Session 4– “‘Outside the Camp of Israel’: Redemption, Reinterpretation, and the Incorporation of the Other in the Story of Rahab”
Texts: Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 24-26; Joshua 2; 6:22-25*
Rahab in Context
Rahab’s Place in the Bible
Rahab’s story occurs at the beginning of the Biblical section traditionally referred to in Judaism as “the Prophets,” immediately following the Pentateuch, or “Torah.” Thus, Judaism groups Joshua and the following narrative books along with what Christians think of as the “prophetic books” (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, etc.) Modern scholars point out that most of the narratives in Joshua through II Kings seem to share many of the concerns and terminology of the book of Deuteronomy, and so look upon them as stemming from a common authorship. Thus, scholars often refer to these books as the “Deuteronomic History.”
Rahab and the Women of Genesis-Numbers
Just as the women characters analyzed in the last session may be read as interpretations of certain themes implicit in the stories of the matriarchs of Genesis, the story of Rahab interprets and embodies certain themes implicit in the characterizations of Tamar, the “Hebrew midwives,” Miriam, Yokhebed and Zipporah. Whereas Tamar is associated with foreign identity and prostitution, Rahab embodies them. Like Tamar, she inserts herself into the community of Israel, in spite of her foreign status. Like the “Hebrew midwives,” Pharaoh’s daughter, and Zipporah, she allies herself with Israelites; and like the first two of these people, she ignores her people’s ancient enmity with the Israelites in doing so. Like the women considered in Session Two, Rahab is an agent of rescue and transformation/ transition associated with a passage through water (the Jordan, the passage through which clearly runs parallel to the passage through the Sea of Reeds), and symbols of death and rebirth. Finally, like Tamar, whose story itself reiterates a theme hinted at in the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rahab’s story seems to run counter to a biblical strand prohibiting intermarriage with foreign women. If her story glosses the stories of these earlier women, it also invites interpretation in their light: Her rescue of the Israelite spies and vital function in Israel’s transition from a wandering to a settled status is to be read in the light of the theme of reversal of primogeniture and preference for the underdog.
Rahab and Biblical Interpretation
However, Rahab’s story takes up the theme of the “faithful foreigner” in a new way, by relating it—albeit somewhat obliquely—to the question of Biblical interpretation, itself. Her character suggests an analogy to a particular type of Biblical interpreter: one shaped by circumstances which are not perfectly addressed by the received Biblical narrative—the story of Israel—, but who recognizes the authority of that narrative. In truth, though, and to varying degrees, this is the situation of every interpreter—none of us inhabits a world perfectly mirrored in Biblical narrative. In relation to the world narrated in the Bible, we are all, in a sense (and to varying degrees), “faithful foreigners.” The question addressed by Rahab’s story is: How should one deal with that foreignness, that “otherness”?
Rahab inhabits a world in which the story of Israel—a story in which her own experience is not perfectly represented—has become a dominant, inescapable force—in that sense, a world much like our own. At least three modes of response to that circumstance are addressed within her story: (1) The king and citizens of Jericho set themselves in opposition to the thrust of Biblical history, and thus find themselves overwhelmed and annihilated by it. (2) At the beginning of the story, the voice of Joshua represents a Biblical authority which seeks to take over the land and destroy all that is foreign to the bearers of the Biblical tradition, and which imperils the survival of Rahab and her household. (3) Rahab represents a voice which embraces and proclaims Israel’s faith in YHWH, and which respects and submits to the force of Biblical history, but which simultaneously “speaks back” to the bearers of that Biblical tradition, insisting that, in return for her assistance in establishing Biblical authority over her country, a place for herself and her family be found within the Biblical community. In so doing, she inserts herself and her experience into the story of Israel. However, she does so in an interesting way: Her otherness is not obliterated, but neither is it complete; at the end of her story she is still “Rahab the harlot,” but she is also “in Israel”: “And she dwelt within Israel to this very day” (Joshua 6:25; my translation).
The Problem: Rahab and the Law; Rahab as Foreigner and Prostitute
In Deut. 7:1-5, 24-26, and in several other passages, the Israelites are enjoined to enter into no covenants with the “people of the land,” and specifically, with Canaanites; but, rather, to utterly destroy them (this is referred to as the cherev, often translated as “the ban.”) While the word, “covenant” (berît) is never specifically used in Rahab’s story, her story runs closely parallel to the story concerning the Gibeonites in Joshua 9:3-27, which does specifically mention the making of a covenant; moreover, she uses terminology that typically connotes a covenant arrangement (e.g., the phrase “swear to me.”) Finally; the story of the agreement reached between herself and the spies moves through each of the stages which comprise the formal structure typical of covenants, such as that mediated by Moses (Campell 243): (1) preamble (Joshua 2:11b), (2) prologue (vv. 9-11), (3) stipulations (vv. 12-13, 18-20), (4) sanctions (vv. 18-20), (5) oath (vv. 14, 17), and (6) sign of the covenant (the red cord: vv. 18-21).
Thus, in Rahab’s story, Israel at first glance appears to have “broken” the laws of cherev in two respects: in failing to kill her and her family with the rest of the people of her town, and in making a covenant between Israel and her family.
This sense of the discord between the Israelites’ behavior and stipulations of the law is heightened by two other facets of Rahab’s portrait: her status as a prostitute (zonah), and the prophetic features of her portrait, which are detailed below. In addition to strong condemnation of foreign types of prophesy involving divination and the conjuring of spirits (Deut. 18:9-14), and equally strong warnings against the allure of foreign women, who will draw the Israelites into following other gods (7:3), the Deuteronomic laws include references to prostitution as “a metaphor for the violation of Yahweh’s covenant” (31:16-18) (Hawk 61-62). Against this backdrop, it has been argued, Rahab “as a woman of Canaan and a prostitute, . . . signifies the temptation to apostatize” (61).
This hint at possible apostasy is further evoked by another Biblical parallel, one connoting the possibility of Israel’s failure to trust and obey God. The spies in Joshua 2 set out across the Jordan into Canaan from Shittim, just as did other spies, including Joshua himself, in Deuteronomy 1:22-33. The spies from the earlier story return with a report that strikes such fear in the Israelites’ hearts that they refuse to obey God’s commandment, mediated through Moses, to carry out the invasion. God punishes them with the forty-year period of wandering. The connection between the two stories is born out by linguistic echoes, specifically the parallel uses of the words for “search out” (hpr) and “spy out” (rgl), and by the repetition of the phrase, “our hearts were caused to melt [mśś]” (Deut. 1:23; Joshua 2:11).
The hint at temptation is underscored by the description of the Israelites spies’ entry into Rahab’s house in verse one (often translated euphemistically as “they . . . came to the house of a harlot named Rahab, and spent the night there;” my emphasis). The last verb form is more literally translated “and lay there.” The verb “lay” (škb) is a common Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse, especially in that particular turn of phrase (Hawk 62).
These troubling aspects to Rahab’s portrait are compounded by several other considerations: In pre-Deuteronomic times, prophets were frequently attached to sanctuaries (Blenkinsopp 40), as were (sacred) prostitutes, who, like Rahab, often dwelt between the double-casement walls (Kornfeld 1356-7; Rast 237). Moreover, in such cultures, sexual intercourse with sacred prostitutes is often an aspect of rites of induction, by which foreigners are introduced into a cultural region (van Gennep 33-35).
Rahab as Prophet
It is too easy, however, to write off Rahab as a symbol of the temptation to apostatize. For, if her character seems to connote the image of pagan prophets and hierodules, it is just as strongly modeled on specifically Israelite modes of prophecy: the prophet as a crucial figure in the conduct of “holy war,” and as a witness to the supremacy of God’s will over the will of the king. Even more specifically, her character is modeled on the images of Moses, Israel’s archetypal prophet, and Abraham, the Biblical character first explicitly termed a “prophet.” If more recent biblical interpreters have remained insensitive to the links between Rahab and divinely sanctioned prophecy, this was not the case with the greatest among the ancient exegetes, many of whom described Rahab as an “ancestor of the prophets” (Rabbis Eliezar and Judah in the Talmud and Mishna [Langlamet 1079, Telushkin 150-151]), and as a prophet, herself (Midrash Samuel, Ruth Rabba, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and Procopius of Gaza [Manns 13; Neusner xiii, 62; Hanson 55; Langlamet 1083]).
A Holy-War Prophet
· The ancient predilection for placing Rahab with the tradition of the prophets is borne out by the function she plays within the narrative context. Her story occurs at the beginning of the portion of the Biblical canon referred to in Judaism as “the Prophets.” Following the work of Gerhard von Rad, recent scholars have pointed out that the book of Joshua bears the essential marks of a “holy war narrative” (Miller 160, Ollenburger 23).
· Her story is replete with terminology found almost uniquely in holy war narratives, including the terms for “spying out” (rgl) or “searching out” (hpr) the land, and for the “melting” (mśś and mwg) of hearts out of “dread” (`eymah).
· Holy war narratives typically include a number of ritual gestures marking the military campaign as having a sacral character. Rahab’s story includes, or occurs in close proximity to, a number of such traits, including the blowing of the shofar (6:4-5:8), the sanctification of warriors before battle (3:5), the cultic verdict concerning the outcome (2:24a, 6:2), the exhortation not to fear (8:1), the motif of Yahweh’s sowing panic and confusion among the enemy (10:10), and the allusion to “the ban of destruction” [herem] (6:17 ff., 7:18 f.; Gilmer 65). As pointed out below, Rahab’s action of burying the Israelite spies among the sheaves atop her house, then uncovering them, itself has a strongly ritual flavor.
· While her story, like that of other prophetic figures in this and subsequent narratives preceding the anointing of Saul as Israel’s first monarch, does not include the explicit term, “prophet” (Blenkinsopp 62), she does fulfill all the functions typical of prophets within holy war narratives: In the face of an opposition which has caused the Israelites to shrink from bold action (a circumstance hinted at by the analogy between the opening of Joshua 2 and Deuteronomy 1:22-33), she, like Moses and like the canonical prophets of the exilic period (Westermann 105-113 ff.), reminds the Israelites of God’s actions on their behalf and of God's promise to give them possession of the land (Joshua 2:9; cf. Exod. 3:6-8 inter alia); indeed, her words closely resemble the “historical credo” form used by Moses in this regard in Deuteronomy 26. This type of intervention is typical of prophets within holy war narratives (Ollenburger 31).
A Prophetic Witness Against the King
· Joseph Blenkinsopp has pointed out that the Deuteronomist seems eager to establish a strong link between the institutions of prophecy and that of the monarchy (Blenkinsopp 65). Thus, while a number of characters prior to the anointing of Saul as Israel’s first king seem to conform to the biblical image of a prophet, the term itself is rarely used until after the monarchy is established. The link between prophet and king is often one of opposition: The prophet’s function is to bear witness to God’s supremacy over that of any human ruler, and especially, to oppose the king’s will in the name of God whenever the human ruler strays from the terms of the covenant mediated through Moses. Rahab’s opposition to the king of Jericho is to be read in that light, and in relation to her allegiance to the Mosaic covenant, as detailed below.
A Prophet Like Moses
Like Moses, Rahab experiences a threat from her own people and, specifically, from the monarch (in Moses’ case, these two aspects of the threat is complicated by his ambiguous status as an Israelite who is also an Egyptian by adoption). In both their cases, the protagonist escapes this threat by means of an alliance with a “foreign” power (Exod. 2:16-21; Joshua 2:12-21; 6:17, 22-23, 25). Both of them experience theophanies involving one or more maleak. (This Hebrew word can signify any “messenger,” as in Rahab’s story [Josh 6:17, 25], or, more specifically, a “messenger of Yahweh,” that is, an angel, as in the stories of Moses and Abraham [Exod. 3:2, Gen. 19:1, ff.]) Finally, both Rahab and Moses receive a red-colored sign (`ot: Joshua 2:12; Exod. 12:21-23), which signifies protection from wrath to come.
Moreover, Rahab proclaims the Mosaic Law in a nearly verbatim quote of Moses, himself: “For YHWH your God, is God in heaven above, and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11b; cf. Deut. 4:39; my amendations). (Interestingly, Rahab’s proclamation succeeds in encouraging the Israelites where Moses’ did not.) Like Moses, she places this proclamation in the context of Israel’s salvation history (Deut. 4:32-34; Joshua 2:10), and forges a covenant between her people and a greater power (Yahweh, in Moses’s case; Yahweh’s people, Israel, in Rahab’s).
A Prophet Like Abraham
The other prophetic model upon which the character of Rahab is constructed is that of Abraham, according to his depiction in Genesis 18:22 ff. Her story reiterates many of the themes and motifs of Abraham’s story, culminating in his recognition in Genesis 20:7 (unique within Genesis) as a “prophet” [nabi`]: “For he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live.” Like Abraham (Gen. 19:1), she is visited by two “maleakîm” (“messengers,” but as noted above, the word also means “angels”) bent upon the destruction of a city (Sodom, in the case of Abraham’s narrative). Like him, she intercedes on behalf of others that they may be rescued from the destruction to come. Like Abraham’s relative, Lot, her family alone escapes the destruction. Like Abraham’s relative Lot, this escape relies on her careful observance of stipulations delivered by the maleakîm (Joshua 2:19; cf. Gen. 19:17).
Rahab and the Reader I
As we have seen in the two preceding main sections, the story of Rahab places its audience on the horns of an apparently insoluble interpretive dilemma, by inviting opposed evaluations of her character and Israel’s involvement with her. On the one hand, she bears startling points of resemblance to heroic Israelite prophets. On the other, her story appears deliberately to invoke stipulations within the law that would seem to anathematize her.
My contention is that the story does this deliberately. Against source critics who have ascribed the polarities within her story to a clumsy redaction process, I would argue that those features of Rahab’s characterization which frustrate our attempt to reduce her story to the clear and familiar terms set forth in the Deuteronomic law do not indicate a lack of artistry, but are, on the contrary, evidence of the shaping, anticipation, and frustration of readers’ expectations which are a common feature of highly literary texts (Iser 64).
Another feature of such texts, however, is that they do not leave the reader in a state of total frustration, but provide “clues” upon which the reader must seize, leading the reader to become actively involved in the construction of the meaning of the text (51, 55).
The “clues” which Rahab’s story provides toward an interpretive methodology capable of making sense of her story in its context are provided by the narrative structure of that story:
· In Joshua 2, a certain trajectory of events culminates at Rahab’s doorstep, and seems to endanger her and her household, largely as a result of the Israelites’ adherence to and application of Deuteronomic commandments. However, she accommodates herself to that trajectory, and simultaneously shapes it so that it accommodates her particular situation. Rahab’s modus operandi with respect to the general thrust of the narrative provides the reader with a model of how the general principles of a tradition (i.e., the law) may be adhered to, and yet molded to take into account situations or persons for which that tradition appears to make no allowance. Thus, Rahab provides the reader with a key for resolving the apparent discord described above.
The Literary Structure of Joshua 2
Rahab occupies central stage in Joshua 2. Aside from Joshua, she is the only character referred to by name, and her speech and/or acts figure decisively in half of the chapter’s twenty-four verses. Moreover, the narrative over which she presides occurs at a critical, transitional moment in the life of Israel, when the Israelites are poised on the brink of the Jordan, preparing to leave behind their desert wanderings to enter into and take possession of the land YHWH has promised them. This moment is ritually marked by the mass circumcision in 5:2-8, and by the passage through the waters of the Jordan in chapters 3-4. Van Gennep and Turner have noted that both circumcision and passage through water are typical of rites of passage in tribal cultures throughout the world, and that they are to be read as symbols of death (to one’s old status or stage of life) and rebirth (in a new stage of life). In 2:6-8, Rahab presides over a moment with similar connotations: She buries the Israelite spies, the vanguard of their people, among the stalks of flax on her roof. As we shall see below, they arise from that prone position with a new, far more confident and assertive, mode of behavior.
The general trajectory of events in Joshua 2 is defined by Joshua’s commissioning of the spies to “go, view the land; especially Jericho.” The king’s implied commissioning of his agents in verse 2 mirrors Joshua’s commissioning in verse 1, and creates suspense: Who will prevail, the king or Joshua?
Rahab plays the crucial role in resolving that suspense, by hiding the spies, deceiving and diverting the king’s envoys, providing the spies with means of escape from Jericho, and instructing them how to escape detection on their way back across the Jordan.
However, Rahab is no mere “booster” to the outcome envisioned by Joshua in verse 1. She integrates new purposes and interests into the project (i.e., the salvation of her family), takes indispensable initiative toward their realization, and is the means by which others (i.e., the spies) introduce their initiatives into the story; they return with the report Joshua commissioned, but having very loosely interpreted his injunction to “go, view the land” (vv. 23-24).
Rahab’s initiative is emphasized by the contrast between her behavior and the initially mute, surprisingly passive behavior of the spies, as well as by verbal nuance. The spies twice refer to “this oath that you have made us swear,” using the hipil, a verb inflection which emphasizes causality on Rahab’s part.
Joshua 2 begins with a polarity between active, vocal characters who have little physical presence in the story (Joshua and the king of Jericho), and pliant, mute characters whose physical presence stands out (the spies). Rahab functions as a kind of prism, whereby the pliant, mute, emphatically physical characters grow more active and vocal and shed some of the “dead weight” of their initial physical presence, and whereby the active, vocal, disembodied character who initially controls the plot is rendered more accessible.
In the opening of Joshua 2, the spies (like the king’s agents) are not portrayed as primary agents of their own movement, a movement which culminates in an enduring state of passivity: “And [they] lay there” (v. 1b). That agency lies with Joshua, who, like the king, is presented as a disembodied voice: We are offered no physical description of him, and barely any of his circumstances.
The emissaries, by contrast, are emphatically embodied, but mute. Their physical presence is most graphically evoked when Rahab lays them under the stacks of flax, like so many bundles of wood. Their drowsiness underscores their physicality (v. 8a.) They speak little in the first thirteen verses of the story; in this, resembling the king’s agents, whose only speech is actually attributed to the king, by use of the hipil verb inflection.
Rahab, too, appears in a more objective, physical light than do Joshua and the king, but to lesser extent than the spies. She and her house are focal points of the trajectory of events, and her physical setting is described in detail. However, at the same time, hers is the most prominent voice and the principal agency in the narrative.
In the light of her intervention, the two Israelites become more vocal and active, and in a sense, less emphatically physical. After her prophetic speech (vv. 9-13), they find a voice and an initiative of their own: “The men said to her, ‘Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours . . . .’” (v. 14). Rahab’s “unveiling” of their bodies atop her roof culminates in their escape to the less confined space of the hill country (vv. 16, 22) and their eventual return across the Jordan. There, they address a now silent Joshua, simultaneously fulfilling the charge they received from him, and adding new terms which he did not anticipate (vv. 22-23). Under Rahab’s influence, they have become conveyors of words which they receive from outside themselves, but which they make their own through a process of dialogical give-and-take, and to which they add new implications.
Rahab and the Reader II: Joshua 2 and the (Re-)Interpretation of Biblical Tradition
Rahab’s story deliberately places us on the horns of an interpretive dilemma: The story itself points to passages within Deuteronomy which condemn the forging of a covenant with Canaanites such as Rahab and her family; but, it also depicts her, equally deliberately, as a prophet like Moses.
But, the story does not leave us hanging there. We have, in Rahab’s modus operandi, a model of how to resolve the discrepancy between her desire to act in a manner consistent with faith in the Biblical tradition, and the reality that her own circumstances, through no fault or choice of her own, seem to place her under condemnation by elements of that same tradition. Like the Israelite spies, we may be prone toward a passive stance toward the text we intend to survey and make sense of. Like them, we must learn, from the example of Rahab’s own behavior, to refuse a slavish, passive literalism with respect to the scriptural tradition, and to come up with creative solutions which honor the narrative thrust of that tradition, while refusing to allow particular, isolated injunctions to expel her from the tradition without regard for her manifest faith in God and in God’s involvement in human affairs.
In conformity with Rahab’s own modus operandi, the Jewish sages and earliest Christian interpreters of her story chose to (re-)interpret the foregoing prohibitions and covenant blessings not in racial terms, but in terms of faith. This involved a clarification of what it means to be a member of the people of God; i.e., an identity no longer indissolubly tied to racial blood-line, but based on faith. But, to attain such a clarification, these readers, like Rahab herself, had to abandon a passive, literalistic stance vis-à-vis every individual legal prohibition and injunction, and claim for themselves the authority to interpret the text. However, such authority is not unconstrained: Like Rahab, our interpretations must be guided by an attentive, painstaking, faithful desire to discern the “thrust” of Biblical narrative, and to live out our own lives in continuity with, and as a continuation of, that story.
Above all, Rahab’s story teaches us how to deal with our own foreignness, our own marginality, in relation to the Biblical text and tradition. For, in varying ways and to varying degrees, we are all strangers to the world of the Bible: No tradition can predict and encompass, in every detail, the fullness of our individual experience and circumstances. Like Rahab, we may even find that aspects of our experience and circumstances, aspects integral to our very personhood, are condemned by elements of that tradition, read literally and simplistically. Like Rahab, we then find ourselves torn between the desire to remain faithful to a tradition we cherish, and the danger of being rejected out of adherence to that same tradition. We must learn, in such circumstances, to do as Rahab does: To articulate our stories in Biblical terms, but not at the cost of negating the integrity of our own experience where this is not included, in detail, in the Bible itself. We must learn to carry the thread of Biblical tradition forward to include our own experience in its integrity, and be willing to interpret the received tradition in light of that experience. In so doing—and this is beautiful irony of Rahab’s inclusion within Scripture—we thereby remain faithful to the Bible, itself.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. A History of Prophecy in Israel: From the Settlement in the Land to the Hellenistic Period. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1983.
Cambell, K. M. “Rahab’s Covenant. A Short Note on Joshua 2:9-21.” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972): 243-244.
Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika Vizedom and Gabrielle Caffee. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1969.
Gilmer, Harry. The If-You Form in Israelite Law. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Ser. 15. Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1975.
Hanson, A. J. “Rahab the Harlot in Early Christian Tradition.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament I (1978): 53-60.
Hawk, L. Daniel. Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua. Louisville, KY: Westminster/Knox, 1991.
Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.
Kornfeld, Walter. “Prostitution sacrée.” Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible. Ed. F. Vigouroux. Vol. 52. Paris: Letouzey, 1979.
Langlamet. F. “Rahab.” Suuplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible. Ed. F. Vigouroux. Vol. 52. Paris: Letouzey, 1979.
Manns, Frederic. “Luc 7, 47 et les Traditions juives sur Rahab.” Revue des Sciences religeuses 61 (1987): 1-16.
Miller, Patrick, Jr. The Divine Warrior in Early Israel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1973.
Neusner, Jacob. The Mother of the Messiah in Judaism. The Book of Ruth. The Bible of Jerusalem Library. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1993.
Noth, Martin. Das Buch Josua. Handbuch zum Alten Testament. Ed. Otto Eissfeldt. Vol. 7. Tubingen, Ger.: Mohr, 1938.
Ollenburger, Ben. “Gerhard von Rad’s Theory of Holy War.” Gerhard von Rad. Holy War in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Rast, Walter. “Joshua.” Harper’s Bible Dictionary. Gen. ed. James Mays. San Francisco: Harper, 1988.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP 1985.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy. New York: Morrow, 1991.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1969.
Westermann, Claus. Prophetic Oracles of Salvation in the Old Testament. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1991.
* Unless otherwise noted, English translation and Hebrew text are from The Holy Scriptures; Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.