“Rahab… Rahab… RAHAB!!”: Prostitution in the Bible

24 09 2006

In the Biblical book of Joshua, a curious character appears. Her name is Rahab and we are told that she lives within the wall around the fortified city of Jericho. Her role is an enigmatic one: when Joshua sends spies into the land, she hosts them for the evening and hides them from the local authorities. The spies themselves say little within the narrative, but she is given several lines, and she appears to be the one who is completely in charge of the situation. She sends the spies to the roof, she covers them with a protective blanket, speaks to the authorities and even tells the spies what they are to do next. Oh yes, we are also told that she is a prostitute.

Prostitute is an interesting word. Deriving from two Latin words (pro-, meaning ‘before’ and statuere, meaning ‘set up, place’), the prostitute is somebody who exposes themselves publicly or who is, themselves, for sale. In common usage this refers specifically to somebody (generally a woman) who sells her body for sexual purposes. A text about prostitution is known as a ‘pornographic’ text (from the Greek: πορνη, ‘prostitute’ and γραφην, ‘write’). Does this story actually fall within that category? Were our two heroes soliciting sex when they went to spend the night at Rahab’s inn?

The Babylonian Talmud, while it does not suggest the (obvious) conclusion, nonetheless gives a resounding affirmative to the former question. Rahab was a woman who sold her body, and was so beautiful that one need only mention her name twice to be so overcome with lust that he will actually ejaculate. When Rab Nahman notes that he is able to say the name twice without experiencing this curious phenomenon, Rab Yitzhaq responds by informing him that this only occurred to those who were familiar with her beauty. While the Talmud does not suggest as much, this may seem to include the two spies themselves.

There are several references to prostitutes within the Bible, but it is not always so clear that this is what they are. When Judah mistakes Tamar for a prostitute, sitting as she was at the cross-roads, it is quite clear that the word possesses the meaning familiar to us, for Judah solicits sex with Tamar in exchange for payment. In our story, however, the word is slightly more dubious and a brief note on the word’s etymology is not out of order.

The Hebrew is זונה (pron. ‘zonah‘) and is used for the English ‘prostitute’ in modern Israeli society. Is this what it always meant? Actually, no. The root of the word (זנה) is related to the word for food (מזון, ‘mazon‘) and literally means ‘nourisher’. The location of Rahab’s house at the very entrance to the city, coupled with the fact that she was a suitable person for the authorities to question concerning wayfarers, indicates that ‘innkeeper’ would be a more appropriate translation.

So much for defending Rahab’s honour, but what may be done to salvage Tamar’s?

The narrative, found within the book of Genesis, describes the means by which the thrice-widowed Tamar manages to curry the sexual favour of her father-in-law. She removes her widow’s garb, covers her face with a veil and sits at the cross-roads, waiting for Judah to walk past. We are told that he mistook her for a prostitute, “for she had covered her face”, and he immediately solicited her for sex. There may be no means of salvaging his reputation, but exegetes have found very clever ways of salvaging hers.

In many respects, these methods rest upon changing conceptions of female seduction. The Wiles of the Wicked Woman (known, more technically, as 4Q184) is a short tract from Qumran that likens sin to a temptress and describes her seductive ways. One of these (in line 5) is the wearing of a veil, something that had obviously been perceived in the ancient world as an alluring characteristic of a flirtatious woman. Not so in later societies, where such an adornment was perceived to be a sign of modesty. Assuming that, were Tamar to really play the harlot, she must have removed the veil prior to Judah’s approach, how is it that he did not recognise her?

The answer, according to the Midrash, is that Judah’s reference to her wearing a veil (the reason for his not recognising her) lay in the fact that she had worn a veil, every other time that he had seen her. So great was her modesty that she had covered her face in all of her dealings with her father-in-law and that now, while she’s sitting at a cross-roads with face uncovered, he does not recognise her and mistakes her for a prostitute. The word used in this text is actually קדשה (pron. ‘qedeisha‘) but, when Tamar is accused of having been a harlot, the author slips back to the more familiar זונה (‘zonah‘).

While such exegetical concerns are clearly secondary to the text and the plain-sense understanding demands that Tamar wore a veil, there is nonetheless a world of difference between her activities in Genesis and the activities of Rahab in Joshua. The only connection that may be drawn between them is the usage of the noun that, while primarily referring to the keeper of an inn, also came to designate a prostitute by virtue of the innkeeper’s reputation in the ancient world.

[Note: This post originally appeared on my former blog. For earlier comments, please click here.]




2 responses

26 04 2010
John Smith

Anyone who believes that Rahab was not a harlot is a complete idiot. The Septuagint and New Testament confirm she was a harlot the spies “lay” there.

26 04 2010
Simon Holloway

I don’t know if I’d call them complete idiots, but both the Septuagint and the New Testament, as you say, refer to her as a prostitute (πορνη). While that might be relevant to the history of biblical reception, it has little to do with the etymology of the Hebrew.

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