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.”

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

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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  • 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.

    • wondering says

      lol at co existence with Dinosaurs … I have studied the Bible for 30 yrs.. it doesn’t say that.. that is rubbish,.,,,,, you are obviously on drugs…. or satan has a hold of you… Dinosaurs are not even real.. the so called bones were planted there by satan…to confuse amongst others…YOU

  • 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 ,

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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