Entertainment as worship: Old Testament trends

Do some worship practices sanctioned in biblical antiquity have anything to say to us today?

Kai Arasola, D.Min., teaches religious studies at Mission College, Saraburi Province, Thailand.

Prostitution is part of the sad side of the Old Testament story. But what is sadder is that it has often been associated with the history of religion and with its places of worship. The Bible speaks of prostitution even in Israel, at times practiced in the surroundings of the Jerusalem temple. One has to wonder how prostitution could have been tolerated so close to a temple that, among other things, contained in its holiest sanctum the divinely inscribed code, "Do not commit adultery."

Of course, no one could claim that temple prostitution is a central theme in the Old Testament. However, prostitution, as we encounter it in the Bible, is a disturbing complexity. Close to one hundred biblical references speak about prostitutes or prostitution. In many instances the word is used metaphorically to refer to idol worship or the practice of false belief and worship. Some texts refer to prostitution without any link to religion. About a dozen biblical passages clearly refer to sexual prostitution connected to the temple what the New International Version translates as "shrine prostitution."

Shrine prostitution and Israel

All these references are in the earliest parts of Old Testament history in patriarchal narratives, in the law formulated in the Pentateuch, in the book of Job, and in texts dealing with the first temple era (the historical books and the pre-exilic prophets).

Temple prostitution was common in many religions, and God warned Israel against it in the most unmistakable terms: "Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same" (Exod. 34:15, 16).*

"No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute. You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God to pay any vow, because the Lord your God detests them both" (Deut. 23:17, 18).

In spite of these divine warnings, Israel did not allow itself to go unscathed when it came to the despicable practice, and prostitution appeared in the so-called "high places" around the country. Shrine prostitution, often connected with the "Asherah" poles, is mentioned about 40 times in the Old Testament. 1

These poles were found in all parts of the country. "Judah did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. There were even male shrine prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites" (1 Kings 14:22-24).

By the time of King Asa, shrine prostitution went beyond the high places and, as already mentioned, was well established in the precincts of the Jerusalem temple itself. So the king fired and expelled the male prostitutes (1 Kings 15:11-13). The practice was so deeply rooted that Asa's son Jehoshaphat had to continue the work of expulsion (1 Kings 22:45, 46).

A few generations later the great reform of Josiah may finally have put an end to temple prostitution, both male and female (see Ezek. 8:14). At that time the Asherah poles were also destroyed and their housing near the temple was demolished (2 Kings 23:6, 7).

Hosea, from the Southern Kingdom, expresses horror at the prevalence of both temple and common prostitution: "I will not punish your daughters when they turn to prostitution, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery, because the men them selves consort with harlots and sacrifice with shrine prostitutes a people without understanding will come to ruin" (Hosea 4:14, NIV; cf. 4:10-13). Not that the prophet approves adultery and general prostitution, but he expresses God's horror at the prospect of mixing worship with prostitution.

According to Micah, the general situation in Jerusalem itself was not that different. "All her idols will be broken to pieces; all her temple gifts will be burned with fire; I will destroy all her images. Since she gathered her gifts from the wages of prostitutes, as the wages of prostitutes they will again be used" (Micah 1:7).

Why did temple prostitution prevail?

Why did this religiously sanctioned practice of lust prevail when both the heart of the law and the messages of the prophets denounced it?

An answer seems to be contained in the well-documented fact that Israel simply followed the practices common among the religion and fertility cults of her neighbors. Their so-called hieros gamos or holy wedding rituals mutated what was sexual into the supposedly sacred sexual and fertility themes of fruitfulness that were, for instance, related to Baal, Seth, or Tammuz. The worship of Moloch also included sexual myths and practices (Isa. 57:1-13). 2

However, Israel's emulation of its neighbors' customs is not the under lying reason for the popularity in Israel of combining such sexual practices with its religious faith. The seminal reason is less obvious and overt: the practice of using the temple as a place of entertainment, albeit entertainment with "religious" overtones.

Two biblical examples illustrate how easy it was to turn religion into a pursuit of amusement:

At Mount Sinai, Israel eagerly swore that all that the Lord had said they would do (Exod. 19:8; 24:3, 7), but a few days later a bawdy party was thrown, with a golden bull at the center, and "nakedness" as part of what was in fact a religious celebration (Exod. 32:17-26).

Some years later pretty girls from Baal-worshiping Moab invited the Israelites to a semi-religious gathering where "the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab" and where they "called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods" (Num. 25:1-9, KJV).

These two almost random examples indicate that in those days some forms of pagan worship included sexual features that easily escalated into orgies. Such religion provided a way, for the Israelite, at least to legitimize illicit sexual practice, placing it under the guise of religious faith.

It is reasonable to conclude that religious centers, high places, and temples, were, in some Old Testament times, the best places of entertainment (in the "worldly" sense of the word). The journey from forms of entertainment with sexual overtones to orgies was not a long one to take.

The practice at Baalbek

The same point can be easily illustrated by a tour around the temple of Baalbek. This is the largest temple ruin in the Middle East and the best representation of what Canaanite religion really was, and what Israel was dealing with and influenced by. This is true, even though the present ruins stem from the Roman era.3

Baalbek was located in Lebanon's present southern Bekaa valley. Visitors would enter the temple through a massive staircase leading to the gate complex. As they approached the gate they would see booths where priests or priestesses advised the "worshipers" on what was being offered in the temple area. The first concern was the choice of sacrifices that was avail able for the arriving worshiper.

After the order had been placed for a goat, lamb, chicken, or bull, the visitors stepped through the gate into the main courtyard where the animal was brought up from huge stables below for their inspection. After appropriate rituals the animal was slaughtered on one of the two giant altars that still dominate today's ruins of the main courtyard.

As in the high places of Israel and at the temple of Jerusalem major portions of the meat were then given to the worshipers for their personal use (Lev. 7:16-18; Deut. 12:27; cf. 1 Sam. 2:13ff.). In Baalbek the visitors could have their meal prepared in the temple kitchens and have an enjoyable lunch or dinner with their friends and/or priestesses or priests in one of the niches of the great courtyard of the temple. A good meal was part of a good worship experience.

This kind of arrangement is not entirely absent in Old Testament descriptions. Saul is said to have enjoyed a sumptuous meal when meeting Samuel at one of the high places (1 Sam. 9:14-24). Also Ezekiel's vision of the temple included four kitchens for the preparation of sacrifices (Ezek. 46:21-24).

In Baalbek the visitors moved on to the second courtyard after the meal. Again impressive wide stairs led to the area of the main temple of Baal or Jupiter. This temple may have included holy or most holy places, as Phoenician temples usually did. The wide flat floor next to the stairs, and the colonnade, provided a good set ting for theatrical displays, choirs, and other performances.

Modern imagery may not do full justice of the actual facts, but it makes the experience easier to understand. The visitors move from the "restaurant" to the "theater." After watching the show to their satisfaction, it was time to move on. Some may have continued to smaller specialized structures for fortune-telling, healing, or other purposes.

The next large temple building was particularly suited for a visit late in the day. It is the temple of Bacchus, the god of wine and pleasure.

Vines, grapes, and opium buds were carved into the portico to express the intent of this establishment. Thus after the "restaurant" and the "theater," the "worshiper" entered what could be called a "nightclub," a place to drink wine or to smoke opium, and to watch dancing girls performing on a high and wide stage. It was all calculated to raise the passion levels of the visitors.

The stage was now set for the final part of the visit. On the way out the visitors would pass the temple of Venus with room for hundreds of temple prostitutes, who might have served as escorts and companions through out the worshipers' visit to the temple.

The temples of Baalbek were bigger and more comprehensive than any other temple in the area. In some ways every Canaanite high place or shrine had parts of Baalbek in it. To complete the picture one needs to mention that this worship with entertainment was not free. Visitors had to pay for their pleasure (see Deut. 23:17, 18; Hosea 2:5, 8; Micah 1:7). If in no other way, this was done through their purchase of the "sacrifices" they chose as they entered. All this is only one aspect of what went on in the temples and the minds of the people.4

Worship or entertainment?

The relatively small number of biblical passages that connect prostitution to the temple in Jerusalem do not war rant a conclusion that this was a permanent part of worship there. However, with Israel's neighbors these kinds of practices were relatively permanent. They practiced their "worship" before the conquest of the land by Israel and kept it up for centuries after the latest Old Testament reference to it.

Within Judah and Israel shrine prostitution may have been fixed more at the high places or the temples of the Northern Kingdom at Bethel, Dan, or Samaria. It may be that in Jerusalem there were only short spells of these kinds of practices.

One may still want to ask: But how could Israel let any of this come into the temple of the Yahweh? Maybe, as we've suggested, they were enticed by the ways of the ancient Canaanites. Maybe they wanted their religion to berelevant and meaningful. Perhaps they wanted, or felt they needed, to have their temple and its services compete with the beauty and allure of the Baal temples that surrounded them.

A more fundamental reason, how ever, was their estrangement from God and thus their lack of heartfelt commitment to Him. This led to meaninglessness and emptiness in their understanding of the true faith of Yahweh, and thus to neglect and apparently urgently needed compromises with all that surrounded them; and thus finally to the adoption of practices diametrically opposed to the essence of the true faith, despite the divine warnings presented in the law and by the prophets.

What of today?

As part of the contemporary world, where the "religions" of increasingly promiscuous entertainment, Holly wood, nightclubs, or rave parties make converts much faster than the church of God, we cannot afford to compromise the essential aspects of our heart felt devotion to our Lord. We cannot allow commercial entertainment to dictate the agenda of Christian worship. The church must not, indeed, by the nature of things, it cannot compete with the world on its turf.

This is not in fact an issue of cultural contextualization, as it may seem to be. It is not about rhythms or music or art forms or even particular forms of worship, per se. It is rather about blatantly crossing a line that God has drawn through Jesus Christ in the very nature of what is of His kingdom and what is of the kingdoms of this present age.

True worship has no room, that is, it cannot by its very nature make room for compromise with some thing as foreign to the essence of God's kingdom as is so much at the heart of contemporary entertainment. Christian worship cannot make these accommodations and maintain the life and nature given it by God.

Instead Christian worship must truly and actually uplift God and Him alone. It has to be done not only in spirit but in truth, and not only in truth, but in spirit (John 4:23). This does not, of course, mean that genuine Christian worship should not, or cannot, be animated and enjoyable and even "fun." Indeed, it can be in the best and purest sense of the word—in the sense of the abject joy that is found in loving commitment to Him who promised life, and that "to the full" (John 10:10).

* All passages, except as otherwise stated, are from the New International Version.


1 Ruth Hestnrr, "Understarrdirrg Asherah: Exploring Semitic Iconography," Biblical Archaelogy Review, September/October 1991.

2 Susan Ackerman, "Sacred Sex, Sacrifice and Death Understanding a Prophetic Poem,"Bible Review, Febrnary 1990, Roland deVaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973, 1988), 384, James D. Taubion, "Hieros Gamos Typology and the late of passron," Postmodern Culture, 10 3 (http //muse ]hn edu/demo/pmc/mdex html)

3 Baalbek was an old Phoenician temple site with buildings or structures that were totally replaced during the Roman era. Earliest written references to  these temples aie from the Seleucid and Ptolenidic period

4 See Beth Alpert Nacho, Archaelogy and the Religions of Canaan and Israel (American Schools of Oriental Research, 2001)



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Kai Arasola, D.Min., teaches religious studies at Mission College, Saraburi Province, Thailand.

August 2003

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