Was Rahab really a harlot?


The famous woman Rahab who helped the spies at the time of Joshua, is clearly identified in the Bible as a harlot or a prostitute. This is the obvious conclusion, when we just accept the relevant Scriptures on their face value.

However, many commentaries feel uncomfortable with that assessment and have been trying to re-interpret and re-write Scripture to bring it more in line with their humanly-devised perceptions. The following serves as a very good example to caution everyone NEVER to accept the opinions of commentaries as inspired doctrine, UNLESS they are clearly supported by the biblical evidence. Commentaries reflect, as a whole, the opinions of man which may or may not be inspired by God. We must also remember that God has revealed His truth to “babes,” while HIDING it from most of the learned and sophisticated intellectuals of this world (compare Matthew 11:25).

Regarding Rahab, notice the following clear biblical evidence:

Joshua 2:1 and Joshua 6:17, 22, 25 identify Rahab as a “harlot.” This is confirmed, in the New Testament, in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25. The Hebrew and Greek words are “zanah” and “porne” and designate a harlot, as we will see.

Rahab later married Salmon and brought forth Boaz. Boaz married Ruth and brought forth Obed. Obed, in turn, brought forth Jesse, the father of David (compare Matthew 1:5-6). David became the forefather of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and of Mary herself. Based on these facts, many commentaries have concluded that Rahab could not have been a harlot, but that she was just an upstanding innocent and respected “innkeeper.”

Notice the following examples for this adventurous reasoning:

Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible states to Hebrews 11:31 that it is “exceedingly probable that the [Hebrew and Greek words]which we translate harlot, should be rendered innkeeper or tavernkeeper, as there is no proper evidence that the person in question was such a woman as our translation represents her. As to her having been a harlot before and converted afterwards, it is a figment of an idle fancy. She was afterwards married to Salmon, a Jewish prince… And it is extremely incredible that, had she been what we represent her, he would have sought for such an alliance.”

Please also consider these comments in John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible:

“The Targum… calls her… ‘a woman, that kept a victualling house’: this paraphrase is taken notice of by Jarchi and Kimchi on the place, who interpret it, ‘a seller of food’: and even the Hebrew word… is so explained by a considerable Jewish writer… and this may rather seem to be the sense of the word, and to be her proper business, from the spies going to her house, as being an house of entertainment; and from Salmon’s marrying her, which might be thought strange that a prince of Israel would, had she been a person of ill fame.

“… but yet, the constant use of the word, in this form, the testimonies of two apostles, and her making no mention of her husband and children, when she agreed with the spies, confirm the generally received character of her, that she was an harlot. Some Jewish writers say… that she was ten years of age when the Israelites came out of Egypt; and that all the forty years they were in the wilderness… ‘she played the harlot’; and was one and fifty years of age when she was proselyted. She is called an harlot…”

In addition, Vincent’s Word Studies explains correctly:

“Rahab’s occupation is stated without mincing, and the lodging of the spies at her house was probably not a matter of accident. Very amusing are the efforts of some earlier expositors to evade the fact of a harlot’s faith, by rendering [the word for “harlot” as] landlady.”

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible also explains correctly:

“Among the noble army of believing worthies, bravely marshalled by the apostle, Rahab comes in the rear, to show that God is no respecter of persons… She was a Canaanite, a stranger to the commonwealth of Israel… She was a harlot, and lived in a way of sin; she was not only a keeper of a public house, but a common woman of the town…”

Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible contains the following interesting annotations to Hebrews 11:31:

“Much perplexity has been felt in reference to this case, and many attempts have been made to remove the difficulty. The main difficulty has been that a woman of this character should be enumerated among those who were eminent for piety, and many expositors have endeavored to show that the word rendered ‘harlot’ does not necessarily denote a woman of abandoned character, but may be used to denote a hostess… But there are no clear instances in which the Greek word, and the corresponding Hebrew word… is used in this sense. The usual and the fair meaning of the word is what is given in our translation, and there is no good reason why that signification should not be retained here…

“… the obvious meaning of this word here and of the corresponding place in Joshua 2:6 is, that she had been a woman of abandoned character, and that she was known as such. That she might have been also a hostess, or one who kept a house of entertainment for strangers, is at the same time by no means improbable, since it not unfrequently happened in ancient as well as modern times, that females of this character kept such houses…

“Other females of a similar character have been converted, and have subsequently led lives of piety… ‘Publicans and harlots,’ said the Saviour, ‘go into the kingdom of God;’ Matthew 21:31. Rahab seems to have been one of them; and her case shows that such instances of depravity are not hopeless. This record, therefore, is one of encouragement for the most abandoned sinners.

“… there is no need of supposing that the apostle in commending this woman [in Hebrews 11:31] approved of all that she did. That she was not perfect is true. That she did some things which cannot be vindicated is true also – and who does not? But admitting all that may be said about any imperfection in her character… it was still true that she had strong faith – and that is all that the apostle commends. We are under no more necessity of vindicating all that she did, than we are all that David or Peter did – or all that is now done by those who have the highest claims to virtue.”

In addition, please note, as a matter of clarification, that at the time of the destruction of Jericho, Rahab and her relatives were at first not allowed to stay INSIDE the camp of Israel (compare Joshua 6:23)–obviously due to Rahab’s reputation. She first had to prove herself–she had to show or bring forth fruits worthy of repentance (compare Matthew 3:8). That she clearly did so is manifested by the fact that she would later live IN Israel (compare Joshua 6:25).

In any event, we really don’t need to guess as to who and what Rahab was. The concept that she was just an outstanding noble landlady is plainly and totally ridiculous.

The Hebrew word “zanah” (translated as “harlot” in regard to Rahab, in Joshua 2:1, etc.) can also mean, “to commit fornication, go a whoring.” It is used in Genesis 34:15, 24, 31. Jacob’s brothers condemned the Hivite prince Shechem of having treated their sister Dinah like a harlot–not like an innkeeper.

Jephtah is called the son of a harlot in Judges 11:1; and there are many more passages which translate this word accurately as “harlot.” (Compare, Judges 16:1; 1 Kings 3:16; Proverbs 29:3; Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 3:1, 6, 8; 5:7; Ezekiel 16:31, 35; Hosea 3:3; Joel 3:3; Micah 1:7, etc., etc.)

The Greek word “porne” (translated as “harlot” in regard to Rahab, in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25), can also mean, literally, “one sold” or “fornicator.” It is used in Matthew 21:31-32 where Christ talked about publicans and harlots, not publicans and innkeepers. Notice also Luke 15:30 where the “lost son” did not devour his living with innkeepers, but with harlots. Also, notice 1 Corinthians 6:15-16 where Paul was not talking about fornication with an innkeeper, but with a harlot or prostitute. AND, notice Revelation 17:5 where Babylon is described as the mother of harlots, not of innkeepers.

The Bible is very candid about the strengths and weaknesses of its heroes. The Bible does not tell fairy-tales, but it gives us the complex characteristics of real life people. The GOOD NEWS is that EVERYONE who is called by God to repentance CAN change–NO MATTER what he or she was or what he or she might have done. Rahab was a harlot–no doubt–but she responded to God’s call with faith, and she acted upon her faith by hiding the spies and saved them from death. After all, faith without works is dead (James 2:17, 24-25). Rahab changed her life, and she became an ancestor of Jesus Christ.

We might also recall that Jesus Christ defended a repentant woman who is identified as “a sinner” in the account given in Luke 7:36-50. The contextual meaning is that she was an immoral woman. However, note what Jesus said of her actions: “Then He said to the woman, ‘Your FAITH has saved you. Go in peace'” (Luke 7:50). This record further supports the reason Rahab is mentioned among the faithful in Hebrews 11:31–in spite of the fact that she had at one time lived as a harlot.

The only women specifically mentioned by name in the genealogy of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 1, besides Rahab, are Mary, the wife of Joseph (verse 16), who was a righteous woman; Tamar, the daughter in law of Judah (verse 3), who played the HARLOT with him since he had broken his promise to give her one of his sons in marriage (compare Genesis 38:1-30); and Ruth, a non-Israelite from the tribe of Moab (verse 5). One more woman is mentioned, without naming her directly, in verse 6, where we read: “David the king begot Solomon by her [who had been the wife] of Uriah.” This refers to Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, whom David had killed, after Bathsheba became pregnant as a result of David’s adulterous affair with her.

All of these women are listed in the genealogy of Jesus, the stepson and foster child of Joseph. They are listed because they deserved to be listed–not because of their weaknesses and sins, but because of their subsequent repentance and faith. Rahab is no exception. She clearly was a harlot and she was known as such, but she acted upon faith, repented and changed her lifestyle, and she is today memorialized in God’s Word as one of the ancestors of Jesus’ stepfather Joseph. In addition, she was an ancestor of Mary, the mother of Jesus–which means that Jesus Christ was a direct descendant of Rahab! (Compare Luke 3:32 with Matthew 1:5, showing that Boaz, an ancestor of King David, was the son of Salmon and Rahab). Most importantly, however, is the fact that she will be in the first resurrection (Hebrews 11:31, 39-40).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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