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 (
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 (
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.
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,” 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 ,” JBL, LX (1941), 227-253; W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the (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)