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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  • wondering says

    Umm why was he going to a prostitute?…. didn’t God frown upon sexual immorality?..

  • 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.

  • 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.

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