Incest in the Bible
Incest in the Bible refers to sexual relations between certain close kinship relationships which are prohibited by the Hebrew Bible. These prohibitions are found predominantly in Leviticus 18:8-18 and 20:11-21, but also in Deuteronomy. The biblical categories of prohibited relationships does not entirely match the modern definitions of prohibited incestuous relations in force in various countries or of the various Christian denominations. (see Affinity (canon law) and Laws regarding incest.)
A few books of the Bible, particularly the early parts of the Torah, contain narratives in which certain individuals, from the same family as one another, engage in sexual intercourse together; while this could be construed as incest, endogamy is an alternative interpretation. The Bible does not, for example, forbid cousins from marrying, but it does prohibit sexual relations with several other close relatives.
In ancient times, tribal nations preferred endogamous marriage – marriage to one's relatives; the ideal marriage was usually that to a cousin, and it was often forbidden for an eldest daughter to even marry outside the family. Marriage to a half-sister, for example, is considered incest by most nations today, but was common behaviour for Egyptian pharaohs; similarly, the Book of Genesis portrays Sarah as marrying Abraham, her half-brother, without criticising the close genetic relationship between them, and the Book of Samuel treats the marriage of a royal prince to his half-sister as unusual, rather than wicked.
Leviticus 18 and 20 lists the prohibited incestuous relationships, and two chapters later specifies punishments for specific incestuous unions, but this second list of unions is much shorter than the first; textual scholars regard the lists as having originally been independent documents, bound together at a later point. The Deuteronomic Code gives a yet more simple list of forbidden relationships – just parent's daughter (including sister), father's wife (including mother), and mother-in-law. These lists only mention relationships with female relatives; excluding lesbianism, this implies that the list is addressed to men. These lists of forbidden unions compare as follows (the relations highlighted in red are those that are forbidden):
|Leviticus 18||Leviticus 20||Deuteronomy|
|Grandfather's wife (including grandmother)|
|Uncle's wife||Father's brother's wife|
|Mother's brother's wife|
|Parent's daughter||Half-sister (mother's side)|
|Half-sister (father's side)|
|Sister-in-law (if the wife was still alive)|
|Wife's child's daughter (including granddaughter)|
One of the most notable features of all the lists is that sexual activity between a man and his own daughter is not explicitly forbidden. Although the first relation mentioned after the Levitical prohibition of sex with "near kin" names that of "thy father", it must be taken into account that the Hebrew original text only addresses male Jews with regard to their female relatives. The talmud argues that the absence is because the prohibition was obvious, especially given the proscription against a relationship with a granddaughter, although some biblical scholars have instead proposed that it was originally in the list, but was then accidentally left out from the copy on which modern versions of the text ultimately depend, due to a mistake by the scribe. The second list in the Holiness code noticeably differs from the first by not including the closer relatives, and it might be assumed that obviousness is the explanation here as well. One might argue that the explicit prohibition against engaging in sexual activity with a woman as well as with her daughter, implicitly forbids sexual activity between a man and his daughter. However, the rationale might suggest otherwise (the original text is unclear here), since it mentions only that "they" (i.e. the woman and the daughter) are related. John Calvin did not consider the father-daughter-relation to be explicitly forbidden by the bible, but regarded it as immoral nevertheless.
Apart from the case of the daughter, the first incest list in the Holiness code roughly produces the same rules as were followed in early (pre-Islamic) Arabic culture; in Islam, these pre-existing rules were made statutory. The rules in this list are, however, ignored in several prominent cases in the Torah – Jacob is described as having married his first wife's sister, and Abraham as having a father in common with Sarah (rather than a mother, which would have been permitted by the list).
Ezekiel implies that, in his time, marriage between a man and his stepmother, or his daughter-in-law, or his sister, were frequent. This situation seems to be the target of the Deuteronomic version of the incest prohibition, which only addresses roughly the same three issues (though prohibiting the mother-in-law in place of the daughter-in-law). Early rabbinic commentators instead argue that the Deuteronomic list is so short because the other possible liaisons were obviously prohibited, and these three were the only liaisons difficult to detect, on account of the fact that, in their day, a man's stepmother, half-sister, and mother-in-law usually lived in the same house as the man (prior to any liaison).
The biblical lists are not symmetrical – the implied rules for women are not the same. Ignoring family members involved in homosexual liaisons (for the sake of simplicity), they compare as follows (blue = forbidden for men only, red = forbidden for women only, purple = forbidden for both men and women):
|Leviticus 18||Leviticus 20||Deuteronomy|
|Grandparent's spouse (including other grandparent)|
|Uncle's/Aunt's spouse||Father's sibling's spouse|
|Mother's sibling's spouse|
|Parent's child||Half-sibling (mother's side)|
|Half-sibling (father's side)|
|Sibling-in-law (if the spouse was still alive)|
|Nephew/Niece-in-law||Spouse's brother's child|
|Spouse's sister's child|
|Spouse's grandchild (including grandchild)|
Specific incestuous relationships in the Bible
The Bible mentions a number of sexual relationships, most of which relate to pre-Sinai period prior to the handing down of the Mosaic law:
- In Genesis 4:17, Cain has a wife, though there is no account given of where his wife comes from. Excepting direct creation by God or that the area contained other groups of people not mentioned by the Bible, the possibilities for Cain's wife are that she was either a full sister of Cain, or she was Cain's mother Eve, or from a later generation of descendants; it doesn't mean he married immediately or even at his generation level, a great deal of time could have elapsed. Adam was over 930 years old when he died.
- In Genesis 9:20-27, Ham saw his father Noah's nakedness. The Talmud suggests that Ham may have sodomized Noah (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 70a). In more recent times, some scholars have suggested that Ham may have had intercourse with his father's wife.
- In Genesis 19:30-38, living in an isolated area after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's two daughters conspired to inebriate and seduce their father due to the lack of available partners. Because of intoxication, Lot "perceived not" when his firstborn, and the following night his younger daughter, lay with him. (Genesis 19:32-35) The two children born were directly Lot's sons and indirectly his grandsons, being his daughters' sons. Likewise, their sons were also their half-brothers, having the same father.
- In one of the tales of a wife confused for a sister, Abraham admitted that his wife Sarah is also his half-sister, on his father's side. However, in the rabbinic literature, Sarah is considered Abraham's niece (the daughter of his brother, Haran).
- Abraham's son Isaac married Rebekah, his first cousin once removed, the granddaughter of his father's brother Nahor and niece Milcah. Isaac and Rebekah's firstborn son Esau married his cousin Mahalah, daughter of his father's brother Ishmael, while their second son Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel, daughters of his mother's brother Laban. Marriage of cousins was not forbidden in biblical law.
- Jacob married Leah and Rachel (sisters) who were the daughter of Laban. Laban was the brother of Jacob's mother Rebekah. This would make Jacob cousins with Leah and Rachel.
- In Genesis 35:22, Jacob's firstborn son Reuben committed incest by sleeping with his father's concubine Bilhah.
- In Genesis 38, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, mistook his daughter-in-law Tamar for a prostitute while she was veiled, and had sex with her.
- The biblical character Amram married his paternal aunt, Jochebed, the mother of Miriam, Aaron and Moses.
- In the book of 2nd Samuel, Amnon, King David's eldest son and heir to the throne, raped his half-sister Tamar; Tamar's brother, Absalom, learned of the incident and, two years later, ordered his servants to have Amnon killed. It is noteworthy that when pleading in vain with Amnon, Tamar said, "Now therefore, I pray thee, speak unto the king; for he will not withhold me from thee". This would imply that – in spite of the prohibition set out elsewhere in the Bible – the marriage of siblings (at least those of different mothers, as Amnon and Tamar were) could be acceptable in the society in which the story was written.
- In 2 Samuel 16:22, Absalom (son of King David) is in the middle of a rebellion against his father and sleeps with his father's concubines on the roof inside a tent.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "incest". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
- Genesis 20:12
- Leviticus 18:7-11
- Leviticus 20:11-21
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "Leviticus". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (1987)
- This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "Leviticus", a publication now in the public domain.
- Deuteronomy 22:30
- Deuteronomy 27:20-23
- Leviticus 18:6-7; Deuteronomy 22:30
- Cf. the Revised Standard Version: Lev 18:6
- Yebamot 3a
- This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
- Leviticus 18:17
- Cf. the footnote in the Revised Standard Version (Lev 18:17) as well as the King James Version (Lev 18:17)
- John Calvin, Bible Commentary, Harmony of the Law (Vol. 3), Leviticus 18 (online version)
- Genesis 29:16
- Genesis 29:23
- Genesis 29:28
- Ezekiel 22:10-11
- Samuel ben Meir, Commentary, ad loc.
- Frederick W. Bassett, "Noah's nakedness and the curse of Canaan : a case of incest?" VT 21  pp. 232–237. John S. Bergsma and Scott Hahn, "Noah's nakedness and the curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27)," JBL 124  pp. 25–40.
- Genesis 11:29
- Genesis 24:15
- Genesis 28:9
- Genesis 29
- Genesis 38
- Exodus 6:20
- 2 Samuel 13
- 2 Samuel 13:13
- Akerly, Ben Edward, The X-Rated Bible: An Irreverent Survey of Sex in the Scriptures (Feral House, 1998) ISBN 0-922915-55-5; pp. 1–13