Looking in Vain for the Temple Prostitute

Our series on the power of words features a reflexive research essay by Abby Sanders. Her exegesis of “the temple prostitute” of Genesis 38 turned into an odyssey through the languages and desires of readers past. With the mentorship of Elizabethtown College professor Dr. Christina Bucher, an undergraduate student visits whom this character is written to serve.

When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 2He asked the men of her place, saying, “Where is the temple prostitute who was by the road at Enaim?” But they said, “There has been no temple prostitute here.”

(Genesis 38: 20-21, NASB)

Thousands of years after this passage was written, I too found myself searching for a “temple prostitute” in a foreign place. This place was not the town of Enaim like in Genesis, but instead it was a place of ancient countries, Semitic languages, and unfamiliar cultures.

Let me tell you how I ended up in such a strange situation, and what I found when I changed the Adullamite’s question from “Where is the temple prostitute?” to “Who is the temple prostitute?”

The first time I asked this question, I was sitting in a class of five other people, discussing the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. After Tamar marries two of Judah’s sons (each of whom died shortly after), Judah promises Tamar that she can marry his third son, Shelah. Some time later, Tamar hears that Judah will be passing by Enaim, and she decides she will go and see him. She removes her widow’s clothing, puts on a veil, and sits near the entrance to town.

As Judah comes closer, Tamar sees that Shelah has grown up and that Judah has not fulfilled his promise to her. As Judah approaches Tamar, he does not recognize her, but instead takes her for a prostitute and has sex with her. Judah later sends an Adullamite named Hirah back to Enaim to pay the supposed prostitute with a goat. Hirah goes and asks the townspeople, “Where is the temple prostitute?” but they have not seen her. When Hirah returns home, Judah tells him to leave the matter alone for fear of being laughed at by the townspeople.


“So what’s a temple prostitute?” I asked my professor. She first explained the Hebrew words: zonah is normally translated as “prostitute,” while qedesha is translated as “temple prostitute.” She skimmed over the traditional view of the qedesha (because explaining the modern view would take the whole class) as a woman who performs prostitution as a sexual rite. She ended with “That could be a research paper topic.”

Coming from a culture that largely treats sex and religiosity as antitheses, I found it scandalous that the temple did not only accept prostitution, but actually ordained it. Once I started my research, though, I was disappointed to find out that my scandalous cult prostitute was not a prostitute at all. Herodotus, Strabo, and Lucian—all sources upon which the prostitution theory is based—were thrown out as being false accounts. In the beginning I still clung to her sexual reputation, even wanting to agree with one scholar’s argument that a qedesha is not a temple-sanctioned prostitute, but instead a sort of free-lance prostitute that uses her profits to absolve vows. But even the vow-paying interpretation broke down under investigation.

I soon believed that her sexual reputation was nothing more than a debasing accusation at worst, or methodological mistake at best. I met with my professor later on and with a smirk she asked, “So is she a prostitute?” Reluctantly, I admitted, “No, Dr. B, she’s not.”

Despite this, I still questioned why Genesis 38 posed zonah and qedesha as synonyms. While scholars could read the Hebrew without issue, the symbols were incoherent to me. On top of that, English translations were sometimes misleading, using “harlot” no matter if the word was zonah or qedesha. I tried to move forward in the best way I could, which was look up transliterations and write down whether the verse said qedesha, qedeshot (female “cult prostitutes”), qadesh (a male “cult prostitute”), or qedeshim (male “cult prostitutes,” or both male and female “cult prostitutes”). In the end, I settled on four biblical texts that used qedesha, qedeshot, or qedeshim: 1 and 2 Kings, Hosea 4:14, Deuteronomy 23:17, and Genesis 38.

Three of these four passages shared a common thread: disapproval. The biblical authors condemned the qedeshim—their stories talked of exile and extermination from Israel. 1 and 2 Kings paved the way for answering “Why all the hate?” Verses from Kings clearly showed the association between the qedeshim and idol/Asherah worship, which would give Yahweh worshippers a reason to denounce them. Like a domino effect, now Hosea 4:14 began to make sense. The unit in Hosea compared Israel to an adulterous woman—even noting that God’s chosen people had taken on a “spirit of whoredom.”

Reading through Hosea, it was clear that this countrywide fornication was religious, not sexual. The people of Israel were “whoring” themselves out to other gods. As a consequence, the biblical authors’ disdain was cast onto the qedeshim—the non-Yahwistic religious leaders. Suddenly I understood the qedesha’s reputation as a prostitute: she was confused for a sexual fornicator, when she was actually a devotional one.

Although I had made progress, I still lacked a strong explanation for Genesis 38 and thought my picture of the qedesha was incomplete. From the beginning I had planned to use a historical approach, so I (hesitantly) entered the realm of extrabiblical texts. With good intentions I read what the scholars had found, but was left feeling like I was drowning in a sea of alien terms, locations, and languages. The only way I began to swim was with the help of my professor, who flipped to the maps in my NRSV Bible and explained both the locations and the languages. After that meeting I decided to focus on three cognate words and their associated texts: the Ugaritic qedeshim, the Sumerian nu-gig, and the Akkadian qadishtu.

I spent hours filtering through Ugaritic administrative texts, Sumerian literary texts, Akkadian legal texts. By the end I stood knee-deep in hymns, laws, narratives, and ration lists, but slowly the identity of the qedesha woman emerged. It was apparent to me that she was a priestess, but surprisingly enough, there was no indication that she was a lesser religious leader due to her gender. She was able to marry, have children, and at the same time, perform sacrifices and rituals at the same level as the priest. Sumerian texts even fused her cultic role with a role in the birthing process. She took on the duty of singing praises during birth. Of particular importance to me, though, were the texts describing the qadishtu.

An Assyrian law and an Akkadian legal text rounded out my explanation of Genesis 38, allowing me to feel confident that although prostitutes and qedeshot were found in similar places, they had different societal roles. I realized that in analyzing Genesis 38, I originally forgot to consider the genre. I was so caught up on zonah and qedesha describing the same woman, I missed that Hirah’s word choice was only a part of the narrative. I then saw that Hirah hid Judah’s affair under the guise of a religious ritual. When Hirah went to pay the “prostitute,” he asked for a qedesha instead, to act as if he was looking for a priestess to sacrifice the goat. I was finally putting the pieces together.

By the time I presented my research to the class, I had become almost sentimental toward the qedesha woman. I had spent so much time learning who she was as a cult functionary, as a worshipper of non-Yahwistic gods. I had spent time learning how her identity had been misconstrued for so many years, and how the biblical authors denounced her class of people. In the end I found my journey—from temple prostitute to vow-paying prostitute to priestess, spiritual functionary during childbirth, mother, and wife—a long but fulfilling search for the identity of the “other.” And I can say with confidence, “There has been no temple prostitute here.”


Abby Sanders-pic.jpgAbby Sanders ‘18 is a student at Elizabethtown College. She is a Psychology and Occupational Therapy double major with a minor in Spanish. Her research has explored the meaning of life according to Ecclesiastes and the role of the qedesha.

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