[The Bible is an “Eastern” book. It was written many years ago in the “East” which today we refer to as “The Middle East.” As such, there are many customs and idioms that are not familiar to the “Western” mind.]
Most people are adamant that Rahab, in the story of Joshua and Jericho, was a prostitute. Scholars point out that the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament, as well as the Greek word used in the New Testament clearly indicate that fact.
The meaning of words is very important, but one also needs to consider figures of speech and the culture in which the Bible was written. For example, Jesus Christ referred to Herod as a “fox.” While Herod may have had many attributes of a fox, he was still a man. Understanding the figure of speech, we can understand what Jesus was talking about when he called Herod a “fox.”
When it comes to Rahab, we really need to take a step back and consider the culture. First, we need to understand women in the times of the Bible. They covered their faces with veils. They did not talk to any men except their husbands and relatives. For them to be unveiled or to talk to strangers was a deviation from the standard.
Next, we need to understand “inns” in Bible times. They were located either on the roadside or at the gate of a city, which was the case in the story of Rahab. These inns were publicly funded and there was no charge for the travelers.
It was not common for a woman to be an innkeeper. The job would first be offered to men. If there were no men willing to take the job, it was then offered to women. Any woman taking the job would of course not be veiled. This would be breaking her culture.
She would then be serving the public, meaning that she would talk to strangers. She would be unveiled talking to strange men. She had made the choice to get rid of her veil and serve anybody and everybody.
Her Occupation Did Not Make Her A Prostitute
Prostitutes in that culture were not allowed to live in the city. They, along with swineherds, lepers, and alcohol shops were kept a good distance from the city, in some cases as far as 3 miles away.
The Bible tells us that Rahab lived on the town wall, at the gate of the city. This is of course where the inn would have been. We also learn from the Scriptures that Rahab’s family lived with her, which was typical for innkeepers.
Because of this very unique situation that was so contrary to their culture, the word, “harlot” became a title for women who were innkeepers. She was serving the public, talking to strangers. She was unveiled talking to strange men. She had made the choice to get rid of her veil and serve anybody and everybody. She was an innkeeper, not a prostitute.
There are those who do not like to say that Rahab was a prostitute because they feel that would make her a filthy sinner, and God would never employ her help. Others like the idea that she was a prostitute because it shows that God loves everyone.
All arguments and opinions aside, we must always take into account the culture in which the Bible was written. Regardless of what anyone, including myself, thinks, Rahab is listed in Hebrews 11, right there with some of the great believers of all time.
Joshua 2:1- 21
And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into an harlot’s house, named Rahab, and lodged there.
And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, Behold, there came men in hither to night of the children of Israel to search out the country.
And the king of Jericho sent unto Rahab, saying, Bring forth the men that are come to thee, which are entered into thine house: for they be come to search out all the country.
And the woman took the two men, and hid them, and said thus, There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were:
And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them.
But she had brought them up to the roof of the house, and hid them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order upon the roof.
And the men pursued after them the way to Jordan unto the fords: and as soon as they which pursued after them were gone out, they shut the gate.
And before they were laid down, she came up unto them upon the roof;
And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you.
For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.
And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.
Now therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the LORD, since I have showed you kindness, that ye will also show kindness unto my father’s house, and give me a true token:
And that ye will save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.
And the men answered her, Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business. And it shall be, when the LORD hath given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee.
Then she let them down by a cord through the window: for her house was upon the town wall, and she dwelt upon the wall.
And she said unto them, Get you to the mountain, lest the pursuers meet you; and hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers be returned: and afterward may ye go your way.
And the men said unto her, We will be blameless of this thine oath which thou hast made us swear.
Behold, when we come into the land, thou shalt bind this line of scarlet thread in the window which thou didst let us down by: and thou shalt bring thy father, and thy mother, and thy brethren, and all thy father’s household, home unto thee.
And it shall be, that whosoever shall go out of the doors of thy house into the street, his blood shall be upon his head, and we will be guiltless: and whosoever shall be with thee in the house, his blood shall be on our head, if any hand be upon him.
And if thou utter this our business, then we will be quit of thine oath which thou hast made us to swear.
And she said, According unto your words, so be it. And she sent them away, and they departed: and she bound the scarlet line in the window.
And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
But Joshua had said unto the two men that had spied out the country, Go into the harlot’s house, and bring out thence the woman, and all that she hath, as ye sware unto her.
And the young men that were spies went in, and brought out Rahab, and her father, and her mother, and her brethren, and all that she had; and they brought out all her kindred, and left them without the camp of Israel.
By faith [believing] the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.
There are a number of books that you can read to get insight on customs, manners, idioms and meanings from the Eastern culture in which the Bible was written. The best I know of were written by Bishop K. C. Pillai I have had the pleasure of listening to many recorded teaching by him.
He wrote three books, and they are hard to find, and are usually over priced. But, if you want to you can check this link to see what Amazon has to offer. Light Through an Eastern Window
Another great resource that I have used for years is a book called, “Manners and Customs of the Bible,” by James Freeman. Mine was printed in 1972 and I know they have newer additions. For the newest edition, just click the link and it will take you to Amazon. The New Manners and Customs of the Bible (Pure Gold Classics)