Was Rahab a Prostitute?
Was Rahab, the woman in Jericho who hid the spies Joshua sent to the land, a prostitute or an innkeeper?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The simple reading of the Book of Joshua (2:1) is that Rahab was a harlot (“zonah”). This is the understanding of the Talmud (Zevachim 116b), and followed by some of the commentators. Some of the commentators understand that she was an innkeeper who provided food and lodging – which would explain why the spies naturally came to her for lodging. (See Targum Yonasan who interprets literally “a seller of food;” see also Rashi and Radak.) Others explain further that very possibly she both held both “professions” (since there is clearly overlap between the two) (Abarbanel). Some further suggest that the spies came to such a person because Rahab was likely to possess wide knowledge of the goings-on and attitudes of the people.
It is significant to note in spite of Rahab’s possibly very lowly profession, she nevertheless quite heroically saved the spies – sparing herself and her family in the process (see Joshua 2). In fact, the Talmud has a tradition that she afterwards converted (at the age of 50), praying that her act of saving the spies should atone for her earlier life (Zevachim 116b). Another tradition states that she subsequently married Joshua and merited righteous descendants (Megillah 14b). Clearly, a part of the message is that regardless of our origins or even shameful history, greatness is available to anyone who will rise to the challenge.