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What does it mean to cut Rahab in pieces in Isaiah 51:9?

cut Rahab in pieces

Most Bible readers know Rahab as the heroine of the battle of Jericho story (Joshua 2; 6:22–25). But the name Rahab is also associated in the Bible with a mythical sea creature. In the original Hebrew, the spelling is slightly different: the Rahab of Jericho was רָחָב, while the Rahab of the sea was רַהַב. The difference is a cheit versus a hei as the middle letter.

Bible writers sometimes used the imagery of Rahab, a monster of chaos, as a derogatory representation of Egypt, as in Isaiah 51:9:

“Awake, awake, arm of the Lord,
clothe yourself with strength!
Awake, as in days gone by,
as in generations of old.
Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
who pierced that monster through?”

We know this is a poetic allusion to God’s deliverance from Egypt, because the next verse mentions Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea:

“Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made a road in the depths of the sea
so that the redeemed might cross over?” (Isaiah 51:10)

In other words, God’s magnificent miracle involving the Red Sea is depicted as a great battle in which God slays a sea monster, cutting it into pieces. The prophet Isaiah harkens back to the exodus as he predicts the captivity in Babylon; he is crying out for God to display His mighty power of deliverance just like He did long ago. Israel would need another exodus.

Earlier in Isaiah, Rahab also stands for “Egypt.” In Isaiah 30:1–7, Judah is portrayed as seeking refuge and protection from Egypt instead of depending on the Lord for help. The prophet contends that Egypt’s assistance was “utterly useless. Therefore I call her Rahab the Do-Nothing” (verse 7). Egypt was proud and powerful under Pharoah’s rule—a raging sea dragon—but it was helpless and humiliated when confronted by the strength of Yahweh. Israel needed to seek their help from the Lord.

The prophet Ezekiel pronounced an oracle against Egypt, that ancient enemy of the Lord who had enslaved God’s people. She is not named Rahab in Ezekiel, but Pharaoh, king of Egypt, is addressed as “you great monster, lurking in the streams of the Nile” (Ezekiel 29:3, NLT).

In other places in the Bible, Rahab can picture something other than Egypt. Scripture depicts God as the all-powerful architect of the world, in full control of the elements. In the book that bears his name, Job stresses the weakness of humans when compared to the omnipotent invincibility of God. One of Job’s examples of God’s power is His control of the sea:

“By his power he stilled the sea;
by his understanding he shattered Rahab.
By his wind the heavens were made fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent” (Job 26:12–13, ESV).

This passage is likely a reference to creation, as God brings order out of chaos (see Genesis 1). The poetic description involves God crushing and wounding Rahab—the dragon of chaos. The waters of the earth are pictured as a proud, enraged monster that God tamed and brought under control (see also Job 9:11–15). Job’s point is that, if the great and mighty Rahab (a tempestuous sea) could not stand up against the Lord, how can mere humans expect to prevail against Him?

Psalm 89:9–10 uses imagery similar to that of Job to show God’s mastery over the forces of nature and of evil:

“You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm” (ESV).

Interestingly, The Hebrew name Rahab means “pride, arrogance.” The Bible reveals that God opposes the proud and brings them low (2 Samuel 22:28; Jeremiah 50:31; Isaiah 2:11–12; Proverbs 15:25; 16:18; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). This is true for the pride of the sea, the pride of ancient Egypt, and the pride of sinful humans.

In Scripture, Rahab the sea monster symbolizes rebellion and power and pride. But the forces of evil can’t hold a candle to the supreme power of the God of the universe. Rahab is “cut to pieces” by Him, and all that humans take pride in will come to naught. Nothing in all creation threatens God’s supremacy because He is God Most High (Genesis 14:18–20). All things, no matter how monstrous, are under His control (Nehemiah 9:6; Daniel 2:21; 4:35; 1 Chronicles 29:12).

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What does it mean to cut Rahab in pieces in Isaiah 51:9?
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This page last updated: November 29, 2022