Rahab of Jericho: The Power of Storytelling
As a women, foreigner and prostitute, Rahab was ostensibly powerless against the male-dominated laws and customs of the Israelites, yet she was able to demonstrate a new dimension of femininity; one that was not only strong and self-confident but, in a certain sense, also ‘prophetic’ in that she was able to hear, understand and interpret old traditions in a turbulent new world.
See Also: The ‘Geometrics’ of the Rahab Story (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018).
By Andrzej Toczyski
Faculty of Theology
Studium Theologicum Salesianum,
H. C. Goddard once wrote that “the destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in”. In fact stories have shaped the beliefs of individuals and communities since the dawn of civilisation. They have either moved people to action or prevented them from so doing and have thus played a significant role in shaping people’s perceptions of history. Stories have sometimes served to strengthen the connections between communities or have been used for ideological incitement against them.
In my monograph “The Geometric of the Rahab story”, I argued that the ‘story’ is a “silent hero” in the Book of Joshua. For example, the formula כי שׁמענו (for we have heard) was probably used by the Deuteronomist to highlight the progressive dynamics of a conquest in which success is obtained, not by the military forces of the Israelites or the strategic skills of Joshua, their commander, but by God whose fame in a version of the story/report/rumour was gradually forging a path toward the Promised Land (cf. Josh 2:10-11; 5:1; 9:1-2; 9:3-15; 10:1-5; 11:1-5).
In the following section, I will focus on the Rahab story from the perspective of storytelling. There are three aspects I would like to articulate more clearly. First, what is the function of Rahab’s central account (Josh 2:8-11) within the story itself? What could the author/redactor have wished to convey to his audience by using this stylistic feature? Finally, what can any non-authorial reader/hearer learn from the Rahab story?
The Story within the Story
In narrative theory, a literary device that includes a story within a story is called embedding. It is extremely important for a reader “to speculate about the dramatic and the thematic connections between two distinct yet conjoined stories”. In Joshua 2 the embedded story is at the peak of the unit, commonly referred to as Rahab’s profession of faith (cf. Josh 2:8-11).
The Rahab story is arranged into 10 dialogue-based scenes of varied length which are joined by narrative sections and introductory formulas. The narrative sections, however, are important only in that they move the plot of the story forward, while in the dialogue scenes readers are invited to pause and ponder the main conflicts within the story. At the climax of the unit, Rahab’s speech, in the form of a short monologue, reveals her deepest motivations and explains her subsequent endeavours. In the roof of a prostitute’s house, two sleepy scouts could expect many surprises but not perhaps the retelling of their most cherished religious traditions by a prostitute. Thus, what is the function of Rahab’s story within the story as a whole?
First and foremost, Rahab’s speech sheds light on her previous, unpredictable decision to hide two enemy scouts and possibly run afoul of the king and citizens of Jericho. In literary terms, it is the climax and turning point of the entire story and the start of a series of resolutions. At this point it also becomes clear that Rahab was motivated not by speechless and passive spies, but by the story of the powerful deeds of the Israelite God that all citizens of Jericho have somehow heard. It was this story which allowed her to make a key decision, and which later becomes a platform for further negotiations leading to the alliance with Israelites. At this point it is useful to note the well-construed structure of Rahab’s report, which presents the concentric arrangement of information as: A–B–C–D–C′–B′– A′. The following diagram illustrates this stylistic principle:
A: I know: that the Lord has given you the land,
B: and that your terror has fallen on us,
C: and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you.
D: For we have heard (כי שׁמענו) the fact that the Lord dried up the water of the Sea
of Reeds before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings
of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and
Og, namely that you
utterly destroyed them.
C’: and when we heard it our hearts melted,
B’: and there was no spirit left in any man because of you,
A’: because as for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth below.
First, Rahab is shown to be profoundly engaged by the story that will soon change her life. The above structure shows that her arguments derive from personal deliberation: A) “I know” → A’) “the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth below”. The praise of the Israelite God therefore seems to derive from her personal reflections on life in light of the story she has heard. Her personal deliberation is also highlighted in the use of personal pronouns: “We have heard”, but “I know”. Above all, it is important to reiterate that, at the heart of Rahab’s allocution, is a reference to the story/rumour that had a devastating impact on the morale of the people, beginning with the king. On first reading, it seems an inconspicuous story consisting basically of a retelling of the two most glorious events of the Israelite past: The Crossing of the Sea and the defeat of the Amorite kings. However, Rahab’s recall of these memories, couched in a solemn Deuteronomistic style, creates a certain degree of irony. The foreign women and prostitute invite the chosen people of God to remember and learn about the God who revealed himself in their past. Many perceive this as a powerful metaphor for Israel itself. Moran’s voice is exemplary in this respect:
One may ask if the image does not go still deeper, and functioning as a symbol of Israel suggest the deepest truth of the Conquest ahead: the people so passive, contributing so little, achieving what it does only through the intervention and protection of the God of the exodus, be it found in a spectacular crumbling of walls or in the quiet miracle of a Rahab’s faith.
Presumably, the precise purpose of employing the perspective of an undesirable ‘other’ was to challenge the internal struggles of the community to whom the story was originally addressed.
The question of the authorial audience for an ancient text is a highly complex and problematic issue and, in the case of Rahab’s story, continues to be a matter for conjecture. First, to glimpse the authorial audience, it would be necessary to reconstruct the assumed socio-historical context in which and for whom the story could have been adapted. This knowledge of “who” received the story and “how”, perhaps “by ear” rather than “by eye”, would have involved further effort in deciphering the communicative codes and conventions used in that precise context. In so doing, it may have been possible to obtain a plausible image of the authorial audience. However, the problem in this respect is that, despite the constant efforts of biblical scholars, the origins of the Rahab story are more unclear and complex than could have been imagined.
Moreover, the story has undergone several re-adaptations to new contexts and demands. For example, Gene M. Tucker envisions at least three stages in the editorial process: (1) a popular profane story (2) was transformed by a cult tradition of the conquest (cf. Josh 6) and then (3) adopted by the Deuteronomist as the vehicle for his theological manifesto. This process would inevitably take a long time. However, scholars are far from unanimous in proposing diverse hypotheses for an editorial process that may have extended from pre-exilic times, through the exilic, perhaps even to the post-exilic (Persian) period. Trent C. Butler is correct when he asserts that:
The growth of the story represents a manifold theological interpretation. Each generation of Israelites has learned something new about itself and its God through telling and retelling the story of Jericho’s favourite prostitute.
Given such modest evidence, I would rather posit the following question: what did the author/redactor wish to convey to his community by embedding the Deuteronomistic creed into a profane story of a local prostitute from Jericho? There are perhaps several answers to such a question. However, I would like to highlight just two aspects of the broader issue.
It is entirely plausible that the redactor consciously used the story of the undesirable ‘other’ to address several issues pertaining to his audience/community. This somehow mirrors the praxis of Herodotus, who was less interested in conveying information about ‘others’ (barbarians) than in employing their stories “because they provide a means of thinking about Greek identity”. Because the Deuteronomistic code demanded the removal of ‘others’ to ensure total separateness, employing the image of Rahab - the outsider- who is praising the God of Israel was clearly meant to challenge the ideology of segregation and national exclusivity.
Furthermore, the resolute portrayal of a woman as an external critic of internal values and practices must have been challenging for the patriarchal community. As a women, foreigner and prostitute, Rahab was ostensibly powerless against the male-dominated laws and customs of the Israelites, yet she was able to demonstrate a new dimension of femininity; one that was not only strong and self-confident but, in a certain sense, also ‘prophetic’ in that she was able to hear, understand and interpret old traditions in a turbulent new world. Zakovitch astutely notes that: “Rahab’s words reveal that she, a small-time prostitute from Jericho, knows better than Joshua how great and powerful is Yahweh, the God of Israel”.
Thus, the story of Rahab tells us as much about the Israelites as about Rahab herself. Including the Rahab story in the book of Joshua therefore provides a glimpse into some of the internal struggles of the community which had to learn something new about their God, their sacred traditions in a constantly changing world, and their neighbours (males and females) in novel circumstances where ethnic encounters with others were not only inevitable, they were also necessary. Above all, however, the story shows how Israel should have depended on its God.
‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’
The foregrounding of Rahab’s declaration within the story challenges the reader’s point of view and, anachronistically, can be juxtaposed with the theatrical technique known as ‘breaking the fourth wall’. In this technique the audience feels they are being addressed directly by the actor/character from the ‘stage’ and hence become more involved in the event represented. In the Rahab story, this rapprochement between the character (Rahab) and the audience is accomplished using certain stylistic and linguistic features.
The literary portrait of Rahab is therefore crafted to straightforwardly address the audience (any reader or hearer), putting them vis-à-vis the main character. Although Rahab turns to the spies, they are extremely passive, perhaps still hidden under “the stalks of flax” (cf. Josh 2:6), and blur into the deep background of the stage. This creates an immediate space for a close rapprochement between Rahab and possible readers/hearers who, by the force of the direct speech, become engaged with her story. Thus, the strategy of rapprochement between the character and the audience creates the immediate effect of ‘forcing’ the reader not only to follow the plot of the story but also to fashion his/her own response, and hence start a conversation with the text. What, therefore, can any non-authorial reader/hearer learn from the Rahab story?
The history surrounding the reception of the Rahab story is long, complex and involves some major paradigm shifts. In antiquity, both Rabbis and the Fathers of the Church used this paradigmatic story to address their respective communities. Rahab is predominantly praised for her courage and daring faith and is presented as the perfect model of the convert. For Rabbis she was a perfectly domesticated model of the convert to Judaism, while for Fathers she was considered casta meretrix (a chaste whore), an oxymoron which may refer both to a sinful pagan and the whole Church saved by Christ. Indisputably, Rahab owes such attention among Christians to three allusions in the New Testament (cf. Mat 1:5, Heb 11:31; Jas 2:24-26).
This spotless image of Rahab had predominated through the ages until recently, when several postmodern scholars stripped Rahab of her charm by denouncing the imperialistic dynamics within the story. The essence of the issue resides in the basic question as to whether Rahab is really a heroine, or an opportunist who denounced her own people without compunction. How should Rahab therefore be perceived? Should she be praised for what she has done, or should she forever remain in a chamber between the walls of Jericho because the worst thing she could ever have done was betray an oppressive system? There is of course no easy answer to this question, which explains why the Rahab story remains a fascinating one.
As noted earlier, the Rahab story was clearly meant to challenge the community rather than preserve a tradition about a ‘prostitute with a golden heart’. The author/redactor uses the story of a despised outcast to provide an internal critique. Thus, the Rahab story appears to be a ‘creative oxymoron’ which portrays a collision of opposites forced to engage in dialogue to attain some form of coexistence. When people enter into alliances, they usually need to negotiate agreements and these inevitably require some compromises (cf. Josh 2:12-21). Thus, it is reasonable to presuppose that Rahab’s life in Jericho was not simply ‘bed and roses’ but involved hardship, struggle, and perhaps even some degree of oppression. Hence, by denouncing imperialistic dynamics within the Rahab story, less attention may be paid to the experiences of women in local contexts. On the other hand, as Steed Davidson forcefully asserts, “the separation of the Native Woman from her culture in order to offer her an improved status serves as part of the seduction of the Native Woman.”
Thus, a story which is often deemed to perpetuate imperialistic dynamics has now become a powerful means to denounce these dynamics. Consequently, the Rahab story became a broad and open space for a global conversation that leads to many new and fresh interpretations. Interestingly enough, the meaning of Rahab’s name (רחב) implies a ‘wide’ and ‘opened’ space. Hence, as it was for the authorial audience, it remains a provocative oxymoron which, by ‘breaking the fourth wall’, directly addresses individuals and communities and presents them with many questions. Taking into consideration all the socio-cultural aspects of that conversation, it is important not to forget the most important question emanating from Rahab’s lips: how I/we relate to the Lord our God, who is God in heaven above, and on earth below.
Baskin, Judith R. Midrashic Women, Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002.
Biffi, Giacomo. Casta Meretrix: ‘The Chaste Whore’: An Essay on the Ecclesiology of St. Ambrose. London: St. Austin, 2001.
Butler, Trent C. Joshua, WBC 7. Waco: Word, 1983.
Davidson, Steed Vernyl. ‘Gazing (at) Native Women: Rahab and Jael in Imperializing and Postcolonial Discourses’. Pages 69–92 in Postcolonialism and The Hebrew Bible: The Next Step. Edited by Roland Boer. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2013.
Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Herman, David, Manfred Jahn, and Marie-Laure Ryan. Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
Köehler, Ludwig, and Walter Baumgartner, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of The Old Testament. 3 vols. Leiden: Brill, 2001.
Moran, William L. ‘The Repose of Rahab’s Israelite Guests’. Pages 273–84 in Studi sull’Oriente e La Bibbia offerti al P. Giovanni Rinaldi nel 60o Compleanno da Allievi, Colleghi, Amici. Edited by Giorgio Buccellati. Genova: Studio e Vita, 1967.
Römer, Thomas C. The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction. London: T&T Clark, 2007.
Stone, Lawson G. ‘Ethical and Apologetic Tendencies in the Redaction of the Book of Joshua’. CBQ 53 (1991): 25–36.
Toczyski, Andrzej. The ‘Geometrics’ of The Rahab Story. A Multi-Dimensional Analysis of Joshua 2. London: T&T Clark, 2018.
Tucker, Gene M. ‘The Rahab Saga (Joshua 2): Some Form-Critical and Traditio-Historical Observations’. Pages 66–86 in The Use of the Old Testament in the New and Other Essays: Studies in Honor of William Franklin Stinespring. Edited by James M. Efird. Durham: Duke University Press, 1972.
Vlassopoulos, Kostas. ‘The Stories of the Others: Storytelling and Intercultural Communication in the Herodotean Mediterranean’. Pages 49-75 in Ancient Ethnography: New Approaches. Edited by Eran Almagor and Joseph Skinner. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013.
Winther-Nielsen, Nicolai. A Functional Discourse Grammar of Joshua: A Computer Assisted Rhetorical Structure Analysis. ConBOT 40. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1995.
Zakovitch, Yair. ‘Humor and Theology or the Successful Failure of Israelite Intelligence: A Literary Folkloric Approach to Joshua 2’. Pages 75–98 in Text and Tradition: The Hebrew Bible and Folklore. Edited by Susan Nidich. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1990.
 Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 208.
 Many aspects of the Rahab story dealt with in this article are discussed at length in: Andrzej Toczyski, The ‘Geometrics’ of The Rahab Story. A Multi-Dimensional Analysis of Joshua 2 (London: T&T Clark), 2018.
 Also cf. Lawson G. Stone, ‘Ethical and Apologetic Tendencies in the Redaction of the Book of Joshua’, CBQ 53 (1991): 25–36 (31).
 David Herman, Manfred Jahn and Marie-Laure Ryan, Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (London/New York: Routledge, 2005), 134.
 Adopted from: Nicolai Winther-Nielsen, A Functional Discourse Grammar of Joshua: A Computer Assisted Rhetorical Structure Analysis, ConBOT 40 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1995), 154.
 The English translation is from: Toczyski, The ‘Geometrics’ of The Rahab Story, 51-52.
 William L. Moran, ‘The Repose of Rahab’s Israelite Guests’, in Studi sull’Oriente e La Bibbia offerti al P. Giovanni Rinaldi nel 60o Compleanno da Allievi, Colleghi, Amici, ed. Giorgio Buccellati (Genova: Studio e Vita, 1967), 273–84 (284).
 Cf. Gene M. Tucker, ‘The Rahab Saga (Joshua 2): Some Form-Critical and Traditio-Historical Observations’, in The Use of the Old Testament in the New and Other Essays: Studies in Honor of William Franklin Stinespring, ed. James M. Efird (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972), 66–86 (70).
 Trent C. Butler, Joshua, WBC 7 (Waco: Word, 1983), 34.
 Kostas Vlassopoulos, ‘The Stories of the Others: Storytelling and Intercultural Communication in the Herodotean Mediterranean’ in Ancient Ethnography: New Approaches, eds. Eran Almagor and Joseph Skinner (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013), 49–75 (49).
 Cf. Thomas C. Römer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction (London: T&T Clark International, 2007), 134 n. 54, 182.
 Yair Zakovitch, ‘Humor and Theology or the Successful Failure of Israelite Intelligence: A Literary Folkloric Approach to Joshua 2’, in Text and Tradition: The Hebrew Bible and Folklore, ed. Susan Niditch (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1990), 75–98 (90).
 Baskin argues that: “Rahab’s conversion may be seen as a form of domestication. This formerly notorious prostitute, who epitomized all the dangers of the gentile temptress, was rendered benign when she adopted the non-threatening guise of compliant Jewish wife and mother”. Judith R. Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002),159-160.
 Cf. Giacomo Biffi, Casta Meretrix: ‘The Chaste Whore’: An Essay on the Ecclesiology of St. Ambrose (London: St. Austin Press, 2001), 15-23.
 Steed Vernyl Davidson, ‘Gazing (at) Native Women: Rahab and Jael in Imperializing and Postcolonial Discourses’, in Postcolonialism and the Hebrew Bible: The Next Step, ed. Roland Boer (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2013), 75.
 Cf. ‘רחב’, in The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. III, ed. Ludwig Köehler and Walter Baumgartner (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1210–11.