An investigation of “they whored after other gods” (Judges 2:17)

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

In 2:17 the author states that Israel whored (זָנ֗וּ) after gods other than YHWH. The question for the exegete is multi-faceted. What theological implications does this language carry? What does it mean for Israel to “whore” in this seemingly metaphorical sense? What does this language imply about Israel’s relationship to God? Might a more thorough evaluation of the word זָנ֗וּ or its semantic range provide any assistance in wading through these questions? Most assuredly, rich interpretive insight is bound up with answers to these questions. The exegete does well to investigate this matter for clarity and perception.

As Holladay (90) notes, זָנ֗וּ can denote the literal action of fornication, adultery, whoring, having illicit sexual encounters, cult prostitution, etc. (Gen 38:24; Num 25:1; Isa 23:17; Ezek 16:17, 24; Hos 4:13) (Holladay, 90). Such actions of course connote an extreme level of faithlessness. Consequently, Biblical authors at times use such language to express Israel’s faithlessness to God (as Holladay says, to “wantonly turn from” e.g., Hos 1:2; 4:12; Holliday, 90). However, Soggin claims that this word is a “generic term for prostitution” and is not that which is used for cultic prostitution (39). This faithlessness, placed in terms of adultery, would seem to assume a level of commitment, specifically the commitment involved in Israel’s covenantal relationship. As Soggin notes, this relationship was often understood in terms of and parallel to a marriage bond (39). Implied is the equation of Israel with God’s unfaithful spouse (Niditch, 49). In other words, because of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God, Israel’s act of worshiping other gods besides YHWH was a violation of that covenant relationship, an act of infidelity and spiritual whoredom far more severe than the violation of any human marriage relationship. In concrete terms, this “whoredom” meant polytheism and idolatry. Boling believes that this theological metaphor arose “from the early clash of Yahwism with the commonly assumed fertility rites of sub-Mosaic religion” (75). Likewise, Block adds that adultery serves as an appropriate metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness because (1) YHWH’s relationship with Israel is often placed in terms of marriage (hence adultery) and (2) “the gods competing with Yahweh for the allegiance of his people are lusty young fertility gods, who seduce the Israelites with promises of prosperity and security” accompanied with erotic cultic rituals (129). And as a final note, this theme is not unique to Judges, but is in fact picked up by various authors across redemptive history. Throughout scripture, God often describes his relationship to his people in terms of a marriage covenant (e.g., Eph 5:32; Rev 19:6-9); and likewise, His people’s infidelity is expressed in terms of unfaithfulness to that relationship (e.g., Ex 34:15-16; Deut 31:16; Hos 2; Jer 2; Ezek 16).

In conclusion, this author believes that the metaphor indicated by זָנ֗וּ is most likely adultery (assuming a covenantal relationship) rather than prostitution. Whether or not זָנ֗וּ carries the semantic range of “prostitute,” in the given context, in which Israel has an established relationship with God, it assumes faithlessness to that relationship, not pure erotic and/or cultic indulgence. Conversely, this metaphor assumes a covenant marriage relationship with God, one explicitly mentioned in 2:20, a relationship that demands absolute faithfulness.