Illicit marital relations between a man and woman who belong to the same kinship group.Biblical Hebrew has no term for incest, but the Old Testament spells out marital relationsthat were forbidden. In the New Testament, the Greek term porneia [porneiva] refersto unlawful sexual intercourse in general, which included incest, and which might be theintended meaning of the term in Matthew 5:32; 19:9; ac 15:20, 29; 21:25. The issue ofincest receives particular attention in the New Testament in two passages: mr 6:17-29 and1 Corinthians 5:1-5. In general, a member of the community of faith who violated thebiblical incest prohibitions endangered the community's relationship with God and wouldreceive judgment carried out by the community and/or by God.
The biblical prohibitions against incest are found in the Old Testament in three maingroups of texts: Leviticus 18:6-18; 20:11, 12, 14, 17, 19, 20, 21; Deuteronomy 27:20-23.Marital relations with the following persons are forbidden: one's mother, father's wife,sister and half-sister, son's daughter, daughter's daughter, step-sister (a possiblemeaning of Lev 18:11 ),father's sister, mother's sister, father's brother's wife, daughter-in-law, brother'swife, wife's mother, and the joint marriage of a woman and her daughter, a woman and herson's or daughter's daughter, a woman and her sister (while the former is still alive, Lev 18:18 ), a womanand her mother. Hebrew and Jewish practice as found in the biblical narratives does notalways accord with the above prohibitions (cf. Gen 20:12 ; 29 Exodus 6:16 Exodus 6:18 Exodus 6:20 ; Num 26:59 ; 2 Sam 13:12-13 ; Mark 6:17-29 ).Such practices may be accounted for individually on the basis that they occurred: prior tothe origin of the prohibitions, in ignorance, or possibly in defiance of them. Also, incontrast to Leviticus 20:21 stands the legislation and practice of levirate marriage, aspecial case in which a brother or close kin is expected to marry the childless widow of abrother and father a child who would carry on the family lineage in the dead brother'sname.
The guidelines that defined the kinship limits of Hebrew marriage practice are notstated in the biblical texts. One can note, however, how the prohibitions correspondedwith the ancient Hebrew social structures. Hebrew marriage practices were exogamous on thelevel of the household, the extended patrilineal family that was the foundational socialunit of ancient Hebrew society. However, Hebrew marriage practice was also basicallyendogamous on the level of clan and tribe, so that one married within one's clan to createlineage solidarity and to preserve the clan's landed inheritance. This practice explainsthe absence of cousins from the incest prohibitions. Parallel patrilineal cousins, whocould be living one's household, were allowed, even preferred, in marriage.
An examination of the Old Testament incest prohibition lists reveals the nature of thetransgression and the judgment it received. Each of the lists of prohibitions is distinctin character and function. Deuteronomy 27:20-23 is included in a list of the curses of thecovenant ratification ritual in which the Israelites recognized that violation of thecovenant should justly incur divine curse. Those items mentioned in the list apparentlyrepresented a larger body of known laws, probably such as found in Leviticus 18 and 20.
Leviticus 18:6-18 states its prohibitions in absolute form (apodictic), as in theDecalog, without identifying case-by-case consequences. The force of these prohibitionsrests on divine authority, "I am the Lord" ( Leviticus 18:5 Leviticus 18:30 ). Thematerial bracketing these laws ( Leviticus 18:15 Leviticus 18:24-30 )reveals a theological reason for the prohibitions. The banned behavior was associated withthe Egyptians, whose land the Israelites had left, and the Canaanites, whose land theIsraelites came to possess. The morally corrupt practices of the Canaanites had so defiledthe land that they were to be eradicated from it. So, too, if Israelites allowed suchbehavior, God's land, in which they were sojourners ( Lev 25:23 ), wouldbe defiled and they too would be "vomited out." Incestuous practice, then, was acrime against God which, through its polluting influence, would contaminate Israel'srelationship with God and result in divine punishment of the community in general.
Leviticus 18:29 states the consequence for individuals who violate any of the bracketedlaws: they will be "cut off." This penalty has often been interpreted to beexcommunication (a punishment for incest found in Hittite laws and an interpretation heldby the Qumran community) or even the death penalty. However, all of the crimes that resultin this penalty are religious sins against God. In the levitical laws, sins against Godare punishable by God. Therefore, two other interpretations fit the evidence better. Thepenalty might refer (1) to the offender's family lineage being cut off by God, or (2) tothe offender being cut off from his kin in the afterlife existence of Sheol, or possiblyto both consequences together.
The incest laws of Leviticus 20 provide more information about the consequences ofincest violations. These texts share a form common to ancient Near Eastern legal texts.Such texts identify specific violations and consequences in the form of case law (alsocalled casuistic law: "If one commits A, then the consequence is B." ). Theypresented individual cases, which served as representatives of the larger body of commonlyknown law, for the purpose of identifying the relevant principles of justice. Lists ofsuch laws were not intended to be inclusive of all possible cases, nor was each caseintended to present all the criteria employed for making a judgment and assessing theconsequences. These lists were scholarly texts employed by the experts. Perhaps thischaracteristic common to ancient Near Eastern law explains why there is not a one-to-onecorrespondence among the three biblical lists of prohibitions and why no biblical textforbids marital relations with one's daughter. Since one's daughter was one of the"flesh" relatives (see Lev 21:2-3 ), andsince one's daughter's daughter was forbidden ( Lev 18:10 ), onemust assume union with one's daughter was forbidden in Israelite practice as well.
Furthermore, a difficulty in understanding the consequences prescribed in Leviticus 20for incest may be resolved. In this chapter three cases of incestuous relations receivethe death penalty (vv. 11, 12, 14), which was carried out by the community; and threereceive a form of divine punishment (vv. 17, 19, 20). If degrees of incest are beingdistinguished here, the exact principles used and how such principles would be applied toother unmentioned cases are unclear. Since such laws in the ancient Near East assume anaudience skilled in legal matters, they do not always mention various options regardingthe consequences. It is possible that total body of violations of 20:1-21 came under twounderstood conditions: when such violations occurred unknown to the community (as severalof these violations could), the violator would receive divine punishment; but when theviolator was known to the community, that person would receive the death penalty as well.This conclusion is supported by the fact that Leviticus 18:6-18 places all of its moreinclusive list of incest violations under the consequence of divine punishment.
The theological principle behind Leviticus 18 and 20 involves the understanding thatincest crimes could not be tolerated in the Israelite community, which was to remain holybefore God. No purification ritual for the individual is provided for such violations. Onewho would pollute Israel's relationship with God, if caught, was to be eradicated from thecommunity in order that the community's relationship with God might remain unimpeded.
Recognition of the above Old Testament theological principle sheds light on a difficultpassage in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 involving incest, a passage that has received variousinterpretations. In a case where a man has committed incest (apparently marrying theformer wife of his father) without the objection of the Christian community, Paul banishesthe man and hands him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh and the preservationof the Spirit (v. 5). (The usual translation, "his spirit, " is notsupported by the Greek text.) Paul's concern in this text is focused on the community,who, like dough, can be totally corrupted by a little yeast (vv. 6-13). The Christiancommunity collectively is the temple of God in which the Spirit dwells ( 6:19-20 ).Immoral practice within the community must be eradicated to preserve the presence of theSpirit. Therefore, Paul banishes the man and hands him over to Satan, the agent ofdestruction. In essence Paul leaves the penalty to God. The opportunity for the brother torepent, although not mentioned, is no doubt assumed, for, in the end, he did repent.Paul's focus is on preserving the holiness of the community and presence of the Spiritfrom the pollution of incest.
Rodney K. Duke
See also Immorality,Sexual
Bibliography. A. Y. Colins, HTR73 (1980): 251-63; T. Frymer-Kensky, TheWord of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, pp. 399-414;H. A. Hoffner, Jr., Orient and Occident, pp. 81-90; B. A. Levine, Leviticus;J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16; G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus; R.Westbrook, Studies in Biblical and Cuneiform Law; idem, ABD, 5:546-56; B.Witherington, NTS 31 (1985): 571-76; D. Wold, SBLSP, 1:1-45; C. J. H.Wright, ABD, 2:761-69.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Incest'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".