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Rereading Rahab During the Israel-Hamas War

Though she was not a general, parliamentarian or even soldier, her heroic actions have echoed for generations.
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June 20, 2024
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Much of the international pressure Israel faces in its ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza is premised on the belief that large swaths of Gazans would love nothing more than simply living in their own state, side-by-side with Israelis. This despite Palestinian polls and politicians continuing to show overwhelming support for Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, which, it bears pointing out, was committed by individuals who did live side-by-side with their kite-flying, peace-loving Israeli neighbors. That is before they shot them, raped them, took them hostage or burned them alive. 

While Israelis continue to wait for true local partners of peace to emerge, perhaps some comfort can be found in the haftarah that will be read a week from this Shabbat. It tells of Rahab, a Canaanite who saw in our people’s cause and our God a righteous calling, and supported the nation of Israel in its fight for the Promised Land.

The story, told in the second chapter of the book of Joshua, recounts how Moses’ successor sent two spies to scope out the city of Jericho. Finding themselves in the home of a local woman named Rahab, the two scouts were quickly found out by the local authorities. Troops were sent by Jericho’s king to capture and kill them. Thinking quickly, Rahab lied to the arriving soldiers and said the men had already moved on. In fact, she had hidden them on the roof of her residence. “I know that the Lord has given the country to you,” she told the spies once the threat has passed, “… for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.”

When the coast cleared, Rahab made a treaty with the Israelite scouts. In return for her risk-taking action, she and her family received secure passage out of the city. Talmudic tradition says she eventually converted to Judaism and married Joshua himself. 

Rahab’s courage and kindness are particularly pronounced when contrasted with an earlier and similar biblical episode, that of the two angels (in Hebrew, malachim) who visited the house of Lot, as told in Genesis chapter 19. In that tale, the two secretive visitors arrive to spare Lot from his city Sodom’s upcoming destruction. There, too, the two guests arrived in advance of a city being attacked, just like those spies in Jericho. In both stories the arrivals spend the night at a local’s home. In each, as well, the homeowner is instructed to “bring out the men” to be turned over for punishment, arrangements are made for the visitors to survive without being seen by the attackers, and characters are told to “run to the hills” for safety. In the book of Joshua, the spies are later referred to as malachim, tightening the ties between the two narratives.

As contemporary Bible scholar L. Daniel Hawk notes in his article “Strange Houseguests: Rahab, Lot, and the Dynamics of Deliverance,” Rahab acted, in her story, in the role of God’s divine messengers in the Genesis narrative. In her tale, the spies might have been the ones called malachim but it was Rahab, like the heavenly beings, offering instructions, directing the action and providing salvation. It was she who enabled lives to be saved. As Hawk puts it, “the story of Rahab’s deliverance from Jericho is rendered after the pattern of Lot’s rescue from Sodom… the spies exhibit Lot’s traits — passivity, fluctuation, and impotence — while Rahab takes on the characteristics of the angels — initiative, urgency and command.”

Rahab’s remarkable story reminds us that individual kindnesses emerging from unlikely sources and across boundaries and nationalities can offer light amidst the darkness of war. Though she was not a general, parliamentarian or even soldier, her heroic actions have echoed for generations.

Rahab’s remarkable story reminds us that individual kindnesses emerging from unlikely sources and across boundaries and nationalities can offer light amidst the darkness of war.

Furthermore, Rahab’s statement of belief in the Jewish God is a reminder that while faith so often serves as a source of distinction and violence, it more powerfully can serve as a force that forges ties across divides. As the late British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once put it, “when we are divided on matters of faith, we are still united on matters of fate.”

Finding enough Rahabs to de-radicalize a virulently anti-Israel population — especially after the depths of “civilian” involvement in hostage-keeping continue to emerge — seems like a vision only a contemporary prophet would dare muster. Yet as we read her story next Shabbat, we can continue to hope and pray that such individuals will emerge like angels, reaching out their hands yet again, beckoning towards reconciliation, as if from the heavens.


Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include “The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada,” which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, “Esther in America,” “Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth” and “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.”

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