When the children of Israel went "a-whoring after other gods" (Judg. 2:17), as they often did, they went generally after Baal and Astarte. Baal ("lord"), known also as Hadad, was the Canaanite god of fertility. He had many local manifestations, such as Baal of Peor (Num. 25:3), and Baal-berith, "lord of the covenant," at Shechem (Judg. 8:33), hence the plural form Baalim. A storm god, Baal died in the spring, wailed over and buried by his consort, the love and war goddess Anat (compare the women mourning for Hadad-rimmon, i.e. Baal, in Zech. 12:11, and those weeping for Tammuz, the dying fertility god of Babylon, in Ezek. 8:14). But in the fall Baal revived, vanquishing Mot, the god of death and drought, and bringing with him the autumn rains. In a graphic but fragmentary text from Canaanite Ugarit (excavated at Ras Shamra in Syria), the triumphant Baal and Anat make love, with Anat giving birth to a buffalo. (See Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts. On other dying and reviving gods of the ancient world--Osiris in Egypt, Adonis in Syria, Attis in Phrygia and Rome--see Frazer's The New Golden Bough.)

Astarte (Babylon's Ishtar, Sumer's Inanna), love goddess of the Phoenicians, is named in the Bible Ashtoreth, combining the consonants from Astarte and the vowels from boshet, Hebrew "shame." She was also known and worshipped in Judah as the Queen of Heaven (Jer. 7:16-20; 44:15-28; see Ackerman). Among others King Solomon, we are told, "went after Ashtoreth" (1 Kings 11:5). In the Bible the plural form, Ashtaroth, is more frequently used, to cover pagan goddesses generally. (See also ASHERAH.)

It has long been assumed that sacred prostitution was practiced in the worship of Baalim, Ashtaroth, and other such deities in the ancient Near East. But while cultic sex in fertility rites would not be surprising, there is no real evidence that ritual sex existed outside of annual sacred marriages, intended to promote fertility, between Mesopotamian kings and female partners standing (or lying) in for the love goddess. The marriage of the Sumerian king, representing the god Dumuzi (Babylon's Tammuz), to the goddess Inanna is textually preserved in sacred marriage songs such as "Plow My Vulva" (see Frymer-Kensky's In the Wake of the Goddesses, and Wolkstein and Kramer's Inanna). On the issue of cultic sex in the Bible, see PROSTITUTION: IS NOTHING SACRED?.

Stele of the Storm God Baal / The Louvre


In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos, writing probably during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 C.E.), refers to Rome as Babylon, "the great whore who sits upon many waters." John describes her as a bejeweled woman "with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication." From her "wine of fornication" the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk, and she herself is "drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus." She is seated on a scarlet beast with ten horns (unidentified powers within the empire), in her hand a golden cup "full of the abominations and filthiness of her fornication." According to Seneca (cited by Nigel Turner), harlots in Rome wore their names on their foreheads. John's drunken harlot has a name upon hers: "Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and of the Earth's Abominations."

John prophesies that the horns of the beast will "hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire." Then all the kings of the earth "who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her" upon seeing "the smoke of her burning."

John's great whore mixes the metaphor of harlotry, used so often for idolatry in the Old Testament, with the prophet Jeremiah's treatment of the actual city of Babylon ("O thou that dwellest upon many waters" [51:13], referring to the Euphrates river and canal system). The whore's golden cup and wine of fornication recalls Jer. 51:7, in which Babylon is "a golden cup in the Lord's hand, that made all the earth drunken."

Such lurid reworking by John of Jeremiah's material suggests at least some design behind what has been called the "kaleidoscopic" nature of John's visions--though certainly it may still be doubted, to quote the Rev. Turner, if "John himself really understood all that he wrote." (Rev. 17.1-18.24) (Back to ADAM AND EVE)

Pat Marvenko Smith, Babylon the Great Riding the Beast (Rev. 17) / Revelation Illustrated

BATHSHEBA: "I Am with Child"

One evening King David takes a stroll on the roof of his palace. From the roof he sees "a woman washing herself," and she is beautiful to behold. David inquires about her identity, and is told, "Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?" (No, not according to the Chronicler, who calls her Bathshua, the daughter of Ammiel [1 Chr. 3:5]--but then see also the Chronicler's confusion under ABIGAIL AND DAVID.)

Bathsheba's husband, Uriah the Hittite, is away fighting the Ammonites for God and country. David sends for Bathsheba, she comes, and they have what David perhaps intends to be a one-night stand. (He ignores the fact, if she tells him, that she's ritually "unclean," being still in her seven-day purification period [see MENSTRUATION: SEVEN LONELY DAYS].) Bathsheba conceives and sends David the news: "I am with child."

David sends for Uriah the Hittite, ostensibly for a report on the war. After hearing Uriah's report, David tells him, "Go down to your house, wash your feet"--in other words, go spend some time with Bathsheba. The Hittite leaves the king's presence, but instead of going down to his house he spends the night with the palace guards.

When David finds this out the next day, he calls Uriah in. "Why," David asks, "did you not go down to your house?" The Hittite replies that his fellow warriors are out camping somewhere in the field. "Shall I then go to my house," Uriah asks, "to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife?"--which is exactly what David wants him to do. Uriah refuses to do it. (Uriah is not just objecting to having it better than his fellows. As a warrior who must return to battle, he is concerned, as noted in Meeks, with ritual purity [Deut. 23:9; 1 Sam. 21:4-5].)

That night David gets the man drunk, but again the Hittite goes out and sleeps with the royal guards instead of going home to Bathsheba.

David gives up. Sending Uriah back to the war, the king orders that the fellow be placed "in the forefront of the hottest battle." Sure enough, the pregnant Bathsheba soon is a widow. After her period of mourning, David has her "fetched to his house" and marries her.

Bathsheba bears David's son, but Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, is displeased by this whole affair. (David, we are told in 1 Kings 15:5, always did right in God's eyes, "save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.") The prophet Nathan conveys God's angry words to the king: "I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun." (This is a prophecy of the revolt led by Absalom, David's third son, who will violate David's harem; see ABSALOM AND THE TEN CONCUBINES.)

David expresses to Nathan his remorse ("I have sinned against the Lord"), and even composes a penitential psalm (see the title of Psalm 51): "I was shapen in iniquity," David sings, "and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Ps. 51:5). Nathan applauds this, telling David that the Lord "hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die." It is the child, says Nathan, who shall die instead. Yahweh afflicts the child with illness and it dies on the seventh day.

But the sun, as Ecclesiastes says, also rises. Comforting Bathsheba, David again knows her carnally. She conceives and again bears a son. The child is named Solomon, and he is "loved by the Lord." (2 Sam. 11:2-12:24) (On to AMNON AND TAMAR)

Francesco Salviati, Bathsheba Goes to King David / Palazzo Sachetti, Rome

BENJAMIN: "A Ravenous Wolf"

The concubine of a certain Levite has "played the whore against him" and runs away to Bethlehem to stay in her father's house. The Levite goes to Bethlehem and fetches her, and the two are on their way home when they stop for the night in the town of Gibeah.

Now these are perilous times, for there is still "no king in Israel," and every man does that which is "right in his own eyes." In such times Gibeah may not be the best place for strangers to be spending an evening. It is a town of Benjamin, a tribe named after the youngest son of Jacob. This son's hallmark was rapacity. Benjamin is "a ravenous wolf," as Jacob put it in his deathbed blessing of the lad, "devouring his prey by morning and dividing the spoil by night" (Gen. 49:27).

On this night in Gibeah the Levite and his concubine are enjoying the hospitality of an old man, a fellow non-Benjaminite sojourner, when some of the town's no-goods (literally "sons of Belial," RSV "worthless fellows") "beset the house round about" and beat on the door. They tell the old man to bring out the Levite "that we may know him," meaning that they intend to rape him. (For a very similar incident in the town of Sodom, see SODOM(Y) AND GOMORRAH.)

To make any sense of the old man's reaction, one must take into account both the unequal status of women in the patriarchal society of the biblical Hebrews and the great importance placed in a traditionally nomadic society on hospitality. But even then things in the story turn senseless. To protect his male guest, the old man offers to the men outside his own virgin daughter and the guest's concubine: he tells the fellows to humble them, to do to these two women whatever they like, "but unto this man do not so vile a thing." When the men outside won't listen, the Levite puts his concubine out to them anyway. And "they knew her, and abused her all the night."

The next morning, the Levite rises and finds his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshhold. We are not told if she is dead or alive--but we are told what he says to her: "Up, and let us be going."

When there is no answer, he puts her, dead or alive, on an ass and takes her home. There he takes out a knife (is she still alive?) and butchers her, dividing her into twelve pieces, which he sends to "all the coasts of Israel," to announce the "lewdness and folly" that has been committed.

The other tribes of Israel, in response to the Gibeah atrocity, convene at Mizpah. They agree that none of them will wed any of their daughters to Benjaminites. They also demand that the tribe of Benjamin turn over the Gibeah perpetrators for execution, "to put evil away from Israel." When the Benjaminites refuse, all but six hundred Benjaminite men are wiped out in a war with the other tribes.

Now there's another problem. The ban on marriages with Benjaminites results in a shortage of women for the surviving six hundred men. This is of concern to the other tribes, lest a whole tribe of Israel go extinct.

Taking note of the fact that no one from the town of Jabesh-gilead came to the Mizpah assembly, the tribes decide to send twelve thousand men to Jabesh-gilead, kill every male there and every female who has lain with one, and give all the virgins to Benjamin.

This nets four hundred young virgins for the Benjaminites, which leaves them still two hundred women short. Then someone remembers the annual "feast of the Lord in Shiloh," where "the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance," in a place not far from the "highway." So the tribes send the two hundred still-wifeless Benjaminites to go hide there, with instructions to "catch you every man his wife."

When the daughters of Shiloh start dancing, the hidden Benjaminites rush out of the vineyards and grab the women they want. Going home with new wives, these scions of the ravenous wolf may now repair and replenish their war-ravaged towns. Years later a Benjaminite of Gibeah, Saul, becomes the first king of Israel. (Judg. 19:1-21:23; 1 Sam. 10:17-27) (On to RUTH)

Jan Victors, The Levite and His Concubine at Gibeah / National Gallery of Art, Dublin.


The biblical penalty for a man or a woman having sex with an animal is death (Exod. 22:19, Lev. 18:30), for "it is confusion" (Lev. 18:23), an egregious mixing of created kinds (see Lev. 19:19 and Deut. 22:9-11). "Cursed be anyone who lies with any kind of beast," says Deuteronomy (27:21), "and all the people shall say 'Amen.'"

Bestiality is listed among the "abominations" of the Canaanites for which they are "spewed out" from the land before the invading Hebrews (Lev. 18). Even the Canaanite gods are not above this "confusion": in a badly damaged text from ancient Ugarit, the fertility god Baal has sex either with a cow or the goddess Anat in bovine form (see Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts).

According to Hebrew tradition, even Adam, the first human being, is confused when his Creator brings him the animals. In Genesis Adam only gives these creatures names. Yet God's whole purpose in creating the beasts, according to the second creation account (Gen. 2), is "to make a helper (Hebrew ezer, denoting a companion or partner) fit for (Adam)," which Adam nonetheless fails to find. In rabbinic sources we are told the lengths to which Adam goes to find the right helper: he couples with each female animal, then complains to God, "Every creature but me has a proper mate!" It is only then that God, through trial and error (Adam's first wife Lilith leaves him, and the first Eve is rejected by Adam), creates a fit companion. (See Graves and Patai's Hebrew Myths; see also GENDER.)

Theophanes the Cretan, Adam Naming the Animals / Byzantine Art





BREASTS: "Milk Out, And Be Delighted"

In the Bible human breasts are symbols of good times, sexual and otherwise, with dry breasts symbolizing calamity. In the latter case, the prophet Hosea (9:14) calls upon God to give his backsliding people "a miscarrying womb and dry breasts." Similarly the New Testament warns mothers of the grief that divine judgment shall bring: "Woe unto them . . . that give suck in those days" (Matt. 24:19), and blessed are "the paps which never gave suck" (Luke 23:29). Conversely, Isaiah (66:7-12) foresees a new Jerusalem that will be a loving and bountiful mother, satisfying her children with "the breasts of her consolations," that they may "milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory." In Luke (11:27), a woman tells Jesus, "Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked."

The breasts of one's wife are associated with sexual satisfaction in Proverbs ("let her breasts satisfy thee at all times"), so that it should be unnecessary to "embrace the bosom of a stranger" (5:18-20). Breasts are prominent in the sensuous Song of Solomon. "He shall lie down all night betwixt my breasts," says the Song's woman of her lover (1:13). The man praises her breasts as like "two young roes that are twins" (7:3), like "clusters of the vine" (7:8), and says that till daybreak "I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense" (4:6). This romantic imagery contrasts sharply, of course, with the graphic abuse in the parable of the adulterous sisters in Ezekiel: "(In Egypt) were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity" (23:3) (see EZEKIEL: TALKING LEWD WOMEN).

We learn in the Song of Solomon (8:8) that breast size was a concern in biblical times just as it is today: "We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for?"

She who asks the question then boasts: "I am a wall, and my breasts like towers: then was I to his eyes as one that found favour" (8:10).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child / Spada Gallery, Rome

William Blake
Bathsheba About to Bathe

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