Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Money and Prostitution in the ancient world: the Biblical story of Tamar and Judah

Horace Vermet's interpretation of the biblical story of Tamar seducing her father in law, Judah. Practically all modern painters have shown the seduction scene as taking place somewhere in the desert or in the middle of nowhere. But they were missing the point of a story rich of hidden meanings and that may tell us much about the role of money in the life of the past, and in our times. 

Have you ever thought about how a world without money could be? Today, it looks impossible, but there have been times, in the ancient past, when money just didn't exist - it had not been invented yet. Surely, life must have been very different in those times and an interesting story that seems to come from that age is the one that we can read in the Bible about how Tamar seduced her father in law, Judah, to force him to obey the Levirate law. The story says that Tamar met Judah as he was traveling in the city of Enaim. She was wearing a veil, so that he didn't recognize her, and she convinced him to send her a goat in exchange for her sleeping with him. As pledge, he left with her his "staff, seal, and cord." When, later on, Judah sent the goat to Enaim, she was nowhere to be found. Months later, Tamar was found to be pregnant and Judah ordered to put her to death on the sin of harlotry. But Tamar could produce Judah's pledge, the staff, seal, and cord, showing that he was the father of the child (actually, twins). According to the Levirate law, these children were legitimate, since Judah had refused to give to Tamar as husband his third son, after that the first two had died. So, one of Tamar's sons was the ancestor of King David and, later on, of Jesus of Nazareth.

Independently of whether you are a believer or not, you can't avoid feeling the fascination of this story that has generated a large number of comments; often centered on how it could be that the ancestry of Jesus can be found in a woman whose behavior was at least questionable. Other interpretations have been centered on understanding the historical roots of the story, generating dozens of learned papers in the scientific literature. Here, however, I'll focus on the "monetary" elements of the story.

At first sight, it seems that we have to understand the story as implying that money - intended as currency - didn't exist at that time. Otherwise, how could it be that Judah accepted to engage in a transaction that involved that kind of personal pledge? The way things are, today, the customer of a prostitute pays in cash, the transaction leaves no traces, and that's the quintessential kind of cash transaction. So, how could prostitutes - whose job is said to be "the oldest profession" - exist before money had been invented?

However, if we examine the question in more detail, it is clear that the monetary elements of the story are not so simple as they appear. First of all, what do we know about prostitution in those times? The story is supposed to take place around mid-first millennium BCE and there is a vast literature on prostitution at that time (see e.g Astour 1966 and Morris, 2008). It is clear that there existed prostitutes in the Middle Eastern region at that time, people whom we would describe today as "sex workers," providing sexual services in exchange for a compensation. In many cases, however, it seems that these sex workers were associated to temples, and if female they were referred to as "hierodules." There are no "cultic" implications in this term; in the sense that temple prostitutes would perform religious rites or services. It meant simply that they performed their job as one of the many services provided by temples. Why was  that? Mainly because of the kind of currency used at that time.

About money, at the time of Judah and Tamar several metal-based media of exchange had been available already for a long time (Powell 1996). The main currency was based on silver in chunks of variable size, while standardized coins were available, although probably not common. Now, if currency is in the form of silver chunks of variable weight, then every transaction requires weighing the silver. As a guarantee of honest weighing, an intermediary would have been normally needed, and that was surely a service that the temples could provide. Temples, indeed, were not just religious institutions but acted as corporations, warehouses, and commercial centers (Sterba 1976). So, it is not surprising that they provided also sexual services to their customers; quite possibly, they would pay the temple rather than the prostitute herself. The Church of England did something similar in Medieval times (Karras 1996). In later times, the diffusion of cash made these services unnecessary and, therefore, the temples as service providers disappeared.

We even have some idea of the prices of prostitution at the times of Tamar and Judah, from an Old Babylonian text reported by Morris (2006).

"When I am standing by the wall, it is one lamb.
When I am bowing down, it is one and a half shekels"

In terms of silver, "one and a half shekel" correspond to 12.5 grams, considering that one shekel makes 8.33 g (Powell, 1996). This is about the weight of a single modern silver coin; for instance the U.S. silver half dollar. At the current silver prices (ca. 1.5 $/g) a shekel and a half correspond to $19. However, silver was much less common in ancient times and Powell (1996) remarks about a shekel that "even this small amount of silver constituted about a month's pay for labor throughout a large part of ancient Mesopotamian history."  One shekel of silver seemed also to correspond to the price of approximately one lamb or one goat according with some data we have about ancient Egypt ( It is clear that, if these were the prices, peasants and workers could hardly afford the services of a prostitute. But that wasn't the case of Judah, likely a wealthy landowner, and he could afford to pay the equivalent of a goat for the deal; finding it nothing unusual. After all, no one in the story seems to find strange that Judah was sending one of his friends with a goat as payment for a prostitute.

So, we are back to the first question: why didn't the transaction between Judah and Tamar involve currency? Is it possible that Judah wouldn't have carried even at least a little silver with him in his travel? If not for a prostitute, he would have needed it for food and lodging. Of course, there may have been reasons we can't easily understand today. But I would like to propose an explanation based on the fact that Judah understood very well that the woman he met in Enaim was not a prostitute. And that, even if he had silver with him, he didn't consider appropriate to use it for that occasion.

The key element of the story, here, is Tamar's veil. The question is, why should a prostitute veil herself? In ancient times, just as in modern ones, the veil is almost always a sign that a woman is married, or anyway unavailable for marriage. And not just that; according to Michael Astur (1966), a Babylonian hierodule was strictly forbidden from wearing a veil and harshly punished if she did. So, how could Judah mistake a veiled woman for a prostitute? Astour, here, goes through a truly acrobatic leap of logic, noting first that a woman could abandon her hierodule status and marry and, in this case, she was allowed to wear a veil. Then, assuming that Tamar had been a hierodule before marrying, her wearing a veil could be "a privilege evidently extended into widowhood." Even if we were to agree on this perilous chain of assumptions, the explanation still makes no sense. How could Judah know that the veiled woman he had met was a former prostitute when her aspect, instead, was that of a married woman?

So, we can imagine that Judah understood perfectly well that the woman he met in Enaim was not a prostitute; but that the circumstances made it possible to have a sexual encounter with her; something akin to what we call today an "affair" or, maybe, a "one night stand". We know that the meeting of Judah and Tamar took place in correspondence with a festival related to the shearing of sheep. We don't know what were the uses of festivals in the town of Enaim at that time but, still, sheep are normally sheared at the beginning of spring, and that is also the time of some typical fertility festivities that in our times we call "carnival". In these festivities, masks could be worn, and may be worn even today, allowing wearers a certain degree of anonymity, and hence of sexual license. In the case of Tamar and Judah, it may well be that the veiled woman would have found offensive to be paid in silver currency, like a prostitute. But she would maybe have accepted a gift in the form of a goat. Surely, she asked Judah a certain degree of commitment in the affair; not just a monetary payment. Hence the requirement of  his staff, seal, and cord, something that a normal prostitute would never require from a customer.

Then, why does the Bible insist that Tamar was a prostitute? Well, in ancient times, for a man to engage in an affair with a married woman was not only morally condemned, but also legally sanctioned. And Judah had done exactly that while, at the same time, leaving to the woman the means to identify him if she wanted. So, it is understandable that Judah was worried about the possible consequences of what he had done and that he wanted back his seal, staff, and cord, as soon as possible. At that time, frequenting a prostitute doesn't seem to have been under the same kind of moral blame that is typical of our times. Hence, Judah may have invented the story of the "prostitute" to justify sending a goat to Enaim. That explains the surprise of the people of Enaim when asked about a "temple prostitute" that - they said - had never been there. It was true, she was not a prostitute.

This story tells us a lot about how the availability of a certain kind of currency affected people's habits. There is no doubt that the invention of coinage - or "cash" - around the 7th century BCE, generated the possibility of commercial exchanges that would lave no traces; hence making possible many activities that would be considered illegal, then as today, including that of a certain kind of prostitution. In our times, most Western countries seem to be engaged in a war against cash - trying to replace it with electronic means of payment. The idea is to avoid exactly the anonymity that makes cash so useful for illegal transactions. So, in a world without cash, most scams, thefts, and the like have moved to the internet. But how about the world's "oldest profession?" Will we return to temple prostitutes, as they were common at the time of Tamar and Judah? Hard to say, but never underestimate people's creativity when it is a question of engaging in something illegal.


Astour, Michael, Journal of Biblical Literature, 85,2 (1966) 185-196.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996

Lipiński, Edward, Biblical Archeological Society, 2014.

Morris, Silver, Temple/Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia Revisited: Religion in the Economy." Ugarit Forschungen, 38, 2006 (published 2008), 631-63.

Powell, Marvin A, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
Vol. 39, No. 3, Money in the Orient (1996), pp. 224-242

Sterba, Richard L. A.  The Organization and Management of the Temple Corporations in Ancient Mesopotamia, The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), pp. 16-26

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