References in the Hebrew Bible to prostitution, engaging in sexual activity with someone in exchange for payment, reflect a society in which the practice is licit and tolerated, though stigmatized. While there are no laws prohibiting prostitution, those who engage in such activity are looked down upon and marginalized.

The most common terminology associated with prostitution in the Hebrew Bible is derived from the root znh. As Phyllis Bird has demonstrated (1989, 75–80), the basic meaning of znh is “to engage in sexual relations outside of or apart from marriage.” While nʾp, sometimes paired with znh, specifically refers to adultery, znh is a more general and inclusive term, covering all instances of sexual intercourse in which there is an absence of a marriage bond between otherwise acceptable partners. This includes adultery, premarital sex by a daughter who is still part of her father’s household, sex by a widow under levirate obligation, and the sexual activities of a prostitute. Znh is also used figuratively to denote infidelity against Yahweh, in which those who commit it are unfaithful with other gods or nations.

The Qal feminine participle form of znh, zônâ, when used as a noun, either alone or in combination with ʾišâ, is the common term used in biblical texts for a prostitute, a woman who engages in sex outside of marriage as a profession. The nominal construction is the same as that used to denote occupations such as a shepherd (rōʿeh) or a priest (kōhēn). While other sexual activities covered under the semantic range of znh are considered illicit, prostitution is licit, because women who work as prostitutes appear to be without husbands or male guardians, and thus they are not violating the rights or honor of any male by having sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage.

The main texts in the Hebrew Bible that provide evidence regarding prostitution are Genesis 38:14–23; Leviticus 21:7, 14; Joshua 2; 6:17–25; and 1 Kings 3:16–27. Smaller pieces of evidence are provided by Genesis 34:31; Deuteronomy 23:18; Judges 11:1–3, 16:1; 1 Kings 22:38; Joel 3:3; Proverbs 6:26; 7:10; 23:27; and 29:3. Prophetic texts often intertwine usages of the term zônâ with metaphoric uses of znh in which religious and political infidelity to Yahweh is depicted as sexual promiscuity (e.g., Isa 1:21; Jer 2:20; 3:3; 5:7; Ezek 16:30–35; 23:44; Hos 4:14; Mic 1:7), so they must be used with caution as sources about actual prostitution, but they still reveal something about how prostitutes were viewed. From the biblical evidence, we can glean information about the practice of prostitution, the lives of prostitutes, and the attitudes toward them in ancient Israel.

It is not entirely clear how someone was recognized as a prostitute. Dress may have been an indication. Proverbs 7:10 describes a married woman attempting to seduce a young man as dressed like a prostitute. This might indicate that prostitutes had some form of distinctive dress, or it could be a colloquial expression, indicating she is scantily clad or in some other way dressed to entice. Genesis 38:14–15 describes Tamar as covering her face with a veil and wrapping herself up in preparation for her plan to trick Judah into thinking she is a prostitute, but that is probably so that Judah would not recognize her, and not necessarily a reflection of the outfits customarily worn by prostitutes. Still, this indicates that at least it was not unusual for prostitutes to be veiled, perhaps to hide their identity. Genesis 38:14–15 suggests that there were certain locations where prostitutes tended to ply their trade, since Judah appears to know that the covered-up woman is a prostitute because she is sitting alone by the side of the road, at the outskirts of a town. The exchange in Genesis 38:16–18 also indicates that at least sometimes payment for the services of a prostitute was variable and negotiable.

We learn from 1 Kings 3:16–27 that sometimes prostitutes lived together, and sometimes they had children and raised them in a communal environment with other prostitutes. There is also reference to a bêt­–zônâ, a house of a prostitute, in Jeremiah 5:7, so some prostitutes probably had their own homes in which they served clients. Rahab has her own house (Josh 2:1; 6:17–23) and she appears to have also been an innkeeper, since the Israelite spies plan to spend the night there.

While prostitution was legal and tolerated, there was a stigma attached to it, not only for the prostitutes (Gen 34:31), but also for their children (Judg 11:1–3) and their clients (Gen 38:20–23), that sometimes bordered on contempt (1 Kgs 22:38). In Proverbs 23:27 and 29:3, young men are warned to avoid them. The central purpose of 1 Kings 3:16–24 is to illustrate Solomon’s wisdom, but his willingness to decide a case between two prostitutes may also serve to demonstrate that anyone, even the lowliest members of society, can bring a case before him and receive justice.

Leviticus 21:7 includes prostitutes among the categories of women that priests may not marry, likely reflecting a concern with lineage, purity, and propriety. Not surprisingly, the high priest also cannot marry a prostitute (Lev 21:14). That this restriction was deemed necessary indicates that lay members of the population probably did in fact sometimes marry prostitutes, just as they married the other categories of women prohibited for priests to marry. Thus, while there was a stigma, being a prostitute did not necessarily mean a woman would never be able to find a husband. Presumably if she married, the woman would stop practicing her trade, since otherwise she would be committing adultery.

While zônâ is the most common term for a prostitute in the Hebrew Bible, there are a few other terms that arise in biblical texts that may be related to prostitution. Deuteronomy 23:18 prohibits one from bringing the fee (ʾetnan) of a nâ or the pay or price (mĕḥîr) of a keleb to the temple to fulfill a vow. The term keleb generally means dog in the Hebrew Bible. References to dogs tend to reflect an attitude of disdain and disgust toward them (Exod 22:31; 1 Kgs 14:11, 16:4; 21:19, 23–24; 22:38; 2 Kgs 9:10, 36; and Prov 26:11). There are also a few instances in which keleb is used in reference to a person, either as a sign of self-abasement (2 Sam 9:8; 2 Kgs 8:13) or, when referring to someone else, to indicate scorn (2 Sam 16:9). In Deuteronomy 23:18, keleb and zônâ are paired. Based on this, the most common understanding of keleb in this verse is that it refers to a male prostitute, perhaps one who services other males. Burns (2000) provides a good example of the argumentation used by those who interpret it this way. Another possibility advocated by a few scholars is that keleb here refers to an actual dog. Bird (2015, 357–363) provides an intriguing argument for this reading, noting that keleb and zônâ are also paired in 1 Kings 22:38, where keleb clearly means dog. She contends that “harlot’s hire” and “price of a dog” should be understood as formulaic expressions used to denote something cheap, of minimal or questionable value, perhaps in Deuteronomy 23:18 denoting an inadequate or in some other way unacceptable offering in payment for one’s vow.

Traditionally, the terms qādēš and qĕdēšâ have been understood to refer to male and female “sacred” or “cultic” prostitutes. However, there has been a large body of scholarship in the past few decades that has cast serious doubt on the practice of cultic prostitution, both in ancient Israel and in neighboring cultures. It seems much more likely that these terms, both derived from the root qdš (to be holy or sacred), refer to some kind of non-Yahwistic temple or cultic functionary, since in 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46, and 2 Kings 23:7, qādēšîm are associated with prohibited religious practices. The association of the qĕdēšâ with prostitution in Genesis 38:21–22, Hosea 4:14, and Deuteronomy 23:17–18 is likely more a reflection of negative attitudes toward the women who served such non-Yahwistic cultic functions rather than reliable evidence of their actual practice and behavior (for more on the qādēš and qĕdēšâ, see “Sacred Prostitution”).

Bibliography

  • Bird, Phyllis A. “Of Whores and Hounds: A New Interpretation of the Subject of Deuteronomy.” Vetus Testamentum 65, no. 3 (2015): 352–364.
  • Bird, Phyllis. “Prostitution in the Social World and the Religious Rhetoric of Ancient Israel.” In Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Laura McClure, 40–58. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
  • Bird, Phyllis. “To Play the Harlot: An Inquiry into an Old Testament Metaphor.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy Day, 75–94. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.
  • Burns, John Barclay. “Devotee or Deviate: The ‘Dog’ (keleb) in Ancient Israel as a Symbol of Male Passivity and Perversion.” Journal of Religion & Society 2 (2000): 1–10. Available at moses.creighton.edu/jrs/toc/2000.html.
  • Westenholz, Joan Goodnick. “Tamar, Qĕdēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia.” Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 3 (July 1989): 245–265.

Hilary Lipka