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba]?"[6] For our purposes his question might be restated to ask, "Why include these women in particular, and why draw attention to Rahab?"[7]

This study examines a variety of Christian attempts to make sense out of this enigmatic biblical figure. I began by gathering together references from Christian writers through the ages. The different writers are categorized according to how they interpreted Rahab. This information is then reviewed along the lines of John Cassian's four-fold sense of Scripture: Literal, Allegorical, Tropological, and to a limited extent, Anagogical.[8] Such an overview highlights the various types of biblical interpretation operative in diverse Christian circles as they sought to make the Scriptures relevant to their own time and place.

For the sake of comparison, it is best to begin with the Cassian's allegorical sense of the text and leave the literal for last. Allegorical biblical interpretation focuses on what may be called the hidden meaning of a biblical passage; these references may be subdivided into two types: one-to-one correspondence (usually a typological interpretation) and a broader extended allegory.

Allegorical Interpretation

One-to-one Correspondence

1. The scarlet thread that hung from Rahab's window

a. As early as the mid-second century CE, Justin Martyr (d. 165) claimed in his Dialogue with Trypho (a Rabbi) that Rahab's scarlet thread was a symbol of the blood of Christ, by which those who were once harlots and unrighteous out of all nations were saved (111).[9]

b. Origen (185-253/4) also held that the thread hanging from Rahab's window signifies the blood of Christ and thus redemption. He believed that Rahab "knew no salvation except for the blood of Christ" (Homilies on Joshua 3.5).

2. The spies

The spies sent to reconnoiter the Promised Land, according to Irenaeus (130-200), were doubtless a type of the Godhead visiting Rahab's home (Preface 4.20.12).

3. The church

a. Augustine (354-430) taught that Rahab feared God and thus represented the Church and the Gentiles; for him, Rahab was synonymous with the Gentile church (Psalms 87.8.4).

b. Jerome (c. 345-419) held essentially the same thing and mentioned it twice (Letters 52.3; see also Against Jovinianus 6.23).

Broader Extended Allegory

Most Christian writers in ages past made only cursory allusions to the Rahab story in their writings. These passing allusions, however, give insight into how they interpreted Rahab. They saw her as one of several ways of supporting their particular theological perspectives. Two writers in particular, Origen and Calvin, offer an exception to the typical approach to Rahab and pen longer reflections on her story. Only Origen approaches her story allegorically (Calvin will be reviewed separately below).

Origen (185-253/4) wrote that by seeking refuge from the invading Israelite armies in her house, Rahab and her family were in essence entering into the church. Those remaining outside the house that perished were like those not saved.

Additionally, Origen accents a play on words in the Hebrew Bible with his own illustrative illustration. Since Rahab (rhb) means "wide" or "broad" in Hebrew, Origen believes that she must represent some sort of ampleur or "wideness" (3.3). To illustrate this, Origen suggests that Rahab said, "this place is too narrow for me," to which the Israelite spies replied, "enlarge your tent," meaning enter the covenant. (Is Origen intentionally overlooking the sexual overtones in this language?[10] It is difficult to be certain.) Because she widened her house to allow the spies to enter, the Kingdom of God became a wider place (i.e., including gentiles), and eventually her wideness was heard around the world (Homilies on Joshua 3.5).

Tropological Interpretation

In addition to John Cassian's allegorical interpretation of the Bible, he also identified what is called tropological interpretation of the Bible. This second type of biblical interpretation focuses on the moral meaning of a biblical story as a model for current actions and ethical reflection. This is where most of the biblical interpreters invest the bulk of their hermeneutical efforts. Rahab is seen as a model of hospitality, mercy, faith, patience, and repentance as she interacted with the spies sent by Joshua. Thus the harlot of Jericho became a paragon of virtue.

1. Hospitality

a. James (2:25, mentioned above) maintains that Rahab was justified because she treated the spied hospitably.

b. Gregory the Nazianzen (329-90) wrote that Rahab was justified by one thing alone, her hospitality (Select Orations 7.40.19).

c. Ambrose (339-97) held that in showing hospitality Rahab found safety from the coming destruction of both Jericho and in the hereafter (Epistles 10.63.105).

d. Chrysostom (350-407) wrote that by faith Rahab did not perish with the other citizens of Jericho because she received the spies in peace (Homilies 14.27 [writing on Heb 11]; cf. also Hom 26).

2. Mercy

Augustine (354-430) held that God treated Rahab well, in spite of lying, but because she was merciful to God's servants (On the Trinity, To Consentius, Against Lying 2.60.32-34).

3. Faith (frequently mixed with other personal qualities)

a. In the Book of Hebrews (11:31 as mentioned earlier) we find Rahab listed in what might be called the "Hall of Faith," where she is remembered as example of faith for later generations.

b. 1 Clement (c. 96) claims that because of her faith and hospitality, Rahab was saved (12:1, 3, 8)

c. Clement of Alexandria (fl. 180-203) agrees with Clement and says that because of faith and hospitality Rahab was saved (Epistle to the Corinthians on Martyrdom 17).

d. Origen (185-253/4) believed that by receiving the spies into her house she was placed in a position of high honor (something he refers to as one of the mysteries of faith [139]; Homilies on Joshua 3.3).

e. Voicing a different opinion, Calvin (1509-64) was skeptical of earlier writers's certainty about Rahab's faith and maintained that her faith was only a seed of faith and insufficient for eternal salvation. In surrendering herself to God's power (i.e., embracing the promise of God and casting herself on his protection), Rahab gave proof of her election (Joshua 2.11). Moreover, in the Institutes Calvin asks, "What seed of righteousness was in Rahab the harlot before she had faith?" His answer as with other biblical stories is none (see 3.24.11) because "All [people are] like sheep have gone astray" (Isa 53:6). Thus Calvin's interpretation of Rahab gives expression to his theology of Total Depravity.

f. Similarly, the modern scholar, Mary J. Evans holds that Rahab's unique insight into the political/spiritual situation of her day apparently grew into a genuine commitment to the God of Israel and thus she was incorporated into the Israelite community of faith.[12]

4. Repentance

a. The Constitution of the Holy Apostles[13] (c. 350-80) directs its readers to receive without any doubt the one who repents as God received repentant Rahab (7.3.14).

b. Chrysostom (350-407) declared that like Rahab the Harlot, Christians should learn to do away with ills (i.e., sins; Homily III 5).

c. Jerome (345-419 c.) wrote that the faithful should take refuge from the fall of Jericho with the justified harlot Rahab (Letter 22.37).

d. Ambrose (339-397) recalled that Rahab believed in God and found salvation (2.4.22).

e. Luther also held that Rahab was an example of repentance and thus avoided divine judgment and punishment because she was not destroyed along with Jericho (Luther's Works "Deuteronomy" 7:1-2; see also Isa 30:7).[14] Elsewhere Luther also mentions that a heathen became a believer when Rahab received the Word (Christ) from the Israelites (LW Gen 47:26).

Anagogical Interpretation

The third of the four categories of Cassius is anagogical. This hermeneutic is a favorite of those hermeneutists who are interested in the mystical or spiritual elements of a biblical passage; it is often expressed via allusions to heaven or the afterlife. Although here is little in the remarks of ancient biblical interpreters specifically referring to heaven or the afterlife with regard to Rahab, Origen comes close when he talks about her as a symbol of wideness (ampleur). Her actions, in opening her home to the spies, were not unlike heaven opening up to receive the gentiles. Other writers refer to the lasting or eternal effects of her actions in passing while discussing other issues. Augustine, for example, said Rahab made the transition to God's people and gained an eternal prize that cannot be secured by a lie.

Literal Interpretation

Interpretative writings in Cassian's fourth category, literal, do not appear until the modern period of biblical hermeneutics and in particular when socio/political considerations began to garner the attention of biblical interpreters. What earlier scholars overlooked could no longer be ignored. One such hermeneutic is feminist biblical interpretation. With regard to Rahab, the work of two scholars, Phyllis Bird and Alice Bellis, is particularly seminal.

In "The Harlot as Heroine,"[15] Phyllis Bird resists attempts of most previous Christian writers to rehabilitate or sanitize the Rahab story. Rather, she maintains that the Hebrew word for harlot used in this story (zona) does not refer to some type of temple prostitution as some writers suggest, but rather, to a common harlot. Moreover, one of the various reasons that the spies visited Rahab was certainly sexual "and they slept there."[16] Bird maintains that the language is obviously meant to suggest a brothel and sanitizing it changes the entire story (127-28). The portrayal of Rahab as a heroine, Bird holds, does not negate the negative social appraisal attached to her role as a harlot (127). The entire account depends on Rahab's marginal status. Change her marginal status and the whole story is altered.

Alice Bellis in, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women's Status in the Bible, takes a similar approach. Agreeing with many of the issues raised by Bird, she also notes that prostitutes are rarely considered heroines in either ancient or modern times and that the story of Rahab is somewhat of an embarrassment to Christian readers (and I would add that they spiritualize the event in order to make sense of it). Nevertheless, Bellis maintains, this and other biblical stories about women were preserved in Christian tradition because of the way they could be used to offer hope to readers in subsequent ages.[17]

This review of Christian reflections on the Rahab story has shown that later Christian writers have built on, or at times reacted to, the interpretations of earlier exegetes. At the same time, exegetes appear to be trying to answer problematic questions seemingly overlooked earlier, but nevertheless disturbing to readers of their day. For example, both Augustine and Luther go to considerable lengths to explain how such a liar as Rahab could actually be blessed by God without a specific textual reference to her repentance of her misdeeds. This whole issue is missed by earlier writers. Focusing on other matters of concern, Gregory of Nazianzen is not certain how a harlot could be justified and Calvin is uncomfortable with the facile acceptance of Rahab's supposed "faith." These and other writers have great difficulty with this question, How could a lair be included in the Bible as a example of faith? Phyllis Bird and Alice Bellis prefer a more literal reading of the biblical text and argue to preserve the tensions and theological conundrums preserved through the centuries without positing a kinder, gentler Rahab.

There are yet other interpretations of Rahab that could be reviewed, including Rahab as a prophet, or as a reminder of the Pharisees. Moreover, Murray L. Newman has offered a trenchant review of Rahab along the lines of Gottwald's reconstruction of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Rahab's story could be understood as part of the narrative of multiple groups who joined together in an attempt to gain power and influence in a situation where they had none.[18]

Rahab indeed embodies a contradiction of terms: "a whore with a heart of gold, the harlot who saves the city, the courtesan who sacrifices for her patron."[19] The history of Christian interpretation of Rahab clearly demonstrates that the art of biblical interpretation is not an exact science. Each exegete working through the centuries believed that he or she was reading the biblical text closely. Each struggled to make the ancient story address the concerns or issues of his or her day—addressing perceived lacunas in previous interpretations while raising concerns common to his or her time. Thus via multiple avenues of interpretation, the Bible could speak to those of antiquity and those of every subsequent age.

William L. Lyons, Regent University

[1] Gustave Staal, "Rahab the Harlot" in Great Women of the Bible in Art and Literature (ed. Dorothée Sölle, Joe H. Kirchberger, Herbert Haag, et al.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 110.

[2] The narrative makes no comment whatsoever on Rahab's profession (see Philippa Carter, "Joshua" in The IVP Women's Bible Commentary [ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002], 116-20).

[3] Irene Nowell, "Jesus Great-Grandmothers: Matthew's Four and More," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70 (2008):5-6. Rahab offered the spies h9esed (2:12, trans. "dealt kindly with" NRSV) and then asked for it in return (2:14).

[4] Mary J. Evans maintains that Rahab is to be understood as a landlady or an innkeeper, an independent business person of political awareness, intelligence, great courage, and spiritual acumen ("Women," in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books [ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005], 990).

[5] The Hebrew Bible never connects Rahab to the Davidic line, thus it cannot be Matthew's source for including her in David's lineage. Rahab is also mentioned in 1 Clement 12:1-8.

[6] Raymond E. Brown, Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke (updated ed.; New York: Doubleday, 1993), 71. Brown also considers three hermeneutical options for the inclusion of the women in Matthew (71-74).

[7] Gustave Staal has assembled a visually rich and diverse collection of artistic renderings of Rahab in Great Women of the Bible in Art and Literature. His article, "Rahab the Harlot" (104-13) includes the biblical story, and two excurses on Rahab's red cord and various extra-biblical materials.

[8] Working at Marseilles, John Cassian (ca. 360-435 penned the Four-fold Sense of Scripture, which had a tremendous effect on later generations of students of the Bible. The Four-fold Sense of Scripture in Western hermeneutics held that there are four distinct ways of reading the Bible (from John Cassian's Confessions XIX.8, ca. 420). See also Christopher Ocker, "Biblical Interpretation in the Middle Ages," 80-81, 97; and Tyconius, Tyconius: The Book of Rules (Trans. William S. Babcock; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).

[9] All references to early Christian writers are from Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Latina (Turnholt: Typographi Brepols, 1953) and A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. (ed. P. Schaff; New York: Scribner's, 1894-1899) and A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd series (eds. P Schaff and H Wace; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895­-96).

[10] Danna Nolan Fewell, "Joshua" in Women's Bible Commentary (Expanded edition, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe; Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 72.

[11] For a discussion of h9erem in the story of Rahab see Phyllis A. Bird, "The Harlot as Heroine: Narrative Art and Social Presumption in Three Old Testament Texts," Semeia 46 (1989):129.

[12] Mary J. Evans, "Women." Pages 989-99 in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books (ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 990.

[13] A collection of ecclesiastical laws of Syrian provenance and based in part on the Didascalia Apostolorum (an early church order).

[14] Luther also mentions Rahab in his writing on Genesis 26:9 in Luther's Works.

[15] Semeia 46 (1989):119-39.

[16] Translated "lodged there" (NRSV), or "stayed there" (NIV). In this regard see Tikya Fryer-Kensky, "Rahab in the Hebrew Bible" in Women in Scripture (eds. Carol Meyers, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 141.

[17] Alice O. Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville: WJK Press, 1994), 114-5.

[18] In "Rahab and the Conquest," Murray writes that Rahab sided with a disenfranchised Israelite minority. She was an outcast in her society, she would likely entertain other outcasts and thus the Rahab narrative might fit well into Gottwald's theory. Bird and Bellis, however, note that they cannot find historical or literary evidence that would render this reading plausible (Bird 132; Bellis 114).

[19] Bird 131.

Citation: William L. Lyons, " Rahab through the Ages: A Study of Christian Interpretation of Rahab ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2008]. Online:


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