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Incest in the Bible refers to sexual relations between certain close kinship relationships which are prohibited by the Hebrew Bible. These prohibitions are found predominantly in Leviticus 18:8-18 and 20:11-21, but also in Deuteronomy. The biblical categories of prohibited relationships does not entirely match the modern definitions of prohibited incestuous relations in force in various countries or of the various Christian denominations. (see Affinity (canon law) and Laws regarding incest.)
A few books of the Bible, particularly the early parts of the Torah, contain narratives in which certain individuals, from the same family as one another, engage in sexual intercourse together; while this could be construed as incest, endogamy is an alternative interpretation. The Bible does not, for example, forbid cousins from marrying, but it does prohibit sexual relations with several other close relatives.
In ancient times, tribal nations preferred endogamous marriage - marriage to one's relatives; the ideal marriage was usually that to a cousin, and it was often forbidden for an eldest daughter to even marry outside the family. Marriage to a half-sister, for example, is considered incest by most nations today, but was common behaviour for Egyptian pharaohs; similarly, the Book of Genesis portrays Sarah as marrying Abraham, her half-brother, without criticising the close genetic relationship between them, and the Book of Samuel treats the marriage of a royal prince to his sister as unusual, rather than wicked.
Leviticus 18 and 20 lists the prohibited incestuous relationships, and two chapters later specifies punishments for specific incestuous unions, but this second list of unions is much shorter than the first; textual scholars regard the lists as having originally been independent documents, bound together at a later point. The Deuteronomic Code gives a yet more simple list of forbidden relationships - just parent's daughter (including sister), father's wife (including mother), and mother-in-law. These lists only mention relationships with female relatives; excluding lesbianism, this implies that the list is addressed to men. These lists of forbidden unions compare as follows (the relations highlighted in red are those that are forbidden):
|Leviticus 18||Leviticus 20||Deuteronomy|
|Grandfather's wife (including grandmother)|
|Uncle's wife||Father's brother's wife|
|Mother's brother's wife|
|Parent's daughter||Half-sister (mother's side)|
|Half-sister (father's side)|
|Sister-in-law (if the wife was still alive)|
|Wife's child's daughter (including granddaughter)|
One of the most notable features of all the lists is that sexual activity between a man and his own daughter is not explicitly forbidden. Although the first relation mentioned after the Levitical prohibition of sex with "near kin" names that of "thy father", it must be taken into account that the Hebrew original text only addresses male Jews with regard to their female relatives. The talmud argues that the absence is because the prohibition was obvious, especially given the proscription against a relationship with a granddaughter, although some biblical scholars have instead proposed that it was originally in the list, but was then accidentally left out from the copy on which modern versions of the text ultimately depend, due to a mistake by the scribe. The second list in the Holiness code noticeably differs from the first by not including the closer relatives, and it might be assumed that obviousness is the explanation here as well. One might argue that the explicit prohibition against engaging in sexual activity with a woman as well as with her daughter, implicitly forbids sexual activity between a man and his daughter. However, the rationale might suggest otherwise (the original text is unclear here), since it mentions only that "they" (i.e. the woman and the daughter) are related. John Calvin did not consider the father-daughter-relation to be explicitly forbidden by the bible, but regarded it as immoral nevertheless.
Apart from the case of the daughter, the first incest list in the Holiness code roughly produces the same rules as were followed in early (pre-Islamic) Arabic culture; in Islam, these pre-existing rules were made statutory. The rules in this list are, however, ignored in several prominent cases in the Torah - Jacob is described as having married his first wife's sister, and Abraham as having a father in common with Sarah (rather than a mother, which would have been permitted by the list).
Ezekiel implies that, in his time, marriage between a man and his stepmother, or his daughter-in-law, or his sister, were frequent. This situation seems to be the target of the Deuteronomic version of the incest prohibition, which only addresses roughly the same three issues (though prohibiting the mother-in-law in place of the daughter-in-law). Early rabbinic commentators instead argue that the Deuteronomic list is so short because the other possible liaisons were obviously prohibited, and these three were the only liaisons difficult to detect, on account of the fact that, in their day, a man's stepmother, half-sister, and mother-in-law usually lived in the same house as the man (prior to any liaison).
The biblical lists are not symmetrical - the implied rules for women are not the same. Ignoring family members involved in homosexual liaisons (for the sake of simplicity), they compare as follows (blue = forbidden for men only, red = forbidden for women only, purple = forbidden for both men and women):
|Leviticus 18||Leviticus 20||Deuteronomy|
|Grandparent's spouse (including other grandparent)|
|Uncle's/Aunt's spouse||Father's sibling's spouse|
|Mother's sibling's spouse|
|Parent's child||Half-sibling (mother's side)|
|Half-sibling (father's side)|
|Sibling-in-law (if the spouse was still alive)|
|Nephew/Niece-in-law||Spouse's brother's child|
|Spouse's sister's child|
|Spouse's grandchild (including grandchild)|
The Bible mentions a number of sexual relationships, all of which relate to pre-Sinai period prior to the handing down of the Mosaic law: