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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


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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 relations that were forbidden. In the New Testament, the Greek term porneia [ ] refers to unlawful sexual intercourse in general, which included incest, and which might be the intended meaning of the term in Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Acts 15:20,29; 21:25 . The issue of incest receives particular attention in the New Testament in two passages: mr 6:17-29,1 Corinthians 5:1-5 . In general, a member of the community of faith who violated the biblical incest prohibitions endangered the community's relationship with God and would receive judgment carried out by the community and/or by God.

The biblical prohibitions against incest are found in the Old Testament in three main groups 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 possible meaning of Leviticus 18:11 ), father's sister, mother's sister, father's brother's wife, daughter-in-law, brother's wife, wife's mother, and the joint marriage of a woman and her daughter, a woman and her son's or daughter's daughter, a woman and her sister (while the former is still alive, Leviticus 18:18 ), a woman and her mother. Hebrew and Jewish practice as found in the biblical narratives does not always accord with the above prohibitions (cf. Genesis 20:12; 29 Exodus 6:16,18 , 20; Numbers 26:59; 2 Samuel 13:12-13; Mark 6:17-29 ). Such practices may be accounted for individually on the basis that they occurred: prior to the origin of the prohibitions, in ignorance, or possibly in defiance of them. Also, in contrast to Leviticus 20:21 stands the legislation and practice of levirate marriage, a special case in which a brother or close kin is expected to marry the childless widow of a brother and father a child who would carry on the family lineage in the dead brother's name.

The guidelines that defined the kinship limits of Hebrew marriage practice are not stated in the biblical texts. One can note, however, how the prohibitions corresponded with the ancient Hebrew social structures. Hebrew marriage practices were exogamous on the level of the household, the extended patrilineal family that was the foundational social unit of ancient Hebrew society. However, Hebrew marriage practice was also basically endogamous on the level of clan and tribe, so that one married within one's clan to create lineage solidarity and to preserve the clan's landed inheritance. This practice explains the absence of cousins from the incest prohibitions. Parallel patrilineal cousins, who could be living one's household, were allowed, even preferred, in marriage.

An examination of the Old Testament incest prohibition lists reveals the nature of the transgression and the judgment it received. Each of the lists of prohibitions is distinct in character and function. Deuteronomy 27:20-23 is included in a list of the curses of the covenant ratification ritual in which the Israelites recognized that violation of the covenant should justly incur divine curse. Those items mentioned in the list apparently represented a larger body of known laws, probably such as found in Leviticus 18,20 .

Leviticus 18:6-18 states its prohibitions in absolute form (apodictic), as in the Decalog, without identifying case-by-case consequences. The force of these prohibitions rests on divine authority, "I am the Lord" (18:5,30). The material bracketing these laws (18:15,24-30) reveals a theological reason for the prohibitions. The banned behavior was associated with the Egyptians, whose land the Israelites had left, and the Canaanites, whose land the Israelites came to possess. The morally corrupt practices of the Canaanites had so defiled the land that they were to be eradicated from it. So, too, if Israelites allowed such behavior, God's land, in which they were sojourners ( Leviticus 25:23 ), would be defiled and they too would be "vomited out." Incestuous practice, then, was a crime against God which, through its polluting influence, would contaminate Israel's relationship 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 bracketed laws: they will be "cut off." This penalty has often been interpreted to be excommunication (a punishment for incest found in Hittite laws and an interpretation held by the Qumran community) or even the death penalty. However, all of the crimes that result in this penalty are religious sins against God. In the levitical laws, sins against God are punishable by God. Therefore, two other interpretations fit the evidence better. The penalty might refer (1) to the offender's family lineage being cut off by God, or (2) to the offender being cut off from his kin in the afterlife existence of Sheol, or possibly to both consequences together.

The incest laws of Leviticus 20 provide more information about the consequences of incest 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 (also called casuistic law: "If one commits A, then the consequence is B." ). They presented individual cases, which served as representatives of the larger body of commonly known law, for the purpose of identifying the relevant principles of justice. Lists of such laws were not intended to be inclusive of all possible cases, nor was each case intended to present all the criteria employed for making a judgment and assessing the consequences. These lists were scholarly texts employed by the experts. Perhaps this characteristic common to ancient Near Eastern law explains why there is not a one-to-one correspondence among the three biblical lists of prohibitions and why no biblical text forbids marital relations with one's daughter. Since one's daughter was one of the "flesh" relatives (see Leviticus 21:2-3 ), and since one's daughter's daughter was forbidden (Leviticus 18:10 ), one must assume union with one's daughter was forbidden in Israelite practice as well.

Furthermore, a difficulty in understanding the consequences prescribed in Leviticus 20 for incest may be resolved. In this chapter three cases of incestuous relations receive the death penalty (vv. 11,12, 14), which was carried out by the community; and three receive a form of divine punishment (vv. 17,19, 20). If degrees of incest are being distinguished here, the exact principles used and how such principles would be applied to other unmentioned cases are unclear. Since such laws in the ancient Near East assume an audience skilled in legal matters, they do not always mention various options regarding the consequences. It is possible that total body of violations of 20:1-21 came under two understood conditions: when such violations occurred unknown to the community (as several of these violations could), the violator would receive divine punishment; but when the violator 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 more inclusive list of incest violations under the consequence of divine punishment.

The theological principle behind Leviticus 18,20 involves the understanding that incest crimes could not be tolerated in the Israelite community, which was to remain holy before God. No purification ritual for the individual is provided for such violations. One who would pollute Israel's relationship with God, if caught, was to be eradicated from the community in order that the community's relationship with God might remain unimpeded.

Recognition of the above Old Testament theological principle sheds light on a difficult passage in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 involving incest, a passage that has received various interpretations. In a case where a man has committed incest (apparently marrying the former wife of his father) without the objection of the Christian community, Paul banishes the man and hands him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh and the preservation of the Spirit (v. 5). (The usual translation, " his spirit, " is not supported 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 Christian community 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 the Spirit. Therefore, Paul banishes the man and hands him over to Satan, the agent of destruction. In essence Paul leaves the penalty to God. The opportunity for the brother to repent, 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 Spirit from the pollution of incest.

Rodney K. Duke

See also Immorality, Sexual

Bibliography . A. Y. Colins, HTR 73 (1980): 251-63; T. Frymer-Kensky, The Word 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.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Incest'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.​dictionaries/​eng/​bed/​i/incest.html. 1996.