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?


Posted in Ancient Israel, The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • wondering says

      oH MY GOODNESS..YOU ARE SO CONFUSED… LOL.. BLAH BLAH BLAH… Hilarious Michael we shall call him from now on….

  • 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

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