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sunday schoolThese are my notes from my ladies’ Sunday School class this morning. I’ll be posting the notes from my class here each week. If you have any questions or need more details, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Click here for last week’s lesson.

Through the Bible in 2014 ~ Week 4 ~ Jan. 19-25
Genesis 22-40

Tackling Tough Issues: Marriage Between Close Relatives in Genesis

Last week’s reading- containing the story of Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister, Sarah -brought up the question of why God permitted close relatives to marry in some situations in the book of  Genesis. As we trek through the Bible this year, we will address some of these issues in an apologetic sub-series, “Tackling Tough Issues.”

NOTE: Incest, as we define it today, is a horrific crime. It is never OK with God (or with me) for one person to victimize another in this way. If anything in this lesson seems to indicate otherwise to you, either I have not written clearly enough or you have misunderstood something. If you need clarification, please comment below with your question.

Part of this lesson is taken from the article Why Did God Allow Incest In the Bible? by GotQuestions.org (an awesome resource for questions about the Bible, which I highly recommend). Quotes from the article are in black. My notes are in blue.

Question: “Why did God allow incest in the Bible?”

GotQuestions.org Answers: There are numerous examples of incest in the Bible. The most commonly thought-of examples are the sons/daughters of Adam and Eve (Genesis 4), Abraham marrying his half-sister Sarah (Genesis 20:12), Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19), Moses’ father Amram who married his aunt Jochebed (Exodus 6:20), and David’s son Amnon with his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13). It is important to note, however, that in two of the above instances (Tamar and Lot) one of the parties involved was an unwilling participant in the incest.

1. When labeling something in the Bible with a current-day word such as “incest,” we must take a look at what we mean by the word, and whether or not the author of the passage of Scripture and the characters in the passage would agree with our characterization of their actions by the use of our current-day words. Today, the word “incest” in our society carries some of the following connotations:

1. Incest is a crime. It is against the law.
2. Incest is considered to be disgusting and morally reprehensible by most of society.
3. Incest is usually predatory, non-consensual rape, and the victim is usually a child. (A parent or older sibling/close relative molesting a child.) It is devastating and damaging to the victim.
4. Even incest between consenting adults is looked upon with disgust (and is illegal). These relationships are nearly always hidden. They are not brought out into the light and legitimized by any normal segment of society or by legal marriage.

This way of thinking, and thus the word “incest,” the way we define it, does not apply to most of the situations listed in the paragraph above. 

2. There are some big differences among the instances cited in the paragraph above. The children of Adam and Eve and the marriages of Abraham/Sarah and Amram/Jochebed were marriages by consent, nowhere condemned by God, which took place before the Law was given. In the case of Adam and Eve’s children, there was no other choice for procreation and populating the earth.

In Biblical times, the marriage of Amram and Jochebed was not, and, indeed, today is not, in many parts of the world, considered incest. (It is genetically the same {25% of genetic material shared} as first cousin marriage, (which is legal in 23 states and Washington, D.C.) and is currently legal in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, France, Malaysia, and Russia.)  In fact, because of the inheritance laws for the Promised Land, people, especially women, generally married someone from their own tribe, to keep their land from being transferred to another tribe and losing their tribe’s inheritance of land (Numbers 36). Someone from one’s own tribe was, by definition, a relative. To the Israelites at that time, aunt/nephew was just a closer relationship than some others would have been. (Please do not misunderstand me. I am not personally advocating or in favor of avunculate or first cousin marriage.)

The incidents with Lot and his daughters and Amnon/Tamar were not marriages and were also non-consensual rape. God did not “allow” (in the sense of giving His approval) this as suggested by the title of the article. In fact, Amnon was murdered by his own brother for raping his sister (2 Samuel 13). Furthermore, the Amnon/Tamar incident occurred long after the Law was given, so Amnon was guilty of breaking the law. Lot’s daughters’ offspring became the Moabites and the Ammonites who later became enemies of Israel.

3. We must remember that any sexuality (lust or sexual acts) that takes place outside the parameters of a marriage between one man and one woman is a sin. (Genesis 2:24, Exodus 20:14) Therefore, if there is no legal marriage in place, any sexual relationship is automatically a sin regardless of the familial relationship between the participants.

4. To my knowledge, we do not see any instances of biological father-daughter or mother-son marriage in the Bible. (Even a step-son/step-mother relationship is condemned in 1 Corinthians 5:1.) The closest biological relationships we know of are brother-sister between Adam and Eve’s children. It is within the realm of possibility that only one such marriage occurred and that after this, marriages were between more distant relatives such as aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins.

5. Considering that some people lived for many centuries prior to the time of Noah (Genesis 6:3) and that there was often a considerable age difference between husbands and wives, even a marriage between two of Adam and Eve’s children may not have been as emotionally and socially “close” (though still biologically close) as we would think of sibling marriage today. Today, siblings are generally close in age, live under the same roof, and grow up together. We can only speculate, but it is possible that the son(s) of Adam and Eve was grown and out of the house before the sister(s), whom he eventually married, was even born.

6. In the case of Abraham, the dispersion of people across the face of the earth after the flood and after the Tower of Babel may have played a part in his choice of his half sister as a wife. People were spreading out, not every family produces daughters, and Sarah may have been the only woman of marriageable age available at the time Abraham needed to marry. Additionally, at that time, when wealthy men had more than one wife (as Abraham’s father did), the wives often had their own tents/houses, separate from one another, and the children lived with their mothers. So, it is likely that, though living near one another, Sarah and Abraham did not grow up under the same roof.

It is important to distinguish between incestuous relationships prior to God commanding against them (Leviticus 18:6-18), and incest that occurred after God’s commands had been revealed. Until God commanded against it, it was not incest. It was just marrying a close relative. It is undeniable that God allowed incest in the early centuries of humanity.

The article just said it wasn’t “incest” until God commanded against it, so a better wording of that last sentence would be: “It is undeniable that God allowed marriage between close relatives in the early centuries of humanity.” God has never “allowed” (in the sense of “approving of”) incest the way we define it today.

If Adam and Eve were indeed the only two human beings God created, their sons and daughters would have had no other choice but to marry and reproduce with their siblings and close relatives. The second generation would have had to marry their cousins, just as after the flood the grandchildren of Noah would have had to intermarry amongst their cousins. The reason incest is so strongly discouraged in the world today is the understanding that reproduction between closely related individuals has a much higher risk of causing genetic abnormalities. In the early days of humanity, though, this was not a risk due to the fact that the human genetic code was relatively free of defects.

It seems, then, that by the time of Moses, the human genetic code had become polluted enough that close intermarriage was no longer safe. So, God commanded against sexual relations with siblings, half-siblings, parents, and aunts/uncles. It was not until many centuries later that humanity discovered the genetic reason that incest is unsafe and unwise. While the idea of incest is disgusting and abhorrent to us today, as it should be, we have to remember why it is sinful, that is, the genetic problems.

Actually, the reason it is sinful is because it is a perversion of, and rebellion against, God’s law (that’s the reason that anything labeled a “sin” is sinful). Genetics may be part of the reason God laid down the prohibition in the first place, but genetic abnormalities in and of themselves are not the reason it is a sin. Sin is sin because it is a breaking of God’s law.

I am not convinced that genetic problems are God’s entire reason for prohibiting marriage between close relatives. One of the reasons, and perhaps the main reason, maybe, but I think there are additional reasons. Otherwise, why, in the case of the step-mother/step-son relationship (where genetics was not an issue, since these two people were biologically unrelated) in 1 Corinthians 5 does Paul react with such disgust and call it, “sexual immorality… and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife… Ought you not rather to mourn?” (v. 1-2) They didn’t even know the science behind genetic abnormalities back then. Also, medical problems do not generally cause this kind of gut-level disgust. That is normally reserved for moral issues.

I believe (and this is a personal opinion, not a statement of biblical truth) that by the time God gave the Levitical laws, the sinful condition of man had degenerated to the point that relationships between close relatives had not only become dangerous genetically, they had also become harmful emotionally, socially, and familially. We have only to look to people we know who are victims of incest to see the devastation that is caused when people break God’s law against incest.

Perhaps, like Job’s friends, we only have one or two pieces of the puzzle, and God is the only one who knows ALL of His reasons behind making marriages between close relatives a sin.

Since this was not an issue in the early centuries of humanity, what occurred between Adam and Eve’s children, Abraham and Sarah, and Amram and Jochebed, should not be viewed as incest. Again, the key point is that sexual relations between close relatives must be viewed differently pre-Law and post-Law. It did not become “incest” until God commanded against it.
© Copyright 2002-2014 Got Questions Ministries.

When we face difficult biblical issues like this one, it’s important to go back to what we were talking about last week and remember God’s sovereignty. He is all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and everything is under His control.

God is perfect and always does what is right:
The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
Deuteronomy 32:4

When we don’t understand God’s ways, it’s not that God is wrong, it’s that (like Job’s friends) we don’t have complete understanding and knowledge of the situation.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:8-9

When we don’t understand something, we are to trust God about it, knowing that He does all things well.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
Proverbs 3:5

And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. 
Mark 7:37a

Additional Resource:
Cain’s Wife: Who Was She? by Answers In Genesis