In Leviticus 18, the Mosaic code details regulations against incest: prohibits sexual relationships between categories of persons considered close relations. By the standards of the time (c. 1500 B.C.) the Mosaic code is rather enlightened. The Mosaic code also prohibited homosexuality and bestiality or zoosexuality associated with the widespread animal cults of Egypt and the Near East ancient civilization.
The Book of Genesis tells a sordid tale of incest in the origin of the two archenemies of the Israelites in ancient times: the Moabites and the Ammonites (Genesis 19:30-38). After the destruction of the legendary cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the daughters of Abraham's nephew, unable to find husbands, got their father Lot drunk and raised children who became the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites.
A necessary wisdom in reading Genesis, especially in matters concerning the origins of nations that are the enemies of Israel, is that the accounts are not history but political ideological propaganda–in the case of the story of the origin of the Moabites and Ammonites, racial slur intended to defame their archenemies. Gen. 9:22-26 exemplifies the political ideological preoccupation of the Hebrew writers in which, for instance, the sin of Ham (said by some to be ancestor of Black African peoples) provides an opportunity to find justification for the genocide policy of the Hebrews in their wars of occupation in Canaan under Moses and Joshua).
Thus, according to the Hebrew ideologue, the nations Moab and Ammon, were products of incest, a practice condemned as "wickedness" and "abomination" in the Mosiac code.The interesting aspect to the story is that Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, was a native of Moab. David, King of Israel had Moabite blood, and thus, according to the Christian tradition which traces the Jesus' ancestry back to David, Jesus himself had the Moabite blood of incest.
In Judges 1:12-15, one is rather surprised to find a frank admission of uncle-niece incestuous marital union in Israel when, barely a few pages before in Leviticus 18:1ff, we are regaled with laws emphatically prohibiting such unions: "And Caleb said, he that smiteth Kirjath-Sepher, and taketh it, to him will I give Achshah my daughter for wife."
Caleb's younger brother Othniel (both were either full or half-brothers: see Judges 1:13) took Kirjath-Sepher and we are gleefully informed(vs. 13) that Caleb gave his daughter to his younger brother in marriage! Such apparent utter disregard of holy law baffles and may lead to the suggestion that the incest laws in Leviticus 18:1ff might have been interpolated into the Mosaic code at a latter date(?)
In spite of the prohibition of incest or sexual relationship between brothers, sisters and half-brothers and half-sisters, II Samuel 13:1-22 tells a story of brother-sister incest in King David's family. Amnon the first-born son of David, and heir to the throne, raped his half-sister Tamar. A point of prime interest in this story is that the condemnation of Amnon's action appears to be mostly from the fact that he raped Tamar rather than that he committed incest (as defined in the Mosaic law of Leviticus). The victim, Tamar, herself, appears to have been less concerned with the fact of incest than with the fact of pre-marital affair, for she said to Amnon: "…speak to the king for he will not withhold me from you." (In ancient Hebrew culture, as in most traditional societies, a virgin "deflowered" before marriage had only very little chance of marrying respectably.)
The reaction of the concerned parties in the incident suggests strongly that half-brother and half-sister sexual relationships might not have been considered "sinful" or "unlawful" in the time of King David (in spite of the clear provisions of the Mosaic code). Her scheming brother, Absalom, only said, to console her, "…hold thy peace my sister…for he is thy brother, regard not this thing…" Absalom's statement appears to confirm the suggestion in Tamar's admonition to Amnon ("…speak to the king for he will not withhold me from you.") that Amnon's sin was considered primarily "statutory rape" (dishonoring a virgin princess before her marriage) rather than what we would think, incest. Equally instructive is King David's reaction at the news of the incident. We are told that the king was "very wroth," yet he took no action on the matter till two years later when Absalom exacted a terrible revenge on behalf of his sister.
Marriage between close relations other than full siblings appears to have been customary among Semitic peoples in the time of the Hebrew patriarchs. Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel (Laban the father of the girls is identified as the brother of Rebekah, Jacob's mother). Abraham's family seems to have had a long history of what, under the Mosaic law, would be considered incest. Isaac had married Rebekah the daughter of his first cousin Bethuel. The intensity of incestuous inbreed in the family line of Abraham was remarkably high. Nahor, Abraham's brother(and grandfather of Rebekah) had married Milcah his niece (the daughter of his brother Haran). The marriage produced Bethuel, Rebekah's father and Isaac's cousin. Thus, we have in Abraham's family a thick web of incestuous intermarriage within the extended family of Terah the father of Abraham, Nahor and Haran. We may, therefore, understand that the Mosaic regulation was only an attempt at innovation which seems to have been largely ignored in the history of ancient Israel judging from the Ammon-Tamar incident. However, endogamy, the practice of marriage withing the extended family was a longstanding Semitic cultural practice (the Prophet Mohammad had married his older cousin Khadija) and had probably served the purpose of keeping family wealth within the family across the generations.
We know, however,that by Jesus' time incest (as defined in the Mosaic law) was frowned upon by pious Jews. Yet it appears not to have been uncommon among not-so-pious Jews. A glaring public example is the infamous career of Bernice the sister of Herod Agrippa II(both of Jewish descent) which scandalized pious Jews. Bernice had married her uncle Herod Chalcis, became mistress to her own brother Agrippa II, and then later, became mistress to the Emperor Titus whom she followed to Rome.
JohnThomas Didymus is the author of "Confessions of God: The Gospel According to St. JohnThomas Didymus." (Read a Free Three Chapters Excerpt Here).