Incest in the Hebrew Bible

There is no persuasive reason, however, in Leviticus (or elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible) for arguing that daughters are depicted as sexually available to fathers (see Stiebert 2016: 33-44). Really, the Hebrew Bible provides us with very little to go on concerning child sexual abuse, including incestuous abuse of girls in particular, a topic so disturbing and prevalent in the clinical literature of contemporary Western contexts (Herman [1981] 2000). While violence against children is mentioned in numerous places (Michel 2003), the assumption in almost every single case in the Hebrew Bible is that sexual acts occur not with children and only between persons of marriageable and/or childbearing age (Michel 2004).

See Also: Stiebert, Johanna. First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

By Johanna Stiebert
School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science
University of Leeds, West Yorkshire
November 2016

'Incest' refers to sexual relations between persons deemed too closely related for marriage to be permissible, as well as to the crime resulting therefrom. Incest, so it is widely argued, constitutes a universal taboo but it is also culturally extremely variable. Consequently, what is considered incestuous (deviant and illegal) in one cultural context is considered a close-kin marriage (acceptable and legal) in another. Most widely (though not universally) designated incestuous are sexual unions between first-degree relatives: that is, between primary kin, or members of the nuclear family (i.e. sex with one’s parent, offspring, or sibling).

In Western settings, first-degree incest tends to be associated with acute social deviance and exploitative cruelty. Second-wave feminism can take credit for bringing incestuous abuse – most often perpetrated by fathers, or father-figures, on girls – into the sphere of public consciousness. It is very often a topic that forms part of a wider discourse on child abuse and pedophilia. One emerging exception is brother-sister incest between consenting adults. Hence, while the Westermarck effect – that is, the observable tendency among higher primates for those raised together from infancy (as siblings often are) to form close but decidedly non-erotic bonds in adulthood – is acknowledged by natural and social scientists alike (see Wolf and Durham 2004), it has also been observed that biological relatives who are not reared together and who first meet in adulthood, frequently experience feelings of erotic attraction. This phenomenon is called Genetic Sexual Attraction syndrome. Now, particularly cases of brother-sister reunions resulting in erotic attachment have evoked some degree of public sympathy. The case of German siblings Patrick Stübing and Susan Karolewski, for example, even came before the European Court of Human Rights (2012). Striking, too, is that brother-sister eroticism features surprisingly prominently in popular film and fiction (Stiebert 2016: 9-12). Moreover, in some legal jurisdictions consensual sex between even closely related adults receives no punishment, while in Sweden half-sibling marriage is legal.

Another distinctive feature of modern discussions about incest – alongside the topics of child abuse and consent already mentioned – concerns a degree of preoccupation with inbreeding. It is now widely accepted that the offspring of closely related persons are more vulnerable to inherited deficiencies. But while some argue that awareness of such existed already in antiquity (e.g. van Gelder 2005: 7-10) the evidence for this, with regard to the Hebrew Bible, can be disputed (e.g. Brenner 2001: 124).

The Hebrew Bible mentions first-degree sexual relations in a number of places and ways. The apodictic statements of Leviticus 18 and 20, in quite some length, detail which consanguine and affine relatives are off-limits. The language here applies what appears to be jargon, inculcating against ‘uncovering the nakedness of’ someone to whom kinship loyalty is owed. Also interesting are the designations of relatives as one’s ‘flesh’ (e.g. 18:6) and of committing zimmâ (a word that appears to pertain to an acutely inappropriate – but not always incestuous – sexual act, see Lev 18:17 and 20:14 but also 19:29; cf. Ezek. 22:9). As is not atypical of Torah, these statements are addressed to a male and for the most part reflect heteronormative assumptions. Hence, it is almost exclusively female relatives who are explicitly prohibited here – although, in close proximity, all males are prohibited (Lev 18:22; 20:13) and Leviticus 18:7 does appear to single out and condemn a son’s sexual interference with his father, as well as his mother. In fact, several first-degree relatives are included in the lists of Leviticus: alongside the father (18:7) and mother (18:7-8; 20:11; cf. also Deut. 22:30; 27:20; Ezek 22:10), also the sister (18:9, 11; 20:17; cf. Deut. 27:22; Ezek 22:11). One’s son, or daughter, or brother, is not mentioned explicitly. Heteronormativity might explain the omission of prohibitions against male relatives, while the aforementioned prohibition concerning all males could nevertheless accommodate them. Interestingly, however, Hittite law (§189) does designate as off-limits not only one’s mother (though not one’s father) but also both a consanguine daughter and son (Wenham 1991: 361). The daughter, meanwhile, in Leviticus, might also be said to be off-limits on account of a law prohibiting sex with both a woman and her daughter (18:17; 20:14) – but the daughter’s omission is none the less striking and widely and variously discussed in biblical commentary (Stiebert 2016: 33-44).

Notable about the two Leviticus lists in chapters 18 and 20 is first, the inclusion of both within a very short contextual span. As Athalya Brenner says, there is ‘no convincing answer – literary, source critical, etc. – for this textual state of affairs’ (2001: 121 and n.21). Secondly, the two lists, while similar, are not identical and both contain omissions – notably, explicit mention of the daughter. Such practice is certainly atypical of legal diction, which tends towards precision and comprehensiveness. Also unusual, if we regard Leviticus as ‘law’ is the emotionally charged language. Jan Joosten, arguing that Leviticus 18 constitutes not legal but rhetorical literature, points out, for instance, that ‘uncovering the nakedness of’ is hardly the most common or neutral way to refer to sexual intercourse. Instead, as he explains, the designation is highly expressive, connoting violence on the part of the agent and humiliation on the part of the recipient (2000: 412). Also adding to the emotional charge is first, the language of appeal to refraining from sexual relations because this offends either one’s close male relative (e.g. sex with a brother’s wife is offensive because she is the brother’s nakedness, 18:16) or one’s own flesh (18:17), and secondly, the evocative imagery of the vomiting land (18:25, 28).

What might be reflected in these lists is a strong effort on the part of older males to consolidate social power and to ensure social equilibrium in an environment where the threat to such power emanating particularly from younger males (most pronouncedly one’s sons) is feared especially keenly. This could explain why the father is the only male cited specifically on the list of off-limits relatives. It could also explain why the father’s consort (one’s mother or a father’s other wife) is cited most insistently as off-limits: because older males particularly fear assault or humiliation by the son in efforts to depose them. This humiliating assault can take the form of direct affront against the father, or, more probably perhaps, the form of assault on a conduit, namely on the women under older men’s control, notably their wives. It could also explain why the sister is explicitly and insistently forbidden and the daughter not: because the anxieties of fathers are directed towards others, notably sons. Hence, fathers might control their own vulnerability to temptation but much less so the aggressive assertion of dominance of a son, mounting (so to speak) a challenge to their authority by assaulting a sister, i.e. the father’s daughter. The Leviticus lists, then, may be focused less on intra-family erotic attraction (such as is implied by Genetic Sexual Attraction syndrome) and more on the possibility of humiliating a man (first and foremost the patriarch, or father) by sexually assaulting either the man himself, or one of the women in his sphere of authority.

There is no persuasive reason, however, in Leviticus (or elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible) for arguing that daughters are depicted as sexually available to fathers (see Stiebert 2016: 33-44). Really, the Hebrew Bible provides us with very little to go on concerning child sexual abuse, including incestuous abuse of girls in particular, a topic so disturbing and prevalent in the clinical literature of contemporary Western contexts (Herman [1981] 2000). While violence against children is mentioned in numerous places (Michel 2003), the assumption in almost every single case in the Hebrew Bible is that sexual acts occur not with children and only between persons of marriageable and/or childbearing age (Michel 2004).

What arises in terms of psycho-social indicators out of the prohibitions in non-narrative texts (above all Leviticus) concerning sex between first-degree relatives is to some extent confirmed in the narrative texts of the Hebrew Bible. Again, sex here is between mature males and females and depicted predominantly in heteronormative terms (though see Guest 2012 for exceptions). Some kind of male-male sex-act is prohibited in Leviticus and male-male rape is threatened and depicted as deviant and abhorrent in two narratives (Genesis 19; Judges 19). Female-female sex, meanwhile, is alluded to in neither literature – although, interpreted more widely, female-female dynamics and collaborations are powerful, including in terms of effecting reproduction and determining destiny (Stiebert 2016: 114-32).

Still, in the narratives first-degree sex can affirm the anxieties of older males identified in Leviticus. The odd story fragment of Ham’s provocation of Noah (Genesis 9) might conceal the son’s sexualized humiliation of his father – possibly in a bid to challenge his father’s authority and gain the upper hand also over his brothers. Some have proposed that this humiliation takes the form of Ham’s assault of Noah directly (either by leering, or by castrating or sodomizing him); others, that Ham humiliates his father by having sex with Noah’s wife, possibly his own mother (Stiebert 2016: 100-09). Other examples of a son challenging his father through his father’s wife, or wives, are, possibly, Haran’s challenge to Terah (Gen. 11:28, see Retief), Reuben’s relations with Bilhah (Gen. 35:22; 49:3-4) and Absalom’s public intercourse with David’s women (2 Sam. 16:20-23). There is also a case to be made for challenging a father through sex with one’s sister (the father’s daughter): hence, Amnon incites David’s anger by raping Tamar (2 Sam. 13:21) – although the primary target appears to be not Amnon’s father but his brother Absalom: hence, Tamar is designated first and foremost as Absalom’s sister, rather than David’s daughter (2 Sam. 13:1, 4).

Same-sex first-degree sex is again notably absent (or repressed?) – be it male-male, or female-female. Also absent, as already noted, is reference to sex with children and so is sex with one’s birth-mother. Exceptions to the latter are the possibility of a shrouded reference to Ham humiliating Noah by consorting with his own mother (so Retief 2010), or of Eve being the mother of all living and, therefore, also of her consort-son Adam (Stiebert 2016: 133-40). Mother-son relations, after all, are not uncommon in ancient Near Eastern mythology and, whatever the case, the scarcity of characters in Genesis 2-3 means that Eve is understood either as Adam’s mother, or sister, or daughter – first-degree incest whichever way we cut it.

Complicating matters, however, is that first-degree incest is not – it appears – always illegal nor does inbreeding appear to be an issue in the Hebrew Bible, as it is in many modern discussions on the topic. Tamar’s words to Amnon (2 Sam. 13:13) seem to suggest that sibling marriage is at least sometimes, perhaps exceptionally, such as when confined to royal families, a possibility. Abraham is perhaps not quite a paragon of truthfulness (cf. Genesis 12) – but he, too, seems to have no problem in stating that Sarah is not only his wife but also his paternal (though not maternal) sister (Gen. 20:12). Both unions – between Amnon and Tamar and between Abraham and Sarah – violate Leviticus 18 and 20. Also, while father-daughter relations are (if indirectly) prohibited in Leviticus, the story of Lot’s relations with his daughters is oddly lacking in outrage. Yes, it is made very clear in the telling of the story that Lot has no responsibility in coming up with the plan, or any memory of its execution (Gen. 19:33, 35) and yes, the circumstances of the conception of Moab and Ammon, later in Torah depicted as enemies of Israel, may relish in their depiction as ‘incestuous bastards’ (Bailey 1995) but, nevertheless, the story is striking (hair-raising?). First, because the daring plan depicted as planned and executed by Lot’s unnamed daughters is successful against many odds, thereby possibly indicating divine agency; secondly, because Moab and Ammon are not only enemies but also ancestors of persons with ‘messianic implications’, because Moab is ancestor of Ruth, foremother of David and Ammon is ancestor of Naamah, wife of Solomon and mother of Rehoboam (Carden 2006: 39); and thirdly, because incest is not obscured at all but advertised in the very names of Lot’s sons/grandsons: hence, ‘Moab’ can mean ‘from the father’ and ‘Ben-Ammi’ (Ammon’s Hebrew name), ‘son of my people’ (Gen. 19:37-38).

The depiction of first-degree sexual relations in the Hebrew Bible, therefore, is not consistent and not always one implying incest: that is, outrage, deviance and illegality. This appears to indicate a range of social contexts, including contexts in which social equilibrium and maintenance of patriarchal control (rather than inbreeding avoidance, for instance, or consent to sex, or protection from sexual abuse – as in modern Western contexts) is the central concern. Moreover, the suggestion in some Hebrew Bible narrative texts appears to be that marriage between first-degree kin (notably, paternal siblings) is sometimes legal (such as between Abraham and Sarah and, possibly, David and Abigail, or, as proposed between Amnon and Tamar, see Stiebert 2016: 165-93). What ‘incest’ is, therefore, is clearly culturally variable and Western understandings are strikingly different in numerous ways from those reflected in the Hebrew Bible.


Bailey, R. C. (1995), ‘They’re Nothing but Incestuous Bastards: The Polemical Use of Sex and Sexuality in Hebrew Canon Narratives,’ in F. F. Segovia and M. Tolbert (eds), Reading From This Place, Volume 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States (Fortress), pp.121-38.

Brenner, A. (2001), ‘On Incest,’ in A. Brenner (ed), A Feminist Companion to the Bible: Exodus to Deuteronomy (2nd edn) (Sheffield Academic Press), pp.113-38.

Carden, M. (2006), ‘Genesis/Bereshit,’ in D. Guest, R. E. Goss, M. West and T. Bohache (eds), The Queer Bible Commentary (SCM), pp.21-60.

Van Gelder, G. J. (2005), Close Relationships: Incest and Inbreeding in Classical Arabic Literature (I.B. Tauris).

Guest, D. (2012), Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies (Phoenix).

Herman, J. L. ([1981] 2000), Father-Daughter Incest (Harvard University Press.

Joosten, J. (2000), ‘La non-mention de la fille en Lévitique 18. Exercise su la rhétorique du Code de Sainteté,’ Études théologiques et religieuses 75: 415-20.

Michel, A. (2003), Gott und Gewalt gegen Kinder im Alten Testament (Mohr Siebeck).

Michel, A. (2004), ‘Sexual Violence against Children in the Bible,’ (transl. J. Bowden), in R. Ammicht-Quinn, H. Haker and M. Junker-Kenny (eds), The Structural Betrayal of Trust (SCM), pp.51-60.

Retief, W. (2010), ‘When Interpretation Traditions Speak Too Loud for Ethical Dilemmas to be Heard: On the Untimely Death of Haran (Genesis 11:28),’ Old Testament Essays 23/3: 788-803.

Stiebert, J. (2016), First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family (Bloomsbury T&T Clark).

Wenham, G. J. (1991), ‘The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality,’ Expository Times 102/9: 359-63.

Wolf, A. P. and W. H. Durham, eds (2004), Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century (Stanford University Press).

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