Why Does the Bible Prohibit Marrying a Father’s Wife?
Leviticus 18—“The Nakedness of Your Father”
Leviticus 18:6–18 lists female kin—whether consanguines (related by blood) or affines (related by marriage)—with whom a man is forbidden to have sex. The list starts with the man’s mother:
ויקרא יח:ז עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ וְעֶרְוַת אִמְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ.
Lev 18:7 The nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover. She is your mother—you shall not uncover her nakedness.
This prohibition is followed immediately by the prohibition against a man lying with his father’s wife/woman:
ויקרא יח:ח עֶרְוַת אֵשֶׁת אָבִיךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ הִוא.
Lev 18:8 The nakedness of your father’s wife/woman you shall not uncover. It is the nakedness of your father.
As Eve Levavi-Feinstein argues, the law almost certainly applies even after the marriage was dissolved by divorce or death, otherwise the act is forbidden anyway as a form of adultery. Such a prohibition was not self-evident in the ancient Near East, even in societies that had incest prohibitions.
Mother versus Father’s Wife in ANE
Several ancient Near Eastern law collections prohibit sex with a mother. For example, the Laws of Hammurabi (18th cent. B.C.E.) state:
§157 If a man, after his father’s death, should lie with his mother, they shall burn them both.
Similarly, Hittite law (ca. 16th cent. B.C.E.) also prohibits this:
§189 If a man has sexual relations with his own mother, it is an unpermitted sexual pairing….
And yet, in the very next law we read:
§190 … If a man has sexual relations with his stepmother, it is not an offense. But if his father is still living, it is an unpermitted sexual pairing.
Even the Laws of Hammurabi, which prohibit the son of a secondary wife from having sex with his father’s primary wife even if his father is dead, demanded monetary punishment only for this offence:
§158 If a man, after his father’s death, should be discovered in the lap of [his father’s] principal wife who had borne children, that man shall be disinherited from the paternal estate.
Moreover, nothing is said about sex with the deceased father’s other wives, which suggests that they were not off limits. Similarly, nothing prohibits the son of the principal wife from having sexual relations with or marrying his father’s widowed second wife/wives. This contrasts with the biblical prohibition, which is absolute, applying to all sons with all wives.
The contrast we see here between biblical law and other ANE law collections in this case is reflected in modern incest laws. A quick survey of US incest laws, for instance, shows that in some states (e.g., Arkansas, Connecticut), marriage between a stepchild and a stepparent is forbidden, while in others (e.g., California, New Mexico), it is not.
Other References in the Bible
The prohibition against a man from having sex with his father’s wife appears in several places beyond Leviticus 18:
Leviticus 20—An Offense Worthy of Death
Leviticus 20 contains a list of prohibited sexual pairings (among other things) similar to Leviticus 18, including seven categories of incest, with specific punishments given for each infraction arranged according to the severity of the penalty, beginning with death penalty acts. The first case of incest is father’s wife/woman:
ויקרא כ:יא וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו עֶרְוַת אָבִיו גִּלָּה מוֹת יוּמְתוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם.
Lev 20:11 If a man lies with his father’s wife/woman, it is the nakedness of his father that he has uncovered. The two of them shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.
Unlike Leviticus 18:7, Leviticus 20:11 does not explicitly prohibit sexual relations with one’s mother, either because it is considered by the authors to be self-evident or to avoid unnecessary redundancy, because one’s mother is covered under the category of one’s father’s wife/woman.
Deuteronomy 23: A Focus on Marriage
Following a series of laws related to sexual offenses, such as adultery and sexual assault (Deut 22:13–29), Deuteronomy prohibits a man from marrying his father’s wife/woman:
דברים כג:א לֹא יִקַּח אִישׁ אֶת אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו וְלֹא יְגַלֶּה כְּנַף אָבִיו.
Deut 23:1 A man shall not take his father’s wife/woman, so as to uncover his father’s skirt.
Clearly, the prohibition refers to marrying one’s father’s former wife/woman after the former relationship has ended, whether by divorce or his death.
Deuteronomy 27: A Focus on Sex
In a series of twelve self-imprecations taken by adult males on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal, we find a cluster of sexual offences, three of which involve incestuous relations with female kin (vv. 20, 22, 23). The first, heading the list, is the father’s wife/woman:
דברים כז:כ אָרוּר שֹׁכֵב עִם אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו כִּי גִלָּה כְּנַף אָבִיו וְאָמַר כָּל הָעָם אָמֵן.
Deut 27:20 Cursed is the one who lies with his father’s wife/woman, for he has uncovered his father’s skirt. And all the people shall say, Amen.
Like Leviticus, here the concern is about sex, not marriage, which fits with the theme of the twelve transgressions, which all entail actions that are difficult to detect or prove. These self-imprecations aim at preventing transgressive and destructive behaviors that people might be able to get away with otherwise by emphasizing that God, who sees all, will punish the perpetrators.
Ezekiel 22—An oracle against Jerusalem
In an oracle against Jerusalem, Ezekiel (22:3–16) rebukes the city, describing all the sins the author believes are being committed in the city, including bloodshed, idolatry, profaning the Sabbath, committing injustice, and various sexual transgressions, including men having sex with their father’s women:
יחזקאל כב:י עֶרְוַת אָב גִּלָּה בָךְ...
Ezek 22:10 In you they have uncovered a fathers’ nakedness…
Ezekiel uses the same phrasing as Leviticus, as would be expected given the shared language and conceptual framework between Ezekiel and the Holiness school.
Why is the Bible so concerned about a son marrying or having sex with his father’s wife, even when he is already dead? Several reasons may lie behind this prohibition.
1. A Type of Son-Mother Incest
The relationship between a man and his stepmother may have been viewed as so similar to that between a man and his mother that the strong universal taboo against having sex with one’s mother applied to this too. Indeed, in Leviticus 18, sex with a stepmother follows immediately after sex with the mother. It may even be that the reason Leviticus 20:16 makes no mention of the mother is because it considered the mother and father’s woman to be essentially the same prohibition.
And yet, Leviticus 18 offers different explanations for each prohibition. For the mother, it is explained in terms of the man’s relationship to the woman herself, “it is the nakedness of your mother,” whereas for the father’s wife, we hear only that “it is your father’s nakedness,” i.e., the man is somehow violating his father by engaging in sex with a woman who was once his own father’s mate.
2. A Threat to the Paternal Lines of Descent
Athalya Brenner-Idan suggests that the prohibition is related to concerns about lineage. A son having children with a woman with whom his father had children would blur distinctions within the family unit, since such children would be brothers.
Concern over causing such confusion in the family group may lie behind the related prohibition in the Laws of Hammurabi §158 (quoted above), which disinherits any son of a secondary wife caught having sex with his principal wife who bore him children. The concern here was not sex or marriage between the sons and the father’s widow in general, but the confusion that could be caused by a son of a second wife having sex and even children with the mother of his (senior) half-brothers. Indeed, the Middle Assyrian Laws (§46, ca. 11th cent. B.C.E.) actually encourage a man’s son from his first wife to marry his widowed second wife as a way to see to her welfare.
The biblical text, however, says nothing about inheritance, and makes no fine distinctions between women with children and women without. Instead, we are simply told “because it is your father’s nakedness,” implying that the act of sex/marriage itself is offensive, not merely that it could lead to family squabbling.
3. Encroaching on a Father’s Sexual Property
Another possibility is that these prohibitions were designed to protect fathers from sons encroaching on their sexual domain. Because several generations of males lived in the same household, and in polygynous households, some of the later wives and concubines of the primary householder might be close in age to his older sons, there was a real risk of a son finding himself sexually attracted to one of these younger wives and taking advantage of the living situation to gain sexual access to her.
Such a move may explain the story recalled several times in the Bible of how Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben, has sex with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine. The story is first mentioned briefly in Genesis,
בראשׁית לה:כב וַיְהִי בִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל...
Gen 35:22 While Israel dwelt in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine and Israel heard….
Jacob’s reaction is delayed until the end of his life, when he curses Reuben for what he did (Gen 49:3). The text never explains why Reuben does what he does, but the simple meaning is that Reuben was attracted to his father’s (young?) wife and took the opportunity offered by his easy access to her to have sex with her. Indeed, this is what Deuteronomy 27 is afraid a son might do in such a situation.
This explanation, however, does not reflect the language in Leviticus. As Eve Levavi Feinstein observes, it is difficult to read the affine prohibitions in Leviticus as merely a concern about adultery, which is already prohibited in Leviticus 18:20 and 20:10. Moreover, it is difficult to see how this explanation would apply after the couple are divorced or the man’s father has died, at which point, the woman is no longer the sexual property of his father. And yet, such a union still seems to be prohibited.
4. Prevent the Use of a Father’s Wife in a Power Play
A related possibility is that the laws are meant to protect the father from ambitious sons who might be tempted to use sex with his wives/women to assert dominance within the household. The prohibition, then, would reflect the anxiety of the older generation regarding the stability of their status and authority over time. In addition, even after the father’s death, sons may come to compete over the father’s widow(s), with the successful son laying claim to the deceased father’s place as head of the household, thus wreaking havoc with the process of inheritance amongst the brothers.
Adonijah and Abishag
Such a reading has support in the story of Adonijah in the book of Kings. The story begins when Adonijah tries to have himself crowned king, but is thwarted when Bathsheba and Nathan convince David, on his death bed, to have Solomon crowned.
After David dies, Solomon does not harm Adonijah until his brother comes to Bathsheba with a request to marry his late father’s young and beautiful concubine Abishag (1 Kgs 2:13–18). Bathsheba sees the request as innocuous (2:19–21), but Solomon understands it as a power play against him:
מלכים א ב:כב וַיַּעַן הַמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה וַיֹּאמֶר לְאִמּוֹ וְלָמָה אַתְּ שֹׁאֶלֶת אֶת אֲבִישַׁג הַשֻּׁנַמִּית לַאֲדֹנִיָּהוּ וְשַׁאֲלִי לוֹ אֶת הַמְּלוּכָה כִּי הוּא אָחִי הַגָּדוֹל מִמֶּנִּי וְלוֹ וּלְאֶבְיָתָר הַכֹּהֵן וּלְיוֹאָב בֶּן צְרוּיָה.
1 Kgs 2:22 King Solomon replied to his mother, “Why do you request Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Request the kingship for him, as well, since he is my older brother. Ask for him, for the priest Abiathar and for Joab son of Zeruiah!”
Solomon sees this request as such a threat that he has Adonijah executed immediately:
מלכים א ב:כג וַיִּשָּׁבַע הַמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה בַּי־הוָה לֵאמֹר כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה לִּי אֱלֹהִים וְכֹה יוֹסִיף כִּי בְנַפְשׁוֹ דִּבֶּר אֲדֹנִיָּהוּ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה. ב:כד וְעַתָּה חַי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר הֱכִינַנִי (ויושיביני) [וַיּוֹשִׁיבַנִי] עַל כִּסֵּא דָּוִד אָבִי וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לִי בַּיִת כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר כִּי הַיּוֹם יוּמַת אֲדֹנִיָּהוּ. ב:כה וַיִּשְׁלַח הַמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה בְּיַד בְּנָיָהוּ בֶן יְהוֹיָדָע וַיִּפְגַּע בּוֹ וַיָּמֹת.
1 Kgs 2:23 Then King Solomon swore by YHWH, saying, “So may God do to me and even more, if Adonijah has not requested this at the cost of his life! 2:24 Now, as YHWH lives, who has established me and set me on the throne of my father David and who has provided him with a house, as he promised, Adonijah shall be put to death this very day!” 2:25 And Solomon instructed Benaiah son of Jehoiada, who struck Adonijahh down; and so he died.
Certainly, Adonijah’s attempt is presented here as being, at least in Solomon’s mind, something more that just attraction. This dynamic is also behind Ishbosheth’s suspicion regarding Abner’s loyalty and motives when he finds out Abner had sex with Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines (2 Sam 3:7–8) after Saul’s death.
And yet, the story at the beginning of Kings pushes against the assumptions we find in the books of Leviticus, since the issue here is that Adonijah and Solomon were both aiming for the throne. Otherwise, the story implies, this would not have been a problematic request. Indeed, that is why Bathsheba thinks of it as innocuous—if Adonijah was asking for something that was widely prohibited in society as a violation of a core incest taboo, she would not have reacted so lightly.
Absalom and David’s Concubines
The power play aspect of such a union is even clearer in the story of Absalom’s rebellion. When David’s son Absalom rebels against him (2 Sam 15–16), David flees Jerusalem with his entire household, except for ten concubines he leaves behind to “guard” the palace (2 Sam 15:16), and Absalom’s chief advisor, Ahithophel (who defected from David), advises Absalom to lie with these women:
שׁמואל ב טז:כא וַיֹּאמֶר אֲחִיתֹפֶל אֶל אַבְשָׁלֹם בּוֹא אֶל פִּלַגְשֵׁי אָבִיךָ אֲשֶׁר הִנִּיחַ לִשְׁמוֹר הַבָּיִת וְשָׁמַע כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי נִבְאַשְׁתָּ אֶת אָבִיךָ וְחָזְקוּ יְדֵי כָּל אֲשֶׁר אִתָּךְ. טז:כב וַיַּטּוּ לְאַבְשָׁלוֹם הָאֹהֶל עַל הַגָּג וַיָּבֹא אַבְשָׁלוֹם אֶל פִּלַגְשֵׁי אָבִיו לְעֵינֵי כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
2 Sam 16:21 Ahithophel replied to Absalom, “Have sex with (literally “go into”) your father’s concubines, whom he left to guard the palace. When all Israel hears that you have made yourself odious to your father, all who support you will be encouraged.” 16:22 So they pitched the tent for Absalom on the roof, and Absalom had sex with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.
Absalom’s motivation for having sex with his father’s women is a way of publicly announcing to “all of Israel” that he is completely severing ties with his father and displacing him, simultaneously demonstrating his father’s weakness and his own virility.
And yet, while engaging in sex with a father’s wife to attain power is the likely motivation in these particular cases, it is difficult to see the concern for something so limited as the reason for the general father’s wife prohibition in Leviticus and even Deuteronomy. Indeed, it is notable that in both the cases of Absalom and Adonijah, we are speaking about a prince taking the wives of the current or previous king; such plotting is normal for royal courts but has no clear analogy with regular people.
5. Like Having Sex with One’s Father
Feinstein contends that a common conception in the Bible is that when a man had sex with a woman, the woman was permanently marked by the man’s essence, conveyed through his seminal emission. Any man who has sex with that woman afterwards will come in contact with that man’s essence, since it remains in the woman.
She suggests that Leviticus 18 and 20 take this idea a step further, in that sexual contact linked a woman so intimately to her partner that subsequent sexual contact with her is in some sense equivalent to sexual contact with him. They share one nakedness. This is likely part of the explanation, but I suggest that a further taboo is at play here.
6. A Form of Improper Mixing
Feinstein contends that contact between male essences can result in a minor form of defilement, depending on which essences come into contact with each other. Perhaps, then, when a son has sex with the father’s wife/woman, the son comes into contact with the father’s essence, and the father’s and son’s essences intermingle in the same vessel (the woman). This came to be seen as a form of improper or illicit mixing, sometimes labeled תֶּבֶל.
The Daughter-in-Law Prohibition
Indeed, the verse immediately following the prohibition against sex with a father’s wife in Leviticus 20 refers to the inverse case, and uses this very mixing language:
ויקרא כ:יב וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת כַּלָּתוֹ מוֹת יוּמְתוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם תֶּבֶל עָשׂוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם.
Lev 20:12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have performed an improper mixing—their bloodguilt is upon them.
Sex with one’s daughter-in-law is also condemned in Ezekiel 22:11, where the verb “defile” (טָמֵא) is used in relation to the act. The one example we have of a man having sex with his son’s widow, Genesis 38:12–19, tells of how Tamar, out of desperation, disguises herself to have sex with her father-in-law to fulfill his family’s levirate obligation, and while her act is depicted positively, the narrator explicitly states that Judah never had sex with her again (Gen 38:26), likely so he would not again, this time knowingly, come into contact with his own son’s essence.
A Father and Son with the Same Woman
This taboo against improper mixing would explain the passage in Amos, which accuses Israelite fathers and sons of having sex with the same woman:
עמוס ב:ז הַשֹּׁאֲפִים עַל עֲפַר אֶרֶץ בְּרֹאשׁ דַּלִּים וְדֶרֶךְ עֲנָוִים יַטּוּ וְאִישׁ וְאָבִיו יֵלְכוּ אֶל הַנַּעֲרָה לְמַעַן חַלֵּל אֶת שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי.
Amos 2:7 They trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and warp the path of the humble. A man and his father go to the (same) young woman, and thereby desecrate My holy name.
Amos does not specify the context, and the woman in question is likely a prostitute or a slave that both father and son have sex with. Notably, the term Amos uses, חָלַל “to desecrate” is also used by Jacob when condemning his son Reuben for having slept with his woman:
בראשׁית מט:ג רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז. מט:ד פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ יְצוּעִי עָלָה.
Gen 49:3 Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power. 49:4 Uncontrollable as water, you will no longer excel, because when you mounted your father’s bed, you desecrated it. My couch he mounted!
Amos’ reproach reflects a belief that a father and son should not have sex with the same woman, even if the woman was not the wife of one of them. This contrasts with the Hittite Laws §194, which specifies that it is not an offence for a father and son to have sex with the same slave or prostitute.
§194 …If father and son sleep with the same female slave or prostitute, it is not an offense.
Amos does not explain why this is problematic; he assumes his Israelite audience knows why he condemns such behavior. A taboo of mixing essences would explain both the passage in Amos and the prohibitions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy; this notion must not have existed among the Hittites.
An Israelite Fear of Intermingling Essences
It seems likely that the prohibition against sex and marriage with a father’s wife has more than one reason, and that fear of discord in the family was a factor. The belief that a father’s and son’s essences should not intermingle in the same woman likely developed and evolved over time, taking its final form in the Holiness Collection (and reflected in Ezekiel), but its roots may have been quite early.
Both Amos 2:7 and Genesis 49:4 use the language of desecration (חָלַל) in relation to such sexual acts, but it is the authors of the Holiness Collection, who were primarily concerned with avoiding the improper mixing that would occur if a father and son ever had sex with the same woman, who codify the act as a death-penalty offense, the virtual equivalent of incest with one’s mother, even when the father is no longer alive.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 3, 2022
November 6, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Hilary Lipka is an instructor in the Religious Studies Program at the University of New Mexico, main campus. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix Press) and co-editor (with F. Rachel Magdalene and Bruce Wells) of the forthcoming Sexuality and Law in the Torah (Bloomsbury T & T Clark).
Essays on Related Topics: