Incest (in the Bible)

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The subject of incest in the Bible will be treated under three headings: incest in the patriarchal age, in the Mosaic Law, and in the New Testament.

Patriarchal Age. Instances are recorded during this period of intercourse between near relatives. Lot's daughters, motivated by a desire for children in a manless world, conceived Moab and Ammon by their father (Gn 19.3038). The story, which is etiological in as far as it gives a folk etymology to the names of these peoples, was used to insult the Ammonites and Moabites because they refused to help Israel in time of need (Dt 23.35). Ruben was deprived of his birthright because of incest (Gn 35.22; 49.34). Judah had intercourse with Tamar, his daughter-in-law, but was not blamed for it, since he thereby raised up children for his dead sons. see levirate mar riage (in the bible).

Mosaic Law. God forbade the Israelites to imitate the incestuous customs of Egypt where marriage between brothers and sisters was sometimes practiced (Lv 18.3,6). The incestuous unions prohibited in the Law (some were legitimate at an earlier age in Israel) are those of son and mother, of a man with the wife of his father (Lv 18.8; Dt 27.20) and with the mother of his wife (Dt 27.23), of a man with his granddaughter or his wife's daughter or granddaughter (Lv 18.10, 17), of a man with his sister or half-sister (Lv 18.9; Dt 27.22; see, however, Gn 20.12), of a nephew with his aunt (Lv 18.1214; cf. Ex 6.20), of a man with his daughter-in-law or with his sister-in-law (Lv 18.15, 16; 20.21); levirate marriage is an exception (Dt 25.510). Also forbidden was marriage to two sisters at the same time (Lv 18.18), although formerly it had been allowed (Gn 29.2728). Penalties for incest were death (Lv 20.1117), excommunication (Lv 18.29), and being cursed (Dt 27.20, 2223), e.g., by being childless (Lv 20.21).

Other instances of incest are found in the Old Testament. Ammon, son of David, raped Tamar, his half-sister, for which Tamar's brother Absalom murdered him (2 Sm 13.132). Absalom committed incest with his father's concubines, to show that he now was king (2 Sm 16.2122). David's son Adoniyah asked for Abishag, his father's concubine, a request that Solomon considered rebellion, although David had not "known" her (1 Kgs2.1323; 1.4). In Ez 22.1011, among the crimes of Jerusalem, incest is listed (see also Am 2.7).

In the New Testament. There are only two instances of incest in the New Testament. Herod Antipas married Herodias, his niece, and the wife of his brother Philip who was still living. John the Baptist was imprisoned because of his condemnation of Herod for marrying his brother's wife (Mk 6.1718).

In 1 Cor 5.112, St. Paul excommunicates and delivers to Satan a man sexually linked to his father's wife, no doubt his stepmother. Paul condemns such a sin as an "immorality not found even among the Gentiles," and a corrupting influence on the sacred community. He also blames the Corinthian church for not having already excluded the man.

Neither in the Old Testament nor New Testament does incest seem to be condemned for eugenic reasons, although these may have been the basis for the moral prohibition.

Bibliography: h. lesÊtre, Dictionnaire de la Bible, ed. f. vigouroux, 5 v. (Paris 18951912) 3.1:864867. w. corswant, A Dictionary of Life in Bible Times, tr. a. heathcote (New York 1960) r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 3132, 42, 158159.

[j. j. davis]