What is the "sacred prostitution" mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:17 and then in I Kings 14:24? They mention it is something awful, but I cannot imagine what it is in the first place.


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Sacred prostitution was practised widely throughout the Mediterranean world and probably originated as a fertility ritual. The prostitute, whether male or female, could charge a fee on behalf of the temple for which he or she worked. These are not common prostitutes, but sacred prostitutes, for which the Hebrew language uses different words.

The practice had clearly fallen out of favour by the eighth century BCE, as the Deuteronomist, whom scholars regard as the author of Deuteronomy and Kings, was so heavily critical. However, we see reference to sacred prostitution, without Deuteronomistic overtones, in Genesis 38. Er had died and his widow, Tamar, was unable to have a child because her brother-in-law, Onan, died without giving her a child as required by Hebrew law. She decided to have a child by Judah, her father-in-law, and covered herself and presented to Judah as a sacred prostitute.

Genesis 38:14-16: And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face. And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

In this passage, the Hebrew word translated as 'harlot' is zonah (זנה)‎,implying a common prostitute, although it is noteworthy that she was veiled according to the general Near Eastern practice of sacred prostitutes, but not the practice of common prostitutes (*). Later, this is clarified, when Judah's friend asks in the village where to find the 'harlot', using the word for a sacred prostitute, qedesha (קדשה)‎:

Genesis 38:21-22: Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place. And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

Some modern scholars debate whether sacred prostitution was actually common in the Ancient Near East, pointing to the lack of documentary evidence outside the Hebrew Bible. Jonathan P. Burnside, The Signs of Sin (page 130), says the belief that cultic prostitution was common in the ancient Near East has been criticised on the grounds that this belief is based on non-contemporary sources or ambiguous texts. He cites Oden (Bible Without Theology), who says there is mounting hesistancy to claim clear, unambiguous testimony for the existence of sacred prostitution among several Near Eastern religions. This reasoning suggests that sacred prostitutes, while they certainly existed, were limited to only a few Near Eastern regions apart from Israel and Judah.

Khairunessa Dossani says (Virtue and Veiling: Perspectives from Ancient to Abbasid Times, 'Overall Remarks on Ancient Veiling', pages 36-37) [common] prostitutes and slaves were most likely unveiled.

Given that Genesis 38:21-22 refers to Tamar as a qedesha (sacred prostitute), I suspect that verse 38:15 may have been redacted at some point in time as zonah (common prostitute) to avoid the inference that sacred prostitution was an appropriate practice for a patriarch to entertain.

  • The veil would have been necessary so he couldn't recognize her, regardless of its meaning. It certainly could have confused Judah and likely did confuse his friend the Abdullahmite, which is why he refers to her as such. Their replies simply referred to her in kind. That the narrator correctly labels her as a zonah is more likely a matter of perspective than a redaction. Bringing up textual criticism in Genesis is not relevant or helping the OP understand what sacred prostitution is. Just say Tamar posed as one as an example. Please stop going out of the way to inject textual criticism.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 0:25
  • 2
    @JoshuaBigbee Your view that answers on Christianity.SE should have less textual criticism is note. However, you will have seen that the question was probably going to be migrated to this site, where some textual criticism is generally appropriate. I think that, in order to go beyond a mere dictionary statement of what sacred prostitution was, I had to present a cultural context ('apparently' Tamar) and explain the veil that protected Tamar's identity but would likely also have identified a sacred prostitute. Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 7:06

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