The Layperson’s Bible: Sexual Behavior Part II – Incest

Among the many strict and well-detailed rules the Old Testament lays down on sexual iniquities, the most complex of which are arguably the incest prohibitions.

“None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:6)

But once again, a seemingly simple subject proves not to be so straightforward, for naturally, “near of kin” must be defined, an argument which, if the Jerry Springer Show is any indication, continues to this very day. In the Bible, incestuous relations are forbidden between a person and their father, mother, father’s wife, sister or half-sister, grandchild, aunt or uncle, daughter-in-law or sister-in-law. (Leviticus 18:6-18)

It is interesting to note that there appears to be no prohibition against sleeping with one’s brother’s daughter (niece), and cousins, of course, appear also to be passable, as they are, if somewhat marginally, even to this day. It is also rather interesting that the incest rules appear to be addressed to men rather than women, although, of course, if one is not permitted to have intercourse with one’s sister, then logically having relations with one’s brother is also forbidden. But consider this intriguing little story in Genesis about what happens when Noah gets drunk and goes uncovered to his tent:

“And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
And Shem and Japeth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
And he said, cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” (Genesis 9:22-25)

Shem and Japeth really go to great lengths to avoid the mere sight of their father’s genitals, which seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it? And is the son really cursed for merely seeing his father naked – which, by the way, appears to have been Noah’s own fault – or are we supposed to assume there’s more to the story? In any case, it certainly suggests that even the admonishment against uncovering one’s father’s nakedness is intended to be directed towards men, not women, which implies that the writers of the Bible believed that men were far more likely to be guilty than women where incest was concerned.

There are certainly scientific reasons why incest between humans should be avoided. As we now know through genetics, children born of closely-related parents run a higher risk of expressing otherwise recessive and often harmful genes, which means that apart from the “icky” aspect of indulging in sexual congress with family members, there are solid biological grounds for shunning intimate relations with those with whom you share a certain level of genealogy.

The Bible, however, seems more greatly concerned with the familial rather than biological aspects of incest. A man is not in any way related by blood to his daughter-in-law or sister-in-law, and prohibiting intercourse between them could only have been intended to preserve the peace and integrity of the family unit. Likewise with the prohibition against having sexual relations with both a woman and her near relations:

“Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, neither shalt thou take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; for they are her near kinswomen: it is wickedness.
Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.” (Leviticus 18:17-18)

Mind you, this was in a time when having multiple wives was acceptable, even encouraged, and the possibility of taking both a woman and her sister or daughter to wife a very real one. Similarly, a man who takes his uncle’s or brother’s wife shall be punished with childlessness (Leviticus 19:20-21). Interestingly, though, it was expected that if a man died leaving no heir that his brothers should take his widow as wife:

“If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.” (Deuteronomy 25:5)

The idea here is that a brother has an obligation to build up his brother’s house after his death. If a brother refuses, the wife can complain to the elders and then loose his shoe and spit in his face (Deuteronomy 25:6), but God might take a much worse revenge, as in the story of Onan:

“And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.” (Genesis 38:9-10)

In any case, the regulation against having relations with one’s sister-in-law apparently ends with the death of her husband, which lends credence to the idea that the point of that particular prohibition was to preserve family harmony. This is quite different from the purpose of not engaging in incest with a blood relation even if he or she is not part of the family unit; for example, one must not uncover the nakedness of a sister “whether she be born at home, or born abroad.” (Leviticus 18:9)

Such concerns were hardly unique to the culture of the Jews and the later Christians; other ancient societies seem to have been far more focused on incestuous relations than is true of the world today. The Greeks, of course, had famous tales of mortal as well as immortal incest, including not only Oedipus, but also the lesser-known story of Myrrha, who in Ovid’s rendition conceives such a desire for her father that she engages in a tryst with him in darkness and later gives birth to Adonis in the form of a tree. Hailing from classical Roman times, the Emperor Caligula’s sexual relationship with his sister Drusilla is perhaps the best-known example of ancient incest and was a great scandal even in its day, which is particularly fascinating given that both Greek and Roman theology were founded upon gods who were intimately related, even as, if the story of Adam and Eve is to be taken literally, their offspring would have been. Indeed, even with all of the so-and-so begat so-and-sos, the Bible is conspicuously silent on where the sons of Adam and Eve found wives; either they had to marry their own sisters or the story is inconsistent in itself.

Of course, even God seems to accept that incest might occasionally be permissible or even necessary. Consider what happens when Lot and his daughters flee to a cave in the wilderness following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

“And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth;
Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.” (Genesis 19:31-32)

Which they do, on two consecutive nights, apparently without Lot’s knowledge or consent, thus preserving his innocence and righteousness:

“And he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.” (Genesis 19:35)

They must have had some truly magical wine back then, to put a man into such a stupor that he wouldn’t notice his own daughters having sex with him, yet still leave him able to perform.

But his daughters do become impregnated, and produce heirs who become the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites. Which suggests that even in Holy Writ incest might be considered acceptable in a real emergency. I suppose it’s like what happened to the Donner Party. If there’s nothing else available, you take whatever meat you can get.

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