Sexual Prohibitions in the Bible and the ANE: A Comparison
Leviticus 18 and 20 contain the most extensive lists of sexual prohibitions in the Torah. They are similar in substance and wording, although Leviticus 18 has a slightly more extensive list and Leviticus 20 includes punishments for transgressing the laws. Both belong to the source of the Torah known as the Holiness Collection, or H.
Leviticus 18 is a self-contained unit of text with a clear structure. The core of the text is a list of prohibitions (vv. 6–23) directed at an Israelite male, which can be subdivided into two basic categories:
1. Incest (vv. 6-18):
- Consanguines (the term used by anthropologists for blood relations)
- Nuclear family: mother (v. 7); sister, including half-sister (v. 9); daughter (inferred from v. 17)
- Extended family: father’s sister (v. 12), mother’s sister (v. 13), granddaughter (v. 10)
- Affines (the term used by anthropologists for relatives by marriage), ostensibly prohibited even after the blood relative’s death
- Nuclear family: father’s wife (v. 8), brother’s wife (v. 16), son’s wife (v. 15)
- Extended family: Paternal uncle’s wife (paternal aunt by marriage, v. 14) and father’s wife’s daughter (paternal stepsister, v. 11)
- Women related to each other
- A woman and her daughter or granddaughter (v. 17)
- A woman and her sister, while both are alive (v. 18)
2. Other assorted sexual prohibitions (vv. 19-23):
- A menstruating woman (v. 19)
- Another man’s wife (v. 20)
- Another male (v. 22)
- An animal (v. 23; this prohibition applies to a woman as well as to a man)
Within this second set of laws is one non-sexual prohibition, on offering one’s “seed” (i.e., child) to Molech (v. 21).
Don’t Be Like Egyptians and Canaanites
The chapter frames the list of prohibitions with an opening and a conclusion about the significance of these laws. Verses 1–5 exhort the Israelites to refrain from the practices of the land of Egypt, from which they came, and the land of Canaan, which they are about to enter. Instead, they are to adhere to God’s laws:
ויקרא יח:ג כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכוּ. יח:ד אֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Lev 18:3 You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.18:4 My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I YHWH am your God.
The conclusion states that the Canaanites were expelled from the land because of these practices and that if the Israelites violate the prohibitions, they will experience the same fate (vv. 24–30).
The rhetorical thrust of this framing is that the Israelites should refrain from these practices in order to differentiate themselves from other nations. But since the biblical text is polemical, we cannot necessarily take its depiction of foreigners’ practices at face value.This raises the question: To what extent did Israelite sexual mores actually differ from those of the peoples around them?
We cannot answer this question definitively, as we do not have access to the actual sexual practices of ancient people. But we do have some of their literature, and this can give us some clues as to what the scribal elite of these cultures considered acceptable.
Unfortunately, we have little useful information on this subject from the peoples who inhabited ancient Canaan. The most extensive body of information that we have on Canaanite culture comes from Ugarit, but much of that material is mythological, and the behavior of gods cannot be taken as representative of human mores. However, there are some relevant writings from other ancient Near Eastern cultures that can help us form a broader picture.
The Laws of Hammurabi (Babylon)
Written during the reign of King Hammurabi of Babylonia (1792–1750 BCE), the Laws of Hammurabi include a few rules forbidding particular sexual relationships, again from the perspective of a male:
- Daughter (¶154)
- Daughter-in-law (¶155-156)
- Mother (¶157)
- Father’s principal wife who has borne him children (¶158)
Hammurabi does not mention prohibitions on women related to each other, and the only non-incest sexual prohibition that Hammurabi lists is adultery (¶129-132).
The Hittite Laws
The Hittite Law collection, written between ca. 1650–1500 BCE, comes from a people who lived in the Anatolian peninsula (roughly modern Turkey). The Hittite sexual laws are more robust than those of Hammurabi (again they are written from the perspective of a male):
The consanguine incest laws are more limited than the biblical laws since they do not include the sister (though this appears in a different document, discussed below) or anything beyond the nuclear family.
- Father’s wife: permitted after father’s death (¶190)
- Brother’s wife: forbidden while he is alive (¶195a), but if he dies he should marry her (¶193)
These laws are also more limited than Leviticus 18, including only the brother or father’s wife and having the caveat that they are permitted after the brother or father dies. The son’s wife is surprisingly missing from the list, and no non-nuclear family is included.
On the other hand, the Hittite Laws are more detailed than Leviticus 18 when it comes to sex between a man and two women related to each other or a woman and two men related to each other:
- Wife’s sister: forbidden (¶195c) but permitted after the wife’s death (¶192)
- Wife’s daughter: forbidden (¶195b)
- Wife’s mother: forbidden (¶195c)
- Sisters and their mother:
- If they are free women: forbidden if done knowingly in the same place, permitted if they live in different cities (¶191)
- If they are slaves: permitted (¶194)
- If they are Arnuwala-women (war captives?): permitted (¶200a)
- Two brothers with one woman: permitted even if she is a free woman (¶194)
- A father and son with a slave woman or a prostitute: permitted (¶194); ostensibly with a free woman, this would be forbidden (in contrast to the brother’s law above).
Although this topic is treated more thoroughly than in Leviticus 18, there are a number of permissive rulings that it is difficult to imagine H accepting.
Non-Incest Sexual Prohibitions
- Adultery (¶197-198)
- Cow (¶187), sheep (¶188), pig, or dog (¶199) are forbidden.
- A horse or mule are not forbidden (¶200a), but this act bars a man from access to the king or from becoming a priest.
The non-incest prohibition of zooerasty is again detailed but contains a permissive ruling on horses and donkeys that would be forbidden under Leviticus 18’s blanket prohibition. Finally, not only does no prohibition of male-male sex appear, but one can deduce from the fact that sex with one’s son is forbidden that sex with other men is not.
Hittite Criticism of Barbaric Sexual Behavior
Later Hittite material suggests an expansion of sexual taboos to include a sister, even a half-sister. Moreover, a treaty that the Hittite King Suppiluliuma I (c. 1350 B.C.E.) made with his vassal, Huqqana of Hayasa (Armenia), claims that the Hittites prohibited sex not only with one’s sister but also with one’s wife’s female relations and even female cousins.
In this treaty, Suppiluliuma strongly warns Huqqana, who married one of Suppiliuma’s sisters, not to have sex with any of her many sisters, not because they are royal, but because such behavior is “barbaric” and “not done in Hatti”:
This sister whom I, My Majesty, have given to you as your wife has many sisters from her own family as well as from her extended family. They belong to your extended family because you have taken their sister. But for Hatti, it is an important custom that a brother does not take his sister or a female cousin (sexually). It is not permitted. In Hatti, whoever commits such an act does not remain alive but is put to death here. Because your land is barbaric, it is in conflict (?). (There) one quite regularly takes his sister or female cousin. But in Hatti, it is not permitted. And if on occasion a sister of your wife, or wife of a brother, or a female cousin comes to you, give her something to eat and drink. Both of you eat, drink, and make merry. But you shall not desire to take her sexually. It is not permitted, and people are put to death as a result of that.
As Billie Jean Collins notes, “Although recognizing that his sister had been married into a culture alien in its practices, in this matter in particular Suppiluliuma was adamant that a vassal should conform to Hittite custom.”
Suppiluliuma further implies that their aberrant sexual practices are what led to the troubles this vassal state was having. This is reminiscent of Leviticus 18’s notion that the land is polluted by problematic sexual behaviors whose origin is in other, more depraved cultures.
Egypt: Permissive on Incest
Leviticus 18 specifically mentions refraining from the practices of Egypt (v. 3), apparently not without reason. Although Egypt certainly forbade adultery, incest does not seem to have been an Egyptian taboo. As early as the fourteenth century BCE and through at least the Ptolmaic period, some Pharaohs married their half or full sisters. There are also documented cases of non-royal marriages between children of the same father from the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1975–1640 BCE) and the Twenty-Second Dynasty (ca. 945–715 BCE), including some that appear to involve full siblings, as well as one marriage between a father and daughter.
The most extensive information on this subject comes from an official census from the second century CE. In the most comprehensively documented region covered by the census, the district capital of Arsinoe, southwest of modern Cairo, thirty-seven percent of all documented marriages are between full siblings.
Taking into account that not everyone has an available opposite-sex sibling and that there was a strong preference for younger women to marry older men, this is close to the maximum of possible sibling marriages. It is the highest level of inbreeding of any known population.Combined with the earlier material, it suggests that Egypt had a very long history of accepting and even favoring marriage between close kin, especially siblings.
The sexual prohibitions in the Laws of Hammurabi and the Hittite Laws have some affinities with those in H but are significantly less restrictive. Later Hittite law and the vassal treaty of Suppiluliuma I point to a wider range of restrictions, but the latter intimates that they were not the norm throughout the region. While the data is limited, these texts at least suggest that the laws of Leviticus 18 were not simply a reflection of the norms prevailing throughout the ancient Near East. They were distinct and most likely unusually strict.
Egypt appears to be an outlier in its remarkably favorable attitude toward close-kin marriage. This may offer a solution to a puzzle in the biblical text: The introduction to Leviticus 18 mentions both the Canaanites and the Egyptians. Nevertheless, the Egyptians are not mentioned in the conclusion, as they are irrelevant to its main theme, namely, that sexually permissive behaviors led to the expulsion of the Canaanites from the land. If the Egyptians were especially known for incest, this may have motivated the author to include them in spite of their thematic irrelevance.
Laws and Mores Elsewhere in the Bible
What about the practices of the Israelites themselves? Do H’s prohibitions simply reflect Israelite mores, or is the text pushing against alternative standards that it finds insufficient?
Deuteronomy’s Incest List
Apart from Leviticus 18 and 20, the Torah contains one additional brief list of sexual prohibitions, in Deuteronomy 27:20–23. The prohibited relations are:
- Father’s wife (v. 20)
- Any animal (v. 21)
- Sister, including a half-sister (v. 22)
- Mother-in-law (v. 23)
Needless to say, this list is much less extensive than Leviticus 18 and 20.
A number of narratives portray relationships prohibited by H without any hint of condemnation.
- Two Sisters: Jacob marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah (Genesis 29, J), which would be prohibited by Leviticus 18:18.
- Father’s wife/concubine: Adonijah asks to marry Avishag, his father, David’s former concubine, and Bathsheba wishes to grant his request (1 Kings 2:17-21).
- Aunt: Amram marries his paternal aunt, Jochebed (Exodus 6:20 and Numbers 26:59, P), which would be prohibited by Leviticus 18:12 and 20:19.
- Half-sister: Abraham tells Abimelech that his wife, Sarah, is also his half-sister (Gen 20:12, E). Similarly, when Tamar pleads with her half-brother Amnon not to rape her, she implores him to ask their father, David, to give her to him in marriage, saying, “he will not refuse me to you” (2 Samuel 13). Tamar appears to think that marriage to her half-brother would not be out of the question.
The half-sibling marriages cited above explain why Leviticus 18:9 and 20:17 (as well as Deut 27:22) specify that a sister is prohibited whether she is the daughter of one’s father or one’s mother: the prohibition on half-siblings was not taken for granted by all Israelites at all times.
Leviticus 18:16 is a blanket prohibition against marrying one’s brother’s wife. This is in sharp contrast to the institution of levirate marriage, prescribed in Deut 25:5–10, according to which a man is required to marry his brother’s widow if his brother dies childless, in order to bear a son to carry on his brother’s name. (Leviticus 20:21 states that a marriage between a man and his sister-in-law will be childless, which may be an attempt to undermine this practice.)
Although Deuteronomy seems only to apply this law to the deceased man’s brother, the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38, J) indicates that it could also be fulfilled by another male relative (as in Hittite law). This relationship too would be prohibited by the blanket prohibition on daughters-in-law in Leviticus 18:15 and 20:12.
Menstrual Purity Law
A set of laws on ritual purity detail a procedure for purification after sex with a menstruating woman, classifying it with sexual events that require purification but are not prohibited (15:24, P).
What is remarkable about this list of texts is that they come from every documentary source of the Torah—J, E, P, and D—as well as from the portion of Prophets known by scholars as the Deuteronomistic History. Every source of the Torah undermines some part of Leviticus 18.
H’s Demand for Extreme Holiness
The lists of sexual prohibitions in the Holiness Collection are striking for their apparent departure not only from much of the material from the ancient Near East at large but also from the rest of the Bible. What are we to make of this? As H is probably the latest of the pentateuchal sources, it may be that Israelite mores became stricter over time.
This possibility is supported by the fact that Deuteronomy prohibits relations with a half-sister but permits—and in some cases requires—relations with a sister-in-law. Still, the unparalleled stringency of these laws suggests that they were, at least in part, innovative.
While it is difficult to account for all the specific innovations in Leviticus 18, the idea that Israel should adhere to an exceptionally high standard of sexual restriction is in keeping with a core theme of H: a conception of Israel as a people holy to God. Just as priests were restricted in their choice of sexual partners due to their particular holiness, ordinary Israelites were called upon to behave in a way that differentiated them from their neighbors—and that may well have seemed extreme even to them.
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April 26, 2018
June 25, 2020
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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