Cult Prostitution in Israel

Bible References: Deuteronomy 23.8; 1 Kings 14.24; 1 Kings 15.12, 22.46;  2 Kings 23.7;

Heart of Story: Cult prostitution was rampant in Israel particularly in the time of the divided kingdom. The only detailed story of cult prostitution was between Judah and Tamar.

Back Story: The reproductive cycle, both of the land and of a man, was the most important natural cycle in the ancient near east.  If individuals  wanted good crops and sons, they needed to persuade and/or appease their gods. If crops failed or if a wife was barren it was because their gods did not copulate. Various ancient near east peoples build shrines and temples where gods and goddesses were worshiped through the act of intercourse.

This worship included having sex with a prostitute at the shrine. When this sex occurred the worshiper was petitioning the god/goddess. An individual who came to the shrine, chose the prostitute he wanted to have sex with, and dropped a sum of money in her lap. She then had sex with the man who gave the offering to the temple god/goddess. The amount of money was not important; it was that an offering was made to the god/goddess. The prostitute never kept the money but gave it to the shrine.

At times the prostitutes dedicated their lives full-time to having sex with worshipers at the shrine. At other times, a prostitute was at the temple/shrine only once. An ancient Greek writer identified that all women in one nation were required to have sex at least once at the shrine of their god/goddess. Shrine prostitution was considered sacred sex and prostitutes were not looked down on in the culture. Shrine prostitutes could be male or female; however, male prostitutes were less common. Male-on-male sex was not part of a petition to increase family size.

Cult Prostitution among Israelites and in kingdom(s) of Israel:  The God of Israel was a moral-ethical god and despised cult prostitution. Mosaic Law identified that a father could not force his daughter into prostitution, to include prostitution at the tabernacle or temple. Nor, could the wages from prostitution be used as an offering or to pay a vow.

Although God hated prostitution and most assuredly cult prostitution, cult prostitution was prevalent in Israel and Judah. The first incident of cult prostitution among Israelites may have been at Shiloh. The writer of 1 Samuel 2 documented that Eli’s two sons who were priests had sex with women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (1 Samuel 2.22). The writer does not provide information that the women were paid for prostituting themselves with Eli’s priests-son; nonetheless the women had sex with the priests at Shiloh. Documented cult prostitution came into Israelite kingdoms as early as Rehoboam (Solomon’s son). In bitter words through Hosea, God said that he can’t punish Israelite women for prostitution because their men use cult prostitutes. Some, cult prostitutes traveled from threshing floor to threshing floor in the ancient near east. Cult prostitutes were present on threshing floors to foster present year and next year fertility in the land (Hosea 9.1). Possibly, the prophet Amos had cult prostitution in mind when he wrote of father and son going in to the same maiden and lying beside an altar on a pledged garment.

Pondering Relationships: Cult prostitution was one of the reasons that God withdrew his protection from the Northern Kingdom (Israel). Not until the reign of King Josiah was cult prostitution exterminated from Southern Kingdom (Judah). Both Kings Asa and Jehoshaphat took part in the gradual uprooting of the practice. In the story of Judah and Tamar (Hirah, Judah’s Unfriend, September 27, 2013), Judah believed that Tamar was a cult prostitute. Notice the Bible writer did not condemn  Tamar’s actions. Tamar furthered the line of Abraham, father of the Israelite nation. If there was no Tamar pretending to be a cult prostitute, the tribe of Judah would have ceased.

Reflection: Do you consider cult prostitution (sacred sex) wrong? Why or why not?

Copyright August 3, 2018; Carolyn A. Roth

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