There are some very strange stories in the Bible. In this article, I look at the unusual stories of three women in the Old Testament: Rahab, Tamar, and Rizpah. All three women are in precarious social situations; their place in their communities is ambiguous. Hoping for something better, they each take matters into their own hands, and the consequences of their daring, unorthodox actions are life-changing.
While their stories resolve reasonably well, the women face warfare, abuse, and devastating loss. There are difficult and dark elements in their lives that they try to rise above. Let’s look at these formidable women and their strange stories.
RAHAB THE PROSTITUTE: JOSHUA 2 AND 6
Rahab’s Words and Deeds
When Joshua sent out two spies to check out the Canaanite city of Jericho, Rahab put her life in danger by taking them in and protecting them. By doing so, she committed treason against her own people and she even lies to the king. From the perspective of the inhabitants of Jericho, she is a traitor and a liar. And had her treason been discovered, she would have been executed, probably in an especially gruesome way.
The account of Rahab’s story is not just about her actions; much of Joshua 2 is taken up with her words. In the NRSV (1989 edition), she has 255 words of dialogue, which is a considerable amount. Her words reveal what was motivating her treachery.
This is some of what Rahab tells the Israelite spies.
“I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” Joshua 2:9–11 NIV
Rahab had heard the reports. She knew what the Israelites were up to and what they were capable of. While the other inhabitants of Jericho were melting in fear, terrified by the advancing Israelites, Rahab developed faith in God. She assessed the situation and threat correctly and, acting on her faith, dared to do something about it.
Rahab is a Valuable Ally
Seizing the opportunity, Rahab sided with the Israelites and helped the spies. Switching one’s allegiance when there is a military threat to your own people is no small thing. It wasn’t a trivial matter for the Israelites either, as they gained a valuable ally in Rahab.
Ed Dickerson summarises how Rahab helped the spies.
She harbors the two unnamed spies, gives them the equivalent of a military situation report, saves them from discovery, helps them to get outside the city walls, and instructs them on how to elude their pursuers. When they get back to Joshua, they repeat her words almost verbatim. Everything Joshua instructed the spies to do, Rahab made possible.
Life had probably been hard for Rahab. She was living on the margins of her community, both in terms of location, her home was in a vulnerable position on the city walls, and socially, she was a prostitute. People who become sex workers often do so because they are desperate and have run out of other options. Perhaps she was the sole support for her family. We can see that she cared for them, as she negotiated with the spies, not only for her own safety, but also for the safety of her parents and siblings.
Rahab’s location and profession, which may have given her some autonomy, put her in a position to help the spies. She turned her back on her own people and her old life and made a bold move to begin a new life.
Despite the risks and dangers and, perhaps, several tense and terrifying moments, Rahab’s story has a happy ending. The lives of Rahab and her family are saved. The Israelites accept her into their community (Josh. 6:25). She marries and becomes the mother of Boaz. And even though she continues to be identified as Rahab the Prostitute, the Jewish people have always respected and praised her for her protection of the Israelite spies (cf. Heb. 11:31). Rahab is described as righteous in James 2:25 and, to top it off, Jesus is one of her descendants (Matt. 1:5). Her story is quite something! (I have more on Rahab here.)
TAMAR THE CHILDLESS WIDOW: GENESIS 38
Tamar’s Pitiful Situation
The next unusual story is of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. Tamar implemented a dicey and dangerous scheme that could have failed at several points. Her story is not as well-known as Rahab’s. So here is a quick rundown of what happened. (See Genesis 38 for more.)
Judah is one of the twelve sons of Jacob. He marries and has three sons. The sons grow up and the eldest, who is named Er, marries Tamar. The Bible describes Er as evil and he dies. Tamar and Er did not have any children. So, according to the ancient custom of Levirate marriage, Judah gives his second son Onan to Tamar so she can have a child with him.
Having an able-bodied son, or two, was a woman’s best chance for future security. A son also meant that family lines didn’t die out which, for reasons I don’t quite understand, was a concern for the Israelites.
Onan, however, did not want to raise a child who would not be legally his; the child would become Tamar’s and Er’s (his deceased older brother). Furthermore, if the child was a son, the boy would inherit much of Judah’s estate, reducing Onan’s share which had substantially increased when Er died. So whenever he has sex with Tamar, Onan withdraws before climax so that she doesn’t conceive. Because Onan did not fulfil his duty to his family, the Bible states that “What he did was evil in the Lord’s sight, so he put him to death also” (Gen. 38:10).
So far, Judah has lost two sons and Tamar has lost two husbands who the Bible describes as evil. Tamar’s life cannot have been easy, and Judah has only one son left who is named Shelah.
Judah knows he is obligated to give Shelah to Tamar but he tells her that the third son is too young to marry. Judah asks Tamar to go back to her father’s house and wait until Shelah grows up. She does that; she goes back to her own family’s home and waits. And waits.
Tamar Implements Her Plan
After waiting a long time, Tamar realises that Judah is not going to fulfil his promise. So she hatches an incredibly risky plan to get what is rightfully hers. And she times it perfectly.
Tamar hears that Judah has become a widow. She also hears that Judah has finished mourning for his dead wife. It seems Tamar is being considerate or, more likely, she was waiting for an opportune time that will give her scheme the best chance for success.
She further hears that Judah is going to Timnah soon to have his sheep shorn. Tamar sees an opportunity and, driven by desperation, she disguises herself as a prostitute, covers her face, and waits in a spot where she can expect to meet Judah.
When Judah walks by, he doesn’t recognise her and he asks her for sex. He is empty-handed but promises to give her a young goat for her services. Tamar asks for a promissory pledge from him until she receives the kid. Judah asks her, “What pledge should I give you?” And she replies, “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand” (Gen. 38:17–18).
Susan Niditch writes,
Like a signet ring, the seal bore in relief the man’s sign and would be used to make impressions on objects or documents to indicate ownership or origin. Only a man would carry a staff, whether for support or defense. Tamar thus takes symbols of the very personhood of Judah.
Tamar seems to have it all worked out. The two strike a deal, have sex, and then both go their own separate ways.
Judah’s Reactions and Declaration
Fast forward a few months, and Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant. Judah had been ignoring this woman for years, but now he is suddenly incensed that she is pregnant. He says, “Bring her out and let her be burned to death!” Judah may well have been glad to get rid of Tamar which would have also got rid of his lingering obligation to give Shelah to her.
This is where the story comes together. Tamar sends Judah a message saying, “I am pregnant by the man to whom these items belong. Examine them. Whose signet ring, cord, and staff are these?” Judah realises he is the father of Tamar’s child.
Tamar’s life hangs in the balance. What will Judah do? Will he ignore her message or accuse her of deceit? Tamar could have been killed as an adulteress, or at the very least ostracised. Thankfully, however, Judah accepts the situation.
The pregnancy actually benefits him. He has lost two sons, but now there is another child on the way. Judah even declares that Tamar is more righteous than him and that he was in the wrong by not giving her his son Shelah (Gen. 38:26).
Tamar’s story also has a happy ending. As it turned out, she had twin boys named Perez and Zerah, a double blessing. In the book of Ruth, Tamar (along with Rachel and Leah) is mentioned in a blessing given to Ruth and Boaz: “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah …” (Ruth 4:12). And Tamar and her son Perez become ancestors of Jesus (Matt. 1:3).
Tamar was motivated by desperation, a desperate desire for justice, and so is our next woman in another strange story.
RIZPAH THE BEREAVED MOTHER: 2 SAMUEL 21
Rizpah and the Famine in Israel
Rizpah, whose story is recounted in 2 Samuel chapter 21, doesn’t necessarily endanger her life, but she does show great resolve and fortitude in the face of devastating loss. Rizpah had borne two sons to King Saul who was now dead. David is the new king, but his reign is not going well. For three years there has been a famine in Israel and things are becoming dire.
David learns that the drought is the result of God’s disapproval of Saul’s treachery towards the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1). The Israelites had a long-standing peace treaty with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9), but Saul disregarded it and brutally tried to wipe out the tribe which was living within the borders of Israel (2 Sam. 21:2, 5).
David seeks to make amends with the Gibeonites. He negotiates with them and they ask for seven of Saul’s sons to be handed over to them for execution. The already troubling story gets darker as David agrees to their horrific terms. Two of these seven sons, Armoni and Mephibosheth, are the two sons of Rizpah.
The seven sons of Saul are publicly slaughtered by the Gibeonites as retribution for the deaths Saul had caused. To add further shame to Saul’s legacy, the bodies of the seven men are left exposed and unburied (Deut. 21:22–23).
Rizpah’s Public Protest
There was probably nothing Rizpah could do about her sons being taken from her and nothing she could do to stop them from being slaughtered and shamefully treated. She was helpless, but she doesn’t retreat to grieve privately.
We are told,
Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies [of her sons], she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night. 2 Samuel 21:10.
“Rizpah does for her sons in death what she cannot do for them in life; that is, protect them from predators.” This mother wanted justice and honour for her sons, and the way I read her story, she was motivated by sheer outrage.
She is a tragic yet fierce figure, and her vigil beside the bodies of her sons is like a public demonstration. She keeps this demonstration up, day and night, for several months―perhaps as long as six months―until David is made aware of her protest.
When King David finally takes notice of Rizpah’s public protest, he responds by reclaiming the bones of Saul and Jonathan, who had been killed previously, and by reclaiming the remains of the seven men who had been killed and left exposed by the Gibeonites. They are all given an honourable burial. However, this may have done little to lessen Rizpah’s personal grief and trauma.
Still, her protest worked. Rizpah’s public demonstration not only resulted in honourable burials for Saul and his sons, including her own boys, this closure somehow led to the famine ending. Israel was saved.
Rahab, Tamar, and Rizpah did not have easy lives. They suffered and were marginalised in often harsh and unforgiving societies. Tamar and Rizpah suffered because of certain men in their lives who treated them callously. The same may have also been the case for Rahab, considering her profession. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose, so did these women.
They wanted something better for their lives and they bravely, strategically, and in the case of Rizpah, tenaciously, acted to secure a better future and a better legacy. Considering how their unusual stories panned out, I have little doubt God was helping these desperate women who were driven by faith, hope, and a desire for justice.
One thing I like about these stories is that, despite the seemingly odd and undignified actions of the women, the narrators of their stories appear to have admired them. Not one bad word is spoken about them in the Bible. Rather, these three women are spoken of with respect and dignity, and Rahab and Tamar are plainly described as righteous. Their daring actions paid off.
 Lindsay Hardin Freeman, Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, 3rd Edition (Forward Movement: 2016), 108.
 Rahab is consistently referred to as a “prostitute” (Hebrew: zanah; Greek: pornē) in both the Old and New Testaments (Josh. 2:1; 6:17, 22, 25; Heb. 11:31; Jas 2:25). The biblical authors do not judge or condemn Rahab in any way for being a prostitute, whatever that looked like for a Canaanite woman living in the bronze age.
 It’s difficult to imagine parents allowing their daughter to work as a prostitute. There is probably a sad story behind this situation.
 Rahab knew what she wanted and how to get it. She reminds me of another formidable Bible woman, the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Sam. 20:13–22) This wise woman was the spokesperson for her town who successfully negotiated for its safety when it was being threatened by Joab’s army.
 Levirate marriage is the legal obligation of a surviving brother to marry the widow of his deceased brother if he died without having children. “Although the focus of the custom is to preserve the line of the male, it also benefits the widow. She is given a place in the household, the chance to become a mother, and status and security.” Christiana De Groot, “Genesis” in The IVP Women’s Commentary, Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary Beth Evans (eds) (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 24.
“[T]he law must have also saved young childless widows from economic deprivation and from a sort of social wilderness, no longer under father, but having no husband or son to secure their place in the patriarchal clan.”
Susan Nitditch, “Genesis,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, with Jacqueline Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 42.
 Niditch explains, “In a symbol system like that of ancient Israel, without belief in bodily resurrection, offspring are one’s afterlife.” Niditch, “Genesis,” 42.
 Carolyn Custis James discusses how having a son with Tamar would have a negative impact on Onan’s inheritance.
Under patriarchy, a man divided his estate among his sons, although not equally. Primogeniture designated a double share to the firstborn son. So, for example, as the father of three sons, Judah would divide his inheritance into four equal parts. Two-fourths (the double portion) went to his firstborn, Er; Judah’s two younger sons would pocket one-fourth apiece. The death of Er was a financial windfall for Judah’s two surviving sons. Now Judah’s estate gets sliced into three parts instead of four, with two-thirds going to Onan and one-third to Shelah—a sizeable increase for both of them. Onan’s inheritance more than doubles, jumping from one-fourth to two-thirds. If family honor takes precedence, and Tamar conceives a son, Onan’s inheritance plummets from a full two-thirds of Judah’s estate to a measly fourth—a whopping loss of nearly 50 percent of Judah’s estate.
Custis James, “Tamar the Righteous Prostitute” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, Sandra Glahn (ed) (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2017), 31–48, 39.
 Niditch “Genesis,” 43.
 Judah tried to fulfil his pledge to Tamar, but she left without a trace and went back home.
 Judah may have been a little scared of Tamar. Niditch writes,
Genesis 38:26 ends on an interesting note: Not again did he know her (sexually). Is this a later editorial comment by a writer anxious to minimize Judah’s having sex with his daughter-in-law, in light of the prohibition against incest in Leviticus 18:15? The comment might also be read as a more integral part of the story. Judah, now more fearful than ever of the woman who survived two husbands and boldly bettered him, keeps his distance from her. Niditch, “Genesis,” 43.
 The other five men were grandsons of Saul, the five sons of Saul’s first-born daughter Merab who had almost become David’s wife (2 Sam. 21:8). It’s hard to imagine the devastation and grief Merab would have felt if she was still alive at that time. It’s a terrible story!
 2 Samuel 3:6–11 recounts another incident where Rizpah loses out to the machinations of a powerful man.
 Amy C. Cotterill has an interesting discussion on how the author of Joshua uses Rahab for his own theological purposes. See Cotterill, “Joshua” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, with Jacqueline Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 105.
© Margaret Mowczko 2023
All Rights Reserved
Photo by Zayceva Tatiana (cropped and slightly recoloured) via Pexels.
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