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Joshua 2 ... was Rahab a prostitute?

And so we come to Joshua 2 and the second woman highlighted by Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus. And surprise, surprise, she is a prostitute, yet another "sinner" who winds up in the mainstream of sacred history. Here comes another sermon on the gospel, Jesus, and prostitutes.

Or is she? The NIV adds a footnote to the word "prostitute" in Joshua 2:1, "or possibly an innkeeper." Could it be that this dear woman has been mislabelled for more than two millenia and, countless sermons notwithstanding, she ran a respectable hotel?

The Hebrew word for Rahab's profession is zonah, which invariably signifies a sexually loose woman and is usually rendered "prostitute." This is not the same term used in Genesis 38:21 of Tamar - kedeshah, which the NIV translates "shrine prostitute." But both words appear in Deuteronomy 23:17-18 and both have to do with prostitution:

There is not to be a shrine prostitute (kedeshah) among the daughters of Israel, nor is there to be a shrine prostitute (kedesh) among the sons of Israel. You shall not bring the earnings of a female prostitute (zonah) or a male prostitute (kelev, literally dog) into the house of the LORD your God to pay any vow, because the LORD your God detests them both.

The Septuagint understands zonah this way and translates with porne, which means a sexually loose woman or prostitute.

Whence then comes the NIV's footnote? One possibility is found in Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (5.2). His elaborate retelling of Rahab's story mentions only that she kept an inn in Jericho. Does this mean he thought she was not a harlot? It is impossible to tell - he might have passed over her prostitution for delicacy sake. Another possibility is in the commentary of Rashi on Joshua 2:1. He refers to Targum Jonathan, which renders the word innkeeper, or one who sells various foodstuffs (מזונות, from the root mazon, or food). But in a couple of other passages in Targ. Jon., the same word refers indisputably to prostitution. Apart from those two refereces, it is hard to find any support for the NIV's footnote.

Such is not the case for the traditional understanding of Rahab's profession, which enjoys wide support. The New Testament follows the Septuagint translation, with both Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 using porne to describe Rahab. Her faith is celebrated in both letters, a gentile prostitute who proves her faith by her actions. The Talmud similarly celebrates Rahab's conversion, the glory of her repentance, and her central role in salvation history (Meg. 14b, 15a, Dev. R. 2:26-27). Not only was she one of the four most beautiful women in history, her "business" relations with every ruler of the region made her a perfect source of information for the spies (Zeb. 116b). Unlike Matthew, however, who traces Rahab's descendants through David, the Talmud weds Rahab and Joshua, and includes the prophets Jeremiah and Huldah among her descendants (Meg. 14b).

So, yes, another sermon on the gospel, Jesus, and prostitutes. And yes, the story of her powerful faith never gets old.


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