Unusual Bible Interpretations



                                                                              Chapter 2


Scouting Jericho

Chapter 2 of Joshua tells a bizarre tale of two spies that Joshua sent to discover whether the Israelite invading forces could conquer the city Jericho, the entry point into Canaan. The story is strange because of a host of reasons. Some of which are:


  • God had just assured Joshua that he would succeed in his conquest; there was no need to send spies, and chapters 3 and 4 show how God kept this promise.
  • No one, neither God not the people, encouraged sending spies.
  • Why send two spies, usually one scout is sufficient?
  • Why did the spies go to a prostitute’s brothel?
  • Why did the Israelites decide to attack Jericho based on the views of one non-military witness, the hearsay that the prostitute heard in her parlor that the citizens of Jericho feared the Israelites and she herself felt that the Israelite God was the true deity? Also, Jewish law does not accept the testimony of a woman.[1]
  • What relevance do fear of bordello clients and the religious belief of its madam have with military success?
  • Chapter 2 doesn’t seem to fit into the sequence of events: chapter 3 appears to follow chapter 1 when it begins “Joshua arose in the morning…and traveled to the Jordan.” It also doesn’t fit with the literal reading of the miraculous fall of Jericho’s walls, for if Joshua planned to use a miracle to destroy the city, why bother sending spies?
  • The later story of the fall of Jericho city walls contradicts the description of Rahab’s house being within the city walls; if this was her house’s location, her house would have fallen when the walls fell and Rahab would have been killed.[2]
  • The final part of the Rahab saga, in chapter 6 doesn’t fit smoothly with the rest of chapter 6.


Arnold B. Ehrlich suggests in his Mikra ki-Pheschuto that this chapter was composed to explain who Rahab was and why she or her descendants[3] were living among the Israelites.


Joshua son of Nun

Joshua’s name is strange. He is frequently called Joshua son of Nun[4] while other biblical figures do not have their father’s name appended to their name, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses. Does the Torah do so to somehow add prestige to Joshua? Does it succeed since we have no idea who Nun was?


In Hebrew, Joshua’s “son of” is bin and not the usual ben. We have no idea why this was done. However we do find that a few other biblical figures also used bin rather than ben.


Two spies

Joshua dispatched two unnamed spies secretly. The Bible states that he did so secretly, without any Israelite knowing[5] because he did not want the same reaction from his people that occurred when Moses sent twelve spies. Additionally, while Moses in a seeming diplomatic manner sent tribal leaders as spies,[6] one from each tribe, Joshua picked two non-tribal leaders, whose names are not even mentioned.[7] Unlike Moses’s detailed instruction of what to do and see[8] Joshua only says “go see the land, Jericho.”[9]



Jericho is one of the oldest cities. It is possible that its name is derived from the word meaning “moon,” suggesting that its inhabitants worshipped the moon, or from a word meaning “smell” or “odor,” because of the plentiful vegetation and even spices in the area. It was the first Canaanite city the Israelites encountered. Midrash Numbers Rabba imagines it as the entry point into the land and states that once it is conquered the entire land falls.[10]


Jericho was apparently an independent “city-state,” therefore we read in verse 3 about Jericho’s king who insisted that Rahab give up the two spies who were visiting her.



The two spies immediately go to the home of the prostitute Rahab. The Aramaic translation called Targum Jonathan and Josephus[11] render the Hebrew word zonah as “inn proprietor,” one who furnishes food to travelers, based on the word zan, to “feed.” However, it appears that they are attempting to protect the dignity of Rahab and that she was a prostitute, as the word generally means.[12]  The name Rahab is a somewhat popular Semitic name. She is the focus and heroine of this tale, not the nameless spies.


We can only speculate why the spies went to a brothel (or inn).[13] It is possible that they thought no one would question their identity in such a place and they would be able to hear reactions to the impending Israelite invasion from a wide assortment of people. However, as I mentioned previously, this is not the approved method of gathering military information.


The legendary Rahab[14]

Jewish traditional sources have extolled Rahab in many ways. She was the most beautiful woman in the world; even her name provoked desire.[15] She was ten years old when the Israelites left Egypt and served as a prostitute for forty years; there was not a prince who did not have sex with her.[16] She married Joshua and was the ancestress of eight priests who were prophets, including Jeremiah, and the ancestress of the prophetess Hulda.[17] The prophet Ezekiel was also one of her descendants.[18]


The king of Jericho

The king of Jericho sent Rahab a message hotzi’i haanshim, “bring forth the men (who are in your house).” This is an unusual request for two reasons. It seems so solicitous. Why did the military stay outside her house? We would have expected them to raid the dwelling.


The biblical language is identical to that used by the people of Sodom[19] who insisted that Lot send out the two men who were visiting him so that they could sodomize them. It is also the same language used[20] when the men of Gibeah insisted that an old man send out a woman so they could rape her. By using the same word, the Bible seems to be suggesting that the two spies would also be mistreated if released to the military.


Hiding the spies

A careful reading of the chapter reveals that the description of Rahab hiding the spies is told in four parts, mixed in with the description of the military reactions to her claim that the spies had been to her house but left. Verse 3 states: “The woman took the two men and hid them” and then interrupts and tells what she told the king’s men. Verse 6 tells how she hid the men in her roof followed by a description of the pursuit in verse 7. Then, beginning with verse 8, we are told what she said to the spies after hiding them on the roof. Also, verse 15 states that Rahab “let the spies down by a cord through the window.” This is followed, apparently after the spies left Rahab’s house, with a discussion and promise that the spies would assure that the Israelites would save her and her family. This method of interrupting narratives is a frequent biblical style that adds drama: a general statement is made in one place (here in verse 3) while the details are given later.


How could the conversation between Rahab and the spies occur after the spies left? This is also a reflection of the biblical style of revealing more details after mentioning the basics of the event, as if to say, “While the spies were discussing the matter with Rahab, they said…..” Abarbanel understands that the conversation occurred after the spies climbed down from Rahab’s window, while they were on the ground below. Why? Because any promise made while in distress is not binding, so the spies had to wait until they felt safe.


Miracle at the Red Sea

Rahab admits that the Jericho inhabitants fear the Israelites because of the many miracles God performed for them, including that God “dried up the water of the Red Sea before you.” Is this a true report? Did the inhabitants of Jericho get misinformation? Don’t we understand that God did not dry up the water, but split it? Or is this just another way of saying the same thing? In one of my books, I showed that there are about a dozen reports of what occurred at the Red Sea and each is somewhat different.[21]


We should note that Rahab states in verse 11 that she is now certain that the Israelite God is the true deity; but she bases her belief on her understanding that God performed miracles, and not on philosophical thoughts.


A Midrash[22] compares Rahab’s understanding with that of Moses’s father-in-law Jethro and General Naaman the leper.[23] Rahab states that the Israelite God is the only God while Jethro, for example, says[24] “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods.”


The scarlet line

The spies told Rahab to place a scarlet line outside her house window so that the invading Israelites would see it and be able to identify that this is her house and not kill any of its inhabitants. Why did Rahab place the line outside her window as soon as the spies left and not wait until the invasion started? Abarbanel suggests that she was probably concerned that if her fellow citizens see her place her line during the invasion, they would realize that it is a sign to the Israelites, figure she was somehow complicit in the invasion, and kill her. 


Hendiadys in the Bible

Hendiadys are used in Hebrew as they are in English. Hendiadys is from the Greek meaning “one thought through two words” that are joined by “and,” such as “sound and fury” is not two but one idea, “a furious sound.” By using hendiadys the idea is more poetic and sometimes more emphatic.  Biblical examples are: geir v’toshav does not mean “an alien and a resident” but “a resident alien,” and yayin v’sheikhar is not “wine and intoxicants,” but “intoxicating wine,” and chesed v’emet, in verse 14, is not “kindness and truth” but “true kindness.”


Three days

As in chapter 1, the number three need not be understood as precisely three days, but as “a short time.” See chapter 1. The spies did not stay hidden for three days, but for a short while.

[1] Josephus (Antiquities 5:1, 2) imagines that the spies examined the entire city before going to Rahab’s house, including the strength of the city walls.

[2] Recognizing this difficulty, the Greek translation Septuagint (about 250 BCE) deletes the notion that her house was within the city’s wall.

[3] Rahab is only mentioned in this chapter and in chapter 6.  6:25 states that the Israelites saved her when they destroyed Jericho “and she dwelt in the midst of Israel unto this day because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.” This passage may mean that Rahab herself was still alive when this book was composed or it may refer to her descendants.

[4] Twice in this chapter, in verses 2 and 23. It is first used in Exodus 33:11 and a total of ten times in this biblical book. This form is also in the story of Moses sending twelve spies, in Numbers 13:8, 14:6, 38.

[5] It obviously does not mean without the Canaanites knowing because this information is unnecessary, spies are never sent openly.

[6] A strange idea because spies are not usually high ranking military of governmental officials. One is reminded of the Peter Principle that people rise to their level of incompetence; tribal leaders might be superb in that function and terrible as spies.

[7] Ignoring what is previously stated, Midrash Numbers Rabba identifies the two individuals as Caleb, one of the men that Moses also used, and Pinchas, the grandson of Moses’ brother Aaron, who was the High Priest.

[8] Numbers 13:18-20 and Deuteronomy 1:22.

[9] Other biblical spy stories include: Moses sending spies in Numbers 13 and 15 and Deuteronomy 1:22-39; Joshua dispatching spies in 7:1, 2; David doing so in Samuel II 17:17; Josephites doing so in Judges 1:22-26; and Danites in Judges 18:2-10.

[10] A curious statement since readers of this book see it isn’t true.

[11] Antiquities 5.

[12] One would think that if she was not a prostitute and was an inn keeper, the Torah would have said so. It should surprise no reader that prostitutes can produce good deeds and even be the ancestors of biblical heroes. King David was descendant of the Moabite Ruth whose ancestress slept with her father Lot in an incestuous relationship. The Patriarch Judah had improper sex with a woman he thought was a prostitute, and despite his children being the progeny of an illicit act, they were also the forebears of King David.

There is no prohibition in Jewish law against having sex with a prostitute; such an act is only considered wrong if there is incest or the woman was married and the act was adultery. Judah did not do wrong when he had sex with a woman in Genesis 38 who he thought was a prostitute. Why then was the woman, Tamar, sentenced to death when it was discovered that she was pregnant? Because the law at the time was that she was in a quasi-married state: she was tied to Judah’s family awaiting marriage to Judah’s third son; her act was a quasi-adultery. Why was she not killed when it was discovered that her pregnancy was the result of sex with Judah? Because sex with Judah was not prohibited: her quasi-married state could be fulfilled in those days with sex with any family member, not only the deceased’s brother as was later codified in the Bible.

[13] There is no clear indication that they had sex in the brothel. However, verse 1 states “they slept there,” which could imply sex. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) explains Rahab’s reply to the king “Yes; the men came, but I didn’t know from where” to mean “they came for sex and then left.”

[14] I thank Dr. Jack Cohen for the sources in this section.

[15] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 15a and Taanit 5b.

[16] Mekilta Yitro Amalek 1 and Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 116b.

[17] Babylonian Talmud Megilah 14b and Ginzberg, Legends 4, 5-8.

[18] Midrash Yalkut.

[19] In Genesis 19:5.

[20] In Judges 19:22.

[21] Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets chapter 5.

[22] Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael on Exodus 18:1.

[23] II Kings 5:1-9.

[24] In Exodus 18:11.