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“You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in fulfillment of an vow, for both are abhorrent to the Lord your God,” the Bible declares (Deuteronomy 23:19; translation NJPS).   This cryptic verse, like many such other biblical commands, raises a large number of exegetical problems.  How does one define a “whore” and, more problematically, “the pay of a dog”?  What is the situation that the verse envisions?  What precisely is abhorrent to the Lord, and why?

Leaving aside here the clause “the pay of a dog,” one traditional way to understand this is to envision a situation in which a prostitute vows to give something to God.  Perhaps she does this because she feels that God has shown favor to her (e.g., healed her or her children from an illness; helped her business flourish); perhaps just because she wants to give.  God, though, will not accept such a gift because it the means by which it was acquired were “abhorrent.”

This interpretation is certainly not impossible, but it is also not without its difficulties.  There are many ways to acquire money that one would think that God would find “abhorrent.”  Why is this particular act singled out?

An alternative scenario, though, is suggested by a passage in Herodotus.  In it, Herodotus discusses the gift of a prostitute, Rhodopis, to a temple:

For Rhodopis desired to leave a memorial of herself in Greece, making an offering such as nobody else had thought of and placed in a temple…. With a tenth of her money she had made many iron roasting-spits, as many as the tithe would provide, and sent them to Delphi; and they are still here now, piled up behind the altar that the Chians dedicated.  (2.135)

The problem suggested in this passage is not the way that the prostitute acquired her money, but the way that she used her money to “clean” her reputation by giving a gift (usually made as a fulfillment of a vow) to the temple.  This, then, is what may also be behind Deuteronomy 23:19: what is abhorrent is not the money itself but the use of the money to create a permanent  “memorial” to a prostitute within the Jerusalem temple.

In antiquity, as today, money could buy respectability.