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The wikipedia article is not clear:

Prostitution was common in ancient Israel, despite being tacitly forbidden by Jewish Law.

What was the law forbidding prostitution? Given that prostitutes could take professional disputes to court, what was the legal role of prostitution?

I can't simply google up this type of question. This question is controversial due to it's political significance.

Most sober historians would argue that, as some of the comment says, that the Torah only prohibits cult prostitution and not regular entrepreneurs.

Most "born again" Christians would argue that it's always been illegal.

Also what constitute marriage and prostitution may differ in ancient Israel than what's now.

Now, we probably decide based on 2 things. Whether the marriage is registered at the state and whether an explicit contract of sex for money is involved.

I bet ancient Israelites do not differentiate marriage and prostitution that way. I bet most "marriage" in ancient culture is never registered officially anywhere. Perhaps they think promiscuity is the issue?

So the answer to this question is pretty "nuanced"

I asked in history stackexchange because I want a more sober objective answer. I bet laws in ancient Israel isn't much different from laws in pretty much most ancient culture. And perhaps we can make more educated guess on that.

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    Why the vote closes? This is a very important historical question.
    – user4951
    Nov 27, 2013 at 6:46
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    It's not obvious, it's a question whose answer can be easily looked up with a simple search, and is answered in Wikipedia. You have added some parts, which improves it a bit but now it is instead unclear what you are asking as you now answer the original question. Nov 27, 2013 at 8:18
  • More relevant questions are how the Jewish Laws and the laws during say, Roman era in ancient Israel differed, or what exactly the legal status of prostitutes are in the Bible (which is a complex topic, although probably also best left to external sites who can delve into those depths) and similar. Nov 27, 2013 at 8:25
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    @JimThio It seems to differ by period, and the Wikipedia doesn't actually claim that Jewish law explicitly forbids it. And "Ancient Israel" is a fuzzy concept stretching thousands of years and multiple religions. Nov 27, 2013 at 10:41

4 Answers 4

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To the best of my knowledge, there are no surviving records outside the Bible that can be linked to the time of Solomon. There are surviving mentions from the records of other nations to King David, and to some of the kings who reigned after Solomon, but not to Solomon. (Not shocking in itself -- lots of people in ancient times are known to us from only one or two sources.)

It's instructive but not definitive to examine the Mosaic Law. I was surprised when I checked on this to find that the Mosaic law does not have any clear prohibition of prostitution. Deuteronomy 23:17 bans cult prostitutes, but not prostitutes in general. Deuteronomy 22:21 says that if a man marries and discovers that his bride was not a virgin, she can be executed. But if a prostitute never tries to marry ... there's no clear law against it. It was certainly condemned as horribly immoral. It makes me wonder if it was like pornography or alcohol abuse in the U.S. today: widely condemned, but not illegal.

I say it's not definitive because just because something was written in the law 430 years before doesn't prove the law was still enforced or even thought about. Or new laws may have been written.

So I think the answer is: no one knows. I'm happy to hear if anyone has information I'm not familiar with.

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Many ways for prostitution to be (il)legal
Just as today, prohibiting prostitution may mean many different things, such as:

  • prohibiting to a woman to give favors in exchange for money
  • prohibiting to a man to receive such favors for money
  • prohibiting an organized prostitution ring (a cult in biblical terms)
  • prohibiting pimping (in the biblical context of one's wife or daughter)
  • prohibiting sexual relations outside of marriage

Biblical prohibitions
What makes it more complicated is that these restrictions are different for priests (kohanim) and other social classes. This is relevant for the times of Solomon as then the Jews directly worshiped the Ark of Covenant, and Solomon built the First Temple to house it. For this reason we are also not interested here in Talmudic views on the prostitution, which post-date Solomon time and the destruction of the First Temple.

Since priests are expected to have higher levels of purity, there are specific requirements on their relationships with women, as described in Leviticus 21:7

Leviticus 21:7 prohibits marriage between a kohen and certain classes of women. According to rabbinic law, these classes include divorcees, non-Jews, converts (who were previously non-Jews), and women who have previously engaged in certain forbidden sexual relationships (even if involuntary, i.e. rape). If a kohen did have relations with any of these women, the offspring are described as "profaned" (male: challal, female: challalah); their status is nearly identical to a normal Jew, while the challalah herself is one of the categories which a kohen may not marry.

Curiously, the relevant passage apparently do not specifically mention prostitutes (see here, in French).

Leviticus 19:29 also contains a restriction on prostituting the members of one's own family:

Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.

Obviously, there is also a prohibition against sex with married women in Exodus 20:17 (one of the ten commandments)

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

Who is a "prostitute"?
There is an additional problem of the exact translation of term zonah, which is used in the original passage cited in the OP, 1 Kings 3:16:

אָז תָּבֹאנָה, שְׁתַּיִם נָשִׁים זֹנוֹת--אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ; וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה, לְפָנָיו.

Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him.

Although the term is often translated as prostitute/harlot in English, it has more general meaning in terms of engaging in extra-marital relations:

Souvent associé, sans doute à tort, au comportement sexuel de certaines femmes dites de « mœurs légères » ou de « comportement immoral », le terme zonah est traduit, dans la plupart des cas, par « prostituée ». Or, la racine z.n.h. pose un certain nombre de problèmes et sa signification précise est loin de faire l’unanimité. De fait, outre, la prostitution, z.n.h. désigne les rapports sexuels illicites de manière générale, le fait de s’éloigner des commandements de Dieu, de se livrer au culte des idoles, etc. Elle désigne également l’infidélité d’Israël à Dieu ou à ses lois et se décline tant au masculin qu’au féminin. C’est donc à raison que les dictionnaires et les concordances donnent à la racine z.n.h des définitions aussi diverses que les suivantes 3 : scortari ; de idololatria usurpatur ; à zenut : scortatio ; stuprum ; de idolorum cultu ; perfidia (pornea perfidiae) ; et à zenunim : stupra ; scortationes ; de idololatria ; de commercio cum exteris nationibus.

Often associated, no doubt wrongly, with the sexual behavior of certain women known as “loose morals” or “immoral behavior”, the term zonah is translated, in most cases, as “prostitute”. However, the root z.n.h. poses a certain number of problems and its precise meaning is far from unanimous. In fact, in addition, prostitution, z.n.h. refers to illicit sexual relations in general, departing from the commandments of God, indulging in the worship of idols, etc. It also designates Israel's infidelity to God or his laws and is available in both masculine and feminine forms. It is therefore right that dictionaries and concordances give the root z.n.h definitions as diverse as the following3: scortari; of idololatria usurpatur; to zenut: scortatio; stuprum; of idolorum cultu; perfidia (pornea perfidiae); and at zenunim: stupra; scortationes; of idololatry; de commercio cum exteris nationibus.

Prostitution in the Tanakh
Finally, there are multiple episodes in Tanakh/Jewish Bible/Old Testament where prostitutes play positive roles:

The Torah offers several examples of morally ambiguous or even heroic prostitutes — Tamar, who disguises herself as a prostitute and successfully solicits her deceased husband’s father for sex, so determined is she to have a child by that bloodline. Her father-in-law moves to have her burned to death for prostitution, until she reveals that she was the disguised prostitute he slept with. Not only is Tamar praised, Judah looks foolish. Later in the Torah, a non-Jewish prostitute, Rahab, shelters Israelite spies in her home, and in turn is saved when the Israelites ransack the city. The Torah draws one big line with prostitution, in Leviticus: “Do not degrade your daughter and make her a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry and the land be filled with depravity.”

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As a question of law, it is pretty obviously not legal; but if you read the prophets you find it was understood that it was practiced throughout the entire time of the divided kingdoms. If you read carefully, you find a reference during the reign of 1 Kings saying "but the people continued to offer sacrifices in the high places". An again in the proverbs there is warning upon warning about the prostitutes where mainly it refers to spending ones youth or wealth on time, as opposed to wayword woman which is described as destruction. It's almost like it was tolerated due to being too difficult to stamp out and nobody willing to bring charges, despite the penalty for the john being rather severe.

A careful reading reveals that prostitution does not carry the death penalty for the prostitute in the normal case (neither betrothed nor married) so there's no reason they would not have access to the courts.

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  • a careful reading reveals? What careful reading? But the people continued to offer sacrifices in the high places has little to do with prostitution. It's more of the king of Judah wants people to offer sacrifices in, and only in, beith hamikah which he controls. The motives is probably similar with people wanting others to send money to his btc address.
    – user4951
    Oct 27, 2017 at 8:10
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Prostitution was tolerated because not all women would remain married or covered by a man. It seems to have been allowed for female survival. It was akin to poverty in a way. A despised state but not a sin. Remember Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors who were viewed as sinful. He said they would enter the kingdom before the self-righteous people.God did not like pr

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