The Old Testament. Common Prostitution. While the law forbids parents from forcing daughters into prostitution, there is no penalty attached (Lev 19:29). In one case there is a penalty: If a woman has been betrothed to a man and he discovers that she is not a virgin, she may be stoned to death for prostituting herself (Deut 22:13-21). These two passages lead some scholars to conclude that when two adults, neither of which was betrothed or married, consented to have sex, it was not considered a very serious crime, because no sanctions were expressed. However, before the Mosaic Law, burning was the penalty in one instance (Gen 38:24). Perhaps Israelite society, like modern ones, tolerated a certain amount of prostitution, but it was clearly immoral and the sages sternly warned against it (Prov 23:27; 29:3). Priests were held to a higher standard than non-priests for they could not marry harlots, although again, there was no specified punishment for doing so (Lev 21:7,14). A priest's daughter, on the other hand, could be burned for harlotry (Lev 21:9); the intent of this was to keep the priestly line pure.
Apparently, prostitutes in ancient times dressed in recognizable ways (Prov 7:10). In the patriarchal period, a face covering might be a distinguishing feature (Gen 38:14-15). Some well-known biblical passages mention prostitution. Rahab, who helped the Israelite spies at Jericho, was a harlot (Joshua 2:1; 6:17, 22, 25); she figures in the genealogy of David and Jesus (Matt 1:5). Jephthah was the son of a harlot (Judges 11:1). Samson slept with one (Judges 16:1). Two prostitutes asked Solomon to adjudicate between them over a child (1 Kings 3:16). For resisting the word of the Lord, the priest Amaziah would be taken into exile, forcing his wife into prostitution to survive (Amos 7:17).
Sacral Prostitution. The fertility cult was a central part of Canaanite religion. It is thought that sacral prostitution was a form of sympathetic magic. As people performed sex Acts with the temple harlots, this stimulated sexual activity among the gods, ensuring the fertility of the soil. The terms qades and qedesa (Deut 23:17) designate male and female sacral prostitutes. The words come from the root qds, meaning "set apart, " "holy, " "consecrated." These men and women considered themselves consecrated to their gods for the purpose of religious prostitution.
The practice was known by the patriarchs, for Tamar was taken for a cult harlot (Gen 38:21). The law of Moses forbids the practice of sacral prostitution (Deut 23:17), but Israelites were led astray by the fertility rites of Baalism in Moab before they even entered the promised land (Num 25:1-5). Although sacral prostitution is not specifically mentioned, it is likely, since they were priests, that when Hophni and Phineas slept with the women who ministered at the entrance to the tabernacle, that they were borrowing the Canaanite practice (1 Sam 2:22). The fertility cult was established in Judah early in the monarchy (1 Kings 14:24) and periodically purged (1 Kings 15:46). When Josiah carried out his reform, he had to remove the male cult prostitutes from the temple itself (2 Kings 23:7).
Spiritual Prostitution. The relationship between Yahweh and Israel was that of husband and wife. Therefore, when the Israelites went astray by worshiping other deities, they were prostituting themselves to other gods (Exod 34:15). Ezekiel gave female names to Samaria and Jerusalem (symbolizing Israel and Judah), calling them Oholah and Oholibah. He described their harlotry and pronounced judgment on them (Eze 23). Hosea entered into an elaborate sign act in order to preach to the northern kingdom about its sin of spiritual harlotry. God told him to marry Gomer (Hosea 1:2-3). When she was unfaithful, he took her back in love (3:1-3). In the same way, God had taken Israel as his bride (2:15), but she had prostituted herself to the Canaanite deities (2:2-13). The divine husband was going to punish his "wife" for a time so that Israel would repent and return (2:3, 8-13). Although divorce was invoked (2:2) the ultimate goal was reconciliation (2:16-20).
The New Testament. Jesus pointed out that harlots and tax collectors were quicker to repent, believe, and enter the kingdom of God than the proud religious leaders (Matt 21:28-32). The prodigal son, who apparently wasted his inheritance on harlots (Luke 15:13,30), was welcomed home when he repented (vv. 20-24). Paul warns against immorality, because he who sleeps with a prostitute becomes one with her, which is not fitting for the believer, who belongs to Christ (1 Cor 6:15-20). The Apocalypse refers to Rome (= Babylon) as "the great harlot, " which will be punished forever for persecuting the Lord's servants (17:1-18; 19:1-3).
William B. Nelson, Jr.
See also Gods and Goddesses, Pagan; Idol, Idolatry; Immorality, Sexual