When Moses dies atop Mount Nebo in Moab, overlooking the Canaanite city of Jericho across the Jordan River, Joshua becomes the leader of the children of Israel. Preparing to invade Canaan, Joshua sends two spies across the Jordan, telling them, "Go, view the land, even Jericho."

Slipping into Jericho, the spies go to see a harlot named Rahab. We are not told if this is according to instructions, or if the spies go to a harlot's house because they have just spent several years in the wilderness. In any case they are not very good spies, for the king of Jericho is told that the two Hebrews are lodging with Rahab, whose house is in the wall of the city. (Perhaps the spies have gone to Rahab's for the excellent view.)

The king sends men to the harlot's house, but Rahab, on being told that her two guests are Hebrew spies, tells the king's men that the two just departed, as it is dark and time to shut the city gate. Hurry after them, Rahab says, and "ye shall overtake them."

Rushing out the city gate, the king's men head for the Jordan in pursuit, so they think, of the spies. Meanwhile Rahab joins the two spies on her roof, where she has hidden them under some flax.

"I know that the Lord hath given you the land," she tells the Hebrews, based on what she has heard about the parting of the Red Sea and all. "Your terror is fallen upon us," and "the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath." Rahab asks that, in exchange for the help she has given, the Hebrew invaders "save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have." (Another mystery about Rahab is why, with all those family ties, she is a prostitute.)

"Our life for yours," the two spies assure her, "if ye utter not this our business." Rahab lets them down the wall by a cord through the window, and they escape, after telling her to tie a scarlet ribbon in the window, and to bring all her kin into the house when the invasion begins.

Terror indeed falls: the Hebrew invaders, imposing the ban or herem, kill every living thing in Jericho, except for Rahab and her family, who are spared as the Hebrews promised.

Rahab lives in Israel "even unto this day," says the book of Joshua. At some point, as the Hebrew conquest of the land of Canaan proceeds, Rahab marries a man named Salmon, by whom she has a son named Boaz, the future husband of Ruth (Matt. 1:5).

In the New Testament, Rahab is held up as an example of what both works and faith can do. "Was not Rahab the harlot justified by works?" asks the Letter of James rhetorically (2:25). Also "by faith," says Hebrews (11:31), "the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace." (Josh. 2:1-21; 6:17,21-25) (On to GIDEON)

Gustave Doré, Joshua Spares Rahab, Bible illustration

RAPE: "Lewdness and Folly in Israel"

Sexual intercourse with another man's wife was adultery under Hebrew law, a violation of the seventh commandment (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18) punishable by death for the adulterers (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Presumably the wife would be executed only if she consented to the sexual encounter, though in the text itself no distinction is made between rape and consent of a married woman.

With regard to the rape of a virgin, the fate of the rapist depended on whether or not the virgin was betrothed to another man at the time. If betrothed, she was considered to belong to her future husband, in which case the rapist faced death (Deut. 22:23). If the damsel was not betrothed, the rapist was required to marry her, paying her father the bride price or mohar of fifty shekels of silver, and could not divorce her "all his days" (Deut. 22:28-29).

The only proof of rape scripturally provided for is the betrothed virgin screaming for help. If the sexual incident occurred in the city, where someone presumably could hear the virgin scream but no one did, she was assumed to be guilty of consent and would die along with the man (Deut. 22:23-24). The virgin would be spared if the incident occurred "in the field," where she may have screamed but "there was none to save her" (Deut. 22:25-26).

One of the Bible's most horrific episodes is the gang rape in Gibeah of the Levite's concubine (Judg. 19:1-30). ("Lewdness and folly in Israel," as the Levite describes it, hardly captures the horror of the incident, not to mention what the Levite does afterwards. See BENJAMIN.) An intended homosexual gang rape in Sodom precedes Yahweh's destruction of the city, the intended rape victims being none other than angels of the Lord (Gen. 19:1-25; see SODOM(Y) AND GOMORRAH). In the book of Esther, King Ahasuerus accuses the villain Haman of attempting to rape Queen Esther--a false impression that helps seal Haman's fate (see ESTHER). In the Apocrypha, what amounts to attempted rape is central to the story of Susanna (see SUSANNA AND THE ELDERS).

King David's son Amnon is assassinated by order of Amnon's half-brother Absalom for raping David's daughter Tamar (2 Sam. 13:1-29; see AMNON AND TAMAR). The Hivite prince Shechem rapes Dinah, Jacob's daughter by Leah, for which Jacob's sons exact vengeance (Genesis 34; see SHECHEM AND DINAH). According to the pseudepigraphical Testament of Reuben, Reuben's sexual intercourse with his father's concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:22) was rape: Bilhah was passed-out drunk at the time.

Rape in some biblical passages is seen as a form of divine punishment. Thus the Babylonians, instruments of Yahweh's wrath, "ravished the women in Zion, and the maids in the cities of Judah" (Lam. 5:22). Later the Babylonians, in turn, see "their wives ravished" by Yahweh's instruments the Medes (Isa. 13:16-17). Yahweh himself is described as an abuser of women. "Therefore will I discover thy skirts upon thy face," Yahweh tells the inhabitants of Judah, "that thy shame may appear" (Jer. 13:26). He likewise tells Nineveh that he will lift her skirts over her face and show "the nations (her) nakedness, and the kingdoms (her) shame" (Nahum 3:5). "The Lord will discover their secret parts," says Isaiah of the daughters of Zion (3:17), and Yahweh in the book of Lamentations "hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress" (1:15). Needless to say, these are problematic passages for women readers of the Bible, and for theologians of either gender. (See YAHWEH: "THY MAKER IS THINE HUSBAND.") While the language is symbolic, one must ask if the symbolism is defensible.

J. James Tissot, Desolation of Tamar / Christian Theological Seminary Library

REBEKAH: "Neither Had Any Man Known Her"


REHOBOAM: Seventy-Eight Wives and Concubines


REPRODUCTION: "Be Fruitful and Multiply"






RUTH: "At His Feet Until Morning"

In the book of Ruth, set in the time of the judges, a rich man of Bethlehem named Boaz, full of food and drink after barley harvest, lies down to sleep by the heap of grain on his threshing floor. At midnight he awakes with a start, and finds a woman lying at his "feet" (a euphemism for his sexual organs), which the woman has uncovered.

"Who art thou?" Boaz asks, not recognizing the woman in the dark.

"I am Ruth thine handmaid," she replies.

Ruth is the young Moabite widow of a late kinsman of Boaz. She and Boaz first met when Ruth was gleaning grain (as the poor are allowed to do) left behind by harvesters, in what happened to be Boaz's field. On learning who she was, Boaz had instructed his men to see that some grain was left for her, and to allow Ruth to glean "even among the sheaves" without reproach. Now her mother-in-law Naomi, a widow herself (Naomi's husband and both sons died in Moab), has put Ruth up to coming by night to the threshing floor--"uncover his feet, and lay thee down"--as a bold way for Ruth to propose.

"Spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid," Ruth tells Boaz, "for thou art a near kinsman." To spread his skirt or cloak over her would signify taking possession (cf. Ezek. 16:8), and the term "near kinsman" translates the Hebrew word go'el ("redeemer")--a man who protects the heritage of a deceased relative by buying his property, and perhaps by marrying his widow, as in levirate marriage (see MARRIAGE).

Whether sexual intercourse takes place on the threshing floor is not stated, though Amy-Jill Levine notes that threshing floors were associated with sexual activity (see HOSEA: "UPON EVERY CORNFLOOR"), and that the Hebrew word for skirt (kanap) can also connote genitals, reinforcing the sexual subtext. Boaz in any case has Ruth stay all night; she lies "at his feet until morning," though she leaves before it's light enough for people to recognize each other. Apparently eager to accept her proposal, Boaz must first see if a nearer kinsman, whom the book does not name, will waive his right to redeem the property involved, Ruth included.

Boaz and this fellow meet before witnesses at the city gate. The nearer kinsman, not wishing to complicate his family's inheritance through fathering a child by Ruth, removes his shoe and hands it to Boaz, a ritual act signifying waiver of the right to redeem. Boaz then publicly announces himself as the redeemer, buying the property. He accordingly takes Ruth as his wife.

When Boaz "went in unto her," we are told, "the Lord gave her conception." Ruth bears a son named Obed. "Blessed be the Lord," Ruth tells Naomi, for God has given Naomi a kinsman: "Thy daughter-in-law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him."

Ruth is admired as one of the Bible's most resourceful women. (She also shows exemplary loyalty. "Whither thou goest, I will go," she told Naomi, who, returning from Moab to Judah after the deaths of her spouse and both sons, urged her Moabite daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth to turn back. Orpah did so, but Ruth told Naomi, "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.") Ruth overcomes the fact that she is a Moabite female in Hebrew patriarchal society. ("No Ammonite or Moabite," says Deut. 23:3, "shall enter the assembly of God.") The rich Boaz may also have beaten the odds in life, his mother Rahab being a former Canaanite prostitute, though his father Salmon may have been well-to-do (Joshua 2:1-21 and 6:17,21-25; Matthew 1:5; see RAHAB THE HARLOT). Ruth and Boaz are King David's great-grandparents. (Ruth) (On to HANNAH)

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
Ruth in Boaz's Field
National Gallery, London

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