(Ad)Dressing Foreign Women: Ancient Exegesis of Numbers 25 and Roman Prostitution

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Does the infinitive (Greek Passage) in Num 25:1 suggest that the foreign women were prostitutes? Analyzing four Roman-period Jewish sources—Biblical Antiquities 18:13–14; Philo, Moses 1.294–304 and Virtues 34–50; and Sifre Numbers 131—this article demonstrates that the public exposure of naked bodies in LAB reflects Roman norms relating to prostitutes. Philo even more explicitly depicts the women as brothel prostitutes, projecting the Roman repugnance towards upper-class men openly entering such establishments onto the Israelites and presenting them as immoral by dressing them in the elaborate costume typically worn by courtesans in Greek sources. Sifre Numbers 131 is a satirical variation on the theme, the Israelites being tricked into entering the prostitute’s cubicle due to their ignorance of the (male elite Roman) stereotyping of female vendor markets as prostitutes and old women as bawds.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)198-228
JournalJournal for the Study of Judaism
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • Biblical Antiquities (LAB)
  • Numbers 25
  • Philo
  • Roman prostitution
  • Sifre Numbers
  • dress
  • foreign women

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Religious studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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