Sacred Prostitution in the Story of Judah and Tamar?

Edward Lipiński on the influence of Canaanite Ashtoreth worship in ancient Israel

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


In most translations of the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), Tamar is described as a cult prostitute. As Edward Lipiński argues, however, there is nothing in the story of Judah and Tamar to suggest sacred prostitution was involved. While temple prostitutes were part of Canaanite Ashtoreth worship, they were not a feature of Israelite religion.

Sacred prostitution was common throughout the ancient world and was particularly associated with Ashtoreth worship, one of the chief Canaanite goddesses. While many scholars have assumed sacred prostitution was practiced in ancient Israel, too, the recent BAR article “Cult Prostitution in Ancient Israel?” by Edward Lipiński reveals that neither the Bible nor archaeology provides any clear evidence that Israelite religion incorporated the sexual rites of Ashtoreth worship.

Some Biblical scholars, for example, have interpreted the story of Judah and Tamar as a case of sacred prostitution. According to Genesis 38, the unsuspecting Judah mistook his daughter-in-law Tamar for a veiled “prostitute” (Hebrew zonah). For her services, Judah promised Tamar a sheep and gave her his seal as assurance the debt would be honored. When Judah’s friend returned to redeem the pledge, he asked in a nearby village where he could find the qedeshah (a Hebrew word most Bibles translate as “cult prostitute”). As Lipiński argues, however, there is nothing in the story of Judah and Tamar to suggest sacred prostitution was involved; rather, it seems that zonah and qedeshah were synonyms and that the latter has simply been misinterpreted by translators.

Qedeshah likely originally referred to “consecrated maidens” who were employed in Canaanite and later Phoenician temples devoted to Ashtoreth worship. As such, the Biblical writers came to associate the fertility rites of Ashtoreth worship with sacred prostitution, and the word qedeshah, therefore, came to be used as a pejorative term for “prostitute.”

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Indeed, archaeology has shown that Ashtoreth worship and associated rites of sacred prostitution were common throughout the ancient Mediterranean. At the Etruscan site of Pyrgi, excavators identified a temple dedicated to Ashtoreth that featured at least 17 small rooms that may have served as quarters for temple prostitutes. Similarly, at the site of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, archaeologists uncovered a temple dedicated to Atargatis, the Aramaic goddess of love. Fronting the entrance to the temple were nearly a dozen small rooms, many with low benches. Although the rooms were used primarily for sacred meals, they may also have been reserved for the sexual services of women jailed in the temple for adultery. Such a situation prevailed at the temple of Apollo at Bulla Regia, where a woman was found buried with an inscription reading: “Adulteress. Prostitute. Seize (me), because I fled from Bulla Regia.”

Sacred prostitution, therefore, existed in much of the ancient world and reflected the ritual practices of Ashtoreth worship. In ancient Israel, however, sacred prostitution was simply a synonym for harlotry. Modern translations often unfortunately give another impression.


Read more about sacred prostitution in the ancient world in Edward Lipiński, “Cult Prostitution in Ancient Israel?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2014.

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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 24, 2014.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

How Bad Was Jezebel? by Janet Howe Gaines

Lilith: Seductress, heroine or murderer? by Janet Howe Gaines

Rahab the Harlot?

Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol?


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  1. Eric says

    You realize that during the time of Jacob and his sons that they were the only Hebrews in the land of Canaan, right? So for there to be cult prostitutes around them was very likely. Also, throughout the scriptures Israel had problems falling into pagan practices including cult prostitution.

  2. Kurt says

    From the beginning, harlotry was condemned by God. The perfect marriage standard was established in Eden by God himself at the marriage of Adam and Eve, when He stated: “A man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh.” (Ge 2:24) Though God condemned harlotry, he did permit concubinage and polygamy, even among his servants, until his due time to reestablish the perfect marriage standard through Jesus Christ. Jesus quoted the above words of his Father, and the apostle Paul pointed out that this rule was binding on the Christian congregation. He showed that a Christian who violates this rule joins himself to a harlot, as “one body.”—Mt 19:4-9; 1Co 6:16.
    The early view of harlotry among God’s servants is illustrated in the case of Judah the great-grandson of Abraham. While living as an alien resident in Canaan, where harlotry was tolerated, the family head Judah had relations with his son Er’s widow Tamar, who was disguised as a harlot. When it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant from the act, it was reported to Judah: “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot, and here she is also pregnant by her harlotry.” Judah then ordered her to be burned (that is, first put to death, then burned as detestable) because she was considered to be espoused to Judah’s son Shelah. On discovering the full facts, Judah did not excuse himself for his act with a supposed harlot, but he said regarding Tamar: “She is more righteous than I am, for the reason that I did not give her to Shelah my son.” He excused Tamar for thus acting to have offspring from Judah after Judah had failed to give her to his son Shelah in order that brother-in-law marriage might be performed toward her.—Ge 38:6-26.
    Harlotry was condemned by the Law of God to Israel, although harlots existed in the land. (Pr 7) The Law strictly forbade prostitution of an Israelite girl. (Le 19:29; 21:9) Any Israelite girl who had committed fornication and who later married under the fraudulent claim of being a virgin was to be stoned to death. (De 22:20, 21) The payment that was obtained as the hire of a harlot was a disgusting thing and was unacceptable as a contribution to the sanctuary of Jehovah. This was in contrast with pagan practices wherein temple harlots were often a source of revenue.—De 23:18.
    Read more:

    PROSTITUTE,Read more:

    Jephthah a Legitimate Son. The mother of Jephthah was “a prostitute woman,” not meaning, however, that Jephthah was born of prostitution or was illegitimate. His mother had been a prostitute prior to her marriage as a secondary wife to Gilead, just as Rahab had once been a prostitute but later married Salmon. (Jg 11:1; Jos 2:1; Mt 1:5) That Jephthah was not illegitimate is proved by the fact that his half brothers by Gilead’s primary wife drove him out so that he would not share in the inheritance. (Jg 11:2) Additionally, Jephthah later became the accepted leader of the men of Gilead (of whom Jephthah’s half brothers seemed to be foremost). (Jg 11:11) Moreover, he offered a sacrifice to God at the tabernacle. (Jg 11:30, 31) None of these things would have been possible for an illegitimate son, for the Law specifically stated: “No illegitimate son may come into the congregation of Jehovah. Even to the tenth generation none of his may come into the congregation of Jehovah.”—De 23:2.
    Read more:

    The most notorious example of spiritual prostitution is “Babylon the Great, the mother of the harlots and of the disgusting things of the earth.”—Re 17:5;
    Read more:

  3. Roderick says

    Don’t know who sent me this, but I am not interested at all in your Jesus Freak interpretations of so called ‘fallen’ people from long ago. Its all nothing more than a head job to keep poor disenfranchised women under control. The wicked and sicko’s here are YOU, not the poor women of your twisted stories. Thank the Goddess and/or whatever divine agency who controls this planet that YOUR dominion is finally, at long last, ending.

  4. Jeffrey says

    The text in the article refers to two different temples which had small rooms which, the article says, MAY have been for cultic prostitution. This double speculation is followed by a reference to an inscription about a woman that is very ambiguous in meaning but MAY have referred to cult prostitution. These statements are followed by, “Sacred prostitution,therefore, existed in much of ….” Isn’t it at least a little embarrassing for the author to make such completely speculative statements about the meaning of something(s) and then follow it up with a “therefore”, as if the speculation were now fact. Am I the only one who feels embarrassed for a writer making such an obviously unsupported argument and so transparently trying to scam his/her readers!? (Unfortunately this is also true in much rabbinic literature so this logical flim-flam has a long history.) I do not argue with the statement that cult prostitution was widespread, but that fact is certainly not proven by, and may not even be related to the supposedly evidentiary information that is provided.

  5. Kevin says

    Eric, your statements are very sound and helpful. Thanks. Roderick you have puked some junk from deep inside that reveals a mighty sick soul.
    I agree with Jeffrey that the author’s case made was lacking in logic at one point. I think maybe the writer rushed the column. But I won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  6. Mark says

    I have to concur with Jeffrey in that I found the conclusions in this article lacking in support. What evidence is there that the type of prostitute that Judah had (wrongly) assumed wasn’t in reference to a sacred or “shrine” prostitute as the NIV puts it? As to my interpretation as why Judah might have seen a shrine prostitute (outside of simple depravity), he may have approached the task as a sign of respect or duty owed as a foreigner in this particular community. It seems doubtful that he participated in any other ‘sacred rites’, as she wasn’t actually a shrine prostitute, though he may have as she may have been a part of a series of observances (remember that the Bible, while authoratitive is not exhaustive), this may have been enough of an observance in that the prostitute would be a collection point for ‘offerings’. Maybe there’s greater context for why a shrine prostitute cannot be given to the word Qedeshah given in the book, but this article lacks it, from my perspective

  7. Michael F. says

    In brief: This story is from an old Amorite cosmic myth concerning the Northern Crown. The key components of the story is the spilled seed and the scarlet thread tied to the wrist of the twins for womb imagery. In Greece, the myth concerns Dionysus using a thread to navigate a maze, a maze which represents womb imagery. This is also the symbol for the red spiral crown of lower Egypt. In Egypt, the constellation would also be that of Bast, whose festival included the lifting of skirts in a provocative manner. The sin of the spilling of seed stems from a meteor shower that appeared between May 10-18. The meteors are seen as souls coming to earth to occupy children, children that are not here because man spilled his seed, hence the sin of Onan. The Tamar is associated with the palm a phallic symbol and one for masturbation. Bast was the daughter of Ra, the sun god associated with the constellation Leo, of the summer solstice. Judah was by no coincidence the lion.

  8. Viv says

    II Kings 23:7 definitely mentions the practice of male cult prostitution (qedesh) connected to the worship of Asherah being carried out in the temple itself! How come you don’t mention that.

  9. DALLAS says

    I don’t understand this article. Zonah has only one meaning in earlier biblical Hebrew, which is “prostitute.” Later, it came to be used informally and loosely for promiscuity or harlotry. Rabbinic writings use it this way sometimes.

    Qedesh/qedeshah (from the root Q.D.SH = holy) refers to temple prostitutes of pagan, or false, gods. As it is close to qadosh in Hebrew, its use in the story is likely to be ironic. Judah mistakes Tamar for an ordinary prostitute (zonah), then later had his friend look for her under the pretext that she was a temple prostitute (qedeshah).

  10. Varghese says

    I agree with Mr. D, after reading the articles by a Hebrew teacher in internet called Jeff Benner on Ancient Hebrew meaning which he calls being more “concrete” and Greek being “abstract”….Hebrew root “Q-D-Sh”, Jeff says just means “set apart”. I guess one could be “set apart” lots different things and we are able to know that from the context.

  11. colette says

    It really is simple and goes back to the commandment thou shalt not commit adultery. Adultery is the word that morffed since Moses. Adultery example became sex because of the temple prostitution. The commandment meant Adultry as in perversion of any thing holy, anything you have committed your selves to. If your heart is for your wife, family, labor, and even if you are a slave do not be adulterous. Then because of the sexual influence over men which was the hardest battle for them as it is now, Adultry became a focus of sex. But to work a job and not do the job as agreed is Adultry. Every thing taught will return to the Ten Commandments as a simple guide. If we complicate it, then it is Adultry.

  12. Josiah says

    Kurt, Kurt! You are just the kind of people being invited to take share in better interpretations! Why right after this offer you still prefer your misleading statements! Keep that stuff to yourself. Your comment should be deleted.

  13. judith says

    Kurt says

    From the beginning, harlotry was condemned by God. The perfect marriage standard was established in Eden by God himself at the marriage of Adam and Eve, when He stated: “A man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh.” (Ge

    I don’t like that verse , my daughter – in – law used to to tell my son it was good to stay away from his mom , when I play with him , prayed with him, taught him to read , ride bikes and swim and read to him nightly and that “True to the Blonde Syndrome infantile girl” told my son I was not good enough for her and her wealthy family . So her family is ok because he was the one who had to leave family ,

  14. Geoffrey says

    That is definitely not okay for your daughter in law to treat you that way. Though the bible may state that a man must leave his mother and father in order to truly become one with his wife, the bible also accounts for a peaceful coexistence between man and prehistoric dinosaurs. If God can allow for these two natural enemies to live in peaceful harmony, surely the same can be asked of your son’s wife and the families of you both. If you should want, I will personally mediate a conversation between your family for a reasonably low cost. We could host said mediation at your place or at a fine dining establishment such as a nearby Applebee’s, where I can hold forth amongst the appe-teasers and moderately priced house wine. We shall break bread, Judith, and order shall be restored to your house. In the name of The Lord.

  15. Moshe says

    Let’s be realistic. Harlotry was condemned because it was prevalant. Not much has changed since then. Judah was tricked by his daughter-in-law who assumed the guise of a qadesha. Since there in no documentation to indicate population distribution, there is also no way to know if he thought she was a Caananite or otherwise.

  16. Marilee says

    If you consider that this story was gathered and interpreted during the Babylonian Exile, how does this affect your perspective of the event? Or does it? Several hundred years separate the event and the remembering of how it was told to the Jews before their removal to a foreign land. They told it without access to archaeological study. Whose understanding is more accurate? Theirs, or 21st C. scholars? Really, I’m just curious.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Fruit in the Bible - Creation RevolutionCreation Revolution linked to this post on January 29, 2014

    […] are used in eight different ways in the Bible. First, many people are named after fruit, e.g.,Tamar in Genesis 38:6, which means “date,” Tappuah in 1 Chronicles 2:43, which means “apple,” and […]

  2. Game of Words: Our 14 Favorite Words from ‘Game of Thrones,’ Season 5 | Wordnik linked to this post on June 14, 2015

    […] robes according to their hierarchy. Red Graces are “cult prostitutes,” or those involved with sacred prostitution; Blue Graces are healers; White Graces are “young girls of noble birth” with yet undetermined […]

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