PROSTITUTION. A term connoting, in the broadest sense, the turning of an object or process from its rightful or natural use to a base one. In the narrower sense, it is the term for sexual relations engaged in outside of marriage for professional reasons, either mercenary or religious.


The Bible uses three words to denote the prostitute. The most common OT word is זֹנָה, H2390, harlot. This word describes the secular prostitute who offers herself for money. In certain instances it appears to be a more general term encompassing the cult prostitute, as well. There is, however, a distinct term for the cult or religious prostitute. This is קְדֵשָׁ֖ה, whore (KJV), cult prostitute (RSV). The root is קדשׁ, which means “set apart for the use of the deity,” i.e., “holy,” The above feminine form has a masculine counterpart, קָדֵשׁ, H7728, sodomite (KJV), male cult prostitute (RSV). The NT term is πορνη, harlot, from a root whose basic meaning is “to engage in immoral sexual acts.”

Biblical attitudes toward prostitution.

The Biblical attitude toward the practice of prostitution is somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, the practice is frowned upon, with numerous statements and statutes against it (see below). Yet, prostitution is not absolutely condemned and there are several instances where it is reported in a rather neutral atmosphere. Judah’s relations with Tamar are spoken of without judgment (Gen 38:6-24). His failure to comply with the law of Levirate marriage is depicted as the serious sin. The penalty of burning (38:24) which Judah pronounced upon Tamar (before he knew his own part) prob. relates to the act of adultery more than to prostitution. Similarly, Samson’s relations with a prostitute (Judg 16:1) are not condemned. Neither is Rahab’s profession spoken of harshly. Rather, she is known throughout Scripture as Rahab, the prostitute. During the united kingdom, it was two prostitutes who brought the baby to Solomon for adjudication (1 Kings 3:16). No word of condemnation is recorded. During the divided kingdom, prostitution continued to exist, for when Hosea was ordered by God to marry a prostitute, he apparently had no difficulty in finding one (cf. also 1 Kings 22:38). Finally, Jesus mentioned that harlots were among those who repented at John’s preaching (Matt 21:32; cf. Luke 7:37, 39 where “sinner” prob. implies “harlot”). These references indicate that prostitution continued to be practiced within the Jewish community throughout the entire Biblical period.

The Biblical image of a prostitute.

The Biblical image of a prostitute is highly uncomplimentary. It depicts her as an adventuress, who entices a man to ruin (Prov 23:27; cf. Rev 17:5, 15-17 where the great City is pictured as a prostitute who has ensnared and debauched the whole world with her charms). She is shown to be a faithless lover who will use her “deadly charms” not only to entrap but to betray (Nah 3:4, speaking of Nineveh; cf. also Isa 23:15-17, speaking of Tyre). Relations with harlots are looked upon as the height of folly. Characteristically, the Book of Proverbs contrasts the love of wisdom with keeping a prostitute, for the prostitute will leave a man bankrupt (Prov 29:3; Luke 15:30). See Crimes and Punishments.

Cult prostitution.

As indicated above, one of the reasons why the Biblical faith, esp. in OT times, often reacted strongly against prostitution was the intimate association of this practice with cults of the ancient Near Eastern fertility religions. Virtually all of the ancient Near Eastern religions had as their chief purpose the maintenance of the natural cycles, including protection from the unusual and the catastrophic. They viewed the great natural forces as persons who were guilty of all the foibles and arbitrariness of humanity. The problem, then, was to devise a means by which these fickle superhumans could be made to perform their appropriate functions at the appropriate times. While worship and personal devotion were helpful, they were not infallible. At this point, sympathetic magic was turned to. Ancient man viewed the universe as a closed system, where the actions of man, nature and deity were totally interlocked. Thus, if man wished the deities to perform certain actions, he could insure that they would do so if he would perform those actions himself in a cultic setting. The most important natural cycle for man’s immediate life was the reproductive cycle. If one’s animals or plants did not reproduce themselves, starvation resulted. If such a failure did occur, it was because the respective deities had not copulated. From this point of view, a man’s most important act in a year could be his copulation with a dedicated prostitute, for this would produce the desired divine result, and thus, the desired natural result.

The OT resolutely attacks this world view. God absolutely transcends His creation. He cannot be related to in a mechanical way. Rather, He is to be related in moral and ethical ways which are in keeping with His own nature. Maintenance of the natural cycles is not to be looked upon as an end in itself. Rather, a deepening relationship to God is most to be desired. The mystery of reproduction is not at the heart of the universe, but the mystery of grace. The use of a cult prostitute, then, was a repudiation of all that was unique to God and His revelation, and the practice is viewed in the Bible as an abomination.

Even more abominable, from the Bible’s point of view, was male cult prostitution, since this practice involved the twin horrors of paganism and homosexuality. One means of expressing this abhorrence was by calling the male cult prostitute a dog. Deuteronomy 23:18, after prohibiting male or female cult prostitution in Israel further stipulates that neither the wages of a harlot or a “dog” may be offered in the Temple. In addition to the above discussion of this v. it may be that the bringing of money into the Temple to pay a cult prostitute within the Temple is being prohibited. (Cf. Rev 22:15 use of “dog.”)

Symbolic use of the term.


D. G. Lyon, “The Consecrated Women of the Hammurabi Code,” Studies in the History of Religions (1912), 341-360; D. Luckenbill, “The Temple Women of the Code of Hammurabi,” AJSL, XXXIV (1917), 1-12; H. G. May, “The Fertility Cult in Hosea,” AJSL, XLVIII (1931-1932), 73-98; B. A. Brooks, “Fertility Cult Functionaries in the Old Testament,” JBL, LX (1941), 227-253; W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1942), 84-94; J. P. Asmussen, “Bemerkungen zur sakralen Prostituten im Alten Testamentum,” ST, XI (1957), 167-192; N. H. Snaith, “The Cult of Molech,” VT, XVI (1966), 123, 124; M. C. Astour, “Tamar the Hierodule,” JBL, LXXXV (1966), 185-196.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See Crimes; Harlot; PUNISHMENTS.