Cultic Prostitution

by Craig Smith

One of my favorite things about being a Christian speaker and teacher is that I get asked all kinds of interesting questions.  Today I was asked about whether God forbids prostitution or merely forbids temple prostitution (also called cultic prostitution; the act of engaging in prostitution as part of a religious observance).  The reason for the question is that the Bible seems to speak most directly against temple prostitution but has less direct prohibitions against prostitution more generally. 

In reality, however, the Bible prohibits all forms of prostitution fairly clearly, although there’s a translation difficulty that can make this issue seem less clear than it actually is.

For instance, Deu. 23:17-18 uses the two Hebrew words for prostitution, qadesh and zanahNone of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute (qadesh), nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a cult prostitute (qadesh).  18 “You shall not bring the hire of a harlot (zanah) or the wages of a dog into the house of the LORD your God for any votive offering, for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God.

Within Semitic language groups generally, qadesh meant a cultic prostitute whereas zanah was more typically used of a common prostitute.  However, Deu 23:17-18 connects them as being essentially the same by speaking of cultic prostitutes and then immediately stating that the wages earned by a common prostitute (zanah) could not be brought into the temple.  While this does not explicitly forbid common prostitution in the same way that it forbids cultic prostitution, it is is clearly a prohibition against any woman or man being either kind of prostitute (i.e. if the money earned by prostitution was unacceptable to the Lord, then even more so is the means by which it was earned).

Every occurrence of qadesh in the Hebrew Bible appears to be paired with zanah, strongly suggesting that the Hebrews saw no distinction between cultic and common prostitution.  That being the case, the prohibition of Deu 23:17 should probably be translated as “none of the daughters of Israel shall be a prostitute” instead of  “…none…shall be a cult prostitute.”  Again, while some Semitic languages used the two words distinctly, the Hebrew usage of qadesh and zanah appear to be essentially synonymous.

Support for this translation is found in the LXX which renders both qadesh and zanah as pornē (There shall not be a harlot (pornē ) of the daughters of Israel, and there shall not be a fornicator (pornē )of the sons of Israel; there shall not be an idolatress of the daughters of Israel, and there shall not be an initiated person of the sons of Israel. 18 Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot (pornē ), nor the price of a dog into the house of the Lord thy God, for any vow; because even both are an abomination to the Lord thy God).  This clearly means that the first translators of the Hebrew Bible understand the two Hebrew terms to be synonymous. 

Consequently, although some English translations distinguish between the two Hebrew terms, translating one as a cultic prostitute and the other as a common prostitute, this distinction is probably not intended in the majority of the Old Testament passage which use the two words (although there are certainly some places where the distinction may still be meaningful).  Thus, prohibitions against “temple prostitution” are almost always prohibitions against “common prostitution as well.”