The Meaning of “Cult Prostitutes” (קדשה) in Hosea 4:14

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Eric Tully’s Advanced Hebrew Exegesis of Hosea course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Please note: I use the Hebrew Bible’s chapter and verse references below, which can at times be different than what one will find in our English translations.

Already (chs.1-4) we have seen that Hosea is quite accustomed to using the verb זָנָה (to prostitute) and the noun זֹנָה (prostitute). But here in 4:14 Hosea employs the word קדשה. If this word refers to some sort of religious or cultic prostitute, as many commentators think (e.g., Wolff, Garrett, Stuart, Dearman), then 4:14 would contain one of the most explicit references to cultic prostitution in the entire book. As such, the use of קדשה in 4:14 is a rather significant exegetical issue for the interpreter. It may provide him or her with significant information about the religious backdrop into which Hosea presents his accusations throughout the book. Therefore, it is the goal of this paper to present a brief study of קדשה.

Etymologically, קָדֵשׁ is related to קָדַשׁ (“to be holy”) and likely carries the idea of sacredness. Hence many present the gloss, “sacred prostitute,” “temple prostitute,” or “cult prostitute.” Wolff (88) notes parallel words in other ANE languages (e.g. Ugarit—qdsm; the Syrian goddess qades who was involved in sexual activity) that relate to some form of cultic prostitution. In other words, קדשה (feminine) would be a female prostitute that had some sort of relationship with the cult. In terms of Biblical usage, in Gen 38:21 Judah asked, “Where is the קדשה?” to which the men of the city replied, “No קדשה has been here” (v.22) But interestingly, according to Gen 38:15, קדשה appears to be used interchangeably with זֹנָה (Dearman, 166). Both the feminine and the masculine form occur in Deut 23:17. Deut 23:17 forbids any Israelite from being a קדשה(feminine) or a קדש(masculine). In 1 Kings 14:23, the inhabitants of Judah, under the reign of Rehoboam, built for themselves idolatrous places of worship. And also, the narrator notes, קדש were in the land. This collection of קדש along with idolatrous practices is noteworthy. In 1 Kings 15:12, Asa, king of Judah, did what was right by putting away the קדשים and removing the idols. With close proximity to idols, this reference may indicate a religious tone to קדשים. 1 Kings 22:47 mentions how Jehoshaphat eliminated any קדש who remained from his father Asa’s reign. In 2 Kings 23, Josiah executed reforms, purging idolatrous activity from Judah’s worship. This included removing קדשים who were in the house of YHWH. The relationship of קדש to religious reform and the fact that the author describes them as those “who were in the house of YHWH” suggests religious connotations if not denotations. Finally, in Hosea 4:14, קדשה is parallel to הַזֹּנ֣וֹת (participle; “those who prostitute”). This observation taken by itself could suggest the terms are meant to be understood as nearly synonymous. But also significant is v.13’s various references to idolatrous religious practices. Note especially עַל־כֵּ֗ן (“therefore,” v.13), which connects these idolatrous practices to the daughters’ prostituting (זָנָה), the same prostituting parallel to קדשה in v.14.

Therefore, in light of this evidence, it is best to conclude that קדשה refers to a female cult prostitute of some kind. Based on the etymological relationship between קָדֵשׁ and קָדַשׁ, קדשה seems to refer to some sort of priestess (Miller, 503). And based on its Biblical usage, it has clear sexual denotations and rather likely religious connotations if not denotations.