Skip to content
BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access October 20, 2020

What is in a Name? Rahab, the Canaanite, and the Rhetoric of Liberation in the Hebrew Bible

  • Ekaterina E. Kozlova EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Theology


As many native women in conquest accounts (historical and fictional), Rahab in Joshua 2 is often “hypersexualised” in biblical scholarship. One narrative detail gratuitously read in sexual terms is her name, Rahab, which is linked to the idea of “broadness.” Traditionally, “Rahab” is read as a harsh nickname highlighting the woman’s occupation, prostitution, or as a reference to her genitals. Against these readings, this discussion considers the language of “broadness” in biblical profiles of the Promised Land and the Torah, key motifs from Joshua 1–2, and demonstrates that the trope of “broadness/spaciousness” constitutes the rhetoric of liberation in the Hebrew Bible. That is, God is often cast as someone who brings afflicted/landless people to a broad locale or “broadens/enlarges” their hearts through his Torah. Since Rahab is linguistically and thematically linked to these acts, it is argued that through her Joshua 2 offers a midrash on Joshua 1. That is, from within Canaan, her name reverberates God’s earlier promises to Israel (“he [God] has created a wide expanse”) and she, herself, models a life informed by the Torah (vv. 9–12). Arguably, through her, Joshua 2 also offers a microcosm of YHWH’s own nature and modus operandi in the world.

1 Introduction: Rahab and Midrashic Derivations of Hebrew Names

Commenting on a few suggestive details in the Rahab story in Joshua 2, F.A. Spina asserts that the rationale for their inclusion in the text goes “beyond efforts to spice up the narrative.” These sexual innuendoes, he argues, are there not “to increase the ratings of the Book of Joshua”[1] but to propel its insider vs outsider discourse. According to him, these narrative elements are used “because one of the most prominent metaphors for idolatry in the Old Testament is sexual promiscuity, sometimes expressed in the phrase ‘whoring after other gods.’”[2] Given Canaan’s reputation as a proverbially idolatrous region, the book contrasts its inhabitants with the Israelites; and the irony of this comparison is that the former often come out as showing a greater moral aptitude than the latter. Such assessment of Joshua’s insider vs outsider discourse is certainly legitimate.[3] A cursory reading of discussions on the Canaanite woman, however, gives an impression that both ancient and modern scholars read more sexual innuendoes into the text than is actually warranted, as if in an effort to “spice up” an otherwise bland and unexciting story.[4] One such narrative detail that is gratuitously read in sexual terms is the name of the Canaanite, Rahab. In fact, it has generated a substantial number of discussions on its significance in the book. Falling under the rubrics of sex and violence, these readings will serve as a starting point for the discussion at hand. But first, a few words need to be said on a subfield in biblical scholarship that deals with midrashic derivations of Hebrew names (MDNs).

In his monograph on the role of MDNs in the Hebrew Bible, M. Garsiel observes that Israel’s literature is replete with puns on proper names, some of which are “overt and recognizable within the context” and others are “worked into the context in a clandestine manner.”[5] He further explains that “the MDN does not supply any reason why a person or a place has gained a particular name. Here we are dealing with a wider scope of potential derivations: sound effects (i.e. alliterations), word play, subtle riddles, concealed meanings, key motifs, etc. – all are derived from names regardless of their reasonable etymology […].”[6] This use of names should be understood in light of the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought-world in which personal names held a significant multifaceted cultural weight. On the one hand, each name could provide a window into “some aspect concerning the nature of the person who bore that name,” but on the other, in cases of theophoric names, it could attest to the religious affiliation of the name-owner or the people who named them.[7] Additionally, in antiquity personal names often reflected their bearers’ social standing (e.g. the fifty names of Marduk [EE VI, VII];[8] Gen. 17:5, 15; 32:28), celebrated their achievements (e.g. Akhenaten), and represented their memory in the afterlife (e.g. 2 Sam. 18:18; cf. Iron Age memorial inscriptions from Levant[9]). Given this and that besides Joshua himself and the two Amorite kings (Sihon and Og), Rahab is the only character with a name in all of the story in Joshua 2, the ensuing discussion intends to revisit the Canaanite’s name and its usage in service of the book’s overall ideology.

2 Rahab’s Name in Biblical Scholarship

With heightened socioreligious weight attached to names across a variety of cultural milieus of ANE, the presence of Rahab in Joshua 2 has not gone unnoticed among Joshua’s readership.[10] Occasionally, scholars take a neutral approach to the significance of this name or assign no value to it at all;[11] yet sexual readings of Rahab do predominate. In fact, according to B.T. Ta’anit 5b, “anyone who says Rahab, Rahab, immediately gets a seminal emission.” In a similar vein, Sifre Zuta 10 states that, the Canaanite

had four names of disrepute. Her name, Rahab the whore, says it all. Another thing, Rahab the whore because she fornicated with the city people from within. And with the bandits from without, since it is said that “her house was in the wall” and “she sits in the wall” (Josh. 2:15). Another thing, Rahab the whore since she was a Canaanite, and there were no more evil and wicked people than the Canaanites. Another thing, Rahab the whore since she was from the people of Jericho, those about whom it is written that they should be demolished and banned (Deut. 20:17).[12]

Likewise, among modern scholars, M. Noth related Rahab to בית רח(ו)ב/“the house in the public square,” i.e. a brothel.[13] Spina in turn observes that those with the knowledge of Hebrew cannot help but

wonder whether Rahab’s name is meant to be risqué: in etymological terms Rahab’s name connotes something “broad” or “wide,” hardly bold in describing a path, say, but having an entirely different sense when applied to a woman engaged in the “world’s oldest profession”[…] In a language related to Hebrew (Ugaritic), the same word refers to the female genitalia. Granted, this is not a proper translation of the Hebrew word; but given the explicit description of Rahab as a prostitute […] and the general meaning “broad” or “wide,” which is sexually suggestive for a woman of this métier, the name is almost surely to be taken as a not too subtle symbol of both her occupation and reputation.[14]

Similarly, R. Bartelmus opines that the choice of Rahab’s name was prompted by her trade. The author

not only drew, indirectly, on the sexual connotations implicit in the semantic field of the root (“broad-minded, generous, gratifying”) but seems also to have made quite explicit use of the “part for the whole” principle; the lower body of this lady or its dimensions reflecting the ideal of female beauty in the ancient Near East (cf. the innumerable “fat-rumped” feminine idols from this period) became her name.[15]

Admittedly, there is a well-known ANE harlot whose name echoes either her trade or her looks, i.e. Šamḫat,[16] and similar names were used “for ladies of this type.”[17] However, it should be noted that the form of Rahab in Joshua 2 is in fact masculine, making it an unlikely reference to its owner herself (cf. Am., Ra-ḫi-ba, whose bearer was a female).[18] From a slightly different angle, yet still focusing on Rahab’s body, R.S. Hess argues that the name fits well with West Semitic personal names attested in the second millennium B.C.E. claiming that it was part of a longer name, “the God has opened [the womb].”[19] Granted, this generative nuance might have been in view in Rahab’s name originally; in terms of its midrashic value for Joshua 2, however, it is worth noting that the text shows no interest in Rahab’s reproductive capacities and personal names of men with the רחב element are not usually read in procreative terms, i.e. increased households.[20]

Another take on the role of Rahab in Joshua is represented by J. Stek who views the Canaanite in light of Rahab, a mythical sea-monster, a chaos dragon, which signifies Egypt in some poetic texts in the Hebrew Bible (Ps. 89:10; Isa. 51:9).[21] Hence, for Stek, the name of the Jericho prostitute forges a link between Israel’s Conquest of Canaan and the Exodus event – just as earlier at the Sea of Reeds God crushed Rahab, “the monster that was Egypt,” in Joshua 2 the news of his deeds crushed Rahab, the Canaanite.[22] As pointed out earlier, in his study of MDNs Garsiel explores a “midrashic (homiletic) nature applied to the names of people or of places on the basis of sound or semantic potential. Such an interpretation infuses a name with meaning in relation to past events, or looks forward to some future incidents.”[23] Given Rahab’s sound potential in the Exodus-Conquest account Stek’s reading is certainly plausible. Yet, and as he recognizes himself, the name of the sea-dragon Rahab differs from the name of Rahab in Joshua in one consonant. Accordingly, and considering other motifs accentuated in the book, another reading of the name will be proposed.

Indeed, Joshua 2 calls Rahab a prostitute presenting her as a “triple outsider” – a Canaanite, a woman, a prostitute – which in turn sets the stage for the aforementioned insider vs outsider discourse in the book.[24] Additionally, given the nature of the spies’ mission, the mention of her trade indicates why the Hebrew men chose her place to lodge in – in the ancient world, inns and brothels were often used for military espionage.[25] Yet, this narrative detail should not be used to “flatten” Rahab’s portrayal (and her name within it) into a “reductive, ‘biologically’ [and sexually] essentialist frame of reference,”[26] particularly at the expense of other implications key to Joshua’s overall message. Given the rules of Semitic name formations and that Rahab in its form is in fact masculine, it is most likely a verb with the name of a deity as its implied subject.[27] Admittedly, the original theophoric element in Rahab’s name could have had a Canaanite deity in mind and, as stated above, the name might have reflected its owner’s reproductive concerns. Yet Rahab’s present location suggests a whole new set of resonances and inferences. In light of Joshua’s territorial interests, the name should instead be viewed as analogous to רחביה/Rehabiah or רחביהו/Rehabiahu (1 Chr. 23:17, 26:25), i.e. YHWH “has made a wide expanse,”[28] with the Qal form of the verb serving as the Hiphil.[29] The premise of the ensuing discussion, therefore, is that given its present context the name Rahab coalesces with the biblical language of liberation. As such, it joins the domain of other theophoric names that reflect divine acts of deliverance and restoration. Interestingly (and relatedly), before an earlier reconnaissance mission, Joshua’s own name underwent a change – from a generic “he saves”/הושע/Hoshea to “YHWH is salvation”/יהושע/Joshua (Num. 13:16) arguably in anticipation of the salvation YHWH was going to give Israel.[30] In a similar vein and in view of Israel’s imminent entry into Canaan, Joshua 2 features a woman named Rahab/“he [YHWH] has made a wide expanse,” gesturing towards Israel’s upcoming territorial expansion. Since apart from God and Joshua, Rahab’s role in the Conquest is second to none,[31] this Canaanite woman reads as, to use a biblical idiom, a person of renown/אשת השם (lit. of the name [cf. Gen. 6:4]).

3 Rahab: Joshua 2 as a “Midrash” on Joshua 1

Admittedly, the name Rahab could have a number of meanings and as such could be a case of multivalent polysemy in Joshua. Discussing the use of personal names by biblical writers, H. Marks asserts that the “contest of pun and etymology, of phonetic coincidence and semantic entailment, reverberates across an emptiness our criticism cannot fill.”[32] “Pause long enough, he writes, upon even the simplest word (consider its etymology, for instance) and it ‘changes into enigma, an abyss, a torment to thought.’ The names in the biblical narratives force us, with their disjunctive glosses [i.e. etymological notes], to enter this abyss; they generate […] ‘perspective by incongruity,’ but raised to a higher power.”[33] Indeed, the name of Rahab in Joshua 2 (vv. 1, 3, cf. Josh. 6:17, 23, 25) is not supplied with any etymological notations. However, embedded in an ideologically, and theologically, loaded narrative, Rahab’s semantic potential becomes fraught with possibilities of a greater calibre than what it has been accorded so far. In fact, it will be demonstrated that through a web of רחב-related lexemes, it is linked to the potent rhetoric of liberation, forging affinity with none other than YHWH and his Torah.

The prehistory of the book of Joshua is a highly complex and widely debated issue.[34] If, however, its text is considered in its final, canonical form, the story of Rahab in Joshua 2 can read as a commentary on Joshua 1, the book’s theological prologue. Of pertinence here is that not only Joshua, as a whole, focuses on the Conquest of Canaan, Israel’s Promised Land, but its own structure may also reflect West Semitic land grants.[35] Accordingly, opening the book and dealing with Joshua’s installation as Israel’s next leader, chapter 1 highlights the land the Israelites are about to occupy and prescribes Torah piety as a condition for its occupation (Josh. 1:7–8).[36] These elements from Joshua 1 are then picked up in Joshua 2: the word “land”/ארץ appears in it ten times (vv. 1, 2, 3, 9 (x2), 11, 14, 18, 24 [x2]]) and “Torah” traditions appear on the lips of the Canaanite heroine. Hence, these motifs should hold the interpretive control for both chapters and the role of Rahab in them. The premise of the following discussion, therefore, is that closely associated with the Land of Canaan and the Torah, Israel’s most prized possessions, Rahab, the Jericho sex worker, offers a “midrash” on what is promised to and expected of Joshua, Moses’s successor, and by extension all Israel.

Granted, Rahab is a literary product of the author of Joshua, and as pointed out by many post-colonial readers of the text, with Israel’s advancement into Canaan, she may have served not only as the “point of entry for the Israelite troops” but also for “the xenophobic ideology that accompanies them.”[37] However, given the number of parallels Joshua 2 shares with the story of Sodom in Genesis 19, the city of Jericho may have boasted the same level of corruption as one of the two proverbially wicked cities. This in turn may indicate that by siding with the Israelites, the invaders, Rahab challenged Jericho’s own oppressive establishment.[38] Regardless of how the Conquest account is read – an immoral Land grab sanctioned by God or a relief programme for the Land itself (cf. Gen. 15:6) – the goal of the discussion at hand is to offer a more textured, theological reading of Rahab’s place in the book.[39]

3.1 Rahab and the Promised Land

For Rahab’s affinity to the Promised Land it is worth noting that within the Pentateuch a variety of traditions either explicitly or implicitly gender the Land of Canaan feminine. In a similar vein, Rahab in Joshua is often read as a gendered symbol of the Land in general and of Israel’s enemy in particular.[40] Thus, focusing on the individualisation of Canaan as a prostitute, M. Jackson states that such

characterization ridicules the enemy by feminizing “her”, portraying “her” as a woman, but going a step further to portray her even more derisively as a prostitute […] The name of this “girly” enemy further reveals her nature: she is “wide, broad;” she can be counted upon “to open herself” and allow herself “to be taken” without resistance. As Rahab is, so is Jericho […] For the men of Israel, their army’s military conquest of Jericho is no more difficult than would be the sexual “conquest” of any common prostitute.[41]

Admittedly, in Joshua 2, Rahab does hold a representative role (vv. 9–13); yet standing metonymically for Canaan, she, however, signifies more than just its accessibility.[42] To fully appreciate her role in the book of Joshua, the following points need to be taken into account. First, in the Hebrew Bible a desirable piece of land, among other qualities, is almost exclusively described as “broad, spacious”/רחב.[43] Second, according to a variety of traditions enlarging people’s territory/domain is YHWH’s prerogative, and within laments or lament-related texts, this prerogative stands for YHWH’s liberating powers. Third, in the Hebrew Bible Canaan, Israel’s Promised Land, absorbs the rhetoric of spaciousness either through רחב-based lexemes or by having its dimensions stretched (propagandistically?) beyond what Israel would ever come to possess. Finally, of interest here is the ANE trend to use the rhetoric of liberation – i.e. expansion of one’s territory or restoration of the displaced to their land – in the profiles of human and divine kings.

As stated above, within the Hebrew Bible the notion of a “broad space, wide expanse” is a thoroughly positive concept, and the attainment of and subsequent residence in a locale imaged as “broad” is almost exclusively the result of God’s intervention following some sort of a crisis. Thus, in Genesis 26 after a quarrel over the wells with the herdsmen of Gerar, Isaac moves away and digs a well which he calls Rehoboth/“wide [uncontested?] expanses/wide streets,” stating that, “for now the Lord has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land”/כי־עתה הרחיב יהוה לנו ופרינו בארץ (v. 22). Equally, in the Psalter God’s acts of deliverance are frequently cast as moving people to a spacious locale or pastures. In Psalm 18, for instance, the distraught speaker says that the Lord brought him forth into a broad place (ויוציאני למרחב), rescued him, as he delighted in the psalmist (v. 20 [19], 37 [36]; cf. 2 Sam. 22:20, 37; cf. Pss 4:1, 31:9 [8]; 118:5; 119:45; Job 36:16).[44] Given this usage of the root רחב, Bartelmus calls this language formulaic indicating “Yahweh’s deliverance from affliction.”[45]

Additionally, biblical and post-biblical liberation texts consistently feature YHWH as the subject of the Hiphil forms of רחב (e.g. Exod. 34:24, Deut. 12:20, 19:8).[46] In fact, bringing motifs of land provision and liberation together, the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 33 identifies YHWH as מרחיב גד, i.e. the one who enlarges space or domain for the tribe of Gad (v. 20).[47] Coming across as a proper name, this formulation accentuates YHWH’s nature echoing the aforesaid trend to cast ANE deities and kings as liberators of displaced and landless persons and to enshrine such acts of benevolence in their titles and names.[48] Furthermore and as seen from the contours of Judah’s resurgence post-exile and its feature in some Qumranic texts, this spatial trope will prove tenacious in Israel’s restoration literature. Hence, addressing the post-exilic community personified as an abandoned woman the Isaianic poet urges her to enlarge (הרחיבי) the site of her tent and to stretch out the cords of her habitation (Isa. 54:2). Echoing biblical psalms of lament, the supplicant in 1QHXVII, 27 prays for “the everlasting expanse,” i.e. for being released from all afflictions (רחוב עולם בצרת נפשי).[49]

Of greater pertinence for the discussion at hand is that in a variety of texts, the Promised Land itself is profiled as “spacious.” Thus, Exod. 3:8 speaks of it as “good and spacious”/ארץ טובה ורחבה and Neh. 9:35 asserts that it is “broad and fertile”/הרחבה והשמנה.[50] The Apocryphon of Moses from Qumran (4Q3771i9) appears to go even further by claiming that it is “better and more spacious than the lands of other nations”/ארץ [טובה ורחבה] מא[רצות עמ]י[ם א]חרים (cf. 4Q378XI, 4). Admittedly, such presentation of the Land has not gone unnoticed in relation to Rahab’s story in scholarship and has been linked to her name; albeit in a rather unexpected manner. Thus, connecting the two, Hawk reads this Canaanite woman as an “avatar of the land’s darker side – the land as seductress, promising fulfilment apart from Yahweh and Yahweh’s commandments, sheltering Israel yet luring it into forbidden intrigues.” Accordingly, for Hawk, Rahab’s name in Joshua is fraught with “ominous connotations.”[51] A closer analysis of the Land marked as “broad” and Rahab herself, however, yields a qualitatively different reading of the latter.

Of interest here is that Rahab’s story, according to T. Frymer-Kensky, is “a masterpiece of allusive writing,” that is “set in the first five chapters of the book of Joshua, which contain numerous Pentateuchal allusions designed to have readers keep in mind the activities of Moses as they read Joshua.”[52] Additionally, through a web of intertextual resonances, “the beginning of the conquest echoes the beginning of the Exodus.”[53] Given biblical profiles of the Promised Land cited above and given the “Land” motif in Joshua 1–2, Rahab’s “broadness” should be read in terms of Canaan’s territorial features. That is, following Joshua 1 with its discourse on the spacious Land promised to Moses and about to be given to Israel (vv. 2–4, cf. Exod. 3:8), the Israelite spies in Joshua 2 encounter a native whose very name encapsulates and recaps their national move from bondage to redemption – “he [God] has made a wide expanse.” This in turn is backed up by the native’s confession, “the Lord has given you the land” (v. 9), a confession which is later passed on to Joshua, “the Lord has given the whole land into our hands” (v. 24). Therefore, if Joshua 2 is freed from unnecessary sexualised readings of the Jericho woman, the latter emerges as an integral part in YHWH’s resettlement programme, whereby his people are gifted with a spacious land, a highly desirable commodity in ANE. Standing for the Promised Land itself and cast as an agent facilitating Israel’s freedom, Rahab, the Canaanite, reads as the one who enlarges Israel’s domain/מרחיבת ישראל (cf. Deut. 33:20).[54] As such, she represents prerogatives and acts elsewhere associated only with YHWH, Israel’s divine patron.[55]

3.2 Rahab and the Torah

Of further interest for the present discussion is that Rahab’s linguistic affiliation with the Promised Land and the adjacent trope of YHWH’s deliverance is not the only nuance in her name worthy of note. Incidentally, regarding the Canaanite’s role in the Conquest, L. Eslinger comments that she is “characterised as a whore precisely because she is the door, left open by the divine whoremonger, through which the Israelites are led to stray, ‘a-whoring after other gods.’”[56] Against this and similar readings, however, it can be argued that Rahab is also brought into a close association with the Torah, which in its essence, like YHWH who authored it, is tasked with the work of liberation. Of interest here is that in Joshua’s theological prologue, Joshua is solemnly urged to meditate on the Torah day and night to be prosperous and successful in the land (Josh. 1:7–8; cf. Deut. 6:1–3). In light of Joshua’s (and Israel’s) present context – delivered from bondage (Exodus), yet never fully liberated (the wilderness wanderings) – the focus of these directives is not accidental. In fact, the rationale for their inclusion becomes clear when Rahab is given further thought.

As argued by many, the speech Rahab delivers to the spies in Josh. 2:9–11 is not only structured in a Deuteronomistic style and contains quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, but it is also marked by allusions to the Pentateuch and more specifically Exodus.[57] Furthermore, her words from v. 11, “YHWH, your God, is God in heaven above and on the earth below,” appear in the Hebrew Bible only on the lips of Moses and Solomon (Deut. 4:39; 1 Kgs 8:23). Hence, according to Spina, it is “nothing short of astonishing that Rahab utters this formula and in so doing puts herself in the same company with those two biblical heavyweights, managing to become a member of one of the most unusual threesomes in the whole Bible.”[58] As argued here, this, however, is not the only “unusual threesome” that Rahab is part of. Intricately linked to YHWH himself by way of the רחב-based language of restoration, she is also connected to Israel’s Law, YHWH’s decisive act in history.

Of relevance for the discussion at hand is that Psalm 119, a Torah Psalm par excellence, shares a number of key motifs with Joshua 1, and in some of its crucial claims regarding the Torah echoes the name of the Canaanite woman. Additionally, it is worth noting that the psalm casts its speaker in a variety of circumstances, most of which are adversarial in nature; so much so that the psalm or some of its stanzas read as an individual lament. In fact, W. Soll opines that not only is this psalm a lament, but it is also a lament that reflects the situation of the Babylonian exile.[59] Commenting on the lack of references to Israel’s main theological tenets in this text – e.g. covenants, the Exodus, Davidic dynasty, the Temple – D.N. Freedman in turn claims that stripped of everything the afflicted psalmist envisages the Torah as a reflection of “Yahweh’s nature and character, divorced from Israel’s history […].”[60] Whatever his circumstances are, within his world, Torah is “left as the [only] theological category of Yahweh’s revelation and activity in the world.”[61]

The context(s) and nature of the psalmist’s constraints may now be irretrievable, yet it is against some hostile backdrop that he discusses the benefits of Torah study utilising the root רחב.[62] Hence, celebrating God’s law, he claims that he has seen “a limit to all perfection,” yet YHWH’s commandment is “exceedingly broad” (רחבה מצותך מאד, v. 96). To this individual in distress, God’s law is wide in its scope, it is relevant, it has “an unlimited range of efficacy.”[63] Additionally, reflecting on the value of Torah piety, the psalmist states that God through his word enlarges his heart (כי תרחיב לבי, v. 32) and increases its capacity;[64] this in turn has a liberating effect on the sufferer.[65] In another vignette of the Psalm, the distressed speaker asserts, “I will walk about in freedom/ברחבה (lit. in a broad space), for I have sought out your precepts” (v. 45; cf. Ps. 18:37, Job 36:16). H.J. Kraus explains that “[f]rom the confinement and oppression of the hostile attitude the persecuted person is brought to the wide-open realm of freedom by the obedience to Yahweh’s word and instruction. [‘In a broad space’/]ברחבה (v. 45) in its origin is a characteristic term for ‘the nomadic feeling for life.’”[66]

The inner, combined logic of these vignettes in the Psalm indicates that when one’s heart is made “broad,” its capacities are enlarged by the Torah, whose precepts are “broad” or all-encompassing, then their existence is marked by freedom and security, literally “spaciousness.” Thus, the trajectory of release from adversarial forces in Psalm 119 is closely aligned with Torah observance. As such, this trajectory coalesces with the general course of Israel’s liberation in the Exodus–Sinai (Law-Giving)–Conquest programme.[67] Relatedly and more specifically, on the eve of the Conquest, a major confrontation with indigenous Canaanite groups, Joshua is commanded “to obey all the law” and not to “turn from it to the right or to the left” (Josh. 1:7). Aimed at Joshua and his people, this imperative, or rather the logic behind it, is first tested out by Rahab. Facing Israel’s advancement into Canaan and the possibility of destruction with other inhabitants of the land, she clings to Israel’s Torah and survives. Accordingly, through a convergence of narrative details, Pentateuchal echoes in her speech, and the semantics of her name, Rahab finds herself aligned with YHWH and his Law and thus joins the ultimate “threesome” in the Hebrew Bible. Yet, more needs to be said about her speech and actions.

3.3 Rahab’s Hearing in Joshua 2

Of further relevance for Rahab’s link to the Torah is that her speech in Josh. 2:9–13 not only indicates her familiarity with Israel’s beliefs but also accentuates the sense of hearing (vv. 10, 11). Recent studies on the sensorium as part of epistemological processes in the body demonstrate that in the Hebrew Bible the faculties of sight and hearing often hold a place of prominence.[68] Moreover, in his article on the hermeneutics of hearing, K. Snodgrass shows that central to God’s expectations of his people in both testaments is the ability to hear him and act in accordance with what is heard.[69] “Of all the commands, expectations, and desires that God has for humans, the most frequent and important is hearing, the recognition of God as the Other to whom we should give attention and listen.”[70] What is envisaged in Scripture as proper hearing is in fact obedient hearing, which in turn constitutes the essence of faith, a much-sought-after ideal in human–divine relationship.

As pointed out earlier, through her confession of YHWH’s sovereignty (Josh. 2:11) Rahab is linked to Solomon, Israel’s proverbially wise king (1 Kgs 8:23). Incidentally, in his iconic prayer for wisdom in 1 Kings 3, Solomon in fact prays for a hearing heart/לב שמע (v. 9), so that he can discern (lit. “hear”) judgment (לשמע משפט [v. 11]; cf. 2 Sam. 14:17). Of further interest here is that God responds to Solomon by giving him wisdom, very great insight, and a breadth of understanding [lit. “broadness of heart”/רחב לב] (1 Kgs 4:29 [ET]).[71] The “broadness of heart,” i.e. understanding, gifted to the king echoes not only Rahab’s cognitive and judicial prowess in Joshua 2, but, etymologically, her name as well. The cumulative effect of links between Solomon, Israel’s sage-king, and Rahab, a Canaanite, casts her as an insightful, “wide-hearted” hermeneut of law and life. Incidentally, the collocation “broadness of heart” (רחב לב) from 1 Kings 4 or the notion of an enlarged heart (כי תרחיב לבי) from Psalm 119 resonates with ANE formulations such as ṣurru šad-lu karaš šitūlti/“[of] broad/far-reaching heart, wise in counsel” or šadlu ṣur-ru karaš ritpāšu/“[of] wide mind/heart, wide-hearted” representing wisdom and/or extraordinary intellect.[72] Thus, a Babylonian proverb asserts that long life can produce the “broadening/widening of the heart” (BWL 252 iii 20).[73] In Enuma Elish, when Marduk’s fifty names are proclaimed he is described as someone who has a heart that is deep and a mind that is wide (EE VII 155; cf. VI 138).[74] Identical or analogous formulations likewise appear in the profiles of other gods, heroes, kings, and sages who are said to be endowed with great intellectual powers.[75] If these ANE texts associate the attainment of a “wide heart/intelligence” with the gods, life experience, and, in the case of Enkidu, with sex (SB GE 1 202–208), the Hebrew Bible categorically credits YHWH and his Torah with this prerogative.[76]

Incidentally, taking Rahab’s words, “YHWH, your God, is God in heaven above and on the earth below,” as a sign of conversion, a later, Jewish source will say that “she was called Rahab[…] because her merit in repentance was so substantial (reḥôva)” (T.d.Eliyy).[77] Acknowledging her great (super-natural?) insight, Frymer-Kensky asserts that, the Jericho woman is

the first of the prophets who appear in the historical books to announce to Israel the paths of their history and the first of the women who declare and pronounce the will of God. The lines of women and prophets begin with Rahab and converge again at the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles in the figure of Huldah the prophetess, who announces the destruction of Judah.[78]

Interestingly enough, in the book’s prologue, Joshua is promised that no one (lit. “no man”) will be able to stand against him all the days of his life, and presumably in the Conquest itself (לא־יתיצב איש לפניך [v. 5], cf. 21:44). Rahab is not a man and in Joshua 2 she exhibits some significant “standing” in relation to powerful men – she stands over and against the king of Jericho and his envoys and she stands in cooperation with Joshua’s spies, and by extension with Joshua.[79] As argued here, through her liberating role, the Jericho woman also stands in cooperation with, and as a proxy for, YHWH himself.[80]

4 Conclusion

Discussing the use of proper names in the Hebrew Bible, Marks asserts that their etymology coheres well with “the whole ethos of biblical iconoclasm: what the name buries or empedestals, the etymology animates or exhumes.”[81] As argued above, in a story with mostly nameless men, Rahab, a woman with a name and of the name/אשת השם, stands larger than life – a theology of liberation enshrined in one name, empedestaled in one person. With Joshua’s own name signalling YHWH’s deliverance and Rahab’s name pointing at his provision of land, the opening chapters of Joshua form a theological diptych – Joshua 1 speaks of conditions for land occupation and Joshua 2 offers a lived commentary on it. Reflecting key tenets of a Pentateuchal vision of Torah piety, Rahab illustrates strategies by which the incoming Israelites could make a claim to the Land and secure their residence in it. Gesturing towards Rahab’s representative role for both Canaan and Israel, Frymer-Kensky asserts that, “[h]er name, Rahab the broad, is emblematic of God’s inclusion of the many and of permeable boundaries of the people of Israel.”[82] In fact, she states, Rahab emerges as a new Israel.[83] Sadly, this aspiration appears to be short-lived. As argued by some, Rahab and her household may have been pushed to the periphery, along with the vision she embodied. After the destruction of Jericho, according to one textual strand in Joshua 6, Rahab is placed outside Israel’s camp (v. 23), which may indicate “the permanent distancing of the Rahabites from the Israelite community constituted around the holy-war camp.”[84] Incidentally, on the other end of the Babylonian exile, the book of Nehemiah recounts Israel’s history and castigates its leaders – kings, priests, ancestors – for not upholding God’s law in the Promised Land, a land broad and fertile (Neh. 9:34–35). Set alongside Nehemiah 9, the Rahab narrative reads as an indictment for Israel as a whole. Pes. K. 13:4 will concur by stating that all the words of Scripture “used in tribute to Rahab [stand as] a reproach to Israel.”[85] Hence, against the suggestive readings of the Canaanite heroine cited above, the foregoing discussion has argued that through the figure of Rahab, Joshua 2 offers a “midrash” on Joshua 1 – from within the Land it reverberates God’s earlier promises, “he [God] has made a wide expanse,” and models a life informed by the Torah. Arguably, through her, it also offers a microcosm of YHWH’s own nature and modus operandi in the world.


Abusch, Tzvi, and Schwemer, Daniel. Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-witchcraft Rituals. Leiden: Brill, 2016.10.1163/9789004318557Search in Google Scholar

Avrahami, Yael. The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Perception in the Hebrew Bible. London, New York: T&T Clark, 2012.Search in Google Scholar

Barstad, Hans M. “The Old Testament Feminine Personal Name rāḥāb: An Onomastic Note.” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 54 (1989), 43–9.Search in Google Scholar

Baskin, Judith. “The Rabbinic Transformations of Rahab the Harlot.” Notre Dame English Journal 11 (1979), 141–57.Search in Google Scholar

Bergmann, Claudia. “We Have Seen the Enemy, and He Is Only a ‘She’: The Portrayal of Warriors as Women.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 (2007), 651–72.Search in Google Scholar

Bird, Phyllis. “The Harlot as Heroine: Narrative Art and Social Presupposition in Three Old Testament Texts.” In Women in the Hebrew Bible, edited by Alice Bach, 99–117. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999.Search in Google Scholar

Bodi, Daniel. “The Encounter with the Courtesan in the Gilgameš Epic and with Rahab in Joshua 2.” In Interested Readers. Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J. A. Clines, edited by James K. Aitken, Jeremy M. S. Clines, Christl M. Maier, 3–18. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.10.2307/j.ctt5vjz47.5Search in Google Scholar

Botha, Philippus J. “Interpreting ‘Torah’ in Psalm 1 in the Light of Psalm 119.” HTS Theological Studies 68 (2012), 1–7.10.4102/hts.v68i1.1274Search in Google Scholar

Braude, William G., and Kapstein, Israel J. (tr.). Pesikta de-Rob Kahana: R. Kahana”s Compilation of Discourses for Sabbaths and Festal Days. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975.Search in Google Scholar

Braude, William G., and Kapstein, Israel J. (tr.). Tanna debe Eliyyahu: The Lore of the School of Elijah. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981.Search in Google Scholar

Brenner, Athalya. I Am: Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005.Search in Google Scholar

Butler, Trent C. Joshua. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1983.Search in Google Scholar

Chapman, Cynthia R. The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004.10.1163/9789004370005Search in Google Scholar

Cooke, George A. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Book of Ezekiel. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957.Search in Google Scholar

Cross, Frank M. Jr., and Freedman, David N. “The Blessing of Moses.” Journal Biblical Literature 67 (1948), 191–210.10.2307/3261750Search in Google Scholar

Curtis, Anthony. “‘My God Will Be Your God’: Divine Agency and the Role of the Outsider in the Hebrew Bible.” PhD Diss. University of Durham, 2019.Search in Google Scholar

Davidson, Steed V. “Gazing (at) Native Women: Rahab and Jael in Imperializing and Postcolonial Discourses.” In Postcolonialism and the Hebrew Bible: The Next Step, edited by Roland Boer, 69–92. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.10.2307/j.ctt1b7x69m.7Search in Google Scholar

Deißler, Alfons. Psalm 119 (118) und seine Theologie, ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der anthologischen Stilgattung im Alten Testament. München: Karl Zink, 1955.Search in Google Scholar

Dozeman, Thomas B. Joshua 1–12. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.10.5040/9780300262155Search in Google Scholar

Driver, Samuel R. Deuteronomy. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1895.Search in Google Scholar

Dube, Musa W. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000.Search in Google Scholar

Eidevall, Göran. “Spatial Metaphors in Lamentations 3, 1–9.” In Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, edited by Pierre van Hecke, 133–37. Leuven: Peeters, 2005.Search in Google Scholar

Eslinger, Lyle M. Into the Hands of the Living God. Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989.Search in Google Scholar

Felber, Anneliese. “Rahab und ihr Haus: Zur Heilrelevanz der Kirche bei Origenes und Cyprian.” In Biblical Women in Patristic Reception/Biblische Frauen in patristischer Rezeption, edited by Agnethe Siquans, 31–48. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017.10.13109/9783666552700.31Search in Google Scholar

Foster, Benjamin R. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005.Search in Google Scholar

Fowler, Jeaneane D. Theophoric Personal Names in Ancient Hebrew: A Comparative Study. Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1988.Search in Google Scholar

Frahm, Eckart. “Keeping Company With Men of Learning: The King As Scholar.” In The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, edited by Karen Radner, Eleanor Robson, 508–32. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199557301.013.0024Search in Google Scholar

Freedman, David N., Geoghegan, Jeffrey C., and Welch, Andrew. Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999.Search in Google Scholar

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “Reading Rahab.” In Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg, edited by Mordechai Cogan, Barry L. Eichler, Jeffrey H. Tigay, 57–67. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997.10.5325/j.ctv1bxh2df.11Search in Google Scholar

Garsiel, Moshe. Biblical Names: A Literary Study of Midrashic Derivations and Puns. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1991.Search in Google Scholar

George, Andrew. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.Search in Google Scholar

Hackett, JoAnn. “Can a Sexist Model Liberate Us? Ancient Near Eastern ‘Fertility’ Goddesses.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5 (1989), 65–76.Search in Google Scholar

Hawk, L. Daniel. Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991.Search in Google Scholar

Hess, Richard S. “Achan and Achor Names and Wordplay in Joshua 7.” Hebrew Annual Review 14 (1994), 89–98.Search in Google Scholar

Hess, Richard S. “Non-Israelite Personal Names in the Book of Joshua.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996), 205–14.Search in Google Scholar

Hess, Richard S. Joshua. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996.Search in Google Scholar

Hess, Richard S. “The Book of Joshua as a Land Grant.” Biblica 83 (2002), 493–506.Search in Google Scholar

Hossfeld, Frank-Lothar, Zenger, Erich, and Baltzer, Klaus. A Commentary on Psalms 101–150. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.Search in Google Scholar

Hurowitz, Victor. “The Woman of Valor and a Woman Large of Head: Matchmaking in the Ancient Near East.” In Seeking Out the Wisdom of the Ancients: Essays Offered to Honor Michael V. Fox on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday, edited by Ronald L. Troxel, Kelvin G. Friebel, Dennis R. Magary, 221–34. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005.10.5325/j.ctv1w36pmb.19Search in Google Scholar

Hurowitz, Victor. “Finding New Life in Old Words: Word Play in the Gilgameš Epic.” In Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria, edited by Joseph Azize, Noel K. Weeks, 67–78. Leuven; Paris; Dudley: Peeters, 2007.Search in Google Scholar

Hurowitz, Victor. “Name Midrashim and Word-Plays on Names in Akkadian Historical Writings.” In A Woman of Valor: Jerusalem Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Joan Goodnick, edited by Wayne Horowitz, Uri Gabbay, Filip Vukosavovic, 87–104. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2010.Search in Google Scholar

Jackson, Melissa. Comedy and Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible: A Subversive Collaboration. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199656776.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Knauf, Ernst Axel. Joshua. Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 2008.Search in Google Scholar

Kozlova, Ekaterina E. Maternal Grief in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.10.1093/oso/9780198796879.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 60–150. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1978.Search in Google Scholar

Lambert, Wilfred G. “Prostitution.” In Außenseiter und Randgruppen: Beiträge zu einer Sozialgeschichte des Alten Orients, edited by Volkert Haas, 127–59. Konstanz: Universitätverlag Konstanz, 1992.Search in Google Scholar

Marcus, David. “Prolepsis in the Story of Rahab and the Spies (Joshua 2).” In Bringing Hidden to Light: The Process of Interpretation: Studies in Honor of Stephen A. Geller, edited by Kathryn F. Kravitz, Diane M. Sharon, 149–62. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007.Search in Google Scholar

Marks, Herbert. “Biblical Naming and Poetic Etymology.” Journal of Biblical Literature 114 (1995), 21–42.10.2307/3266588Search in Google Scholar

Matskevich, Karalina. Construction of Gender in Genesis: The Subject and the Other. New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2018.Search in Google Scholar

May, Natalie N. “Gates and Their Functions in Mesopotamia and Ancient Israel.” In The Fabric of Cities: Aspects of Urbanism, Urban Topography and Society in Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, edited by Natalie N. May, Ulrike Steinert, 77–123. Leiden: Brill, 2014.10.1163/9789004262348_004Search in Google Scholar

Montgomery, James A. “Notes on the Mythological Epic Texts from Ras Shamra.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 53 (1933), 97–123.10.2307/593096Search in Google Scholar

Nelson, Richard D. Joshua. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.Search in Google Scholar

Noegel, Scott B. “Scarlet and Harlots: Seeing Red in the Hebrew Bible.” Hebrew Union College Annual 87 (2016), 1–47.10.15650/hebruniocollannu.87.2016.0001Search in Google Scholar

Noth, Martin. Israelitische Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1928.Search in Google Scholar

Noth, Martin. Das Buch Josua. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1971.Search in Google Scholar

Pitkänen, Pekka M. A. Joshua. Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2010.Search in Google Scholar

Quick, Laura. “‘To Hear and to Accept’: A Word Pair in the Tell Fakhariyah Bilingual Inscription.” Journal of Semitic Studies 61 (2016), 413–29.10.1093/jss/fgw017Search in Google Scholar

Reynolds, Kent A. Torah As Teacher: The Exemplary Torah Student in Psalm 119. Leiden: Brill, 2010.10.1163/ej.9789004182684.i-249Search in Google Scholar

Robinson, Bernard. “Rahab of Canaan and Israel.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 23 (2009), 257–73.10.1080/09018320903303603Search in Google Scholar

Rösel, Hartmut N. Joshua. Leuven: Peeters, 2011.Search in Google Scholar

Roth, Martha. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1995.Search in Google Scholar

Scurlock, JoAnn. “Baby-Snatching Demons, Restless Souls and the Dangers of Childbirth: Medico-Magical Means of Dealing with Some of the Perils of Motherhood in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Incognita 2 (1991), 137–85.Search in Google Scholar

Seri, Andrea. “The Fifty Names of Marduk in Enūma eliš.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 26 (2006), 507–19.Search in Google Scholar

Sharp, Carolyn S. Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.Search in Google Scholar

Snodgrass, Klyne. “Reading to Hear: A Hermeneutics of Hearing.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 24 (2002), 1–32.10.1163/187122002X00016Search in Google Scholar

Soll, Will. Psalm 119: Matrix, Form and Setting. Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1991.Search in Google Scholar

Spina, Frank A. The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.Search in Google Scholar

Stamm, Johann Jakob. “Hebräische Frauennamen.” In Hebräische Wortforschung: Festschrift zum 80 Geburstag von Walter Baumgartner, edited by Benedikt Hartmann, Ernst Jenni, E. Y. Kutscher, Victor Maag, I. L. Seeligmann, Rudolf Smend, 301–39. Leiden: Brill, 1967.Search in Google Scholar

Stavrakopoulou, Francesca. “The Ancient Goddess, the Biblical Scholar, and the Religious Past: Re-imagining Divine Women.” In The Bible and Feminism: Remapping the Field, edited by Yvonne Sherwood, Anna Fisk, 495–513. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.Search in Google Scholar

Stek, John. “Rahab of Canaan and Israel: The Meaning of Joshua 2.” Calvin Theological Journal 37 (2002), 28‒48.Search in Google Scholar

Stol, Marten. “Old Babylonian Personal Names.” Studi Epigraphici e Linguistici 8 (1991), 191‒212.Search in Google Scholar

Stol, Marten (with a chapter by Frans A.M. Wiggermann). Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting. Groningen: Styx; Leiden: Brill, 2000.10.1163/9789004494619Search in Google Scholar

Stratton, Beverly J. “Consider, Take Counsel, and Speak: Re(Membering) Women in the Books of Joshua and Judges.” In Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect: I. Biblical Books, edited by Susanne Scholz, 80–109. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.Search in Google Scholar

Suriano, Matthew. “Remembering Absalom’s Death in 2 Samuel 18–19: History, Memory, and Inscription.” Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 7 (2018), 172–200.10.1628/hebai-2018-0013Search in Google Scholar

Tamarkin Reis, Pamela. “Uncovering Jael and Sisera: A New Reading.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 19 (2005), 24–47.10.1080/09018320510032420Search in Google Scholar

Teman, Elly. “Red String: The Cultural History of a Jewish Folk Symbol.” In Jewishness: Expression, Identity, and Representation, edited by Simon J. Bronner, 29–57. Oxford, Portland: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.10.2307/j.ctv1rmj7x.6Search in Google Scholar

Warren-Rothlin, Andy. “Euphemism and Bible Translations.” In Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, vol. 1, edited by Geoffrey Khan, 865–69. Leiden: Brill, 2013.Search in Google Scholar

Weinfeld, Moshe. The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.Search in Google Scholar

Widengren, Geo. “Yahweh’s Gathering of the Dispersed.” In In the Shelter of Elyon. Essays on Ancient Palestinian Life and Literature in Honor of G.W. Ahlström, edited by W. Boyd Barrick, John R. Spencer, 227–45. Sheffield: Journal of the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1984.Search in Google Scholar

Zadok, Ran. The Pre-Hellenistic Israelite Anthroponymy and Prosopography. Leuven: Peeters, 1988.Search in Google Scholar

Received: 2020-04-08
Revised: 2020-04-26
Accepted: 2020-05-06
Published Online: 2020-10-20

© 2020 Ekaterina E. Kozlova, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Downloaded on 29.11.2023 from
Scroll to top button