Is It Wise to Marry a Near Relative?
IN NEARLY all societies it is prohibited by custom or by law for persons of close fleshly kinship to marry. It is not known whether this taboo came into existence primarily because such marriages came to be considered unnatural and repugnant, or because of fear that they would increase hereditary abnormalities in the population.
Is there truly a danger for those marrying close fleshly relations? That is, is there a more-than-average probability that damaging hereditary factors will be passed on to one’s offspring? Would it be wise to entertain or develop a close relationship with one close of kin—a relationship of a nature that would lead toward marriage?
The answer is: Today it would be unwise, as well as unfair to children born of such union. Moreover, it would bring one into legal difficulties, as will be discussed later.
To understand fully why genetic dangers exist we need to take a brief glimpse into the principles or the “mechanics” of heredity. This takes us into the microscopic field of chromosomes and genes.
The word “chromosome” comes from the Greek, meaning “color-body.” This name is used because these threadlike particles located in the nucleus of each cell of the human (or other living) body are visible when a certain dye is applied. There are forty-six chromosomes in every human body cell, but only half this number, namely, twenty-three, are in the individual’s sex or reproductive cells. Therefore, when conception takes place, the fertilized egg cell has received half of its chromosomes from the father and half from the mother, to make up its total of forty-six chromosomes. This cell is the beginning of the new individual.
Lying along the threadlike chromosomes, there are untold numbers of “genes.” These are certain chemicals that operate to direct or “trigger” chemical reactions that build a certain feature of the body. At the time of conception, the chromosomes from the father carrying genes for building specific bodily features lie parallel to the chromosomes from the mother carrying similar genes. The genes for eye color, for example, will lie next to each other on the two chromosomes. The gene received from the father will cooperate or function with the like gene received from the mother. In this way the eye color of the baby is determined.
In some cases, a gene for determining some factor is “dominant” over (or “swamps” the effect of) its corresponding gene. Some genes are “recessive,” tending to be submerged in the presence of the dominant one. Because of this, a trait in the father may not appear in the child (or, conversely, a trait of the mother may be suppressed). The child will then exhibit the dominant trait—it will be apparent in his appearance or characteristics. Nevertheless, the child’s body cells and some of his reproductive cells will contain the “recessive” gene or trait-producing unit. He will be a “carrier” of this trait, without his manifesting it himself. When he grows up and marries, if he marries a girl who has or “carries” the same “recessive” trait, then, when conception takes place, their child’s cell may receive the “recessive” gene from each parent. Their child, the grandchild of the first-mentioned individual, will then exhibit that trait that was not manifest in the personality or body of the father and perhaps not of the mother. Sometimes a “recessive” trait will be hidden for generations and then will suddenly manifest itself.
Not all “recessive” traits are bad, just as not all “dominant” traits are good. However, undesirable traits are often “recessive.” On this matter of gene combination hangs a primary reason why marriage to a close fleshly relative is very inadvisable.
An example of an undesirable “recessive” trait is albinism. This is a condition in which there is a lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes. Such persons cannot stand strong sunlight. Some ancestor in a family line may have been an albino. This characteristic will not manifest itself until two “recessive” genes for this trait, the one from the father and the one from the mother, come together. Individuals descending from this albino ancestor have a probability of being “carriers” of this gene or trait but not necessarily displaying the trait in their own appearance. Since this gene is rare, as long as a person marries someone outside his fleshly relationships the probability is strong that his marriage partner will not carry this gene, and that the children will be normal. The “recessive” gene will likely be suppressed in its action by a normal gene from the marriage partner.
On the other hand, an incestuous marriage, a marriage with a close fleshly relative, who is more likely to carry the “recessive” gene, would greatly increase the probability of albinism in the child. The closer the relative, the greater the probability. Suppose a father is an albino. Then, incestuous sex relations with his daughter will make the probability one out of two, a 50-percent chance that—if conception results—the child produced will be an albino. If a brother and sister, the children of this father, marry (even though neither is an albino), the probability of albinism in their child is cut to one out of four.
Each step toward more distant relationship cuts down the probability that the undesirable trait will appear. Accordingly, in the marriage of first cousins the chance of the defective characteristic appearing is considerably lessened. And, as stated, marriage outside these fleshly relationships makes the chance much more remote.
LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS AND CONSCIENCE
What is the Christian’s position on this question? Apart from the above-mentioned reasons, are there Bible considerations?
The Law given to Israel through Moses sets out certain prohibitions with regard to marriage between persons closely related in the flesh. (Lev. 18:6-17; 20:11, 12, 14, 17, 19-21; Deut. 22:30; 27:20-23) But Christians today are not under that Law and are not bound by it. (Col. 2:14; Eph. 2:15) And the Christian Greek Scriptures do not set out a code of laws.
However, Jesus commanded: ‘Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.’ (Matt. 22:21) And the apostle Paul similarly counseled: “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God.” (Rom. 13:1) True Christians obey the laws of the land in which they live, including the marriage laws.
In view of these facts, the Christian congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses hold to the requirements of the law of the land in which they are living. They do not try to impose on the members of the congregations the laws regarding prohibited marriages found in the book of Leviticus, thereby bringing them under the Mosaic law. It is true, however, that in many legal jurisdictions the prohibited relationships are the same as found in the Mosaic law, and some go even farther, forbidding the marriage of first cousins. Some of the penalties for incest are very heavy. And, for deliberately breaking the civil law regarding incest, a Christian would also come under discipline by the Christian congregation.
More importantly, the Christian obeys the laws of the land, not primarily out of fear, but because of conscience. (Rom. 13:5) His conscience also moves him to recognize that certain things are unnatural, violating the sense of propriety that all men have. There is a natural sense of fitness among men, a deep internal feeling as to what is proper and right. Also, the Christian does not want to shock the sensibilities of the community or bring reproach on the name Christian nor upon Jehovah, whose name he also bears.—1 Pet. 4:16; Isa. 43:10-12.
An example of the view of God and of the Christian congregation toward that which is unnatural is the case about which the apostle Paul had to write to the congregation in the city of Corinth. A man in the congregation there was committing fornication, a thing forbidden to Christians. (1 Cor. 6:9, 10) But this was fornication of an especially degraded sort. Why? In that a man had taken his father’s wife. It was apparently not his own mother, but a second wife of his father. This was rightly viewed as a disgraceful act, particularly as it expressed gross disrespect and contempt for the father, as it was an ‘uncovering of his father’s nakedness.’—Lev. 18:8; compare Genesis 35:22; 49:3, 4.
The apostle, in writing to the congregation, commented specifically on the unusual corruptness of this act, saying: “Actually fornication is reported among you, and such fornication as is not even among the nations, that a wife a certain man has of his father.” (1 Cor. 5:1) This sin was something rare even among pagan nations of that time.
‘But,’ someone may ask, ‘did not people marry close relatives in Bible times? For instance, Abram (Abraham) married his half sister.’ Yes, this is true. But when we look into Bible history we can understand why a difference later came about.
When God created Adam and Eve in perfection, his purpose was that all humankind come from one man, hence be related in the flesh—all one family. (Gen. 1:28) Adam named his wife Eve, meaning “Living one,” “because,” the Bible records, “she had to become the mother of everyone living.”—Gen. 3:20.
Consequently, for everyone to come from Adam and Eve, it is obvious that at least one man had to marry his sister. Cain, the first one of Adam’s sons reported to be married, very likely did so. Abel and Seth may have married their sisters, or nieces, for Adam had other sons and daughters, who, in turn, had children. (Gen. 5:3, 4) There was very little danger then of marked deformities being brought forth in the children, because the human race was much closer to perfection than now. Few bad genes (either “recessive” or “dominant”) would exist. The vigor of the early descendants of Adam is demonstrated in the longevity of men in those days, one reported as living 969 years.—Gen. 5:27.
As the race multiplied, more remote marriages became possible. But again, after the Flood, while men still lived to a great age, Noah’s grandsons, in carrying forward the repopulation of the earth, undoubtedly married their cousins. About four hundred years later, Abraham married his half sister, the daughter of his father, but not of his mother. (Gen. 20:11, 12) When Israel was down in Egypt, Amram, Moses’ father, married his paternal aunt. (Ex. 6:20) These men are neither commended nor condemned for this, since God had not yet given a law prohibiting such marriages. Of course, all along, one’s union with a wife of one’s father, as well as all fornication or adultery, was considered disgraceful.—Gen. 35:22; 49:3, 4; 34:2, 7.
Then, in 1513 B.C.E., God gave Israel the Law. By that time people were numerous on the face of the earth. And the nations in the land of Canaan, to which God was leading Israel, had become greatly debauched, promiscuously violating everything that was proper and natural by every form of sex aberration, including incest. (Lev. 18:24, 25) God gave laws concerning consanguinity in sex relations, because his people were to be a separate people. This law lifted them to a high level, making them stand out among those seven degraded nations in Canaan.
Israel was not to be free, loose and promiscuous in sexual relations. God specifically prohibited all marriages closer than first-cousin union. Along with bringing about religious cleanness before God, these laws provided protection against the genetic dangers that were then much more prevalent among the human race, more than two thousand years removed from the original perfection of Adam and Eve.
NEED FOR CARE ON THE CHRISTIAN’S PART
In this present time of promiscuousness and degraded sex practices, approaching or exceeding the debasement of the inhabitants of ancient Canaan, Christians should watch their course. And even the nations have come, during the past three thousand years, to view marriage relations with a close fleshly relative as unnatural. They likely have observed bad genetic results. Also, it has been evident that such incestuous relations tended to breed disrespect, and caused confusion in keeping records of family lines, inheritances, and so forth.
This attitude that most human societies, at least in modern history, have had toward incestuous relations is a protection, since all people are imperfect and sinners and consequently have wrong inclinations. This viewpoint toward marriage makes it “inconvenient” for easy sex relations to crop up within the immediate family circle. Nevertheless, in spite of this taboo, incest has been somewhat frequent in some areas, with resultant bad genetic defects.
In view of all these points, a Christian should be especially careful to avoid letting amorous feelings or passion be directed toward one close of kin. In contemplating marriage he would consider very seriously the health and welfare of children that might be born, particularly the dangers inherent in a marriage with a close relative. To ignore God’s viewpoint of marriage and his own conscience would be selfish and show a lack of concern for the children that might be born blemished. Moreover, it could lead him into reproach, legal difficulties and a bad standing with the Christian congregation.
Perhaps someone, before coming to a knowledge of the truth, has entered into a legal marriage with a close relative. If any of the offspring of that union have inherited genetic irregularities it is a comfort to know that these children will be healed, by Jehovah’s undeserved kindness, during the thousand-year reign of his Son Jesus Christ. (Rev. 21:1-4; 22:1, 2) But, knowing the Christian view of marrying a near relative, one who does not now have such marriage ties and who desires to live in harmony with the principles of God’s Word would not enter into such an arrangement.
[Box on page 74]
UNDESIRABLE CHARACTERISTICS THAT MAY RESULT FROM A PAIR OF RECESSIVE GENES
Trait Conspicuous Signs
Acheiropody Lack of hands and feet
Albinism Lack of pigment in skin, hair, eyes
Amaurotic idiocy Metabolic disorder of intelligence, with
Cretinism Disturbance in function of thyroid gland,
characterized by physical deformity,
dwarfism, and idiocy
Deafness Deafness from birth
Galactosemia Enzyme deficiency—cataracts and mental
Hyperlipidemia Abnormal fat metabolism with retarded
Microcephaly Abnormally small head
Phenylketonuria Enzyme disorder leading to mental retardation
NOTE: Not all these abnormalities are due to incestuous marriages. They can and do occur in other marriages, but more frequently in cases of incest.
[Chart on page 73]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
MARRIAGES SPECIFICALLY PROHIBITED UNDER THE MOSAIC LAW
Relatives Whom a Man Was Forbidden to Marry
Paternal Grandparents Maternal Grandparents
Aunt Uncle Aunt Father Mother Aunt Stepmother
Mothers’s Previous Husband*
Half-sister Sister Brother Sister-in-Law* Half-sister MAN
Daughter Son Daughter-in-Law
●—PROHIBITED FOR THIS MAN
—EXCEPT IN CASE OF LEVIRATE MARRIAGE—Deut. 25:5, 6
—WHILE BOTH SISTERS WERE LIVING—Lev. 18:18