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Joshua 2:1 recounts the journey of the Israelite spies in Jericho:

וַיֵּ֨לְכוּ וַיָּבֹאוּ בֵּית־אִשָּׁ֥ה זוֹנָה וּשְׁמָהּ רָחָב וַיִּשְׁכְּבוּ־שָמָּה

And they went and came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there. (ESV)

The use of "to lodge" to translate שכב is interesting.* The word normally means "to lie", and, like in English, it is capable of (but by no means required to) carry sexual connotations. Also similar to English, it normally does so using the preposition "with", which is not present here. In verse 4, Rahab's admission that "the men came to me" (באו אלי) also admits a sexual interpretation (cf. 2 Sam 12:24, Gen 38, etc).

Given the context of foreign men sneaking into a city and staying overnight a house owned(?) by a prostitute, this seems like the most obvious understanding, but I've never heard this suggested before.

I did find this interesting paper (unfortunately not publicly available in full text) that takes the view that sexual connotations were indeed intended, but I'm curious if anyone can point to evidence about how שכב ought to be understood here.

*There is alternative very common Hebrew word - לין lin - used for people "lodging" overnight during a journey; see Josh 3:1, 4:3, 6:11, 8:9, etc. I took a brief look through ESV uses of "to lodge" with people as the subject as was unable to find any other instance where it translates anything other than lin. Corrections welcome.

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  • It was a courageous thing to do - to gain entrance to the city in order to spy out the situation. And a very astute move to shelter with someone of Rahab's profession - where strange men would draw no curiosity. I can see nothing in the translations I use to indicate that their tenure was anything but shelter. I am interested to see what the Hebrew experts have to say.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 4, 2018 at 10:50
  • @Nigel -- agreed re. English translations. To be honest, part of what fueled this question was a bit of irritation at the ESV translators (though this is by no means an ESV-owned issue) at their choice of "and [they] lodged there". At the very least this is an ambiguous line in Hebrew, and the translation choice stands out like a sore thumb IMO, pretty clearly intended to resolve an ambiguity in a way that seems to me unwarranted. (OTOH, ".... and [they] lay there" would be awkward and suggestive in English, reflecting what appears to me to be awkward and suggestive Hebrew.)
    – Susan
    Jun 4, 2018 at 14:03
  • @ Susan Young's Literal has and they go and come into the house [...] and they lie down there. It is the same in Ruth when she went into the threshing floor and lay down beside Boaz. There was a purpose in it and there was no suggestion of impropriety.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 4, 2018 at 15:09
  • @Nigel You may be right -- feel free to write an answer! (But to tell you my sense -- where Ruth narrates the individual actions that night, it is easy for me to see how "lie down" may mean nothing more. In Joshua, the problem I'm feeling is that a different word is expected to summarize an overnight "lodging" arrangement. Anything further we should probably take to Biblical Hermeneutics Chat though.)
    – Susan
    Jun 4, 2018 at 16:10
  • @Susan As you mentioned the lack of "with" is important. Prepositions make a difference. For example, for היה (be) to mean become, the object needs the ל preposition.
    – Perry Webb
    Jun 4, 2018 at 21:26

5 Answers 5

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No, it is not meant to indicate they were clients per se; however, it is intended by the narrator to invoke an atmosphere of sexual immorality.

A number of other resonances contribute to this atmosphere in the passage:

  • First, Joshua 2:1 begins the narrative saying, "Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim." The reader would recall the seduction that befell Israel in Numbers 25, which begins, "While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women."

  • Second, is of course, the setting of the story in the house of a prostitute (and a Cannanite woman at that!). Just prior to this story, the people have sworn to Joshua, "Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you." So then the reader is surprised when Joshua commands "Go (hlk) look" and instead they "Go (hlk) to the house of a woman, a prostitute."

  • Third, the narrator contributes to the suggestiveness of the passage by deploying a number of phrases that are elsewhere euphemistic. They "came to" the house (verse 1 and again in verse 4), they "lied down" there (verse 1), and she did not "know" (verse 4) where they were from. All of these are deployed elsewhere as euphemisms. Further, as you note, there is another common verb one would expect in place of šākab. L. Daniel Hawk (Berit Olam) concludes, "The choice of this verb, rather than the less ambiguous lûn/lîn ('to lodge, spend the night'), especially when paired with the previous verb, is thus strongly suggestive."1

The choice of verb here, then, is not necessarily to say that the spies engaged Rahab for her services, but rather to create an unease in the reader by invoking a number of connotations. Hawk suggests a couple purposes for this.

For one, the reader is reminded of the seductive danger of the land. In Deuteronomy 31, God has already told Moses, "You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering ... When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant."

Second, Hawk suggests the author uses the ambiguity and sexual overtones of the passage to blur the boundaries between who is and who is not Israel. The Israelite spies are put a bit in the shade - they are colored by this seeming impropriety, they are quickly found out as spies, they make a forbidden covenant and then partially renege on it by adding conditions, and they are generally the passive participants in the story, especially compared to Rahab who dominates the action.


1. Hawk, L. D. (2000). Joshua. (D. W. Cotter, J. T. Walsh, & C. Franke, Eds.) (p. 40). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

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The claim that they slept with Rahab is preposterous and virtually unsupported from the biblical text. In fact, the term וישכב that the OP finds so unusual here, to indicate lodging, is not unusual at all. See for example Gen. 28:11

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

He reached a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun was setting. He found a stone there, used it for a pillow, and slept there for the night. (ISV)

Here we have both Hebrew terms for lodging in the same verse וילן\וישכב. So we see that both terms are equally acceptable for 'lodging' or if you prefer 'settling for the night'. See also 1 Samuel 3 where שכב is used throughout for 'sleeping'; similarly here וישכבו would simply translate into "they went to sleep". As the OP himself points out, וישכבו only has sexual connotations when it is attached to אותה or עמה which mean "with her" or simply "her", but וישכב itself never connotes sleeping with someone! As for the choice of שכב over לין, I think that the former is more specific than the latter. Whereas לין indicates "spending of the night" without specifying how they spent the night, שכב does just that, it clearly designates how they spent the night--through sleeping. Perhaps, the author wishes to convey that the spies had complete trust in their god and were so calm that they even went to sleep in the heart of the enemy's city!

The term באו אלי must not connote a sexual encounter either. Cf 2 Kings 5:22; Isaiah 39:3; Exodus 8:1. Since the text does not make it clear that there was any sexual encounter between the spies and Rahab there is no reason to think that באו אלי implies anything more than 'coming and going'. So I repeat, there is simply no evidence in the bible that the spies slept with Rahab.

It seems to me that this whole speculation is not based on the biblical text itself but on the narrative which relates that they slept in a harlot's house, but of course this is not sufficient proof to support the notion that they actually slept with her. I suspect that it was part of their cunningness and strategy not to raise suspicion among the inhabitants of Jericho, since foreigners were wont to show up at Rahab the harlot's door; this way they ensured a smooth and safe reconnaissance of the city.

Update: It is unlikely, what Soldarnal has suggested, that the author here was trying to portray the spies in a bad light (that they were immoral) for seeking lodging in Rahab's house by using suggestive language. The spies are clearly the heroes of the story here; without them, and the critical information they provided, Joshua couldn't have taken the city. To say that the author was trying to besmirch the heroes of the story for some petty offense is quite far-fetched to say the least.


The term שכב appears in Ruth chapter 3 throughout. Though this word definitely appears in a 'sexual context', there is, however, good reason to believe that there was no sexual intercourse between Boaz and Ruth on that night. So here again, שכב would mean nothing more than 'lie down'. Read here for more on this point. Even if one were to insist that there was a real sexual encounter on that night, this is only due to the "uncovering of his feet" expression that appears in the narrative, without these linguistic hints it would indeed be unjustifiable to assume that there was any sexual encounter between them, and this is especially the case with Josh. 2:1.

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    Interesting and +1. I'm certainly not contending that שכב to simply mean "lie down", as part of the act of spending the night somewhere, is unusual. (I would translate that last clause as, "and he lay down in that place", with other translations.) It's just not so common for that verb to summarize the act of spending the night -- it's more often part of the details, like with Jacob (and Ruth, mentioned in the comments). Anyway, while I will not concede that it's a preposterous suggestion (a brief look at the commentaries refutes that anyway), it's a helpful answer.
    – Susan
    Jun 4, 2018 at 17:35
  • (And yes, of course this arises largely from the fact that they slept in a harlot's house -- not sure how that point is not included in "the biblical text itself" in your last paragraph. It sets the context and pushes me in the direction of supposing that they may have done the normal thing that foreign men do when sleeping at a harlot's house. Sorry.)
    – Susan
    Jun 4, 2018 at 17:42
  • Agree. If you read chapter 6 verses 15-17 you can see that Rahab spared because she hide the spies. So even though זונה can be from מזון and she actually was shop seller and not a prostitute - both cases she just gave them a place to hide.
    – A. Meshu
    Jun 4, 2018 at 17:52
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    Also not sure what you mean re. בוא אל being "never used in a sexual context". Certainly not always, but it's normal terminology for a sexual encounter. Here's the relevant bit from DCH. Or maybe you just meant using a 3rd person plural verb followed by a first person pronoun? Kind of an artificial limitation IMO. I do appreciate your thoughts though!
    – Susan
    Jun 4, 2018 at 17:55
  • How interestingly Inyana Deyoma!
    – user22655
    Jun 4, 2018 at 21:50
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I think that there is a strong argument that the spies actually were Rahab's clients. I don't know much Hebrew myself, but Reverend Wil Gafney who is a Hebrew Scholar at Brite Divinity School has written a beautiful sermon on Rahab that addresses this very question and argues that they were indeed her clientele:

https://www.wilgafney.com/2016/05/21/remixed-gospel-of-rahab-who-are-you-calling-a-whore/

Beyond the single question of whether or not they had sex, I think it is important to look at the overall context and thrust of the story. Who is it about? Israel's divinely led victory or Canaan's bloody destruction and colonization? Who is/are the real hero(es) here - two unnamed spies who fail to do any notable spying and go straight to a prostitute's house or Rahab, a woman who saves and delivers her entire family and their children from the impending destruction of Jericho despite being marginalized by her status in society?

These questions give us some room to recognize the complexities of the characters in the story - a foreign prostitute turned savior of her family and holy emissaries turned brothel clients. Situated within the larger context of the Israelite conquest of the promised land, perhaps this story is included as a powerful and jarring tale that forces us to catch a glimpse into the perspective of those outside of God's chosen people while also serving as a reminder that all of us are tainted and marred by the effects of sin.

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    – agarza
    Mar 12, 2021 at 0:37
  • This is opinion, not substantiated fact. It was a shrewd move for the brave spies (risking their lives) to lodge with Rahab as they sought to prepare for the coming invasion. There is not a shred of evidence of any impropriety on their part. And it is abundantly evident that God was in this providence, of them finding Rahab, as we can see in her subsequent marriage and bringing forth of one of the chosen line to the Messiah. Down-voted -1.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 13, 2021 at 21:49
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Response to interpretation of:

בָּאוּ אֵלַי

Excellent observations and comments on this story that is so important in the Bible. Recently, I’ve been reviewing the peer-reviewed scholarly research made popular by the late Michael Heiser about how Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba, all fit into the Enochic template and “Divine Council” theology, and why they appear in the genealogy of Jesus.

In this context, I think, comparing Rahab and Ruth, etc. and of the use of the specific Hebrew verbs is very important as other more competent biblical scholars have observed to explain, euphemistically, the fact that the Israelite Spies did have sex with Rahab, especially as recorded in Rahab’s own admission,

וַתֹּאמֶר כֵּן בָּאוּ אֵלַי הָאֲנָשִׁים

”And she said, “yes, the men came in to me” (Joshua 2:4).

The same exact Hebrew idiom is presented in the Book of Ruth as a euphemism for sexual intercourse in the context of the sexual immorality of Boaz and Ruth like the sexual immorality of the Israelite spies with Rahab:

וַיָּשֶׁת עָלֶיהָ וַיָּבֹא הָעִיר

And he laid it on her and he came into the city (Ruth 3:15)

Here “city” may even be a Hebrew idiom and “inside joke” of the House of David in Bethlehem, and then Jerusalem, referring to Rahab, and the act of sexual immorality like Rahab’s former prostitution in the city of Jericho before she married Salmon and settled in Bethlehem. Salmon and Rahab are the ancestors of Boaz who lives in Bethlehem where the story of Boaz and Ruth takes place (Ruth 4:21; Matthew 1:5). Boaz and Ruth were repeating the sin of Salmon (one of the Israelite spies?) and Rahab from generations earlier; I read the text as referring to Salmon and Rahab as ancestors of Boaz, and not literally parents from one generation before, but that’s irrelevant for this interpretation.

The point of this story is that the Bible paints a picture of human behavior that is very real. I agree with the comments here in these posts that these are euphemisms for what the Bible teaches about sexual immorality specifically in the context of redemption and repentance in the biblical stories. Anyways…

Research Ideas:

Some of the concepts I’m researching right now that I’ll share just for interest with those of us who are also researching the story of Rahab and the Israelites' spies at the very beginning of Israel entering into the Promised Land.

Rahab’s House as a High Place of Cultic Prostitution

I’m researching this story right now for my own interest, even though I am a Registered Biblical Period Archaeologist (MA RPA). My research question is:

How does the story of Rahab relate to the more ancient Neolithic tower of Jericho?

The Neolithic tower of Jericho some archaeologists have called the first skyscraper or the first public building. It was built into the city-wall of ancient neolithic Jericho just like Rahab’s house at the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the beginning of the Late Bronze Age.

My hypothesis is that the Neolithic tower at Jericho was probably the first man-made “mountain” like the pyramids in Egypt or the ziggurats that are later built in Mesopotamia. On top of the ziggurat of Babylon, there was a large cultic bed where the divine king engaged in a ritual act of sexual intercourse, cultic prostitution, with a young woman, probably a virgin priestess of unique beauty, to bring a blessing to the land for all the people. Later in the Middle Bronze to Iron Age periods, this is the “high place” of cultic prostitution in ancient Israel.

That is how I think we are to understand Rahab’s house, and the role of the roof of her house built into the city wall like the Neolithic Tower of Jericho. This is where she hides the Israelite spies in this story. Rahab was a prostitute, and in the context of ancient Canaan, Rahab was a cultic prostitute. Thus it would follow that her house, especially the roof of her house, was a high place of ancient Canaanite ritual, sacrifice, and cultic prostitution.

The fact that this ancient tower built into the city wall is so persistent in the memory of the Semitic people is important. This is the same concept of tower(s) as a place of solitude and strength. This is used as a biblical metaphor all throughout the Scriptures in the context of humanity experiencing God’s atonement and redemption of sin and humanity’s restoration as a process to the Garden of Eden that is in beginning, Genesis, of the biblical text.

”Breasts as Towers” (Song of Songs)

And with the act of redemption realized, “a love unconscious of any fall” (Michael Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs), this concept of large towers like mountains, like Mount Hermon the white snow-covered peaks of Lebanon on the northern border of Israel (Sngs 4:8), and like Rahab’s breasts, voluptuous as implied in her name, Rahab, large, to enlarge, given to her at birth by her parents like a prophecy, then fulfilled, and perhaps why she was chosen to become a cultic prostitute, and the reference to Rahab’s legendary beauty even appearing in Song of Songs in the Shulamit’s description of herself,

I am a wall and my breasts are like towers. (Sngs 8:10)

That may actually be a “riddle of the wise” (Prov. 1:6) as a puzzle of Hebrew wisdom that the reader was expected to solve. The solution to the riddle is that “I am a wall and my breasts are like towers” (Sngs 8:10) is actually a reference to Rahab as one of the women of exceptional beauty found among the maternal ancestors of the House of David commemorated in the book of Song of Songs to inspire the House of David, the residents of Jerusalem, and all Israel, to guide men to seek a beautiful wife, and for women to seek to be a beautiful wife like Rahab redeemed.

In Jewish literature one can find a very favorable and beautiful reference to Rahab:

Rahab was one of the most beautiful women in the world, the mere mention of her name exciting inordinate desire. (Meg. l5a; Ta'an. 5b)

Have you ever asked why is Rahab referred to in the book of James, written by James, the brother of Jesus, who was a direct descendant of King David?

I think it’s for the same reason that I’m referring to here:

In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also proved righteous by works in receiving the messengers and sending them out by a different route? (James 2:25)

That only makes sense in the context of the sinful activity that Rahab and the Israelite spies were involved in, and then she was redeemed from her sin, and Israel was redeemed from their sin, and they enter into the Promised Land as an expression of their repentance and redemption accomplished through the grace of God, the compassion and mercy of God, which Moses was teaching the Israelites about for 40 years of wandering in the desert.

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I am not qualified to have an opinion on whether or not the Hebrew supports or to what degree it suggests that the spies indulged but it certainly seems that some with Hebrew skills believe so. I'm not aware of any other passages that comment on that either. So what I offer now is mere inference and carries very little weight. Still, it does seem worth considering so I'll mention my observations.

The main thing that comes to my mind is the fact that the spies were found out:

Jos 2:2  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.  Jos 2:3  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.

Now, I'm not sure if the spies received any of the same training as the IDF Mossad but surely they didn't go into the local massage parlor and brag about what they were up to. "Hi, we're here to spy out your land to plan for an invasion." Not likely. So how did the king know who they were?

My thought is that they at some point lowered their pants (including their tighty whiteys) and their provenance was exposed. Circumcision. So to whom might their privates have been revealed? A sexual partner.

So I am somewhat tentatively convinced that they went to the "Jericho Jin Joint", at least one indulged and the ho couldn't wait to publish her spicy "kiss and tell" abroad.

I cannot imagine a more convincing explanation for how they were exposed, nor a more fun one to write about!

See related: In Joshua 2:3 how did the king know that the spies were spies and what they were up to?

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