Prostitute

PROSTITUTE. A word that, with “whore” and “harlot,” is designated by four terms in the OT: (1) zonah, the most frequently used; (2) qedēshâh, a religious harlot, a priestess of a heathen religion in which fornication was part of worship (Gen.38.21-Gen.38.22; Deut.23.17); (3) ishshah zarah, or zarah alone, a “strange woman” (so kjv; niv usually “wayward wife” or “adulteress”), a term found only in the Book of Proverbs; (4) nokhriyah, “stranger,” “foreigner,” a word also used in Proverbs, evidently also meaning “harlot.” The NT word is pornē (“one sold,” “fornicator”).

Legal measures were in force concerning prostitutes. Parents were not to force their daughters into the practice (Lev.19.29; Lev.21.7, Lev.21.14), priests were not to marry harlots (Lev.19.29), and the wages of prostitution were not to be brought into the temple to pay a vow (Deut.23.18). These prohibitions were necessary to keep the worship of the Lord free from the impurities of the sin of harlotry.

The actual punishment of prostitutes was severe when enforced. In Gen.38.24 Judah ordered Tamar to be burned for being a prostitute (until he came to see his own sin as worse than hers, Gen.38.26). Lev.21.9 commanded burning for a priest’s daughter who became a harlot. Deut.22.21 ordered stoning for a bride who was found not to be a virgin.

Such a common sin needed to be guarded against. The Book of Proverbs, which mentions every term for harlot except qedēshâh, teaches about and warns against prostitutes by admonition and illustrations. The situation in the Corinthian church was such that Paul had to give the Christians there special warnings against fornication with prostitutes (1Cor.6.15-1Cor.6.16).

The words harlot or prostitute, harlotry or prostitution, are used very often, especially in the prophetic books, to describe idolatry. This figurative use was evidently based on the idea that the Lord was the husband of the nation of Israel (Jer.3.20). When the people took their allegiance from God and gave it to idols instead, he called it “prostituting themselves to their gods” (niv). This expression occurs often in the prophetic books in this or similar forms, a few times in other books, and several times in Rev.17.1-Rev.17.18.

Additional Material


Another class of harlots entirely is that known as, Heb. קְדֵשָׁ֖ה, “temple prostitute,” lit. “dedicated one.” The term is derived from the common Sem. root, Heb. קדשׁ, “holy,” “sacred.” There is ample evidence that the ancient Near Eastern archaic-religious states usually involved the worship of a dual deity with a dialectic notion of sexuality which is seen in the male and female cult idols. Part of this was the “sacred marriage” often performed in an imitative magical ceremony in the temple precinct first by the king and a temple courtesan and then by any citizen and the temple harlots. Not only are such practices clear from the Babylonian and Ugaritic texts but also are mentioned in Herodotus (Histories, I, 179-184). Archeological and textual research has shown that this fertility cult worship was common also among the Canaanites. From early times a syncretism had developed and so the prophets often inveigh against the physical fornication of the Israelites with the pagan harlots and later temple prostitutes brought into Jerusalem.


Even when actual prostitution was not involved, the wickedness and degradation of harlotry was the ultimate evil to which the false worship of heathen deities was likened. Often in the prophets of the 8th cent. b.c. the terms for “cult prostitute” (qedesāh) and “street harlot” (zōwnāh) are interchanged. The names of the gods thus served also are altered and their devotees defamed; e.g., calf of Samaria (Hos 8:6). Phrases such as “played the harlot” and “go a whoring” are used of the awful iniquity of idolatry (Jer 3:6; Ezek 6:9, et al.).

In the NT the Gr. term is πόρνη, G4520, “prostitute” and πορνεια, “prostitution” (Eng. cognate, “pornography”). The terms are used: (1) of the lowest social caste, the outcasts (Matt 21:31; Luke 15:30); and (2) of the immoral practices of such women (1 Cor 6:15). In the same fashion that Hosea demonstrated the love of Jehovah in his marriage with a prostitute, Christ does not shrink from redeeming them by their faith (John 4:14).