BAR 40:01, Jan/Feb 2014
Cult Prostitution in Ancient Israel?
Contrary to the claims of some 20th-century scholarship, the Hebrew Bible never refers directly to cult prostitutes. Many modern Bible translations are simply misleading in this respect. Much of the confusion results from a misunderstanding of a few Biblical texts that mention qedeshot, the plural of qedeshah, which is related to qodesh, “holy place.” Originally qedeshah referred to a “consecrated maiden,” but Biblical authors used it in the sense of “harlot.”
In the ancient Near East, women could in fact be dedicated by their fathers or their masters to a deity. Women could also devote themselves to the service of a god or a goddess in order to secure their living. This was done mainly by young widows without grown children, by repudiated wives, by female slaves sent away (like Hagar, Abraham’s concubine in Genesis 21), by lonely women, etc. These “consecrated” persons performed tasks in the sanctuary, provided domestic help in temple annexes, perhaps provided musical entertainment and possibly sexual services, remitting their fees to the temple. However, qedeshot in the Bible never appear as performing religious sexual rituals, which is the key attribute of a cult prostitute. Women on duty at the entrance to Israelite sanctuaries are mentioned in Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 2:22, but their tasks are not described, and they are not called qedeshot.