Does the Bible Conflict with Itself in the Matter of “Incest”?

By Wayne Jackson

Does the Bible Endorse Incest?

Some superficial critics of the Bible charge that it contains a moral contradiction. It is alleged that whereas the practice of “incest” is condemned in the law of Moses, there appear to be cases in scripture where it is sanctioned. Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:12), and both Isaac and Jacob married kinsmen (Genesis 22:20ff; 24:4; 24:43). Paul is said to have given his permission for a man to marry his own daughter (1 Corinthians 7:36-38). What does the Bible student say in response to these supposed problems?

The Crime Defined

Incest is defined as: “The crime of sexual intercourse or cohabitation between a man and woman who are related to each other within the degrees wherein marriage is prohibited by law” (Black, p. 685). Incest has been held to be repulsive, dangerous, and illegal among many civilizations — even some of the most primitive. In ancient Rome, Augustus implemented a law against incest, and children born to incestuous relationships were deemed illegitimate. Modern laws against incest appear to be grounded mainly in the Levitical code (McClintock, p. 541).

Old Testament Examples

There are several clear cases of incest in the Old Testament. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, begat two sons by his own daughters while in a drunken stupor (Genesis 19:30-35). Moses recorded the sordid act as a matter of history, but there is no sanction of the sin in the sacred text. In fact it is placed in a decidedly negative light. Ruben was intimate with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22) — a shameful act that was condemned and penalized (Genesis 49:4). Amnon, one of David’s sons, committed incest/rape against his half-sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13:7-14), and, as a consequence, was murdered later by the order of Absalom, Tamar’s full brother (2 Samuel 13).

The Levitical Code

The most comprehensive segment of the Old Testament dealing with this offense is in Leviticus 18:6-18. Sexual cohabitation was not permitted between a man and his mother, his sister, a granddaughter, an aunt, etc. The most serious punishment was execution (Leviticus 20:11-17), and in the New Testament era, disfellowship from the local church was enjoined for the offence (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).

In evaluating some of the cases mentioned above (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) several factors must be borne in mind, which reveal that those situations were not parallel with some of the egregious examples that came later (e.g., Reuben, Amnon).

(1) The regulations of the Law of Moses were binding only upon those to whom it was given at the time, and subsequently upon all who lived under that law until its abolition (at the death of Christ — Romans 7:1ff; Ephesians 2:11ff; Colossians 2:13-17). Even in our legal system there is recognition of the ex post facto principle, namely that one is not amenable to the consequences of a law passed after the commission of a certain act. The people of the Patriarchal Period, therefore, were not under the specific regulations of the Mosaic Code. They were obligated to universal moral principles, but not to the intricate details of some of the Mosaic regulations which came later. Note this comment from Professor Walter Kaiser.

“Prior to Moses’ time, incest in many of the forms later proscribed, were not thought to be wrong. Thus, even Moses’ own father, Amram, married an aunt, his father’s sister, Jochebed (Exodus 6:20)” (Kaiser, et al., p. 101).

(2) God has never approved of indiscriminate sexual activity outside of the marriage relationship in any age of human history. As one writer has noted,

“the fundamental problem with incest [and other extra-marital sexual sins] is that it strikes at the soundness of the family. And since the family is central to God’s purposes and work on earth, his judgment on this practice is fierce” (Coppenger, p. 1030).

The Patriarchal Circumstance

In the early stages of human history, “marriage” among kinsmen was not deemed immoral. The fact is, such was a necessity from the nature of the situation. The children of Adam and Eve must have married kinsmen, for there were no other people on earth except those descended from the original pair.

(1) As noted already at the beginning of this article, in the Patriarchal period there were familial marriages that do not appear to have been censured by Jehovah, but which were prohibited in a later epoch of law.

(2) There is another factor that must be considered. In the early days of the human family, before sin, disease, and genetics took such a deadly accumulative toll, Adam’s offspring were much more physically vigorous than they now are. And so inter-family unions would not have resulted in the debilitating effects that are characteristic of such relationships in the modern world. Adam himself lived to be 930 years of age, yet by the time of Abraham, 175 was a “good old age” (Genesis 25:7-8); eventually human longevity would level out at approximately 80 years on average (Psalm 90:10). “Time,” in a sinful world, has extracted a high cost.

Paul and the Corinthian Situation

In the 7th chapter of his First Corinthian letter, Paul, by the inspiration of the Spirit, gave a variety of instructions pertaining to the marriage relationship. Some of these were fixed rigidly as a matter of moral correctness. Others were given by way of the apostle’s seasoned advice.

One of the historical realities woven into the fabric of Paul’s message is that of a serious, impending persecution that threatened the ancient saints (see: vv. 26,29,32,35,38,40). Some of his instruction hinged on the premise of this coming reality.

Here is the passage that is the focus of this “tempest in a tea pot” controversy.

“But if any man thinks that he is behaving himself unseemly toward his virgin daughter, if she be past the flower of her age, and if need so requires, let him do what he will; he is not sinning; let them marry” (1 Corinthians 7:36).

To foist upon this text the meaning that a father is allowed to marry his own daughter, if he cannot resist the temptation of being intimate with her, is one of the most perverse misappropriations of scripture imaginable. Let us examine the context with common sense.

(1) First, the historical or cultural circumstances must be taken into consideration. In that age, parents arranged their children’s marriages more often than not. A father could consent to his daughter’s marriage, or withhold permission, depending upon the circumstances. Children grew up in this environment, and they embraced this process out of respect for their parents and tradition. Apparently, these unions were much more stable than those of the modern merry-go-round, marriage/divorce glitches that so trouble society today (where about half of all marriages end in divorce). It is against this background that Paul’s advice takes its rise.

(2) In view of the foregoing, we would paraphrase verse 36 as follows:

“But if any man [father] thinks that he is behaving himself improperly [by refusing his daughter permission to marry due to the impending persecution] with reference to his virgin [daughter], if she is past the flower of her age [mature enough for marriage], and if need so requires [there is a more compelling factor that overrides the danger of persecution], let him [the father] use his own judgment [and grant her permission to marry in spite of the apostle’s general advice to remain single]; he [the father] will not be sinning [in granting this concession].”

Thus, Paul himself concedes permission for the marriage at the father’s discretion. Yet (in v. 37), the apostle thinks that in most cases the father would do better to stand his ground [against his daughter’s emotional pleading], and think foremost of her safety and Christian fidelity — that could be jeopardized in a time of intense tribulation.

This text, therefore, has nothing under the sun to do with incest.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Coppenger, Mark T. (1988), “Incest,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker), Vol. I.
  • Black, Henry Campbell (5th edition, 1979), Black’s Law Dictionary (St. Paul: West Publishing Co.).
  • Kaiser, Walter C., Jr., Davids, Peter H., Bruce, F.F., Brauch, Manfred T. (1996), Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
  • McClintock, John & Strong, James (1969 reprint), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker), Vol. IV.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.