During a Bible study class in my synagogue, a participant raised the idea that perhaps the ancient Israelites adopted foreign religious practices because “the Canaanites had more fun.” When pressed, this colleague of mine referred specifically to cultic prostitution. Ah, yes. Sex! This article examines the issue of sexuality, specifically sacred marriage and cultic prostitution in the ancient Near East and concludes that the ancient Israelites were having just as much fun as their Canaanite neighbors.
Friday mornings are Haftarah study in my synagogue. Lately it’s been on Zoom due to the COVID 19 pandemic, but we gather virtually with our rabbi to study that week’s biblical reading from the prophets (Haftarah). On this particular occasion, the biblical passage was the second of the three so-called “Haftarahs of Rebuke” read during the three weeks between the half-day fast of the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the full-day fast of the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. On the 17th of Tammuz, according to tradition, the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE, and three weeks later, on the 9th of Av, they destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the first Temple. All three of these passages of rebuke come from the prophet Jeremiah.
Of course for Jeremiah, this catastrophe was not simply the outcome of historical forces—the superior military power of Babylon—but God’s punishment of the people of the Kingdom of Judah for their failure to maintain covenant loyalty to Yahweh, the God of Israel. In the opening chapters of Jeremiah, we read of this disloyalty in metaphorical expressions evoking fertility. Speaking in the name of God, Jeremiah reminds the people that God had brought them through a barren wilderness into a fertile land, but that they defiled the land through worship of the local Canaanite storm-god Baal (Jeremiah 2:6-8).
This prophetic insistence on Yahweh as the source of fertility and not Baal is consistent with the well-known story of the contest between the Israelite prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18-19. There, too, the issue is the true divine source of rain and fertility. As this discussion ensued in our study group, one of the participants suggested that perhaps one of the reasons that certain elements of the Israelite population preferred the Canaanite ritual is because “Canaanites had more fun.”
My guess is the question is about sex, and a lot of that comes from biblical references to the alleged lasciviousness of the indigenous, pre-Israelite population of Canaan. Consider for example the list of forbidden sexual relations in Leviticus 18, a passage traditionally read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. I’ve heard it said that this is traditionally read at that time to wake up tired, hungry congregants who have spent the whole day in synagogue. Well, this ought to wake us up: sex with your father’s wife, your half-sister, your aunt, your daughter-in law, not to mention bestiality.
“Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves” (Lev. 18:24).
Unfortunately, according to our prophet Jeremiah, Judeans were also having fun like their Canaanite neighbors, and this is part of the prophet’s rebuke. Speaking in the name of God, Jeremiah scolds his Judean audience:
you forgot Me
And trusted in falsehood,
I in turn will lift your skirts over your face
And your shame shall be seen.
I behold your adulteries,
Your lustful neighing,
Your unbridled depravity, your vile acts
On the hills of the countryside.
Woe to you, O Jerusalem...” (Jeremiah 13:26-27)
I asked my colleague what prompted him to raise the question, and he mentioned cultic prostitution, a topic that actually relates to the subject of sacred marriage. Any number of scholars, most notably the late Samuel Noah Kramer, the preeminent scholar of Sumerian language and culture, have written about Sumerian sacred marriage myths and rituals. The myths generally involve the Sumerian goddess Inanna and her consort Dumuzi. Known from the Sumerian King List as a legendary king of the Sumerian city of Uruk (Erech in the Bible, modern Warka), Dumuzi is portrayed as a shepherd, but also as a dying and rising vegetation deity.
There are any number of Sumerian poems that describe the relationship between Inanna and Dumuzi. In one of them, published by Kramer and Diane Wolkstein, a scholar of mythology, in a book titled Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Inanna’s brother, the sun god Utu, prepares flax for the goddess to create a bridal sheet for her. She asks, “Who will go to bed with me?” to which Utu answers,
“Sister, your bridegroom will go to bed
He who was born from a fertile womb,
He who was conceived on the sacred marriage throne,
Dumuzi, the shepherd! He will go to bed with you” (p.31).
Insisting that she prefers the farmer to the shepherd, Inanna is finally convinced by her mother to marry the shepherd, who provides wool, milk and cheese. Having anointed and adorned herself, the bride waits anxiously for her lover. When he arrives, she sings:
vulva, the horn,
The Boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon [note the moon and sexuality].
My untilled land lies fallow.
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?
Great Lady, the king will plow your vulva.
I, Dumuzi the King, will plow your vulva...
At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar [so the tree is the male image].
Plants grew high by their side.
Grains grew high by their side.
Gardens flourished luxuriantly.” (p.37)
Here, the goddess is associated with the new moon and the female menstrual cycle. More significantly, however, Inanna is the earth waiting to be plowed. Dumuzi’s organ is the tree, impregnating the earth through his seed effecting the fecundity of the earth.
The mention of “the sacred marriage throne” suggests an actual sacred marriage ceremony. Indeed, some of these poems actually name Sumerian kings, who seem to play the role of Dumuzi in the sacred marriage ritual, presumably engaging in a sexual relationship with a female hierodule, i.e., a cultic prostitute, who plays the role of Inanna. It appears that this ritual was part of the Sumerian New Year’s festival and was meant as a kind of enactment and actualization of the fertility of the earth and thereby the well-being of the human community.
To be honest, there is no consensus as to whether or not these myths and poems depict an actual sacred marriage ritual, as opposed to simply being erotic love songs, not unlike the Song of Songs in the Bible. There is also no clear evidence that sacred marriage rituals existed among the Canaanites. However, there is some clear evidence that it may have existed among the ancient Israelites.
First, a word about the goddess Inanna and any connection to the Bible. Inanna’s Semitic name is Ishtar. She is known in the Canaanite literature from the archeological remains of Ras es-Shamra/Ugarit in northwest Syria as Ashtoret, as she also appears in several passages in the Bible. The Greeks knew her as Astarte. However, Ashtoret plays a minor role, both in the Ugaritic literature and in the Bible. In the former, a somewhat more prominent role is played by the goddess Asherah, the consort of the high god El and mother of the gods.
We hear quite a lot about Asherah in the Bible, though she is often hidden in English translation, where she is often translated “sacred post.” The Hebrew has asherah (אשרה). That it was some sort of image made of wood is suggested by the fact that the judge Gideon is told to cut it down and use it to build a fire to offer sacrifices to Yahweh (Judges 6:25-26). The Torah demands in several places to cut down these Asherah poles (e.g., Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:3) and also forbids the erection of these poles in connection with God’s altar (Deuteronomy 16:21).
Nonetheless, it is clear that these Asherah poles were in use in the late 8th century BCE, since we are told that King Hezekiah of Judea closed all of the local shrines in his kingdom and “cut down the Asherah post” (II Kings 18:4). About a century later, Hezekiah’s grandson Josiah was removing from the Temple in Jerusalem “all the objects made for Baal and Asherah” (II Kings 23:4).
The other issue raised in this regard is ritual prostitution. As noted, elements of the Sumerian sacred marriage ritual, as well as indications from other sources, suggest that this ritual involved the king representing the god Dumuzi (Semitic Tammuz) copulating with a hierodule or cultic prostitute. The evidence for ritual prostitution among the Canaanites is unclear, but, again, it appears that ritual prostitution was an element of the Israelite ritual. Deuteronomy 23:18 insists, “No Israelite woman shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any Israelite man be a cult prostitute.” The Hebrew words for the female cult prostitute and the male cult prostitute are qedeshah and qadesh respectively, words that come from the Hebrew word qadosh, meaning “holy,” “sacred.” Deuteronomy is prohibiting sacred prostitution.
Again, this was not hypothetical; it was happening. Sometime in the late-10th to early-9th century BCE, the Judean king Asa was busy expelling “the male prostitutes (ha-qedeshim) from the land” (I Kings 15:12). Two centuries later and only about a half a century before the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians, while King Josiah of Judah was busy ridding the Temple of “objects made for Baal and Asherah,” he also “tore down the cubicles of the male prostitutes (ha-qedeshim) in the House of the Lord (the Temple), at the place where the women wove coverings for Asherah” (II Kings 23:7).
Admittedly, the Bible condemns these practices in the harshest terms and, indeed, cites these practices as the pretext for the divine punishment of foreign conquest and exile. Nonetheless, it appears that as late as the late-7th early-6th century, Judeans were having at least as much fun as their Canaanite neighbors—perhaps more so, and doing so within the Temple itself. Besides, if you really want to have fun, read the Song of Songs.