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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 18

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.And the Lord spoke unto Moses. I have not introduced this declaration amongst other similar ones, which had for their object the preparation of their minds for the reverent reception of the Law, because, whatever conformity there may be in the words themselves, in their substance there is a great difference; for they were general, whereas this is specially confined to a single point. For it was not God’s intention here merely to exhort the people to the study of the Law, but the address respecting the keeping of His statutes is directed to the present cause, since He does not refer indifferently to all the statutes of Himself and of the Gentiles, but restricts Himself to the subject-matter, as it is called; and thus, by the statutes of the Gentiles, He means those corruptions whereby they had perverted His pure institution as to holy matrimony. First, however, tie forbids them from following the customs of the Egyptians, and then includes all the Canaanitish nations. For, since all the Orientals are libidinous, they never had any scruple in polluting themselves by incestuous marriages; whilst it is abundantly proved by history, how great were the excesses of the Egyptians (86) in this respect. A brother had no abhorrence against marrying his uterine sister, nor a paternal or maternal uncle his niece; in a word, they were so dead to. shame that they were carried away by their lusts to trample upon all the laws of nature. This is the reason why God here enumerates the kinds of incest of which the mention would else have been superfluous.

(86) “A very objectionable custom, which is not only noticed by Diodorus, but is fully authenticated by the sculptures both of Upper and Lower Egypt, existed among them from the earliest times, the origin and policy of which it is not easy to explain — the marriage of brother and sister, which Diodorus supposes to have been owing to, and sanctioned by, that of His and Osiris; but as this was purely an allegorical fable, and these ideal personages never lived on earth, his conjecture is of little weight; nor does any ancient writer offer a satisfactory explanation of so strange a custom.” — Wilkinson’s Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians, 2:224.

Verse 4

4.Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments. Because it is no less difficult to correct vices, to which men have been long accustomed, than to cure diseases of long standing, especially because people in general so pertinaciously cleave to bad examples, God adduces His statutes, in order to recall the people from the errors of their evil habits into the right way. For nothing is more absurd than for us to fix our minds on the actions of men, and not on God’s word, in which is to be found the rule of a holy life. It is, therefore, just as if God would overthrow whatever had been received from long custom, and abolish the universal consent of the world by the authority of His doctrine. With this object He commands His Law to be regarded not once only, as we have already seen, lest the Israelites should abandon themselves to filthy lusts; but He diligently inculcates upon them, that they should turn away from all abuses, and keep themselves within the bounds and ordinances of His Law. And to this refers the expression, “I am the Lord your God;” containing a comparison between Himself and the heathen nations, between whom and His people He had interposed, as it were, a wall of partition.

Verse 5

5.Ye shall therefore keep my statutes. Although Moses introduces this passage, where he exhorts the Israelites to cultivate chastity in respect to marriage, and not to fall into the incestuous pollutions of the Gentiles, yet, as it is a remarkable one, and contains general instruction, from whence Paul derives his definition of the righteousness of the Law, (Romans 10:5,) it seems to me to come in very appropriately here, inasmuch as it sanctions and confirms the Law by the promise of reward. The hope of eternal life is, therefore, given to all who keep the Law; for those who expound the passage as referring to this earthly and transitory life are mistaken. (195) The cause of this error was, because they feared that thus the righteousness of faith might be subverted, and salvation grounded on the merit of works. But Scripture does not therefore deny that men are justified by works, because the Law itself is imperfect, or does not give instructions for perfect righteousness; but because the promise is made of none effect by our corruption and sin. Paul, therefore, as I have just said, when he teaches that righteousness is to be sought for in the grace of Christ by faith, (Romans 10:4,) proves his statement by this argument, that none is justified who has not fulfilled what the Law commands. Elsewhere also he reasons by contrast, where he contends that the Law does not accord with faith as regards the cause of justification, because the Law requires works for the attainment of salvation, whilst faith directs us to Christ, that we may be delivered from the curse of the Law. Foolishly, then, do some reject as an absurdity the statement, that if a man fulfills the Law he attains to righteousness; for the defect does not arise from the doctrine of the Law, but from the infirmity of men, as is plain from another testimony given by Paul. (Romans 8:3.) We must observe, however, that salvation is not to be expected from the Law unless its precepts be in every respect complied with; for life is not promised to one who shall have done this thing, or that thing, but, by the plural word, full obedience is required of us. The pratings of the Popish theologians about partial righteousness are frivolous and silly, since God embraces at once all the commandments; and who is there that can boast of having thoroughly fulfilled them? If, then, none was ever clear of transgression, or ever will be, although God by no means deceives us, yet the promise becomes ineffectual, because we do not perform our part of the agreement.

(195) “This some understand only of temporal life and prosperity in this world, Origen, Tostat. Oleaster, Vatablus; and make this to be the meaning, — that, as the transgressors of the Law were to die, so they which kept it should preserve their life, Thom. Aquin. 1. 2. q. 100, a. 12; but I prefer rather Hesychius ’ judgment, — Per quas oeterna vita hominibus datur, ” etc. — Willet Hexapla, in loco. There appears to be unusual discrepancy on this point between the commentators, whether Romanist or Protestant. Bush and Holden apply it to temporal life. Bonar says, “If, as most think, we are to take, in this place, the words ‘live in them,’ as meaning ‘eternal life to be got by them,’ the scope of the passage is, that so excellent are God’s laws, and every special minute detail of these laws, that if a man were to keep these always and perfectly, the very keeping would be eternal life to him. And the quotations in Romans 10:5, and Galatians 3:12, would seem to determine this to be the true and only sense here.” C. ’s view appears to be confirmed by our Lord’s reply in Matthew 19:17, referred to in Poole’s Synopsis.

Verse 6

6.None of you shall approach to any that is near. This name does not include all female relations; for cousin-ger-mans of the father’s or mother’s side are permitted to intermarry; but it must be restricted to the degrees, which He proceeds to enumerate, and is merely a brief preface, declaring that there are certain degrees of relationship which render marriages incestuous. We may, therefore, define these female relations of blood to be those which are spoken of immediately afterwards, viz., that a son should not marry his mother, nor a son-in-law his mother-in-law; nor a paternal or maternal uncle his niece, nor a grandfather his granddaughter, nor a brother his sister, nor a nephew his paternal or maternal aunt, or his uncle’s wife, nor a father-in-law his daughter-in-law, nor a brother-in-law his brother’s wife, nor a step-father his stepdaughter. The Roman laws accord with the rule prescribed by God, as if their authors had learnt from Moses what was decorous and agreeable to nature. The phrase which God uses frequently “to uncover the turpitude,” is intended to awaken abhorrence, in order that the Israelites may beware more diligently of all incest. The Hebrew word, indeed, ערוה, gnervah, signifies nakedness, therefore some translate it actively, “the nakedness of thy father,” i e. , the womb which thy father hath uncovered; but this meaning would not be suitable to the nakedness of thy daughter, or thy daughter-in-law, or thy sister. Consequently, there is no doubt but that Moses means to denote that it is a filthy and shameful thing.

We must remember, what I have already hinted, that not only are incestuous connections out of wedlock condemned, but that the degrees are pointed out, within which marriages are unlawful. It is true, indeed, that this was a part of the political constitution which God established for His ancient people; still, it must be borne in mind, that whatever is prescribed here is deduced from the source of rectitude itself, and from the natural feelings implanted in us by Him. Absurd is the cleverness which some persons but little versed in Scripture pretend to, (87) who assert that the Law being abrogated, the obligations under which Moses laid his countrymen are now dissolved; for it is to be inferred from the preface above expounded, that. the instruction here given is not, nor ought to be accounted, merely political. For, since their lusts had led astray all the neighboring nations into incest, God, in order to inculcate chastity amongst his people, says; “I am the Lord your God, ye shall therefore keep my statutes; walk not after the doings of the land of Egypt and of Canaan;” and then He adds what are the degrees of consanguinity and affinity within which the marriage of men and women is forbidden. If any again object that what has been disobeyed in many countries is not to be accounted the law of the Gentiles, the reply is easy, viz., that the barbarism, which prevailed in the East, does not nullify that chastity which is opposed to the abominations of the Gentiles; since what is natural cannot be abrogated by any consent or custom. In short, the prohibition of incests here set forth, is by no means of the number of those laws which are commonly abrogated according to the circumstances of time and place, since it flows from the fountain of nature itself, and is founded on the general principle of all laws, which is perpetual and inviolable. Certainly God declares that the custom which had prevailed amongst the heathen was displeasing to Him; and why is this, but because nature itself repudiates and abhors filthiness, although approved of by the consent (suffragiis) of men? Wherefore, when God would by this distinction separate His chosen people from heathen nations, we may assuredly conclude that the incests which He commands them to avoid are absolute pollutions. Paul, on a very trifling point, sets before our eyes the law of nature; for, when he teaches that it is shameful and indecorous for women to appear in public without veils, he desires them to consider, whether it would be decent for them to present themselves publicly with their heads shorn; and finally adds, that nature itself does not permit it. (1 Corinthians 11:14.) Wherefore, I do not see, that, under the pretext of its being a political Law, (88) the purity of nature is to be abolished, from whence arises the distinction between the statutes of God, and the abuses of the Gentiles. If this discipline were founded on the utility of a single people, or on the custom of a particular time, or on present necessity, or on any other circumstances, the laws deduced from it might be abrogated for new reasons, or their observance might be dispensed with in regard to particular persons, by special privilege; but since, in their enactment, the perpetual decency of nature was alone regarded, not even a dispensation of them would be permissible. It may indeed be decreed that it should be lawful and unpunished, since it is in the power of princes to remit penalties; yet no legislator can effect that a thing, which nature pronounces to be vicious, should not be vicious; and, if tyrannical arrogance dares to attempt it, the light of nature will presently shine forth and prevail. When, formerly, the Emperor Claudius had married his niece Agrippina, (89) for the purpose of averting the shame, he procured a Senatusconsultum, which licensed such marriages; yet no one was found to imitate his example, except one freedman. Hence, just and reasonable men will acknowledge that, even amongst heathen nations, this Law was accounted indissoluble, as if implanted and engraved on the hearts of men. On this ground Paul, more severely to reprove the incest of a step-son with his father’s wife, says, that such an occurrence “is not so much as named among the Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 5:1.)

If it be objected that such marriages are not prohibited to us in the New Testament, I reply, that the marriage of a father with his daughter is not forbidden; nor is a mother prohibited from marrying her son; and shall it therefore be lawful for those, who are near of kin, to form promiscuous connections? (90) Although Paul expressly mentions only one kind of incest, yet he establishes its disgrace by adducing the example of the Gentiles, that at least we should be ashamed if more delicacy and chastity is seen amongst them. And:. in fact, another admonition of the same Paul is enough for me, who thus writes to the Philippians:

“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8.)

As to those who ascend or descend ill a direct line, it, sufficiently appears that there is a monstrous indecency in the connection of father and daughter, or mother and son. A licentious poet, (91) being about to relate the frantic incest of Myrrha, says:

“Daughters and fathers, from my song retire,
I sing of horror.”

In the collateral line, the uncles on both sides represent the father, and the aunts the mother; and, consequently, connection with them is forbidden, inasmuch as it would be of somewhat similar impropriety. The same rule affects affinity; for the step-mother, or mother-in-law, is held to stand in the relation of mother; and the step-daughter, or daughter-in-law, in that of daughter; as also the wife of the paternal or maternal uncle is to be regarded in the relation of mother. And, although express mention may not be made of it here, we must form our judgment by analogy as to what is prohibited; — the uncle on the father’s or mother’s side is not here forbidden to marry his niece; but, since the nephew is interdicted from marrying his paternal or maternal aunt, the mutual relation of the inferior to the superior degree must prevail. But if any should contend that there is a difference, the reason added by Moses refutes his objection, for it is said, “She is thy father’s or thy mother’s near kinswoman.” Hence it follows, that a niece is guilty of incest if she marries her uncle on either side. As to brothers and sisters, God pronounces that marriage with a sister, although she be not uterine, is unlawful; for He forbids the uncovering of the turpitude of a sister, who is either the daughter of thy father or thy mother.

(87) Thus, the third Canon of the 24th Session of the Council of Trent declares; “Si quis dixerit, eos tantum consanguinitatis et affinitatis gradus, qui Levitico exprimentur, posse impedire matrimonium, et dirimere contractum: nec posse Ecclesiam in nonnullis illorum dispensare, aut constituere, ut plures impediant, et dirimant, anathema sit.” “Atqui plane certum est, (says Lorinus, in loco,) praecepta de gradibus in isto capite contenta, cum non sint omnia pure moralia, et naturalia, sed quaedam positiva, et judicialia, per se non obligare Christianos, et idcirco posse per Ecclesiam in quibusdam dispensari.”

(88) “Sous couverture que la Loy de Moyse a cesse” — Fr. Under the pretext that the Law of Moses has ceased.

(89) “Nec Claudius ultra expectato, obvium apud forum praebet se gratantibus; senatumque ingressus ‘decretum postulat, quo justae inter patruos, fratrumque filias nuptiae etiam in posterum statuerentur.’ Neque tamen repertus est, nisi unus talis matrimonii cupitor, T. Alladius Severus, eques Romanus, quem plerique Agrippinae gratia impulsum ferebant.” — Tacitus Ann., Lib. 12:7.

(90) “Leur sera il pourtant licite de se mesler confusement ensemble comme bestes?” shall it therefore be lawful to them to mix together confusedly like beasts?

(91) Ovid. Metam., 10:300.

“Dira canam: procul hinc natae, procul este parentes.”

Verse 16

16.Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife. They are bad (92) interpreters who raise a controversy on this passage, and expound it, that a brother’s wife must not be taken from his bed, or, if she be divorced, that manage with her would be unlawful whilst her husband was still alive; for it is incongruous to twist into different senses declarations which are made in the same place, and in the same words. God forbids the uncovering of the turpitude of the wife of a father, an uncle, and a son; and when He lays down the same rule respecting a brother’s wife in the very same words, it is absurd to invent a different meaning for them. If, therefore, it be not lawful to marry the wife of a father, a son, an uncle, or a nephew, we must. hold precisely the same opinion with respect to a brother’s wife, concerning whom an exactly similar law is enacted in the same passage and context. I am not, however, ignorant of the source from whence those, who think otherwise, have derived their mistake; for, whereas God gives a command in another place, that if a man shall have died without issue, his surviving brother shall take his widow to wife, in order that he may raise up of her seed to the departed, (Deuteronomy 25:5,) they have incorrectly and ignorantly restricted this to own-brothers, although God rather designates other degrees of relationship. It is a well-known Hebrew idiom, to embrace under the name of brother all near kinsmen in general; and the Latins also formerly so denominated cousins-german. (93) The law, then, now before us, respecting marriage with a deceased brother’s wife, is only addressed to those relations who are not otherwise prohibited from such a marriage, since it was not God’s purpose to prevent the loss of a deceased person’s name by permitting those incestuous marriages, which tie had elsewhere condemned. Wherefore these two points agree perfectly well, that an own-brother was prohibited from marrying his brother’s widow, whilst the next of kin were obliged to raise up seed for the dead, by the right of their relationship, wherever their marriage was otherwise permissible by the enactment’s of the law. On this ground Boaz married Ruth, who had previously been married to his near kinsman; and it is abundantly clear from the history, that the law applied to all the near kinsmen. But if any still contend that own-brothers were included in the number of these, on the same grounds the daughter-in-law must be married by her father-in-law, and the nephew’s wife by the uncle, and even the mother-in-law by the son-in-law, which it is an abomination to speak of. If any object that Er, Onan, and Shelah, the sons of Judah, were own-brothers, and still that Tamar married two of them, the difficulty is easily solved, viz., that Judah, following the common and received practice of the Gentiles, acted improperly in permitting it. It is plain enough, from the histories of all ages, that there were disgusting and shameless mixtures in the marriages of Oriental nations. By evil communications, then, as is ever the case, Judah was led into giving the same wife to his second son as had before been married to the eldest. And, in fact, God expressly says that this offense was rife among the Gentiles, where tie condemns incestuous connections. This, therefore, I still hold to be unquestionable, that, by the law of Moses, marriage with the widow of an own-brother is forbidden.

(92) In Willet this exposition is attributed to Radulph., Blesensis, and Borrhaus.

(93) Thus Augustine (De Civit. Dei. 15:16. Section 2,) says, — “quod fiebat cum consobrina, pene cum sorore fieri videbatur: quia et ipsi inter se propter tam propinquam consanguinitatem fratres vocantur, et pene germani sunt.”

Verse 18

18.Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister. By this passage certain froward persons pretend that it is permitted, if a man has lost his wife, to marry her own sister, because the restriction is added, not to take the one in the lifetime of the other. From whence they infer, that it is not forbidden that she should succeed in the place of the deceased. But they ought to have considered the intention of the legislator from his own express words, for mention is made not only of incest and filthiness, but of the jealousy and quarrels, which arise from hence. If it had merely been said, “Thou shalt not uncover her turpitude,” there would have been some color to their pretext, that the husband being a widower, he would be free to marry his wife’s sister; but, when a different object for the law is expressly stated, i e. , lest she, who was legally married, should be troubled by quarrels and contentions, it is plain that the license for polygamy is restricted by this exception, in order that the Israelites should be contented with one evil, and, at least, should not expose two sisters to hostile contention with each other. The condition of the first wife was already painful enough, when she was compelled to put up with a rival and a concubine; but it was more intolerable to be constantly quarrelling with her near relative. The name of sister is not, therefore, restricted, I think, to actual sisters, but other relations are included in it, whose marriages would not otherwise have been incestuous. In a word, it is not incest which is condemned, so much as the cruelty of a husband, if he chose to contract a further marriage with the near kinswoman of his wife. Nor can we come to any other conclusion from the words of Moses; for if the turpitude of a brother is uncovered when his brother marries his widow, no less is the turpitude of a sister uncovered when her sister marries her husband after her decease. But hence we plainly see the diabolical arrogance of the Pope, who, by inventing new degrees of kindred, would be wiser than God; whilst he also betrays his cunning, because from this kind of sport he made himself a fat game-bag.

Since from long custom it is established that cousins-german should not marry, we must beware of giving scandal lest too unbridled a liberty should expose the Gospel to much reproach; and we must bear in mind Paul’s admonition, to abstain even from things lawful when they are not expedient. (1 Corinthians 10:23.)

Verse 20

The object of this passage is the same as that of the foregoing ones. For, whilst all fornication pollutes a man, there is grosser impurity in adultery, because the sanctity of marriage is violated, and by the commingling of seed a spurious and illegitimate offspring is derived. Wherefore, God has justly enumerated this crime amongst the abominations of the Gentiles, as may be more clearly seen from the exordium of the chapter from whence this passage is taken.

Verse 21

18:21.Thou shalt not let any of thy seed. In these three precepts Moses more lightly touches on what we have lately seen set forth at greater length in Deuteronomy; for there he condemns impious offerings, as well as the responses of familiar spirits, magical arts, and enchantments. He now in the first place adverts to adulterous sacrifices, especially to that impure and detestable service of consecrating their children to Moloch, as they called him, the idol of the Gentiles; and then adds a prohibition, that they should give no heed to false revelations. But in these two passages of Leviticus he only enumerates two classes, (304) viz., to use auguries and divinations, and to seek responses from familiar spirits, and to consult magicians or enchanters; yet he includes all the others of which we have previously spoken. And, lest they should think the crime a light one, he says that all they are “defiled” who devote themselves to this kind of curiosity. The confirmation, which is added at the end of both clauses, has relation to the sum of the First Commandment; for when God declares Himself to be “Jehovah, and the God of Israel,” he both claims the worship which is due to Him alone, and also condemns all the superstitions whereby pure religion is adulterated. There is also an antithesis implied, in which God contrasts Himself with all fictitious idols; and therefore the words may be thus paraphrased, — Since I am the eternal God, and separated from all others which the Gentiles foolishly make to themselves, and since I have chosen you to myself as my peculiar people, I would have you, as you ought to be, pure and separated from all defilements.

(304) “Il en raconte seulement quatre especes; mais il y comprend toutes celles que nous avons veus par ci-devant;” he mentions only four sorts, but comprehends in them all those which we have before observed. — Fr.

Verse 22

We learn from these passages that the people were not only prohibited from adultery, but also from all sins (61) which are repugnant to the modesty of nature itself. In order that all impurity may be the more detestable, He enumerates two species of unnatural lust, from whence it is evident that when men indulge themselves in this respect, they are carried away by an impulse, which is more than beastly, to defile themselves by shameful wickedness. The beasts are satisfied with natural connection; it is therefore a gross enormity that this distinction should be confounded by man endowed with reason; for what is the use of our judgment and intelligent faculties if it be not that greater self-restraint should exist in us than in the brute animals? It is plain, therefore, that they must be blinded in a horrible manner who so shamefully defile themselves, as Paul says. (Romans 1:28.) The madness of lust has, however, invented several monstrous vices, whose names it would be better to bury, if God had not chosen that these shameful monuments should exist, to inspire us with fear and horror. It has at length advanced to such excesses, that men created in God’s image, both male and female, have had connection with brutes.

(61) “Toutes dissolutions vilenes.” — Fr.

Verse 24

Leviticus 18:24.Defile not yourselves in any of these things. An old proverb (62) says, that good laws have sprung from evil habits; and God reminds us that for this reason He has been induced expressly to advert to these disgusting and wicked things; for the monstrosities which He mentions would have been concealed in eternal silence had not necessity compelled Him to bring them to light. But since the Canaanitish nations had advanced to such a pitch of licentiousness, that the prodigious sins, which else would have been better concealed, had been but too familiarly known from their wicked habits, God warns His people to beware of their fatal examples. First, when He says that these abominations prevailed amongst the Gentiles, He indicates that evil habits by no means avail as an excuse; nay, that public consent is in vain alleged in defense of vice. But the better to deter them from imitating them, He sets before their eyes the vengeance He is about to take. It is true, indeed, that the nations of Canaan were destroyed for other reasons, but it is not without cause that He sets forth this amongst the rest, for undoubtedly God was offended by such pollutions.

(62) See vol. 2, p. 281, and note.

Verse 26

26.Ye shall therefore keep my statutes He here contrasts His Law with the abominations of the Gentiles. The exhibition of His severity, which He had referred to, might indeed have sufficed for the instruction of His people; but in order to influence them more strongly, He at the same time adduces the way pointed out to them in the Law, which would not suffer them to go astray, if only they refused not to follow God. For that the Gentiles, who were destitute of light, should have been drawn aside in every direction was not surprising; but whilst they thus proved their blindness, it behooved true believers, on the contrary, to testify that they were not children of darkness, but of light. And to this Paul seems to allude, when he exhorts believers not to walk, like the Gentiles, “in the vanity of their mind.” (Ephesians 4:17.) On this account God not only commends to them His precepts and statutes, but also His ordinances (custodias,) because He had omitted nothing in the Law which would be useful for the direction of men’s lives. The sum is, that unless they order themselves constantly by the doctrine which enlightens them, the same destruction awaited them also which was about to overwhelm the (Canaanitish) nations.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Leviticus 18". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/leviticus-18.html. 1840-57.
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