According to the "Treasury of Scripture" the word for "prostitute" and the word for "inn keeper" are the same word:

harlots The word {zanoth}, rendered {harlots}, is here translated by the Targumist, the best judge in this case, {pundekon}, `tavern-keepers:' See on ... Had these women been harlots, it is not likely that they would have dared to appear before Solomon; nor it likely that such persons would have been permitted in the reign of David. Their {husbands} might at this time have been following the necessary occupations in distant parts.

http://biblehub.com/1_kings/3-16.htm

Is it possible that both Rahab and the two women before Solomon have been inappropriately maligned?

  • Quite the mistake in that commentary! The Bible is full of people doing things they'd "never dare" to do. Adam lies to God's face, Cain kills Abel, Abraham challenges the Judge of all the Earth to do right, Joseph tells Pharaoh how to run Egypt, Moses asks to see God, Saul speaks to Samuel through a medium he himself outlawed, Jael assassinates a general, Gideon leads a charge of 300 against thousands, David dances naked in public, Daniel prays himself into a lion's den, Esther risks her life twice to ask Xerxes a favour, Jesus claims to be Lord of the Sabbath, Peter breaks out of prison... – Luke Sawczak Jul 10 at 3:13
  • ...It's a thread running through some hermeneutical traditions, the idea that you should reason from the premise that the Bible is a collection stories about typical behaviour by typical people. It's unfortunate that a little reflection, and reading, doesn't dispel that way of seeing things through human eyes as often as you'd hope. – Luke Sawczak Jul 10 at 3:15

This translation is actually older than the "Treasury of Scripture", as we find it already in the Jewish targumim and the works of Josephus.

However, in my opinion targum Jonathan's novel translation is a good example of violence done to the text (perhaps to vindicate the spies from seeking lodging at a prostitute's house). The Hebrew word "mazon" מזון meaning "food", is never used as a verb as is the case with English where the noun "food" changes form and becomes "feed" when used in a verb phrase. So to say that zonah here means "someone who feeds others" is virtually unsupported from the bible. Actually there is another Hebrew word for feeding others found in 2chronicles 28:15, ויאכילום. So if anything the word for innkeeper would be something which contains the root אכל not זן. As for the targum, in fact Jewish tradition itself confirms that Rahab was a prostitute, see here.

In any case, looking at Strong's concordance the word zonah never comes up in the context of innkeeping or feeding others, but it does connote lewdness, harlotry, whoredom and fornication, so it is pretty clear that zonah here means nothing other than "prostitute". According to Wikipedia, however, Rahab could have been both a prostitute and an innkeeper as it was not uncommon for an inn and brothel to operate within the same building.

I agree with Bach's answer. Further, if the spies wanted a place where men were coming and going often, they would logically choose a brothel over an inn. They were possibly noticed by their deportment and accent (we do not know what made them conspicuous), but someone noticed and Rahab was a convincing lair.

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