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 recognize the authenticity of Jesus’s claims to be the Messiah, those leaders found themselves facing a criticism they never thought they would hear: “They I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt 21:31).
The idea of the prostitute also appears in the Bible as a metaphor deployed in various ways. Simeon and Levi sought to defend their actions and tactics in harming the residents of Shechem by saying to their father, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?” (Gen 34:31). The “he” was the son of an influential resident of Sheechem who had sexually violated the daughter of Jacob. He had used her sexually without providing a long-term commitment, paralleling the way a prostitute was used.
Not just the word prostitute but the phrase great prostitute was used to characterize the “great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (Rev 17:1,5,16,18; 19:2). For those living in John’s day, this great city was known as Rome, but it was also symbolic of all great national capitals that opposed the coming of Christ’s kingdom. The goal of the opponents of the Messiah was to make themselves and their resistance to Christ stronger through financial dealings that were like those of the prostitute-financial gain without commitment to the well-being of the martial relationship.
Finally, the word prostitute was linked to God’s own people, particularly as the prophets criticized their unwarranted political alliances and dabbling in the worship of pagan deities, both of which represented a breach in the marriage-like covenant they were to enjoy with the Lord (Deut 31:16; Isa 1:21; Jer 2:20, 23-24; 3:1). Two extended metaphors in Ezekiel are worthy of note here. In Ezekiel 16, Jerusalem and its residents are likened to a female infant who was abandoned by her parents and was destined to be claimed by those who would raise her to be a prostitute. The Lord rescued her from this life and made her his bride, only to have her choose a life of prostitution by engaging in pagan worship and alliances with nations that required pagan worship, such as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. “You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband! All prostitutes receive gifts, but you give gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from everywhere for your illicit favors” (Ezek 16:32-33). Just a few chapters later in Ezekiel 23:1-14, the extended metaphor that describes the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah and wayward sisters uses similar imagery.