Review of Lipinski, Edward. “Cult Prostitution in Ancient Israel?”

Review:  Lipinski, Edward.  “Cult Prostitution in Ancient Israel?”  Biblical Archaeological Review 40 (January/February 2014): 49-56, 70. [Israel/Ritual/Women]

Herschel Shenks, editor of BAR, likes nothing better than a good controversy.  With the publication of this article I suspect he has taken a giant step in that direction.  Lipinski, professor emeritus at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, teacher of Semitic languages and epigraphy and the history, cultures and religions of the Ancient Near East and the Biblical world and teacher at the Institute of Jewish Studies in Brussels weighs in on one of the hottest topics in Biblical and Temple studies at the moment.  In this essay Lipinski takes a conservative position that appears to be an attempt to rehabilitate Judaism from two problems, one  that was laid at its feet centuries ago when the Bible was first translated into English, the other much more recently. 

The first, is the notion that the Israelites were guilty of cult prostitution through assimilating Canaanite fertility rites associated with their temples.  Lipinski argues that the Hebrew word qedeshot, the plural ofqedeshah, which is related to qodesh, meaning “holy place,” originally referred to a “consecrated maiden” but Biblical authors used it in the sense of a “harlot.”  In the ancient world there were consecrated women who devoted themselves to the service of the gods or goddesses in the sanctuaries and temples, perhaps even providing some sexual services.  However, Lipinski argues, “qedeshot in the Bible never appear as performing  religious sexual rituals, which is the key attribute of a cult prostitute.”  (p. 49)  He is not the first to make this argument.   Nevertheless, he goes to some pains to explain why the use of the word qedeshot in Ex. 38:8 and Deut 23:17-18 does not refer to cult prostitutes.  He argues that the word became a less derogatory synonym for the Hebrew word zonah, or “prostitute.”  Also, these episodes are not described in a “cultic context.”  Thus the Bible is referring to a prostitute, not a cult prostitute.  Moreover, the translators of the Septuagint also understood the term in the more generic Hellenistic sense of “initiate.”  (p. 51)

The second issue is the more popular at the moment and it involves the concept of asherah.  Many, many modern scholars have argued that the presence of this word in the Bible refers to a female goddess who is the consort of God.  Lipinski unabashedly asserts that “This goddess … is little more than a scholarly invention, resulting from the confusion of the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth with the similar sounding wordasherah (plural, asherim), a common West Semitic noun meaning “shirne” or “sacred grove.” (picture caption p. 52) The text explains at some length on the basis of West Semitic languages the origin of this confusion and offers this conclusion which I suspect will turn out to be quite controversial:


It is clear, however, that asherah in the Bible cannot refer to a goddess.  In the Bible, asherah has a plural, ‘srym, sometimes ‘srwt.  This would hardly be the case if asherah were a goddess.  Moreover, in the Bible asherah sometimes occurs with the article ha- (“the shrine”), as in the well-known Hebrew inscriptions from Khirbet el-Qom, near Jerusalem (yhwh w’srth, “Yahweh and his shrine”), and from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai (yhwh smrn w’srth, “Yahweh of Samaria and his shrine”; yhwh tmn w’srth, “Yahweh of the South and his shrine”).  This proves that asherah cannot be a proper name.  In addition, asherah could be “built” (1 Kings 14:23), “made” (2 Kings 21:7), “set up” (2 Kings 17:10) or “installed” (2 Chronicles 33:19), again showing that asherah cannot be a goddess.  Asherah was no deity but simply a grove or a shrine that eventually became a small construction.” (pp. 53-54)


The remainder of the article discusses the existence of cult prostitution in the Mediterranean basin and the Near East, including the Canaanites.  Even here Lipinski distinguishes between these activities and several examples of sexual activity  among some of these societies which were commonly associated with the temple which he calls rites of passage.  The difference being that cult prostitution was an ongoing thing whereas the sexual rites of passage, such as circumcision, were a once-in-a-lifetime event.  So for Lipinski, even though there may be a slight hint of cult prostitution in 2 Kings 23:7, its mention of a shrine rented to women does not indicate what activities took place therein and may have involved a rite of passage or some other activity besides “cult prostitution.”

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