Does the Torah Prohibit Father–Daughter Incest?
Two Lists of Sexual Prohibitions
Leviticus 18 and 20 present comprehensive lists of sexual prohibitions, including a range of incest prohibitions forbidding sex with individuals who belong to the same family, by either blood (consanguines) or marriage (affines). The two lists differ in a number of respects.
Leviticus 20 is phrased in the third person and includes a prescribed punishment for each forbidden relationship, whereas Leviticus 18 is phrased in the second-person singular, as though addressing an individual male reader. This difference is clearly illustrated in the prohibition of sex with one’s stepmother, which appears in both lists:
|Lev 18:8||Lev 20:11|
עֶרְוַת אֵשֶׁת אָבִיךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ הִוא.
וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו עֶרְוַת אָבִיו גִּלָּה מוֹת יוּמְתוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם.
|Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father.||If a man lies with his father’s wife, it is the nakedness of his father that he has uncovered; the two shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.|
Despite this basic difference, in both cases the text uses an individual male—the “you” of Leviticus 18 and the “man” of Leviticus 20— to serve as a reference point for defining the prohibited relationships. Anthropologists call this individual “ego.”
An Expanded List
The list of sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18 is more extensive than that in chapter 20 and is probably an expansion of it. This does not necessarily mean that Leviticus 18 is based on Leviticus 20 in its current form. The two chapters may be based on a common ancestor.
While Leviticus 18 contains a longer list of sexual prohibitions than Leviticus 20, it contains only one non-sexual prohibition (child sacrifice to Molech; v. 21), whereas Leviticus 20 contains four non-sexual prohibitions. It may be that a shorter text, containing only the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 20 and the prohibition on child sacrifice, was expanded in two different ways to yield the present forms of chapters 18 and 20.
Number of Generations
Among other changes, Leviticus 18 covers four generations instead of three. So, for example, whereas both chapters forbid a “woman and her daughter” (Lev 18:17)—or a “woman and her mother” as Leviticus 20:14 phrases it—Leviticus 18 also prohibits a woman and her granddaughter (v. 17).
Direct Line Consanguinity
In addition, while Leviticus 20 skips prohibitions of direct line relatives—parents/grandparents and children/grandchildren—Leviticus 18 includes them.
Thus, Leviticus 18 prohibits relations with one’s mother:
ויקרא יח:ז עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ וְעֶרְוַת אִמְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ.
Lev 18:7 Your father’s nakedness, that is, the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover; she is your mother—you shall not uncover her nakedness.
Similarly, Leviticus 18 prohibits relations with one’s granddaughter:
ויקרא יח:י עֶרְוַת בַּת בִּנְךָ אוֹ בַת בִּתְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָן כִּי עֶרְוָתְךָ הֵנָּה.
Lev 18:10 The nakedness of your son’s daughter, or of your daughter’s daughter—do not uncover their nakedness; for their nakedness is yours.
The inclusion of granddaughters is also part of Leviticus 18’s extension of the list to a fourth generation.
Leviticus 20 (and the original list it is based upon) likely left out direct line relatives such as “mother” because their prohibition was considered self-evident. This is probably also why the prohibition on a sister is phrased to emphasize a half-sister (“the daughter of your father or the daughter of your mother”; v. 9): marriage to half-sister seems to be treated as permissible in some places in the Bible (see the stories of Abraham [Gen 20:12] and Tamar [2 Sam 13:13]). Thus, the list of prohibitions in Leviticus 20 was meant to clarify that certain relations that people may have believed to be permitted were actually prohibited.
Leviticus 18, however, wished to present a complete list of prohibited relations and therefore added mother and granddaughters. (Full sisters were already included, since a full sister is both “daughter of your father” and “daughter of your mother.”) But this begs the question of why Leviticus 18 makes no mention of ego’s daughter.
Explanation 1: Father-Daughter Incest is Not Prohibited
The French Bible scholar Guillaume Cardascia (1914–2006) argued that this omission should be taken at face value, concluding that the biblical authors permitted, or at least “tolerated,” sex between a father and daughter. This argument has been further supported and developed by, among others, Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943–2006) of the University of Chicago and Jonathan Ziskind of the University of Louisville.
These scholars note that in the biblical world, and in the ancient Near East in general, a father was in some ways considered the owner of his daughter’s sexuality. It was within his right to marry her to whomever he chose, and the marriage was sealed with a “bride price” (מֹהַר), which the prospective husband gave to the bride’s father. This transaction transferred rights to the bride’s sexuality from her father to her new husband.
If a father had full ownership of his daughter’s sexuality, the argument goes, he could not be prohibited from having sex with her himself. This does not necessarily mean that such relations were considered desirable, but forbidding them outright would have been construed as undermining the patriarch’s authority.
“Owning” Someone’s Nakedness
To support this explanation, some scholars have argued that ownership of a woman’s sexuality is at the core of Leviticus 18’s explanation for the various prohibitions against affines. Ego’s father’s wife is prohibited because her “nakedness” (עֶרְוָה) is “the nakedness of your father” (עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ), which they interpret to mean that she is prohibited because she is ego’s father’s sexual property. The prohibitions on sex with other relatives by marriage—ego’s brother’s wife, father’s brother’s wife, and so on—are expressed in relation to the man.
If the very basis for prohibiting these women is that they are the sexual property of ego’s male relatives, it would seem unlikely that ego would have been prohibited from having sex with a woman who was his own sexual property.
Sexual Property Is Not the Basis for the Incest Prohibitions
This argument, however, is fallacious. Concern about violating other men’s sexual property is the basis for the law against adultery, which appears in both lists. The prohibitions on the wives of relatives cannot simply be cases of adultery, as this would be redundant. They must apply to former wives—either widows or divorcés, thus, they must be based on some other principle.
In fact, the phrase “it is the nakedness of your father” does not mean that your father’s wife is his sexual property. This is clear from the use of the same terminology to explain the prohibition on sex with granddaughters: “because their nakedness is yours” (כִּי עֶרְוָתְךָ הֵנָּה). Ego’s granddaughter is not prohibited in spite of the fact that her nakedness is his own nakedness but because of it. This would be inconceivable if “your nakedness” referred to sexual property.
A Different Interpretation of “Nakedness”
A more fitting interpretation of “nakedness” is as a metaphor for a particular type of familial relationship. A blood relation is described as one’s “flesh” (שְׁאֵר); for example, ego’s father’s sister is forbidden because “she is your father’s flesh” (שְׁאֵר אָבִיך) (Lev 18:12). A spouse or sexual partner, on the other hand, is described as one’s “nakedness” (עֶרְוָה). “Nakedness” is a euphemism for genitals, and the underlying idea is that sexual partners are connected through the genitals; they share one “nakedness.” This can be seen in the prohibition on sex with one’s mother in Lev 18:7:
ויקרא יח:ז עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ וְעֶרְוַת אִמְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ׃
Lev 18:7 Your father’s nakedness and your mother’s nakedness you shall not uncover; she is your mother—you shall not uncover her nakedness.
Ego’s mother’s nakedness is both ego’s father’s and her own, and she is prohibited for both reasons.
The term “nakedness” is also used to describe a direct lineal descendent, such as a granddaughter, signifying that she is a product of ego’s loins (“nakedness”). Far from making a prohibition on ego’s daughter illogical, the language of “nakedness” is exactly what one would expect as the rationale for such a prohibition: a daughter should be prohibited because she is ego’s own nakedness.
Unlikely that Father–Daughter Incest Permitted: Ancient Near Eastern Evidence
Setting aside the question of what “nakedness” signifies in these verses, it seems unlikely that father–daughter incest would have been permitted according to Leviticus 18.
Israelite society was not unique in the ancient Near East (ANE) in giving the father jurisdictional rights over his daughter’s sexuality. Hittite and Babylonian fathers had the same jurisdictional rights, but they were still forbidden to have sex with their daughters themselves. For example, the Laws of Hammurabi (LH) state (¶154):
If a man should carnally know his daughter, they shall banish that man from the city.
This law begins a series of incest laws with their respective penalties that continues with daughter-in-law (¶155–156, drowned), mother (¶157, burned), and father’s wife (¶158, disinherited).
Similarly, the Hittite Laws prohibit sex between parents and children (¶189):
If a man has sexual relations with his own mother, it is an unpermitted sexual pairing. If a man has sexual relations with his daughter, it is an unpermitted sexual pairing. If a man has sexual relations with his son, it is an unpermitted sexual pairing.
In short, it seems unlikely that Leviticus, whose incest laws are more extensive than either LH or the Hittite Laws, and which was no more patriarchal than they, would permit men to have sex with their daughters.
Explanation 2: Sex with a Daughter Is Prohibited Implicitly
Some scholars suggest that father-daughter incest did not need to be addressed explicitly because the text forbade it implicitly.
Verse 6: “Any Flesh of His Flesh”
Susan Rattray, in a paper from 1987, argued that the daughter is implicit in verse 6:
ויקרא יח:ו אִישׁ אִישׁ אֶל כָּל שְׁאֵר בְּשָׂרוֹ לֹא תִקְרְבוּ לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָה אֲנִי יְ הוָה׃
Lev 18:6 No man among you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am YHWH.
According to Rattray, the phrase “anyone of his own flesh” (כָּל שְׁאֵר בְּשָׂרוֹ) refers to members of the nuclear family, including a daughter. She bases this on Lev 21:2, which uses שְׁאֵרוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו, “his flesh who is close to him,” to refer to relatives whom a priest is permitted to tend to after death (despite the general prohibition on priests having contact with a corpse): mother, father, brother, and unmarried sister.
This interpretation has several problems, however:
General Statement—Structurally, verse 6 is an introduction to the incest laws, not an independent prohibition. Unlike the individual prohibitions, which are phrased in the second person, this verse is in the third person, and it ends with “I am YHWH,” which in the Holiness legislation typically demarcates between units of text. In this context, “anyone of his own flesh” is a general category encompassing a broad range of relatives, who are identified explicitly in the succeeding verses.
שְׁאֵר Is Non-Specific—The phrase שְׁאֵרוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו refers to nuclear family members in Lev 21:2, but the term שְׁאֵר on its own simply refers to blood relatives. The word קרֹב, “close,” is needed to specify that the verse is dealing with near relatives, and even then the relevant family members are identified explicitly.
Mother—Rattray’s interpretation raises the question of why the mother is the subject of a separate prohibition, even though she is also a member of the nuclear family. Rattray suggests that the mother is included at the start of the list to establish the principle that nuclear family members are prohibited. But if this clarifying example is needed, the termשאר is evidently not sufficiently clear or specific on its own.
Sister—The prohibition of a sister in Lev 18:19 also poses a problem. Rattray’s explanation requires reading Lev 21:2 as referring only to a full sister and not a half-sister and reading Lev 18:9 as referring only to a half-sister and not to a full sister, but this seems like an overly narrow reading of the text. The only nuclear family member not explicitly mentioned in Leviticus 18 is the daughter.
Verse 17: A Woman and Her Daughter
Others identify a prohibition on father–daughter incest in verse 17:
ויקרא יח:יז עֶרְוַת אִשָּׁה וּבִתָּהּ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אֶת בַּת בְּנָהּ וְאֶת בַּת בִּתָּהּ לֹא תִקַּח לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָתָהּ שַׁאֲרָה הֵנָּה זִמָּה הִוא.
Lev 18:17 Do not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter; nor shall you marry her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter and uncover her nakedness: they are kindred; it is depravity.
Since any daughter of ego’s is also the daughter of a woman with whom ego has had sex, he would by definition be forbidden to have sex with his daughter. This argument was made by R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) in his commentary (ad loc.):
והאומר: למה לא הזכיר הכתוב הבת, והיא מפורשת: ערות אשה ובתה – בתו או שאינה בתו, כי אחר ששכב עם האם נאסרה הבת.
If one says, “why doesn’t scripture mention the daughter”? It is explicit: “The nakedness of a woman and her daughter…” whether it is his daughter or not, since once he has slept with the mother, the daughter is forbidden.
This explanation is more satisfying than Rattray’s, and in theory, it solves the problem. But it does not explain why the prohibition on a daughter is not explicit. After all, verse 10 prohibits sex with a granddaughter explicitly even though it is also prohibited implicitly in verse 17, which forbids sex with a woman and her granddaughter. Likewise, verse 7 prohibits sex with one’s mother even though she would be covered under the prohibition of sex with one’s father’s wife in verse 8. Leviticus 18 does not shy away from redundancy.
Verse 10: A Granddaughter
Other scholars extrapolate a prohibition on ego’s daughter from the fact that the logical extension of such a prohibition appears in verse 10, which prohibits ego’s granddaughter.
One late first-millennium C.E. source, the pseudonymous Tanna de-bei Eliyahu, derives the prohibition on a daughter from both verse 10 and verse 17:
אמר לי, רבי בת חמורה או בת בת,
He (an interlocuter) said to me (Elijah), “My master, which is the graver offense—sexual intercourse with a daughter or with a daughter’s daughter?”
אמרתי לו, בני בת ערוה ובת הבת ערוה, כך הבת כמוה בת הבת,
I replied to him, “My son, intercourse with a daughter is incest and intercourse with a daughter’s daughter is incest—in this respect, daughter and daughter’s daughter are considered the same.”
אמר לי, רבי והלא אין כתוב בתורה ערות בתך לא תגלה,
He said to me, “My master, but in the Torah it does not say ‘Do not uncover the nakedness of your daughter.’”
אמרתי לו, בני ולאו קל וחומר הוא, ומה אם בת בנו ובת בתו של אדם אסורה, לו, בתו לא [כל] שכן, ת”ל ערות אשה ובתה לא תגלה, בין אשה ובתה משלו, בין אשה ובתה ממקום אחר…
I replied to him, “My son, is it not easy to draw the proper inference? For if intercourse with a son’s daughter or daughter’s daughter is forbidden, is not intercourse with one’s daughter forbidden all the more so? Scripture teaches this when it says, “a man shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter,” whether with a woman and her daughter from him or with a woman and her daughter from some other man…”
It is indeed difficult to believe that a granddaughter would be prohibited and a daughter permitted. But this only underscores the question of why the daughter is not mentioned explicitly.
Explanation 3: The Prohibition Was Omitted Accidentally
It seems most likely that the law against sex with one’s daughter was omitted accidentally, either because the author of Leviticus 18 forgot to add the daughter when he added the mother or because of a later copyist’s error. The missing prohibition would fit most logically after verses 7–9, which prohibit ego’s mother, father’s wife, and sister, and before the prohibition on granddaughters in verse 10.
I would suggest the following reconstruction based on the possibility of homoiakton (the copyist’s eyes jumping from the start of a word to the same word later in the text):
עֶרְוַת [בִּתְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוַת] בַּת בִּנְךָ אוֹ בַת בִּתְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָן כִּי עֶרְוָתְךָ הֵנָּה׃
You shall not uncover the nakedness of [your daughter. You shall not uncover the nakedness of] your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, for they are your nakedness.
The scribe’s eye may have skipped from the first ערות בת to the second, so that the prohibition on the daughter was dropped while the prohibition on granddaughters remained intact. In this reconstruction, the rationale “they are your nakedness” applies to both ego’s daughter and his granddaughters.
If this reconstruction is correct, what seems implicit in the text was actually once explicit but was lost due to a simple scribal error.
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Dr. Eve Levavi Feinstein holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University. Her dissertation, “Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible” (Oxford University Press), explores the Bible’s use of purity and contamination language to describe sexual relationships. She has also written articles for Jewish Ideas Daily and Vetus Testamentum.
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