The Choice to Serve God and Assist His People: Rahab and Yael

Elie Assis


The stories of Yael (Judg 4,17-22) and Rahab (Josh 2) share the common theme of a gentile woman assisting an Israelite man1. Rahab saves two Israelite spies from the King of Jericho (Josh 2), and Yael kills Sisera while he attempts to escape from Barak (Judg 4,17-22). These two stories are connected in a web of analogies2. I will first present this structural network, and then disclose its meaning; finally, I will discuss the meaning of each story in light of the differences between the analogous stories.

1. Analogy between Rahab and Yael

(1) In both cases a gentile woman unexpectedly assists Israel3. Rahab is a harlot and a citizen of Jericho. Her clear and overt statement of belief in God is surprising (Josh 2,9-11), as is the courageous assistance endangering her own life which she provides to the Israelite spies (Josh 2,4.15-16). Yael belongs to the clan of the Kenites, who maintain good relations with Israel and with Canaan (Judg 4,11.17). Nevertheless, her intervention in favor of Israel is surprising and her elimination of Sisera, the Canaanite general of Canaan, is a noteworthy act.
(2) The spies find shelter in Rahab's house, while Sisera seeks shelter in Yael's tent. Rahab hides the men so they will not be caught by the king's soldiers (Josh 2,4.6), and Yael covers Sisera with a blanket and appears to hide him from Barak (Judg 4,18.19). At this point the stories part ways: Rahab hides the spies and saves them; Yael hides Sisera but kills him and saves Israel.
(3) In the two stories a man relies on a woman who pretends to offer help; both women use trickery. Rahab tells the King's soldiers that the spies have already left and encourages the soldiers to chase after them (Josh 2,5). The soldiers believe her, but the spies are actually hiding in the house (Josh 2,7.22). Yael invites Sisera to her tent and shows him hospitality. He trusts her (Judg 4,20), while she intends to kill him.
(4) A pursuit lies in the background of both stories. In the Rahab episode, the King of Jericho pursues the spies; in the Yael story Barak chases Sisera. In both cases a woman determines the outcome of the pursuit.
(5) The two stories occur in the residence of the woman. Rahab gives shelter to the spies in her house and Sisera seeks shelter in Yael's tent. Rahab sends the soldiers away from her house, while Yael invites Sisera into her tent.
(6) In both stories sexual connotations play an important part in plot development. The fact that Rahab is a harlot is a dominant element in her story. As the spies enter the house of a harlot, the impression is that a sexual encounter will ensue. But contrary to this expectation, the verse ends with an assertion that the spies "lay [down] there" (hm# wbk#yw) instead of the similar, but more sexual "lay with her" (htw) bk#yw)4. A second incidence of the verb "lay" intensifies these sexual connotations (v. 8)5. The king arrives at Rahab's house and instructs her: "Bring out the men who came to you, who came to your house" (Ktybl w)b r#) Kyl) My)bh My#n)h y)ycwh) (v. 3). The duplication in the king's words (1. came to you, 2. came to your house) is meant to convey two possibilities that play on the term "to come", which connotes sexual activity l) )wbl. The first possibility is that the spies arrived at Rahab's house for a sexual encounter and the second is that they came to her house simply to lodge there6. Rahab deceives the king and chooses the first possibility "True, the men came to me" implying that sexual intercourse has taken place between her and the spies. However, the narrator has already conveyed that the spies "lay [down] there" (v. 1) and not with Rahab. By means of this lie Rahab rejects any suspicion that she has cooperated with the spies, suggesting rather that they came, like most of her visitors, for sexual satisfaction, and, when their desires were met, they left. If she had not lied, but rather claimed that there had been no sexual intercourse, and that the spies had come to lodge at the inn, she could not have claimed that they had already left. The apparent sexual intentions of the spies constitute a good alibi for Rahab's claim that she did not know where they came from (v. 4).
In Yael's story, too, sexual connotations play an important role in the plot. Yael uses her sexuality, and sexually allusive language, to defeat Sisera. She greets him and invites him into her tent. The intention of the invitation, however, is ambiguous: "Turn in, my lord, turn in to me". Does she mean that he should enter her tent or does her invitation promise sexual relations? The sexual implication in her words may be compared to the invitation which Lot extended to the angels; Lot's offer is formulated in similar words, yet without any ambiguity: "my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant's house" (Gen 19,2). While Lot's words are clear: "" (Mkdb( tym l) wrws) Yael uses the same verb but applies it to herself: "turn into me" (yl) wrws). This form resembles another sexual formula l) )byw. Yael's greeting and invitation allude to the terminology and descriptions of a prostitute in the Book of Proverbs (9,15-16)7. The sibilance of the invitation in the original Hebrew may be meant as well to underscore the sensuality contained in Yael's voice8. The repetition of the fact that Yael covers Sisera is also part of a sexual setting (vv. 18, 19). And certainly the fact that the whole scene takes place in Yael's bed creates a sexual atmosphere9. It is reasonable to assume that the attraction that Yael dissembles for Sisera is the cause for his confidence in her; he even trusts her with his life. Sexuality is also prominent in the encounter between Yael and Barak. First, she goes out to greet Barak "Yael came out to meet him". Then she invites him into the tent to see Sisera's condition, but when the narrator describes his entrance to the tent he chooses the term "he came into her" (hyl) )wbyw) that may also indicate sexual intercourse, midrashically expounded.
(7) In both stories the behaviours of the men is presented ironically compared with that of the women. The king and his soldiers seem pathetic when they immediately believe the harlot that her customers are not in the house. The type of hospitality Yael offers Sisera reflects his childlike helplessness: she gives him a drink and covers him with a blanket. It is ironic that a woman kills an experienced warrior who has survived the battlefield10. The assistance that Rahab provides the spies also presents them in an ironic light. The spies are passive in comparison with Rahab who actively hides them, allowing them to escape from the city: "But the woman took the two men and hid them" (Josh 2,4); "She brought them up to the roof and hid them" (Josh 2,6). "Then she let them down by a rope through the window" (Josh 2,15). She also gives them good advice about where to escape (Josh 2,16), and she is the dominant party in the dialogue with the spies. Barak is presented in an unflattering manner when she invites him into her tent to see that the man that he has been pursuing has already been put to death (Judg 4,22). Both Yael and Rahab are in control of the men they want to subdue and the men whom they plan to help. It is in their power to decide who will triumph and who will fail. The encounters of Yael and Rahab with men are presented in a similar fashion. In the Rahab story the soldiers are sent to her to find the spies and she disrupts their mission when she sends them out of the city:

And the king of Jericho sent unto Rahab,... and she said: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them (Josh 2, 3.5).

The spies have been sent by Joshua; they come to Rahab who sends them to hide in the mountains and assists them in their mission:

And Joshua...sent... two men to spy...and came into an harlot's house, named Rahab...And she said unto them, Get you to the mountain, lest the pursuers meet you (Josh 2,1.16)11.

Similarly, Yael stands against Barak and Sisera and she decides whom to assist and whom to defeat, achieving both her goals. The women's encounters with these two men are described in a similar way12.

Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, 'Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; have no fear.' So he turned in to her into the tent (4,18). Jael came out to meet him, and said to him, 'Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.' So he went into her [tent] (4,22).

Yael's dominant role is intensified especially since Sisera and Barak are rivals. And the organization of the two armies by their generals is described in a similar manner to the description of Yael's interaction with the men13:

Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and he went up by foot with ten thousand men behind him (4,10).
Sisera summoned
all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him (4,13).

The two descriptions use the same phrase "Sisera/Barak summoned" but they contrast Sisera's advantage "nine hundred chariots of iron" with Barak marching by foot. In the battle scene the two forces are compared:

"Barak went down from mount" (4,14). After Sisera's army was defeated it is said:
"Sisera went down from his chariot and fled away on foot" (4,15).

Barak goes down from Mount Tabor to his victory; Sisera goes down from his chariots, the symbol of his power, and flees on foot. Now the reader is under the impression that the battle is reaching an end. But at this point Yael appears on the scene and she overshadows both generals, Sisera and Barak.
(8) Finally, it might be added that both stories deal with wars of Israel and the Canaanites.

2. The Meaning of the Analogy

In both stories God leads his people to victory over their enemies. Rahab conveys this conception as part of her belief in God and her prediction about the events to come. In Judg 4, Deborah expresses this conviction as a prophecy before the battle:

Josh 2,9 Judg 4,14
And she said unto the men,
I know that the Lord has given you the land.
And Deborah said unto Barak,
Up! for this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand.

The analogous structure of the two stories demonstrates the ways of God's salvation to his people. Usually women do not participate in war, but in these stories their actions are crucial in the implementation of the divine plan. The intervention of these two women is unexpected. The spies are discovered and their surrender to the king seems close, but Rahab does not help her king but rather, with outstanding skill and courage, she assists the spies. The king believes her and does not check the authenticity of her words. In Judg 4, Sisera flees from Barak and goes to Yael's tent believing that she will give him shelter. Yael brings him into her home, giving him the impression that he has come to a safe haven, and he goes so far as to trust her with his life. Surprisingly, Yael does not assist him but rather his Israelite pursuer. These unexpected interventions of women in favor of Israel are meant to demonstrate the concealed ways of the divine sovereignty. When God is about to save his people his ways are numerous, varied, and unexpected. The fact that these women are gentiles adds even more to the hidden ways of God's actions14.
The motif of surprise in the assistance that these women give to Israel stands in contrast to the failed expectations in the story of Delilah (Judg 16,4-22); there is an expectation that this gentile woman will assist her Israelite lover, but she does not. Out of all the women Samson falls for, Delilah is the only one whom he loves (Judg 16,4). The Philistines understand that their only way to overcome Samson is to take advantage of his weakness for women, and thus they bribe Delilah with a promise of money and a husband in order seduce Samson to reveal the secret of his strength. Delilah is tempted by the offer and she takes advantage of her relations with Samson in order to place him into the hands of the Philistines15. Her decision leads her in the opposite direction of Yael and Rahab. Like them, Delilah uses trickery to overcome Samson, and, as in the stories of Yael and Rahab, in the Samson story, too, sexuality plays a crucial part in the plot.
In addition to discussing the similarities of these stories, it is useful to examine their significant differences, shedding light on the uniqueness of each character and the particular meaning of each story. Rahab's motive in assisting Israel is clear in her words. She feels the danger of the approaching confrontation with Israel, as they invade Canaan; she decides to help the spies and hopes that they will return the favor and save her. Rahab is a harlot and not an accepted member of society, which may explain her willingness to leave her own people and join another group16. However, the narrative also emphasizes Rahab's deep belief in God17. In one of the most impressive statements in the Bible on faith, Rahab expresses the awe-inspiring quality of the monotheistic conception:

I know that the LORD has given you the land, ...As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The LORD your God is indeed God in heaven above and on the earth below (Josh 2,9-11).

In these words Rahab expresses the notion that God is sovereign. The narrator shapes Rahab's words as a combination of two quotations from the Pentateuch, one from the Song of Moses at the sea of Reeds and the second from Deuteronomy.

Exod 15,15-16 Josh 2,9
All the inhabitants of Canaan melted

Terror and dread fell upon them
and that dread of you has fallen on us,

and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you.

In the Song of Moses, the feeling expressed is that the greatness of the miracle will affect the nations of Canaan and they, too, will recognize the power of God. The presentation of Rahab as a person capable of quoting the Song of Moses shows that the miracle has affected her according to the statement in the Song, and she, indeed, recognizes the power of God. This acknowledgement of Rahab is in contrast to the behavior of the King of Jericho and his soldiers who pursue the spies.
Rahab's words are structured in a Deuteronomistic style and they quote Deuteronomy 4,39:

Deut 4,39 Josh 2,9-11
Know therefore this day,
And consider it in thine heart,
That the Lord he is God
In heaven above and on the earth
I know that the LORD has given you the land
our hearts melted
The LORD your God is indeed God
In heaven above and on the earth

The context of the source in Deuteronomy is a warning that if Israel does not follow God, he will exile them from the land. If, however, they follow God's commandments they will flourish in the land. The quotation of Rahab from this source is meant to show that she acknowledges the greatness of God and that she, too, is worthy of remaining in the land, contrary to other members of her people18.
By presenting Rahab's words as quotations from the Pentateuch the author attempts to present her as one who is familiar with Israel's beliefs and acquainted with their heritage; for this she deserves to belong with them and to be saved from the doom that befalls her Canaanite brethren.
But why does Yael choose to help Barak; what is her motive19? The reader searches the story in vain for an answer. Yael belongs to a people who have good relations with the Canaanites and with the Israelites, as evident in two verses in the story. "Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses" (v. 11). This verse is balanced by another: "Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Yael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite" (v. 17). The relations between the Canaanites and the Kenites are on Sisera's mind when he chooses to find shelter. The Kenites are in good relations with the Canaanites as well as with the Israelites20. The narration indicates the neutrality of the Kenites in order to obscure the motives of Yael, and to avoid any explanation in the political field21. On the contrary she acts in contradiction to the interests of the Kenite clan22. The ways of divine providence in the Yael story are even more obscure than in the Rahab story; the concealment of Yael's motives leave an impression of wonder at such divine intervention.
The absence of Yael's motives in the story serves yet another purpose. Deborah is the judge in this story23. The uniqueness of Deborah is that she does not take part in the war, as do the other judges in the book. She acts as a prophetess: she appoints Barak, instructs him where to organize his army, how many soldiers to summon, and where from. She also instructs him when to attack Sisera's army. She does all this as a prophetess who transmits God's instructions to Barak. When Barak refuses to accept the commission unless Deborah joins him, she delivers another prophecy, that a woman and not Barak will kill Sisera: "However, there will be no glory for you on the road on which you are going for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman" (v. 9)24. The uniqueness of the story of Deborah is that it only presents the prophetic personality of Deborah and totally disregards her private personality. The vivid and lucid message is that God and not man is the source of salvation.
The abstruseness of Yael's motives for killing Sisera enables the reader to focus on Deborah who has foreseen that "the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman" (v. 9)25. Yael's role in the story is to materialize Deborah's prophecy. The analogy between Rahab and Yael moves the reader to appreciate the prophetic personality of Deborah, essential to the meaning of the story.


1 Zakovitch thinks these stories belong to a narrative type which he calls "A Woman Who Rescues a Man". See Y. ZAKOVITCH, "Humor and Theology or the Successful Failure of Israelite Intelligence: A Literary-Folkloric Approach to Joshua 2", Text and Tradition. The Hebrew Bible and Folklore (ed. S. NIDITCH) (Atlanta 1990) 79. But the stories treated here share a stronger conection as in both the women are foreign women who come to help Israel.
2 Nelson has indicated the similarity of these stories but only briefly and generally. R.D. NELSON, Joshua. A Commentary (OTL; Louisville 1997) 43 and n. 9.
3 Klein believes that Yael was an Israelite who married a Kenite, and acted in favor of her people's interests and not in the interests of her husband, L.R. KLEIN, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges (Bible and Literature Series 14; Sheffield 1988) 43. However, there is no indication that Yael was not a Kenite. Others have disputed this opinion, see B.G. WEBB, The Book of the Judges. An Integrated Reading (JSOTSS 46; Sheffield 1987) 137; J.W.H. BOS, "Out of the Shadows: Genesis 38; Judges 4:17-22; Ruth 3", Semeia 42 (1988) 37.
4 See e.g.: Gen 34,2; 35,22; Lev 19,20; 2 Sam 13,14.
5 For different suggestions about this duplication, see: W.L. MORAN, "The Repose of Rahab's Israelite Guests", Studi sull'Oriente e la Bibbia offerti al P. Giovanni Rinaldi nel 60 compleanno da allievi, colleghi, amici (ed. H. CAZELLES) (Genova 1967) 273-284, esp. 275-278.
6 For this interpretation, see: R Isaac ABRAVANEL, Commentary on Joshua (Hamburg 1787) chap 2, v. 3; P.A. BIRD, "The Harlot as Heroine: Narrative Art and Social Presupposition in Three Old Testament Texts", Semeia 46 (1989) 128-129. ZAKOVITCH, "Humor and Theology", 82-83, 84.
7 An extensive description of a woman's seductions is found in Prov 7,5-23.
8 About alliteration in biblical narrative see: L. ALONSO SCHKEL, A Manual of Hebrew Poetics (Subsidia Biblica 11; Rome 1988) 20-29. The Babylonian Talmud Megilah 15a realizes the inviting tone of Yael's words: "Rahab inspired lust by her name; Yael by her voice, Abigail by her memory; Michal daughter of Saul by her appearance".
9 Reference to sexual intercourse is apparent in the poetic account in Judg 5, 27. This remark was midrashically expounded by R. Johanan in the Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 103a. On the sexual allusions see also: Y. ZAKOVITCH, "Sisseras Tod", ZAW 93 (1981) 364-374. S. NIDITCH, "Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael", Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel (ed. P.L. DAY) (Minneapolis 1989) 43-57. R. ALTER, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York 1985) 48-49. Sexual allusions are explicit in the pseudepigraphic book Pseudo-Philo 31:3: "Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite adorned herself and went out to meet him; now the woman was very beautiful... And Sisera went in, and when he saw roses scattered on the bed, he said, 'if I am saved, I will go to my mother, and Yael will be my wife'".
10 For the shame of a man killed by a woman see also Judg 9,53-54; 2 Sam 11,21.
11 See NELSON, Joshua, 40.
12 D.F. MURRAY, "Narrative Structure and Technique in the Deborah-Barak Story, Judges iv 4-22", Studies in the Historical Books of the Old Testament (ed. J.A. EMERTON) (SVT 30; Leiden 1979) 172; R.H. O'CONNELL, The Rhetoric of the Book of Judges (SVT 63; Leiden 1996) 129.
13 These parallels are discussed by L. Alonso Schkel ("Erzhlkunst im Buche der Richter", Bib 42 (1961) 160-167) mainly on stylistic grounds. They are developed and viewed in the context of their narrative function by MURRAY, "Narrative Structure and Technique in the Deborah-Barak Story", 169-171. In the present discussion the emphasis is on the function of these parallels in the characterization of the figures in the narrative.
14 According to L. Hoppe, Israel depends on the protection of God who may use even inappropriate persons to effect the divine will (Joshua, Judges with an Excursus on Charismatic Leadership in Israel [Old Testament Messages 5; Wilmington 1982] 31).
15 Delilah is in a dilemma about whom to help her people or her lover. This resembles the dilemma of Michal over whether to help her husband or her father. Michal makes a moral choice. Delilah, however, does not assist her lover and she does not help her people for moral reasons but out of greed.
16 See, e.g., E.J. HAMLIN, Inheriting The Land. A Commentary on the Book of Joshua (Grand Rapids Edinburgh 1983) 17.
17 Campbell believes that the main idea of the story of Rahab is the moral choice that Rahab makes to adopt the covenant with God, and that accordingly she and her family join the covenant nation. See K.M. CAMPBELL, "Rahab's Covenant: A Short Note on Joshua 2:9-21", VT 22 (1972) 243-244. Some believe that Rahab's decision is motivated merely by her understanding that she is in danger and this is the way to save herself and her family. See ZAKOVITCH, "Humor and Theology", 90.
18 For the Deuteronomistic style of Rahab's words, see M. NOTH, Das Buch Josua (HAT; Tbingen 21953) 9; J.A. SOGGIN, Joshua. A Commentary (OTL; London 1972) 41-42. For a different conclusion than mine, see NELSON, Joshua, 50.
19 This is probably the problem Klein (The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges, 43) aimed to solve when she determined that Yael is an Israelite. See n. 3 above.
20 For relations between these three groups, see: F.C. FENSHAM, "Did a Treaty Between the Israelites and the Kenites Exist?", BASOR 175 (1964) 51-54. Contrary to Fensham there is no indication that Yael acted in accordance with the treaty between Israel and the Kenites; on the contrary the story asserts a stronger alliance between the Canaanites and the Kenites. Indeed, Sisera flees towards Yael's tent presumably with a belief that he will find a shelter there.
21 Y. AMIT, The Book of Judges. The Art of Editing (Biblical Interpretation Series 38; Leiden 1999) 211.
22 Bos mentioned this point to demonstrate the independence of Yael and that she does not act in line of what is expected from women, see: BOS, "Out of the Shadows", 52-53. Similarly, also T.J. SCHNEIDER, Judges (Berit Olam, Collegeville 2000) 77. But these scholars who attempt to glorify Yael do not provide an understanding of her motives to assist the Israelites.
23 This is the most common opinion, see e.g. MURRAY, "Narrative Structure and Technique in the Deborah-Barak Story", 167. Contrary to others who think that Barak is the Judge, see J.A. SOGGIN, Judges. A Commentary (OTL; London 1981) 71-72; WEBB, Judges, 137 and see also p. 133.
24 Some think that this sentence is not a prophecy and does not refer to Yael but is a logical conclusion from Barak's reluctance and dependence on Deborah. According to this interpretation Deborah is referring to herself. This interpretation was adopted by Qimhi, Joseph Qera. See Y. KAUFMAN, The Book of Judges (Jerusalem 1978) 124 (Hebrew). Above I have followed those who think that Deborah's words are a prophecy referring to Yael, see e.g G.F. MOORE, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Judges (ICC; Edinburgh 1895) 116-117; J.D. MARTIN, The Book of Judges (CBC; Cambridge 1975) 57.
25 Contrary to Amit who claims that there is not one central hero in the story and that there is a balance in the presentation of the heroes meant to convey the message that the Lord is the only hero in the story. Y. AMIT, "Judges 4: Its Contents and Form", JSOT 39 (1987) 89-111.