February 27, 2020

Beyond the Madonna/Whore Complex: Haftarat Shelakh-lekha – Joshua 2:1-24

When I was in high school, a friend told me that he thought Shakespeare was overrated: “too many clichés,” he argued, and to this day I’m still unsure if he was joking. This week’s Haftarah might serve as the origin of a durable literary cliché: the prostitute with the heart of gold. But interpreting it as a heart of steel teaches us more about human nature, our tradition’s subtle insight, and the grisly dynamics of modern sexual slavery.

The harlot here is Rahab, a resident of Jericho, who saves the life of two of Joshua’s spies by hiding them from the authorities. When the king of Jericho demands that she turn them over, she lies and says that they have left her house. Given that the spies are currently with her, this represents a considerable personal risk and serious bravery. Her reasons are complex. She recounts the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds, and the resounding Israelite military victories over the Amorites:

When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit because of you; for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below. (2:11)

Is this a practical accommodation to power or a spiritual recognition of God’s sovereignty? The answer to this either/or question might well be “yes.” Rahab may know that the God of Israel is the only One around, but she drives a hard bargain: knowing the practice of slaughtering all the members of the losing army’s population, in exchange for her finding them a longer-term hiding place, she demands that the spies protect her and her family in the wake of the inevitable Israelite victory. With no other option, Joshua’s spies agree and are saved as a result. Eventually, so is Rahab and her family (6:23-25).

The Haftarah’s real drama, though, turns not on Rahab’s espionage, but her profession. The Biblical text is plain and precise: she is a zonah, a harlot. The most significant subsequent Jewish interpreters, from the Targum, to Rashi, to the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, a medieval commentator), have insisted that zonah comes from zun, to provide food, and thus she really is more like an innkeeper.

Nonsense. There are literally dozens of uses of zonah in the Tanach, and not one of the others involves an innkeeper. Do the math.

Quite simply, Rashi and the others want to turn Rahab into a concierge not for her sake, but for theirs. They are profoundly embarrassed that a savior of Israel turns out to be a prostitute. That says more about them than about her.

It says a lot about us as well. Prostitution should not embarrass its practitioners – it should shame those who stand idly by, allow it to continue, and when they find a prostitute who demonstrates her moral fiber, insist that she is actually an innkeeper.  “>Rabbi Pamela Wax’ incisive and scholarly drash in