Prostitution in the ancient world (Deuteronomy 23)

Prostitution was known throughout the ancient world. While some who practiced the trade worked independently, others (such as slaves) were forced into it. In Mesopotamia it was actually possible to adopt a girl and then hire her out as a prostitute.

There is considerable controversy over the so-called temple prostitute. Herodotus (Histories 1.199) recorded that every Babylonian woman was required to prostitute herself at least once in the temple of Ishtar, but the reliability of this claim is disputed. Most scolars agree that “sacred prostitution” was part of the ritual of the fertility cult, but some argue against this claim, suggesting that women sometimes prostituted themselves to obtain money to pay a vow or that temples simply used whoredom as a source of income.

In the Greco-Roman world prostitution was also associated with the temples of Aphrodite (especially at Corinth, according to the ancient Greek historian Strabo), but the nature of this prostitution is uncertain. It is unlikely, however, that temples used such women only as sources of income with no religious link to the function of the temple itself; the promiscuous act was probably regarded as some kind of sacred rite, even as it catered to the lusts of the people. The weight of evidence suggests that “sacred prostitution” was real.

Biblical texts provide evidence for temple prostitution. The practice is associated with pagan worship in Hosea 4:14, a passage that condemns men who had encounters with the sacred prostitutes at the shrines and who offered sacrifices there. Prostitution is often used in the Old Testament as a metaphor for idolatry (Exodus 34:15-16, Leviticus 17:7), which may strengthen the connection between temple prostitution and the idolatrous practices of other peoples. Prostitution or harlotry in any form was forbidden to the Israelites (Leviticus 19:29, Deuteronomy 23:17).


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