Skip to main content Accessibility help

Tamar, Qĕdēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia*

  • Joan Goodnick Westenholz (a1)

The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet and glittered with gold and jewels and pearls, and she was holding a gold winecup filled with the disgusting filth of her prostitution; on her forehead was written a name, a cryptic name: “Babylon the Great, the mother of the prostitutes and all the filthy practices on the earth.” (Rev 17:4–5, NJB)

In discussions of the ancient Near Eastern setting for the Old Testament, various aspects of Mesopotamian society and culture are nominated as the precursors of certain features of Israelite practice.

Hide All

1 Some recent studies on various aspects of this issue include: Arnaud, Daniel, “La prostitution sacrée en Mésopotamie, un mythe historique?RHR 183 (1973) 111–15; Astour, Michael, “Tamar the Hierodule: An Essay in the Method of Vestigal Motifs,” JBL 85 (1966) 185–96; Fisher, Eugene J., “Cultic Prostitution in the Ancient Near East? A Reassessment,” BTB 6 (1976) 225–36; Lerner, Gerda, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11 (1986) 236–54; Oden, Robert A. Jr, The Bible Without Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1987) chap. 5: “Religious Identity and the Sacred Prostitution Accusation,” 131–53; Yamauchi, Edwin M., “Cultic Prostitution, A Case Study in Cultural Diffusion,” in A., Harry, Hoffner, , Jr., ed., Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday (AOAT 22; Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1973) 213–22.

2 NJB, 65 note h on Gen 38:21. Other translations include: “harlot” vs. “harlot” (KJV); “prostitute” vs. “prostitute” (Good News Bible [New York: American Bible Society, 1978]); “harlot” vs. “temple prostitute” (New American Standard Bible); “prostitute” vs. “temple prostitute” (NEB). The commentators mostly vary their translations: Haines, Lee, Genesis and Exodus (The Wesleyan Bible Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967): “harlot” vs. “prostitute”; Skinner, John, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (2d ed.; ICC 1; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1930): “harlot” vs. “sacred prostitute”; Speiser, E. A., Genesis (AB 1; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964): “harlot” vs. “votary”; Vawter, Bruce, On Genesis: A New Reading (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977): “harlot” vs. “temple prostitute.” A few commentators maintain the traditional translation “harlot” vs. “harlot”: Rad, Gerhard von, Genesis, A Commentary (3d ed.; London: SCM, 1972), and Simpson, C. A. and Bowie, W. R., The Book of Genesis (The Interpreter's Bible; New York: Abingdon, 1952).

3 Astour, “Tamar the Hierodule.” Note the criticism of the biblical side of the argument by Emerton, J. A., “Some Problems in Genesis XXXVIII,” VT 25 (1975) 357–60.

4 Speiser, Genesis, 300; Haines, Genesis and Exodus, 124; Brenner, Athalya, The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: JSOT, 1985) 82.

5 Skinner, Genesis, 454; Simpson and Bowie, Genesis, 760.

6 Veiling upon marriage in the patriarchal period has been inferred from the fact that Rebecca covered herself with a veil on the approach of Isaac (Gen 24:65) and that Leah was unrecognizable during the marriage ceremony (Gen 29:23). Likewise, according to the legal system, the adulterous woman is punished by the loosening of her hair (Num 5:18). In the New Testament, Paul admonishes the Corinthians that women should choose between cutting off their hair, shaving their heads and wearing a veil to symbolize their subjection to men (1 Cor 11:4–7). For the Islamic world, see Kurān Surah XXXIII 53–59; for the Assyrian world, see Middle Assyrian Laws § § 40–41.

7 Von Rad, Genesis, 359.

8 For a similar opinion see Vawter, Genesis, 397.

9 Cf. Gruber, Mayer I., “Hebrew qĕdēšāh and her Canaanite and Akkadian Cognates,” UF 18 (1986) 133–48. Gruber is not alone in visualizing the female role without taking into consideration the male counterpart; see references below, n. 11.

10 Speiser, Genesis, 300; Haines, Genesis and Exodus, 125; see also the NEB note on this line.

11 Cf. Bird, Phyllis, “The Place of Women in the Israelite Cultus,” in Hanson, Paul D., Miller, Patrick D., Jr., and McBride, S. Dean, eds., Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank M. Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 397419 and references collected there.

12 Cf. Xella, Paulo, I testi rituali de Ugarit I (Studi Semitici 54; Rome: Consiglio Nazionale della Ricerche, 1981) 4348. Note that in his comment on this line, Xella refers also to sacred prostitution: “Ci pare più plausible una resa ‘consacrato,’ senza particolari allusioni alla prostituzione sacra, per cui non vi sono finora tracce nella documentazione ugaritica” (48).

13 Soden, Wolfram von, “Zur Stellung des ‘Geweihten’ (qdš) in Ugarit,” UF 2 (1970) 329–30.

14 Gröndahl, Frauke, Die Personnamen der Texte aus Ugarit (Studia Pohl 1; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1967) 371 (Abdi-pí-darx d. Bin-qadišti), 348 ([bin(?)-qa-diš-ti), 407 (bn qdšt).

15 Cyrus H. Gordon, UT Gloss, no. 2210; Aistleitner, J., Wörterbuch der Ugaritischen Sprache (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1963) no. 2393.

16 Rainey, Anson F., “The Kingdom of Ugarit,” BA 28 (1965) 124.

17 Tarragon, Jean-Michel de, Le culte à Ugarit d'après les textes de la pratique en cunéiformes alphabétiques (Cahiers de la Revue Biblique 19; Paris: Gabalda, 1980) 138–41.

18 Ibid., 140.

19 For a treatment of the nominal formations, see Edzard, Dietz Otto, “Zu den akkadischen Nominalformen parsat-, pirsat- und pursat,” ZA 72 (1982) 7475.

20 Published in Benno Landsberger, Die Serie ana ittišu (Materialien zum sumerischen Lexikon 1; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1937) Ana ittišu VII iii 7ff.

21 CAD s.v. sūqu.

22 Amaud, “La prostitution sacrée,” 114.

23 Civil, Miguel, “Enlil and Ninlil: The Marriage of Sud,” JAOS 103 (1983) 4364.

24 Given the present state of our knowledge, we can adduce that the first two titles are of professions related to secular prostitution and brothels whose patroness was the goddess Inanna (see Gruber, “Hebrew qĕdĕšāh,” 146), whereas the kezertu was linked to the cult of various goddesses whose service obligations may have included some sexual activities. For preliminary studies of the last, see Finkelstein, Jacob J., “Introduction,” Late Old Babylonian Documents and Letters (Yale Oriental Series 13; New Haven/London: Yale University Press 1972) 1011; Gallery, Maureen, “Service Obligations of the kezertu-Women,” Or 49 (1980) 333–38; Lerberghe, K. van, New Data from the Archives Found in the House of Ur-Utu at Tell ed-Dēr (AfO.Beih. 19; 1982) 280–83. Note their importance in the court of Yasmah-Addu of Mari: see Durand, Jean-Marie, “Les dames du palais de Mari,” Mari Annales de Recherches Interdisciplinaires 4 (1985) 390–91.

25 For a review of the evidence, see Renger, Johannes, “Untersuchungen zum Priestertum in der altbabylonischen Zeit,” ZA 58 (1967) 179–84; for Sippar see Harris, Rivkah, Ancient Sippar (Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul, 1975) 328–31.

26 Robertson, John F., “The Internal Political and Economic Structure of Old Babylonian Nippur,” JCS 36 (1984) 157, 159.

27 Robertson, John F., “Redistributive Economics in Ancient Mesopotamian Society: A Case Study from Isin-Larsa Period Nippur” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1981) 216–17.

28 Hallo, William W., “The Royal Correspondence of Larsa. II. The Appeal to UTU,” Zikir Šumim, Assyriological Studies Presented to F. R. Kraus on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday (Leiden: Brill, 1982) 107–24.

29 Lambert, W. G. and Millard, A. R., Atra-ḫasīs, the Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969) 62 I 290.

30 Lambert, W. G., Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960) 161 rev. 58.

31 Van Lerberghe, “New Data,” 280.

32 Clay, Albert T., Documents from the Temple Archives of Nippur Dated in the Reigns of Cassite Rulers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, the Museum Publications of the Babylonian Section, 1912) 122.22.

33 KAR 321.7; see Gruber, “Hebrew qĕdēšāh,” 141.

34 Meier, Gerhard, Die assyrischen Beschwörungen Maqlû (AfO.Beih. 2; Berlin, 1937) Tablette III 4055, V 51–60, VI 26–31 = 37–42; Reiner, Erica, Šurpu, A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations (AfO.Beih. 11; Graz, 1958) Tablette III 116–17, VIII 69; cf. Rollin, Sue, “Women and Witchcraft in Ancient Assyria,” in Cameron, Averil and Kuhrt, Amélie, eds., Images of Women in Antiquity (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983) 3445.

35 Parpola, Simo, Letters from Assyrian Scholars to the Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal (AOAT 5/2; Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1983) 183.

36 Hirsch, Hans, Untersuchungen zur altassyrischen Religion (AfO.Beih. 13/14; Osnabrück: Biblio-Verlag, 1972) 58; Menzel, Brigitte, Assyrische Tempel (Studia Pohl, Series Maior 10; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1981) 262.

37 For the Middle Assyrian harem decrees, cf. AfO 17, 268.11; Soden, Wolfram von, “Die Hebamme in Babylonien und Assyrien,” AfO 18 (1957/1958) 119–21.

38 For a treatment of this text, see Menzel, Assyrische Tempel, 2. T2–T4.

39 Ebeling, Erich, Parfümrezepte und kultische Texte aus Assur (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1950) Pl. 17 r. II 5; see Ebeling, , “Kultische Texte aus Assur,” Or n.s. 22 (1953) 43.

40 Harper, Robert Francis, Assyrian and Babylonian Letters Belonging to the Kouyunjik Collection of the British Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 18921914) no. 1126:13; see Parpola, Letters from Assyrian Scholars, no. 187.

41 See the references collected in Edzard, Dietz Otto, “Sumerische Komposita mit dem ‘Nominalpräfix’ nu-,” ZA 55 (1963) 104ff.; Falkenstein, Adam, “Sumerische religiöse Texte,” ZA 56 (1964) 118ff.; Römer, Willem H. P., Sumerische ‘Königshymnen’ der Isin-Zeit (Leiden: Brill, 1965) 150, 152; Hallo, William W. and Dijk, Johannes J. A. van, The Exaltation of Inanna (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1968) 87; Sjöberg, Åke W., The Collection of the Sumerian Temple Hymns (Texts from Cuneiform Sources 3; Locust Valley, NY: Augustin, 1969) 123.

42 Kornfeld, Walter, “Prostitution sacrée,” DBSup 8 (Paris: Letouzey & Ané 1972) 1360.

43 Falkenstein, “Sumerische religiöse Texte,” 120; Jestin, Raymond R., “Les noms de profession en NU-,” in Symbolae Biblicae et Mesopotamicae F. M. Th. de Liagre Böhl Dedicatae (Leiden: Brill, 1973) 212; von Soden, AHw 399; Römer, AOAT 1. 295; Kramer, Samuel N., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107 (1963) 494:37 (“my wife who is a hierodule”); Daniel Reisman, JCS 25 186:2 and passim; Hallo and van Dijk, Exaltation of Inanna, 87 (“civil state of Inanna in the Sumerian Pantheon”); Cooper, Jerrold S., The Curse of Agade (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983) 61:241

44 CAD 1/J 270 s.v. ištarītu; Landsberger, Materialen zum sumerischen Lexikon IV (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1956) 17, 78–79; Jacobsen, Thorkild, The Harps That Once—Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) 6 n. 9.

45 Römer, Königshymnen, 136:2 and passim.

46 Astour, “Tamarthe Hierodule,” 189.

47 Edzard, “Sumerische-Komposita,” 104; Sjöberg, Temple Hymns, 36:320; Berlin, Adele, Enmerkar and Ensuḫkešdanna: A Sumerian Narrative Poem (Occasional Publications of the Babylonian Fund 2; Philadelphia: The University Museum, 1979) 45:97.

48 Cooper, Curse of Agade, 60.441; see also translations of Attinger, Pierre, “Remarques à propos de la ‘Malédiction d'Accad,’RA 78 (1984) 106: “puissent ta hiérodule (devenue) mère, ta courtisane (devenue) mère faire avorter (son)/ son enfant!”; Jacobsen, The Harps That Once, 372: “May your hierodule who is a mother, and your courtesan who is a mother stab the child!”

49 Edzard, “Sumerische Komposita,” 91–102. Note his reluctance to state the etymology, linguistic structure, and semantics of this compound. See also Jestin, “Les noms de profession,” 211–13.

50 Astour, “Tamar the Hierodule,” 189 n. 28.

51 Published after Astour's article, CAD 9. 199 s.v. lipištu (written (UZU).NU in Akkadian texts) is translated as “an abnormal fleshy or membranous substance,” not a sexual organ.

52 It is not possible that gig stands here for mí + nunuz, which appears as part of the title of the en-priestess of Nanna of Ur (cf. Sollberger, Edmond, “Notes on the Early Inscriptions from Ur and El-'Obēd,” Iraq 22 (1960) 86 n. 22; Jestin, “Les noms de profession,” 212) because of syllabic renderings as well as the Emesal mugib. Likewise, it is not probable that the nu- prefix is a phonetic indicator.

53 Pettinato, Giovanni, Testi lessicali bilingui della biblioteca L. 2769 (Materiali Epigrafici de Ebla 4; Naples, 1982) 207:100; cf. Krebernik, Manfred, “Zu Syllabar und Orthographie der lexicalischen Texte aus Ebla,” ZA 73 (1983) 4.

54 U.13607 = Woolley, , Ur Excavations 11 (London/Philadelphia, 1934) 207 no. 214 = Pl. 191 (inscription), description 312–13, 352, 588 = Legrain, , Ur Excavations III (London/Philadelphia, 1936) Pl. 30 no. 518 = Pl. 57 no. 518.

55 Cooper, Jerrold S., Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions, vol. 1: Presargonic Inscriptions (American Oriental Society Translation Series 1; New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1986) 98, Ur 5.3.

56 Renger, J., “Heilige Hochzeit,” Reallexikon der Assyriologie (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1975) 256a.

57 Asher-Greve, Julia M., Frauen in altsumerischer Zeit (Bibliotheca Mesopotamica 18; Malibu: Undena, 1985) 158.

58 Thureau-Dangin, François, Receuil de tablettes chaldéennes (Paris, 1903) no. 208 r.2 (Urningirsu 5).

59 Foster, Benjamin, “Ethnicity and Onomastics in Sargonic Mesopotamia,” Or 51 (1982) 317 (Íd-ḫe-nun nu-gig), 324 (Al-la nu-gig nígin).

60 Sjöberg, Temple Hymns, 1. 309.

61 For a discussion of the word nigìn-gar, lit. “House in which the foetus lies,” see Sjöberg, Temple Hymns, 92–93; Römer, AOAT 1, 296; Jacobsen, The Harps That Once, 475: “Nig͂ing͂ar was a temple which served as a cemetery for stillborn or premature babies and as a depository for afterbirths.”

62 Farber-Flügge, Gertrud, Der Mythos “Inanna und Enki” unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Liste der me (Studia Pohl 10; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1973) 109.

63 Chiera, Edward, Sumerian Religious Texts (Upland, PA, 1924) no. 6 rev. III 18 = 7.11; see Römer, W. H. Ph., “Einige Beobachtungen zur Göttin Nini(n)sina,” Lišān Mitḫurti (AOAT 1; Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1969) 295, lines 74–82.

64 Civil, “Enlil and Ninlil,” line 154.

65 Berlin, Enmerkar and Ensuḫkešdanna, 74.

66 The three sources are: (1) Enmerkar and Ensuḫkešdanna, line 97, (2) Lugalbanda and Enmerkar, line 315 = 381, (3) Bird and Fish, line 117 var.

67 The geographical area covered by the term Mesopotamia includes the land between the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and is divided into two geopolitical regions: Babylonia is the alluvial plain of the south and Assyria is situated on the highlands to the north. Evidence from the peripheral areas surrounding Mesopotamia will not be considered in the following since those areas belong to the Hittite, Neo-Hittite, or Hurrian culture areas.

68 Astour, “Tamar the Hierodule,” 185.

69 Marglin, Frédénque Apffel, “Hierodouleia,” in Eliade, Mircea, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion (16 vols.; New York: MacMillan, 1987) 6. 309.

70 The best discussion is that of Oden, Bible Without Theology, but note also Amaud, “La prostitution sacrée,” and Fisher, “Cultic Prostitution.”

71 Yamauchi, “Cultic Prostitution,” 213.

72 Oden, Bible Without Theology, 140–47.

73 Lemer, “Origin of Prostitution,” 239.

74 Fisher, “Cultic Prostitution,” 230: “whole-scale debauchery connoted by the term cultic prostitution.”

75 OED 8. 1497.

76 Van Lerberghe, “New Data,” 280–83.

77 Amaud, “La prostitution sacrée,” 114.

78 Toom, Karel van der, Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia: A Comparative Study (Assen/Maastricht: van Gorcum, 1985) 79.

79 Riener, E., “Lipšur Litanies,” JNES 15 (1956) 137 line 84.

80 Van der Toom, Sin and Sanction, 79.

81 Ravn, Otto E., Herodotus' Description of Babylon (Cophenhagen: Arnold Busck, 1942); Baumgartner, William, “Herodots babylonische und assyrische Nachrichten,” Archiv Orientální 18 (1950) 69106.

82 Arnaud, “La prostitution sacrée,” 115.

83 Oates, Joan, Babylon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979) 9.

* This article is a revised and expanded version of a talk given at Harvard Divinity School, 28 April 1988. I want to express my gratitude to Professors Paul Hanson and Theodore Hiebert for their encouragement. In addition, I want to thank Professors Piotr Steinkeller and Aage Westenholz, who read the manuscript and offered many helpful corrections and suggestions.

Abbreviations used in this article follow those of HTR with the following additions: ARM = Archives royales de Mari (Paris: Geuthner, 1950–); KAR = Ebeling, Erich, Keilschrifttexte aus Assur religiösen Inhalts (Wissenschafthche Veröffentlichungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 28, 34; Berlin: Hinrichs: 19151923); KTU = Dietrich, M., Loretz, O., and Sanmartín, J., Die keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit (AOAT 24/1; Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1976–); MRS = Mission de Ras Shamra; MSL = Materialien zum sumerischen Lexikon (Rome: Pontifical Institute, 1937–); RTC = Thureau-Dangin, François, Receuil de tablettes chaldéennes (Paris, 1903); UET = Ur Excavations, Texts (Publications of the Joint Expedition of the British Museum and the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, to Mesopotamia; London/Philadelphia: Trustees of the Two Museums, 1927–).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Harvard Theological Review
  • ISSN: 0017-8160
  • EISSN: 1475-4517
  • URL: /core/journals/harvard-theological-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed