Within the larger ancient Near Eastern world, prostitution was legal and generally accepted by members of society, and there is evidence that some prostitutes in Mesopotamia gathered into professional associations linked to the goddess Ishtar. The Hebrew of the Old Testament uses two different words when referring to those who functioned as prostitutes (zona, translated “prostitute” in Gen 38:15; and qedesa, translated “shrine prostitute” in Gen 38:21-22), which suggests that the prostitutes in Canaan were of two types: secular sex workers and prostitutes linked to pagan worship. Nevertheless, given the extent of the evidence we possess from the ancient world, we need to use caution in identifying the latter too closely with pagan worship rites that sought to increase the fertility of flocks, herds, and fields.
No matter what the form, the biblical authors make it crystal clear that prostitution is a SIN! (Lev 19:29; 21:9; Deut 23:17-18); it is an activity pursued by the godless rather than the godly (Job 36:14; 1 Cor 6:15-17). Consequently, it is not surprising to see such a woman characterized in very unflattering ways. We are told that she is not interested in sustaining a loving, marital relationship with her clients, “for a prostitute will bring you to poverty” (Prov 6:26 NLT); she will be interested in you only long enough for you to squander all your money on her (Prov 29:3; Luke 15:30). She walks about brazenly with a seared conscience devoid of shame or regret (Jer 3:3; Ezek 16:30). The Bible implies that a prostitute dresses in an identifiable way (Prov 7:10), but ironically her attempts to solicit attention only create a life in which she is quickly forgotten (Isa 23:16). This very negative assessment of the prostitute is in no way improved by Tamar and Rahab (Gen 38:15, 26; Josh 2:1; 6:17,22,25; Heb 11:31; James 2:25), even though the latter is mentioned in the genealogical record of Jesus (Matt 1:5).
The formal mention of prostitutes in the Bible is often used to shape our impression of people with whom they were associated. Because the law of God was clear on this matter, the linking of a man with a prostitute, whether sexually or by birth, cast a dark cloud over his character. This included notables like Judah, Jephthah, and Samson (Gen 38:15; judg 11:1; 16:1). When Joshua sent spies to Jericho, the population was so immoral that the one person of redeeming value found in the city was a prostitute (Josh 2:1). And the image of Ahab was clearly tarnished by the fact that his bloody chariot was washed out at the place where the prostitutes bathed (1 Kings 22:38). By contrast, Israel’s leaders who aggressively expelled shrine prostitutes from the Promised Land were celebrated for their efforts (1 kIngs 15:11-12; 22:43-46; 2 Kings 23:3,7). The Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus shunned prostitutes. But when they failed to recognized the authenticity of Jesus’s claims to be the Messiah, those leaders found themselves facing a criticism they never thought they would hear: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt 21:31).