The Levitical Ban: More Clues in the Case
Key Passages: Leviticus 18:22, Deuteronomy 23:17-18
By Bruce L. Gerig

The previous article in this series did a close reading of the ancient Israelite law "You shall not lie with a male [zakhar] as with a woman; it is an abomination [to'ebhah]" (Lev 18:22) – and looked at several important key words. In 90% of OT usage, zakhar (sometimes spelled zekhur) was applied to a man or male animal dedicated to a deity with some sacred function. Also, in 81% of OT usage – in law, history, and prophecy (but excluding wisdom literature) – to'ebhah was applied to something "offensive" because it was related to idolatry. Therefore, this law connects to a second homosexual ban in the Law of Moses that prohibited any Israelite from joining the male and female sacred prostitutes who were attached to ancient Near Eastern sanctuaries. In Deut 23 we read: "[17] None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute [qedheshah; pl. qedhesoth]; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute [qadhesh; pl. qedheshim]. [18] You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute [zonah] or the wages of a male prostitute [keleb, lit. 'a dog'] into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent [to'ebhah] to the Lord your God." (NRSV)

First, it should be noted that qadhesh has been mistranslated as "sodomite" in the King James Version and as "perverted [son] of Israel" in the New King James Version – homophobic renderings that are forced on the Hebrew. Instead, qedheshah (Strong, #6948) and qadhesh (#6945) derive from a root meaning "to be holy" (#6942) and so refer to persons consecrated in service to a deity.1 These two words are accurately translated, then, as "temple prostitute" (NEB, NIV, NRSV, REB, CEV, GNB), "cult prostitute" (NASB, RSV), or "sacred prostitute" (JB). Zanah (or zonah, #2181) is the common Hebrew term for "female prostitute."2 Kaleb (#3611) means "dog" – but this was also used as a term of insult and was applied, as a sexual euphemism, to a "male prostitute"3 or a "male temple prostitute."4 


The last definition raises the question as to whether v. 17 refers to sacred prostitution while v. 18 refers to secular prostitution, or whether both verses refer to the former. Since vow-making was so popular in Israel,5 v. 18 probably refers to common people (and not temple personnel). Yet while offering the Lord money earned from prostitution to pay off a sacred vow is strongly condemned, v. 18 does not directly condemn secular prostitution. Lev 19:29 banned an Israelite father from "making his daughter a prostitute," and Lev 21:14 forbade an Israelite priest from marrying "a women defiled by prostitution" (NIV). In spite of the disgraceful status placed on prostitutes in the OT, however, nowhere does the Law of Moses specifically forbid Israelite men to visit secular prostitutes or engage in such sexual intercourse outside of marriage6 (although the opposite held true for women). Jephthah, the mighty warrior, had a prostitute for a mother; and Samson visited a prostitute in Gaza (Judg 11:1, 16:1). Tamar, who lured her father-in-law, Judah, as a veiled prostitute (Gen 38), and Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who protected Israel's spies (Josh 2, 6), are praised rather than judged in any way in the OT record – and both end up in Matthew's chronology for the Messiah (Matt 1)! The common prostitute "appeared at an early period in Israel's life and continued to practice her trade throughout biblical history."7 Now, someone will ask, you're not saying that God approves of prostitution, are you? Well, in the NT, Paul strongly condemns this, in 1 Cor 6:9-17 and 1 Tim 1:9-10. Yet, the Law of Moses also allowed and regulated polygyny (a man taking more than one wife), slavery (adding a sexual concubine), and levirate intercourse (having sex with a widowed sister-in-law to give her an heir). As Walter Wink notes, the Bible clearly exhibits a variety of sexual ethics, not just one8 – and the awareness that God has given his people different (progressing) sexual codes for different times should come as an important insight and encouragement to GLBT Christians today.

The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992) on Deut 23:17-18 is contradictory and confusing. In one article, Elaine Goodfriend argues that qedheshah and qadhesh simply refer to female and male "cultic personnel" in general – but that no case can be made for documenting that they performed ritual sexual services. Zonah is the common Hebrew word for "prostitute," but keleb can refer only in 23:18 to a faithful "servant" or an animal "dog."9 Presenting a more moderate view in the following article in the ABD, Karel van der Toorn notes that the parallelism between qedheshah and zonah in Gen 38 (where both terms are applied to Tamar, vv. 21,15), as well as in Deut 23:17-18, "favors the idea that the qedheshim [male cult functionaries] engaged primarily in sexual activities." But, he adds, these cultic prostitutes never produced any "debauchery," at least in Israel.10 Still, one has to ask why are the "servants" in 23:18 given such a scornful label ("dog") or why are canines introduced at all into verses that otherwise deal with cultic professionals? And related to "debauchery" (Webster: "sexual excess"), does not every society have its share of this and might it not often be found connected to prostitution? In fact, it is possible to discern in the ABD, as well as among certain American (especially Assyrian and Egyptian) specialists, a homophobic (or even anti-sexual) bias – along the lines that K.J. Dover criticized earlier in his Greek Homosexuality (1978). Martti Nissinen, a Finnish theologian, questions the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary assertion that there "is no evidence that [any cultic servants] were eunuchs or homosexuals."11 Less prudish suppression of evidence is found with European specialists, e.g. in the writings of Jean Bottero (France's leading Assyriologist) and Gwendolyn Leick (a British Mesopotamian expert), both with many publications.

Bottero notes (2001) that the ancient Mesopotamians were "unaware of many of our 'taboos' about sex and its practices" and, considering love-making a natural activity, they felt no guilt about practicing it in whatever way one pleased (as long as no third party was harmed or general custom was broken).12 Texts reveal that homosexual love could be enjoyed with someone of one's own circle, a servant, a professional cult prostitute – or one could end up 'passing' as a professional prostitute oneself. "Sodomy was common, with women as well as men." He notes that recorded homosexual erotic dreams reveal desires to have sex with a god, the king, another prominent person, a young man, even a handsome corpse! 13 Leick, in Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature (1994), holds that the cultic functionaries could have included hermaphrodites, homosexual transvestites, and other, castrated individuals, who – like the hijras in modern India – wore feminine clothes, sang and danced at special occasions, engaged in passive homosexual prostitution, and were known for their obscene language (perhaps related to their sexual frustration).14

Balanced (non-stilted) summaries of Mesopotamian sexual data can also be found in Bullough (1976) and more recently in Greenberg (1988) and Nissinen (1998). Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite literary records abundantly document the presence of male, transvestite eunuchs who served the goddess Ishtar (or her counterparts in other cultures).15 In Babylonia and Assyria, cultic servants known as assinnu, kurgarru and kulu'u (pl. assinnutu, kurgarrutu, kulu'utu) performed ecstatic dance, music and plays, wore make-up like women, and carried masks and weapons.16 In Sumer, they were given the cuneiform names of UR.SAL ("dog/man-woman"), KUR.GAR.RA (also described as a man-woman), and GIS.DUR ("penis-buttocks").17 Nissenen believes that the expression that Ishtar had "transformed their masculinity into femininity," along with the symbolic cutting weapons they carried, strongly suggest that these cultic servants were eunuchs; and application of the derogative term "dog" to the assinnu shows a certain scorn that these eunuchs suffered for their emasculation, even though they were dedicated to the goddess.18 One Summa alu omen takes it for granted that a man will have need to have sex with another man "like an assinnu."19 Another omen promised that "If a man has intercourse with an assinnu, trouble will leave him." In fact, the noun assinnu derives from a root meaning "to practice anal intercourse."20 Such clues, albeit scattered, together point persuasively to an assinnu who offered himself as a receptive sexual partner to male worshippers, in the temple or a nearby tavern, for blessings to be gained from penetrating a servant of Ishtar, goddess of love and war. No wonder Job characterized these male cult prostitutes as persons who generally "die in their youth" (Job 36:14, NIV). Such a characterization would make little sense if cultic servants played no sexual role; moreover, this reference in Job, apart from the Deuteronomic tradition, cannot be dismissed (as some interpreters have suggested for Deuteronomic tradition) as later imaginary construct or literary fiction.21

A vivid image of one of these male cultic prostitutes appears in a terra-cotta (baked-clay) relief, photographed in Ziegler (plate 168). This piece, dated ca. 2000 B.C., was found in the ruins of the Sumerian city of Urek (called Erech in Gen 10:10 and Warka today in Iraq), located ca. 40 miles NW of Ur, Abraham's birthplace. The scene shows a standing nude male (but wearing a cap) penetrating, from behind, a cultic male prostitute, also nude, and bending over to sip beer from a jar on the floor as he carries on business. The fact that the male prostitute is beardless reveals that he is a eunuch. (This piece is part of the collections of the State Museums of Berlin (in the Pergamum and Antiquities Museum).

FOOTNOTES:   1. IDB, III,933.   2. Brown, p. 275; ISBE, II(1982),616.   3. Strong, #3611.    4. Brown, p. 477.   5. ISBE, IV(1988),998.   6. ISBE, IV,434.   7. IDB, III,932.   8. Wink, p. 44.    9. ABD, V,505-510.   10. ABD, V,510-513.   11. Assyrian Dictionary, VIII,558; Nissinen, 151, ft.96.   12. Bottero, p. 91,97.   13. Bottero, p. 100-01.   14. Leick, p. 158-61.   15. Greenberg, p. 95-96.   16. Nissinen, p. 30.   17. Nissinen, p. 28,32.   18. Nissinen, p. 90-91.    19. Nissinen, p. 33.   20. Greenberg, p. 96-97.    21. Gagnon, p. 103,108.

REFERENCES:   Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5 vols., 1992.   Assyrian Dictionary, of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1968- .   Bottero, Jean, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, orig. Fr. ed. 1992, Eng. trans, 2001.    Brown, Francis, et al., Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.   Dover, K.J., Greek Homosexuality, 1978.    Gagnon, Robert, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 2001.    Greenberg, Clement, The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988.   International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols., 1979-88.   Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols., 1962.    Leick, Gwendolyn, Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature, 1994.    Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 1998.   Strong, James, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.   Wink, Walter, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith, 1999.   Zeigler, Charlotte, Die Terrakotten von Warka (Berlin: Verlag Gebr. Mann), 1962.

TRANSLATIONS:    Contemporary English Version, 1995.   Good News Bible, 1983.    Jerusalem Bible, 1966.   King James Version, 1611.   New American Standard Bible, 1960.   New English Bible, 1970.   New International Version, 1978.   New King James Version, 1982.    New Revised Standard Version, 1989.   Revised English Bible, 1989.    Revised Standard Version, 1946


© 2003 Bruce L. Gerig

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