Joshua includes a dramatic story of spies, a prostitute, and subterfuge:

Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim, saying, “Go, reconnoiter the region of Jericho.” So they set out, and they came to the house of a harlot named Rahab and lodged there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some men have come here tonight, Israelites, to spy out the country.” The king of Jericho thereupon sent orders to Rahab: “Produce the men who came to you and entered your house, for they have come to spy out the whole country.” The woman, however, had taken the two men and hidden them. “It is true,” she said, “the men did come to me, but I didn’t know where they were from. And at dark, when the gate was about to be closed, the men left; and I don’t know where the men went. Quick, go after them, for you can overtake them.”— Now she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under some stalks of flax which she had lying on the roof.—So the men pursued them in the direction of the Jordan down to the fords; and no sooner had the pursuers gone out than the gate was shut behind them.—Joshua 2:1-7 (NJPS)

It seems that cult prostitution was common enough in that region that Moses should prohibit it:

No Israelite woman shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any Israelite man be a cult prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in fulfillment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to the Lord your God.—Deuteronomy 23:18-19 (NJPS)

Was Rahab a "cult prostitute"?

  • I've researching Hebrews 11 for a lesson I'm scheduled to teach this Sunday, in case you were wondering. ;-) Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 17:32
  • 2
    Moses didn't prohibit being a prostitute - God did
    – warren
    Commented Aug 31, 2012 at 13:40

4 Answers 4


Probably not.

The word used for Rahab in Joshua 2 is zanah <02181>. According to Wikipedia:

The Hebrew Bible uses two different words for prostitute, zonah (זנה)‎ and kedeshah (קדשה)‎. The word zonah simply meant an ordinary prostitute or loose woman. But the word kedeshah literally means "consecrated (feminine form)", from the Semitic root q-d-sh (קדש)‎ meaning "holy" or "set apart".

To verify, Deuteronomy 23:18 (or 23:17 in many English translations) uses the word q@deshah <06948>:

female temple prostitute, harlot

And the next verse, aimed against using money received in exchange for sex for religious obligations, uses the word zanah. So it seems that Rahab's prostitution was merely a way of earning a living rather than having some sort of religious significance.

  • I agree with "probably not" but I'd point out that in the case of Tamar she is initially identified as a common harlot and only later called a kedeshah. We may be not the whole story with Rahab. Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 1:23

No, no, no, no...okay, so you’re dictionary work is good, but what about sociocultural context? Most likely, she was a young widow in charge of an inn...but let’s explore both options. In line with the popular translation of zanah as prostitute, the Rabbis teach, “There have been just four perfectly beautiful women in the {history of the} world:—Sarah, Abigail, Rahab, and Esther” (Megillah, fol. 15, col. 1.) However, calling her a ‘harlot,’ as the Catholics & Anglicans are prone to do, in my opinion, results in a perversion of the original Hebrew. Let me try to explain myself. According to Strong’s Concordance, h2185. זֹנוֹת znôṯ; regarded by some as if from 2109 or an unused root, and applied to military equipments; but evidently the feminine plural active participle of 2181; harlots: — armour. AV (1) - armor 1; fornications armor (used in warfare, but not sanctioned by Jehovah) (fig.) I believe a better translation would tell the readers that she was both an inn-keeper (Judaism) and likely a young widow. I found an article with much more interesting facts put out by Jewish Bible Quarterly, entitled, Rahab the Harlot, by Sol Liptzin. The crux of the entire discourse and chaotic confusion over a jot and tittle, explains that no matter far away one strays from holiness, all things can still work for good as God stands at the ready to forgive. The same article says “many illustrious personages descended from her, but really only mention Boaz and Huldah. Rav Moses Maimonides fills in this gap by explaining, “eight prophets, who were priests as well, were descended from Rahab the harlot, and these are they:—Neraiah, Baruch, Seraiah, Maaseiah, Jeremiah, Hilkiah, Hanameel, and Shallum. Rabbi Yehudah says Huldah the prophetess was one of the grandchildren of Rahab. Meggillah, fol. 14, col. 2.” Excerpt From Classics of Judaism: 11 great books of Jewish wisdom in a single file Moses Maimonides https://books.apple.com/us/book/classics-judaism-11-great-books-jewish-wisdom-in-single/id411894816 This material may be protected by copyright.


If one consults the LXX (~350 BC) instead of the Masoretic (1000 A.D.) one finds the word used to describe Rahab simply means a sexually immoral person (woman); one can be sexually immoral without being a prostitute. As spies, the shadier part of town would have been the perfect place to go to collect information and keep a low profile.


The translation should be “inn keeper.” Why would devout Jews seek out a “whore house” as a place of refuge? A “rooming house,” to which Rahab brought her whole family, is more appropriate for the translation.

  • 2
    Please edit this to add some supporting evidence for your claim. Why the spies went to Rehab is indeed the question we readers are meant to ask.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 13:28
  • Please "show your work", which is a requirement here.
    – Dan
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 1:24
  • Out of 90+ uses in the OT, there are no times when znh means "inn keeper." It refers to prostitues and immorality. Immorality can be either sexual or spiritual. Making it "inn keeper" forces a round peg into a square hole.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 17:26

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