A Touchy Subject

Then Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and rested there. Joshua 2:1  NASB

Rested – Hebrew avoids explicit sexual descriptions.  It prefers double entendre, innuendo, allusions, and hints.  Perhaps that’s a good thing.  It requires the reader to add the details.  The stories become as real as our own lives.  In a way, it makes the reader complicit in the act, as though we were voyeurs.  Sexual stories in the Tanakh often say more about the reader than the characters.  For example, did Ruth seduce Boaz on the threshing floor?  Well, the language is ambiguous enough to not actually say so, but the hints are there.  How you interpret the text reveals your own thinking rather than deliberate details from the author.  This verse in the story of Rahab is just like that.  The scandal is in the interpretation, but, of course, the possibility of the scandal is in the choice of Hebrew words.  Some years ago I wrote about the infamous verb šākab.[1]  Now I think it’s time for a second look.

It doesn’t take much investigation to realize that this verb has significant sexual overtones:

šākab appears most often in the Qal primarily with the meaning “to lie down (in death)” or “to lie down (for sexual relations).”[2]  Whenever the derivatives of šākab are used in a context of sexual relationships, those relationships are illicit (Gen 30:15, 16; II Sam 11:11 may be exceptions). This is no less true with the verb šākabitself. In one instance it is used in legal statements that forbid certain types of sexual liaisons.[3]

Apart from legal texts šākab is used in narrative sections that describe incidents of inappropriate behavior. The daughters of Lot made their father drunk and then ‘slept’ with him (Gen 19:32ff.). One of Abimelech’s subjects almost inadvertently committed adultery with Rebekah (Gen 26:10). The verb is used to describe the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, by Shechem (Gen 34:2, 7). Reuben “slept” with his father’s concubine Bilhah while Jacob was absent (Gen 35:22). The sons of Eli engaged in amorous pursuits in their free time (I Sam 2:22). Amnon violated his half-sister Tamar (II Sam 13:11, 14), emulating, no doubt, the activities of his own father with Bathsheba (II Sam 11:4).[4]

The author of the story could have chosen another verb without these connections, but he didn’t.  That makes me ask the question, “What exactly happened?”  And that, it seems, is what the author wants me to ask.  Why?  What’s the big deal if the spies who show up at Rahab’s house engage in sexual activities?  After all, that’s her profession.  Well, the big deal is the ambiguity in two other words.  The first word is וַתִּצְפְּנוֹ (from the verb ṣāpan—to hide), translated as “hidden them,” but the verb is singular, not plural.  It really reads, “hidden him,” as if one of the two didn’t need to be concealed.  Why is that?  Some rabbis suggest that one of the two was an angel, and consequently could not be seen unless he wanted to be seen.  So, of course, he didn’t need to hide.  There’s further justification for this in 6:25, the verse with our second ambiguous verb.  This summary verse of the story does not call the two men anashim, but rather mĕlāʾkîm (translated “messengers”).  As TWOT notes:

“Messenger” is an inadequate term for the range of tasks carried out by the ot malʾāk. These were 1) to carry a message, 2) to perform some other specific commission, and 3) to represent more or less officially the one sending him. There were both human and supernatural mĕlāʾkîm, the latter including the Angel of Yahweh (i.e. the Angel of the Lord) . . . Message-bearing might be central (Zech 1:9; 5:5). More often they performed some particular commission such as guarding a human effort like the search for Isaac’s bride (Gen 24:40) or protecting the Hebrews in the wilderness (Ex 23:20). [5]

Why would the author of this story suddenly shift from the plural of “men” to the plural of “messengers”?  Could it be that there is a hint here that these two men weren’t really ordinary men at all?  Reader beware—more ambiguity.  The story is laden with scandal, not only at Rahab’s profession (prostitute or innkeeper), with what the men were doing at her house, with one or two being hidden, but finally with the very nature of these spies.  No wonder the rabbis came up with many alternate readings.

Topical Index:  men, messengers, rested, lodged, Rahab, Joshua 2:4, Joshua 6:25

[1] https://skipmoen.com/2011/05/the-clean-version/

[2] Hamilton, V. P. (1999). 2381 שָׁכַב. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 921). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bowling, A. (1999). 1068 לאך. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 465). Chicago: Moody Press.

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Richard Bridgan

Oh, the anguish! (and summons) of ambiguity found in the the text of Israel’s testimony of witness regarding Yahweh that is conveyed in scripture. It blows my mindset!