Archive for July 22nd, 2011

Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.  –  Matthew 21:31

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, whom Western tradition represents as a repentant prostitute; I discussed the legend in last year’s column for this day.  But though the Bible does not support the idea that Mary Magdalene was a whore, it does mention a number of other ladies of my profession and today I’d like to present an overview of their stories.

The first notable mention of a harlot occurs in Genesis 38, and as might be expected of an episode taking place about the 15th century BCE the harlot concerned was a temple prostitute…or to be exact, a woman disguised as a temple prostitute.  The Hebrew Levirate law required that a man marry his brother’s childless widow so the dead brother might have descendants to inherit his name and property and the widow would have children to support her in old age.  The patriarch Judah had three sons:  Er, Onan and Shelah, but Er died suddenly before giving his wife, Tamar, any children.  Er’s younger brother, Onan, married her as duty demanded, but he hated his dead brother and refused to give him descendants, so though he had sex with Tamar he withdrew before ejaculation and “spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother” – (Genesis 38:9).  Yahweh was very unhappy about this combination rape and dereliction of duty and accordingly slew Onan; weirdly enough, Christian preachers of the early 18th century used this as evidence that God disliked masturbation (“spilling seed on the ground”) and referred to the act as “onanism”, thus demonstrating that they entirely misunderstood the nature of Onan’s transgression.

“Tamar and Judah” by Horace Vernet (1840)

In any case, Shelah should have next inherited the duty but he was too young to marry, so Judah asked Tamar to wait; however, when the boy came of age the father did not uphold his promise.  The clever girl therefore travelled to a nearby town whither Judah had driven his sheep to have them shorn, and disguised herself as a veiled Canaanite temple prostitute (the Hebrew word used is kedeshah, a sacred prostitute, rather than zonah, a common one) in order to entice her father-in-law to hire her.  The plan worked; he promised to pay her a kid from his flock, and as a bond he left his signet ring, bracelets and staff.  Of course, she had no interest in payment; what she wanted was the child due her, so after the act was done she left without waiting for the kid to be delivered, and when her pregnancy began to show three months later she presented the identifying items as proof of her child’s lawful parentage.  Judah confessed that he had been tricked into doing his duty, Tamar had twins and everything worked out for the best; the sons became the ancestors of the tribe of Judah, i.e. the Jews.

Tamar was not the only Biblical harlot with important descendants.  In the second chapter of Joshua two Hebrew spies lodged in the house of a harlot named Rahab while in Jericho, and she hid them from searchers in return for their promise that when they invaded her city she and her family would be spared.  Why did she do this for two strangers?  Self-interest was certainly a major factor, but hospitality laws probably came into play as well; in the ancient Near East a host had a sacred responsibility for the safety of those under his roof, which is why Lot was willing to turn his own daughters over to the Sodomite rape-gang in Genesis 19:4-8 rather than give up the disguised angels who were his guests.  Also, Rahab seems to have been rather disgusted by the spineless response of her countrymen to news of the Hebrew victories (“your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you…neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you” – Joshua 2:9-11).  In any case, Joshua kept the pact to which his spies had committed him and Rahab and her family were spared; she married one of the Hebrews and became the ancestress of either several prophets or of Jesus himself, depending on which Biblical scholar one chooses to believe.

The First Book of Kings (chapter 3, verses 16-28), tells the famous story of King Solomon’s judgment over two harlots who shared a house; one overlaid her baby and he died, so she switched the body for the other woman’s child.  The King ordered that the living baby be split with a sword and half given to each, whereupon the real mother instantly renounced the infant to save its life.  But there’s a strange detail at the end of the story; we are told “all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king”, which is a strange reaction unless one recognizes the politics behind it.  Solomon, you see, was not the rightful heir; he was the son of David’s concubine Bathsheba, and the throne should have gone to his elder brother Adonijah but Solomon was the cleverer politician and contrived a coup.  Immediately upon taking the throne he spread the story of the judgment over the harlots, which was in actuality a parable:  the wrongful mother (Solomon) was willing to let the baby (Israel) be split with a sword (divided by civil war), but the rightful mother (Adonijah) could avoid the butchery by relinquishing parental (royal) rights.  No wonder the people were afraid!

In Solomon’s parable Israel was the child of a whore, but by Ezekiel’s time (early 6th century BCE) she was portrayed as a whore herself.  Ezekiel (whose feast, coincidentally, was yesterday) repeatedly prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem for its “betrayal” of Mosaic Law, and one of his parables painted the now-divided Hebrew kingdom (northern Samaria and southern Judah) as a pair of harlot sisters who enjoy their work entirely too much.  He describes their “whoredoms” in great and lurid detail, mentioning several times that their clients bruised their tits (Ezekiel 23:3, 8 and 21), and he seems especially fascinated with the size of their clients’ penises and the volume of their seminal discharge (“For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.” – Ezekiel 23:20).  I’ll bet you never studied that passage in catechism or Sunday school!

But what about the woman whose name is practically synonymous with “whore”, namely Jezebel?  Well, as I already explained in my column of that name, she was a Phoenician princess who married King Ahab of Israel and dutifully built temples to her own gods in her adopted land, thus earning the wrath of the fanatical prophet Elisha.  After Ahab’s death Elisha backed a usurper who overthrew the rightful heir and had Queen Jezebel hurled from a window of the palace to her death.  The association of her name with harlotry appears to derive from the fact that when she knew death was near she made up her face and dressed in full royal regalia so as to die a queen, plus the fact that Elisha, like Ezekiel in later centuries, used the word “whoredom” as a metaphor for turning from Yahweh to other gods.  Of course, Jezebel wasn’t a Hebrew so her adherence to her native gods can hardly be considered apostasy, but little details like that (and the fact that in Phoenicia, makeup wasn’t considered the exclusive province of harlots as it was in Israel) don’t matter much to homicidal religious maniacs.

“The Whore of Babylon” by William Blake (1809)

Nor to mystical visionaries like St. John the Divine, who in the 1st century CE portrayed Jezebel as a sort of succubus: “…thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.  And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.  Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 2:20-22)  John was one of those Christians who followed in the footsteps of the Hebrew prophets by using whores as symbols for everything filthy; the most famous is of course the Whore of Babylon from Revelation 17:

And there came one of the seven angels…saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:  With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication…and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.  And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:  And upon her forehead [was] a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth.”

Though modern Christian fundamentalists believe the Whore of Babylon to be a literal person, this is a fairly recent interpretation; most Biblical scholars believe she was a symbol for Rome, and Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation taught that she was a symbol for the Catholic Church.  But whichever interpretation one accepts, with Babylon the transformation is complete; the whores of the oldest parts of the Bible are strong, realistic and positively-portrayed women, but as the centuries wore on and women’s status sank the harlot became a symbol for increasingly negative and abstract concepts.

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