Sexual Hospitality in the Hebrew Bible?

My purpose in this article is to present an analysis proving that sexual hospitality constitutes a cultural template, practised in the Arabian peninsula and around the ancient Mediterranean. If it was practised, residuals could surface in some transposition or other in biblical texts.

Little discussed and little known, the custom of sexual hospitality sounds obscure and outlandish. However, since the early Middle Ages throughout 19th and 20th centuries, travellers’ reports on the Middle East, North Africa and Asia have recorded a kind of tribal hospitality that includes sexual gratification as part of the hospice. This social world is divided between affiliated brothers and foes; and if a stranger is accepted he will share the privileges of brotherhood. Moreover the stranger could embody a god in disguise who would bestow blessing and fertility on the tribe. Fear of virginal hemorrhage forms another motivation for handing daughters into the strangers’ arms. Frequency of occurrences of sexual hospitality show the custom to be a consistent template and not a series of isolated events. In such societies the host’s honour depends on the satisfaction of the male guest, and likewise his neglect would be the host’s liability, (Briffault, 1927: II, 635-640). The question to be raised cautiously is whether our anthropological evidence of tribal life can be set up as a model for ancient times, the biblical time or the Hebrew people.

In his book Sex and Family in the Bible and the Middle East, Raphael Patai offers a survey of customs and traditions regarding family values and sexuality in the Ancient Middle East and biblical time (1959:139-145). Patai first presents the conventional viewpoint that patriarchal hospitality was so highly regarded that it might override the strict considerations of women’s chastity. The host would thus sacrifice the chastity of his wife, mistress or unmarried virginal daughters to safeguard his guest’s honour and protection. Genesis 19 and Judges 19 present two cases in which virginal daughters and one’s wife are offered to outsiders when the protection and honour of a guest are at stake. Patai, however, proposes an additional hypothesis namely that other cultural templates may have survived in these stories, materialising as their socio-cultural pre-texts. To support his hypothesis Patai provides extra-literary information from travellers’ reports dating from the 12th to the 19th centuries. Templates of alternative sexual codes would re-evaluate the dichotomy of patriarchal hospitality versus female chastity competing and culminating in irreconcilable conflict. He thus claims that the custom of sexual hospitality practised in the region sheds a different light on the dichotomy of patriarchal code versus female chastity. The template allows to view these stories from a different angle: “this custom which has been reported from various Arabian tribes, throws additional light on the mores and the relative evaluation of hospitality versus female chastity which constitutes the background the sexual incidents described in Genesis 19 and Judges 19,” (Patai, 1959: 139-145).

The gender aspect

The custom seems inherently male oriented as it concerns a situation of patriarchal hospitality in which female chastity is waived for the pleasure of a male guest. However, some aspects of the custom favour a woman’s interests. Both the woman and the guest concerned have to comply and neither may refuse the other. The guest must sleep with the hostess, disregarding her age or appearance and vice versa (Patai, 1959, 139-145). Other aspects of the template seem favourable to the woman as well. The offspring of this hospitable union will be fully accepted by the hosting tribe and sometimes may even take a special place in the religious practise of the group. Moreover, only if the hostess finds the guest agreeable the host will discharge him with honour, and furnish him with provision for his further journey. If however, the guest fails to please the hostess, the woman will tear his garment. On coming out of the woman’s tent, the tribal women and children would welcome the guest. On seeing the damage in the guest’s clothing, he will be publicly shamed and chased away by the women and children (Patai, 159:140).

Bearing in mind that the ancient world bounded sex to communal and individual survival, sexuality and motherhood must have been perceived as auxiliaries of crude existence. Continuity could overrule socio-cultural restrictions on some occasions when breaching of rules would enhance it. Under conditions of coarse survival, sexual hospitality like other cults of sacred sexuality can be defined as alternative sexuality that serves its purpose. The texts Patai mentions could have survived as residuals of sexual templates practised as alternative rules of sexuality independently or on extraordinary occasions. Alternative sexuality thus conceives sexuality outside or along-side patriarchal rules. It may have complemented the coarse conditions of ancient communities falling or rising with continuity; this fact sheds an additional light on its socio-cultural character.

Can indicative traces of sexual hospitality be isolated in the Hebrew Bible?

Patai applies anthropological data to biblical texts by hypothesis and assumption. The questions to be asked are whether it is possible to set out Patai’s assumptions into a thesis: can characteristics of sexual hospitality be traced in the Hebrew scriptures? Can it be applied to biblical texts? If so, do such assumed residuals point to an ancient Hebrew custom or do they constitute a (inverted) biblical transposition of the surrounding cultures? Perhaps the custom surfaces as a literary representation of a template borrowed from spatial and temporal origins, which could not be ascertained in any way. If sexual hospitality is exhibited as a literary representation, can it be proven to be more than a narrative element? Can anthropological data of tribal life around the world prove that the custom of sexual hospitality was practised among biblical Israelites?

It has already been generally accepted that cults of sacred sexuality were practised in the Ancient Near East and among the Israelites to various degrees. To this, the prophets unwittingly served as authentic reporters (Hosea 1-4, Ezekiel 16, 22, Jeremiah 3:2-3, 7:18, 44:15-20, 26). The fact that it was forbidden and vehemently opposed speaks for an early cultic history and the irresistible influence of neighbouring cultures. Sexual hospitality could have thus been practised alongside with other fecund templates in the peninsula as well as in ancient Israel. Even if sexual hospitality as such was not practised among the Israelites themselves, it could still surface in the Hebrew Bible as a literary theme representing the custom practised by neighbouring cultures in the Arabian peninsula.

Genesis 19

In Genesis 19, Lot is a patriarchal host and insider. The function of the outsider is divided over two roles. The first protagonists who play the role of the outsider/guest are the ‘strangers/angels’. They fully answer to the requirements of the role. The second type of outsiders are the Sodomites. They are outsiders in space in relation to Lot’s house, which embodies the inside. As townsmen, they are disqualified as guests and outsiders proper. They demand to be satisfied by the host’s male guests but the host offers his virgin daughters instead. Their demand represents a permutated residual of the custom in which the outsider and guest expects to be satisfied by the host’s female family member. We find the constituents of the cultural template: outsiders and insiders and a sexual offer in which female chastity is waived by a family member. Lot the insider/ host offers his female family members, his daughters, to the outsiders. This move could contain a transposition of sexual hospitality.

The angels function as metaphysical outsiders in relation to both groups, which lends them their supernatural power exercised on both the townspeople and Lot’s family. The angels save lot’s family twice: they strike the inhabitants with light and save Lot’s family from the mob, and they save Lot’s family from the catastrophe brought upon the city by God. The angels / guests, represent the divine blessing brought upon the host by the outsider / guest who is sheltered and provided for by the hosting family.

Genesis 39

With this analysis in mind, I review the story of Joseph and Potiphar anew. Ignoring the roles of slave and master, we could highlight some recurrent formula of sexual hospitality. Potiphar, the insider, offers lavishly privileges and supervision to Joseph, while Joseph the outsider brings divine blessing on Potiphar’s house. The motive of female chastity compromised then surfaces. In the deep structure this motive may shed some light on the implausible treatment of a Hebrew slave by his Egyptian master. The relationship of insider/outsider – host/guest is camouflaged by the social and ethnic dichotomy of Egyptian master and Hebrew slave. The master/slave relationship is modified by ethnicity. Joseph the Israelite is the outsider and the insider is an Egyptian. In its Hebrew representation, the ethnic aspect allows the motive of divine blessing brought forth by the guest to surface. Joseph the outsider endows the insider’s household with divine blessing. This sets off the dichotomy of the insider’s supervision and protection against the divine blessing embodied in the outsider sheltered by the host. Relaxing her chastity, the host’s wife exposes the structure, if we consider sexual hospitality in the story’s pre-text. Sexuality however remains unconsummated, and no continuity is secured. The affiliated element of catastrophe appears indirectly. Ignoring chronology in Joseph’s narrative cycle, seven years of plenty befall; however seven years of draught follow bringing hunger over the land (Genesis 41:54-57).

Wife offered to an outsider

The second related pattern shows a situation with a wife sexually offered to an outsider in a (possible) situation of hospitality, linked to the motive of fertility and continuity. Narratives of barrenness are known to solve the problem by his own wife offering a secondary woman to a man. Sarah (Genesis 16:1-4), Rachel (Genesis 30:3), and Lea (Genesis 30:9) transform their maids to surrogate mothers. The template of sexual hospitality may indicate a compensatory structure applied to the opposite sex. Perhaps the custom purports to solve the problem of a barren husband and a fertile male outside strict matrimony is called in like a surrogate woman to secure offspring. Genesis 20 indicates that all the wombs in Abimelech’s clan were closed. However, with Abraham’s blessing not only the wife and maids were cured – the text implies that Abraham’s prayer also cured Abimelech. This may elucidate that Abimelech had been struck by barrenness (20:17). 2Kings 4, also interlinks the husband’s old age with woman’s barrenness which leads to the masculine addition to the family represented by in the holy prophet, endowing the family with fertility.

The belief that the gods bestow fertility mutually impends on the theology that a woman’s sacred union with the divine is its accessory to human marriage. This ideology underlines the concept of sacred union with the divine bridegroom. The fertility god stands for the divine bridegroom and may be incarnated in the stranger and/or outsider as well as a sacred personage, a priest, a high lord or ruler (Briffault, 1927:203, 220, 221). A woman may form a carnal union perceived as hieros gamus, a divine marriage prior or along side her earthly marriage. In carnal appearance, the divine bestows the blessing of fertility that is a prerequisite to the human marriage and its purpose, which is continuity (Briffault, 1927: 218, 219, 226, 225,228-9). This ideology explains the fact that sacred hierodules, unmarried and married women participating in sacred festivities will join with strangers without reservations. Also on other occasions the fertile outsider interchanges with the blessed guest, mighty ruler or stranger who may conceive of a god in disguise (Briffault, 1927:221).

In the narrative cycle of Abraham and Sarah the fertile agent shifts positions. The male characters, Abraham, Abimelech and the three angels embody the fertile outsider. As a guest, Abraham plays the role of a holy person functioning as a fertile agent towards Abimelech’s female family members. God Himself announces to Abimelech in his dream at night that Abraham is a prophet (Genesis 20:6). Abimelech on his part plays the role of a host and landlord thus functioning as the extra-marital outside-man towards Sarah. Abraham and Abimelech, whose names both contain “father” (av in Hebrew) and a high position above the common man, can be percieved as mutations of the divinised outsider before whom female chastity is waived, resulting in a blessed fertility. The three angels in Genesis 18 embody the recurrent metaphysical outsider announcing the blessed tidings of pregnancy. This metaphysical figure has previously appeared before Hagar to comfort her with the news of her pregnancy in the form of an angel, malach, which means both a messenger and an angel in Hebrew (Genesis 16:7); and the angel resurfaced again to save her son Ishmael, calling her this time from the distance of heaven to see the brook (Genesis 21:17). The angels reappear to lead Lot and his daughters away from the catastrophe; they also indirectly precede the birth of Lot’s daughter’s sons. The angel in Judges 13 proclaims the event of Manoah’s wife’s forthcoming pregnancy, which recalls the pattern seen in Genesis 16 and 18.

A wife or bride offered to a landlord

The following motive highlights events of tension with a landlord, juxtaposed with the relaxation of a wife’s chastity. In Genesis we read a number of stories in which one’s bride, newly wed bride or wife is offered to the lord of the land in a situation in which the husband is a stranger, guest, or a landless wanderer. Anthropological data valorise that notion that once the wife is lent, the landlord’s offspring legitimises the right of that family to settle on his land and/or share the rights of the landlord’s privileged offspring (Briffault 1927: II, 237).

Perceived in space, the stories of Sarah and Rebecca show female chastity offered from the direction of the unsafe outside entailing wandering and hunger in the direction of the safe inside of settlement and plenty. Coming back from Egypt Abraham’s clan has grossly grown rich (Genesis 12). However, in Genesis 21, coming to Gerar, Abraham’s family is subject to the same insecure and dire conditions. Only after Sarah’s nocturnal visit to Abimelech’s bedroom, does Abraham receive the privilege of settling on Abimelech’s land. From that point, Abraham’s status changes from the position of a landless wanderer fearing for his life, to that of a legitimate settler on the land of the same man he has dreaded. With the birth of Isaac that follows, the claim of the Abrahamic family on the land seems irrefutable. This pattern is reapplied to Isaac’s family. In the cycle of Isaac and Rebecca, the same recurring elements synchronise and complement one another, which supports the thesis of a subliminal structure.

In various forms and degrees of representations, the stories involve two wives Sarah and Rebecca who are offered to outsiders, juxtaposed with events in which their chastity is waived within the context of a guest, host, outsider and/or a mighty ruler of the land. From the sexualised event with the landlord, significantly recurring twice in Abimelech as the main figure, both Abraham and Isaac are allowed to settle on the land of the Philistines. Abraham and his son Isaac establish the same settlement named Beer Sheba twice and in succession. The city is first established by Abraham, and then all over again by Isaac. In both cases the settlement was initiated by the mercy of the same Abimelech and the same Pikhol his aid (Genesis 21 and Genesis 26). The subliminal structure seems nearly identical in these fragments, though there are forty or sixty years between them.

On suggesting a subliminal template, I return to the story of Dinah. The story mentions Shechem’s high status twice: ‘’prince of the country’’ and ‘’more honourable than all the house of his father” (Genesis 34:2 and 20). We revisit here the recurring template of a sexualised event juxtaposed with privileges offered by a high lord of the land. Shechem offers Jacob’s clan a permission to settle on their land like Abimelech before him: ‘’and ye shall dwell with us; and the land shall be before ye’’ (Genesis 34:10). Jacob like Isaac and Abraham, his father and grandfather, wishes to cooperate with the custom that demands the waiving of female chastity of his family member, his daughter for a secure life. His sons reject it. The violent conclusion of the negotiation results in the Hebrew clan resuming wandering, exposed to danger of genocide unlike their predecessors (Genesis 35:2-5): “I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house’’ (Genesis 34:30b). Remarkably, after the turmoil period of Dinah and her brothers’ revolt, the Hebrew clan enters a new period. Building a new altar for the Hebrew God proper they revert into puritan cleansing of all foreign customs: ‘’And Jacob said unto his household and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (Genesis 35:2).


Alternative rules of sexual conduct attest to the biological fact that sexuality practised by women outside an exclusive partnership increases the prospect of conception, offering the highest chance of pregnancy to every woman. Such practices of sacred sexuality may even ensure better breeding by seed imported from outside the clan.

Has sexual hospitality served the patriarchal structure, or has it served the matriarchal interest? Could sexual hospitality be seen within the patriarchal society, or did it function within matriarchal society? Evidence of alternative sexuality in general speaks for the fact that sacred sexuality may not necessarily have undermined the patriarchal rules proper. I tend to believe that cultural templates of alternative sexuality, outside or side by side with patriarchal rules, may have complemented the coarse conditions of continuity unconditionally bound to survival, both on the communal or individual levels. Templates of that nature may have coexisted alongside, condoned and even blessed by the community when they enhanced the same goal ensuring the interest of both genders. These assumptions may bear witness to a richer, more pragmatic and perhaps even more tolerant communal life than we perhaps can imagine.