These Sex Workers From the Bible Were God’s Favorites

Christianity and sex positivism are hardly synonyms. Christianity conjures up ideas about perpetual virgins, strict sexual codes, alarmingly large families, purity culture, threats of eternal judgment, and a general absence of fun. It might come as some surprise, therefore, to realize that the Divine Plan included more seductresses than shrinking wallflowers.

Let’s begin with Rahab—the woman who helped bring down the city of Jericho. After being freed from enslavement in Egypt, and wandering for forty years in the wilderness, the Israelites found themselves in Canaan (aka the Holy Land). Canaan wasn’t empty and thus began a period of violent and bloody conquest. According to the Hebrew Bible, Joshua (who had succeeded Moses as the people’s leader) sent two spies to scout out the military resources of the well-defended city of Jericho. Their deceptive plan was quickly uncovered, and the two spies took refuge at the house of a sex worker named Rahab. Instead of handing the spies over to her neighbors, Rahab hid them underneath the bundles of flax that were drying on the roof of her house.

In exchange for her assistance the spies promised to save Rahab and her family from the impending invasion. They were spared when, according to the book of Joshua, everyone in the city—man, woman, child, and pets alike—were slaughtered (if this part of the story gives you pause it will come as some consolation that there’s no archeological evidence to support it).

Sex worker Rahab helped hide spies in her house.

Sex worker Rahab helped hide spies in her house.


While some Christians might protest that Rahab’s profession is incidental to the story, there’s some academic debate about this. In one recent article Dr. Alexiana Fry asks “Did the spies encounter Rahab because they were seeking sex?” If James Bond has taught us anything, it’s that spies have voracious sexual appetites. If that’s the case then Rahab’s profession is critically important.

Then there’s the messier and lesser-known story of Tamar in the book of Genesis. Tamar married Er, the son of Judah (the eponymous founder of the tribe of Judah) but Er died before they had any children. Judah commanded that Tamar marry Er’s brother Onan in what is known as a levirate union. In this arrangement, when a man died without children, his brother would procreate with his widow and the resulting male offspring would become the deceased’s legal heirs. (Yes, you did read that correctly. There’s even a story in the New Testament in which Jesus is quizzed about a hypothetical situation in which a woman married seven brothers in succession).

Onan, Er’s younger brother, was perfectly happy to have sex with Tamar, but he didn’t want to lose his additional share of Er’s inheritance to a new baby. So, in the Bible’s first instance of contraception, he withdrew and “spilled his seed on the ground.”

God is unimpressed and kills Er, leaving Tamar widowed again. There is a third brother, Shelah, but he is too young to marry and so Tamar waits in her father-in-law’s house for the boy to reach manhood. When he does, Judah reneges on his promise. Alone, used, and deceived, Tamar takes things into her own hands. Judah himself recently became a widower and when Tamar learned he was taking a trip she dressed herself up as a sex worker, veiled her face, and placed herself in his path.

Judah did not recognize his daughter-in-law on the roadside and propositioned her. In their negotiations over the price of sex Tamar accepted the offer of a young goat but asked for Judah’s seal, cord, and staff (the equivalent of his driver’s license) as collateral until the goat arrived. Judah agreed and they exchanged goods. When Judah returns to swap out the goat for his personal effects the “shrine prostitute” had vanished. The embarrassed Judah decides to keep quiet about the whole thing.

Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar.

Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar.

Sepia Times/Getty

Predictably, however, Tamar becomes pregnant, and her male relatives are on the cusp of burning her to death when she produces the seal, staff, and cord. Judah recognizes his property and concludes that her act of deception and prostitution was fair play: “She is more righteous than I,” he says, “since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” Tamar didn’t have to sleep with her in-laws anymore and her twin sons became the heirs to Judah.

In the New Testament, as is relatively well-known, Jesus regularly fraternizes with sex workers (not like that, though). In one story, that appears in various versions in the Gospels, a woman bursts into the home of Simon the leper in Bethany and anoints Jesus with a costly jar of perfumed ointment. (In 591 CE Pope Gregory the Great mistakenly identified this woman as Mary Magdalene, sparking two millennia of confusion about Mary M’s profession.) The sulky disciples are quite sniffy about the whole thing and declare it a waste of money, but Jesus shuts that down. He responds that she has anointed him for burial, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” As Sarah Levin-Richardson has written in her book on The Brothel of Pompeii, sex workers were often gifted perfume by clients. The fact that this woman is moving around unaccompanied at night and has access to perfumed oil, thus, suggests that she was part of the world’s oldest profession.

A woman, who Pope Gregory the Great, mistakenly identified as Mary Magdalene anoints the feet of Jesus.

A woman, who Pope Gregory the Great, mistakenly identified as Mary Magdalene anoints the feet of Jesus.

Hulton Archive/Getty

In Luke’s version of the story, the woman’s occupation is quite explicit, she is described as a “sinful woman.” In this version, she washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Once again, Jesus rebukes her critics—in this instance, a Pharisee. Though in this version Jesus does refer to the woman’s many sins and forgives them, he does not ask her to change her profession or explicitly refer to sexual misconduct as being among her sins. This is in distinction to a story in the Gospel of John in which he directly tells a man he had just healed to “sin no more.” At a minimum, Jesus isn’t that hung up on her trade and was happy for her to use the fruits of her work to anoint him.

Though some readers might think that these stories are outliers in a compendium of old-fashioned patriarchal morality, the women are not. Jesus’s words about the woman who anoints him form one of his most secure prophecies: we are, in fact, still talking about her.

As for Tamar and Rahab, in Christian tradition they are remembered as instrumental in the history of Israel and genealogy of Jesus himself. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a long list of ancestors that ties Jesus, through Joseph, to David and Abraham. It is, as you would expect, a long list of men begetting one another. But explicitly named in this catalog of men are five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (i.e. Bathsheba), and Mary, the mother of Jesus. What ties these women together? Well, while someone might argue that the four women who preceded Mary are outsiders and their inclusion signals that Jesus’ message would be delivered to gentiles as well as Jews this argument doesn’t quite work. How would these women be connected to Mary, a Jew?

The other explanation is that all five women were involved in sexual scandals. Tamar and Rahab had practiced sex work; Ruth seduced and later married her kinsman Boaz; and, in the view of ancient readers, Bathsheba was an adulteress. What links them to Mary is the veil of suspicion that surrounded the conception of Jesus. In the Gospels she is explicitly identified as a virgin who had not had sex with anyone, but plenty of non-Christians found the tale a bit hard to believe if not outright laughable. The North African Christian writer Tertullian tells us that people accused Jesus of being the “son of a carpenter or a whore.” The pagan critic Celsus says that she was seeing a Roman soldier on the side. Mary might have been a virgin, but she had a bad reputation and was regularly slut shamed by Christianity’s critics.

Leaving Mary aside, the fact remains that for early Christians the women who broke the sexual rules were instrumental in the history of Israel and the generation of Jesus. Assertive women who used the resources they had to better their circumstances and those of their family members are implicitly valued and respected. More importantly they play a critical role in securing the success and survival of God’s chosen people.

The genealogy of Jesus­—which omits the docile wives and virtuous homemakers in Israel’s history—is a tacit indictment of slut shaming writ large. As it turns out, well-behaved women rarely rate a mention in the history of Jesus.


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