Incestuous Marriages—How Should Christians View Them?
A FEW years ago a court in a Scandinavian country decided that no action should be taken against a man who was living with his sister in marital relationship. A member of the country’s parliament said that he would advocate a change in the country’s incest laws so that such relationship would not be illegal. Similar cases could be cited in many lands.
What constitutes an incestuous marriage? What information does the Bible supply that can aid Christians in determining the view that they should take regarding these?
“Incest” refers to sexual connections between close relatives. The English word is drawn from the Latin term incestus. In Latin, however, incestus means simply “unchastity.” So it is a much broader term than the English word derived from it. All incest is, of course, unchastity, but not all unchastity is incest. The specialized meaning given to the English word is due to the appearance of incestus in the Latin Vulgate’s rendering of Leviticus 18:17, where sexual connections within certain family relationships are described.* Catholic translations in English used the word in Anglicized form and, in time, it came to have its limited sense of sexual relations or marriage between close relatives.
The important point for those who respect God’s Word, however, is not the Latin or English term used, but what the Scriptures say about the relationship itself. For one thing, the Law covenant given to the nation of Israel did prohibit certain marital relationships between relatives. (Lev. 18:7-18; 20:14, 19-21; Deut. 27:23) For Christians, a vital factor is the desire to maintain marriage in honor and to avoid bringing it into disrepute, taking into consideration the conscience of others, both inside and outside the Christian congregation.—Heb. 13:4; 1 Cor. 10:32, 33; 2 Cor. 4:2.
The Law covenant’s prohibition of certain marital relationships among close relatives certainly provides a guiding principle. But the fact remains that Christians are not under that Law given to fleshly Israel. Hence, the Christian congregation is not authorized to try to enforce that Law by insisting on adherence to its code through the avoidance of each and every prohibited marital relationship it lists.—Acts 15:10, 11; Rom. 6:14; Gal. 2:21.
It may be noted that certain features of the prohibitions seem designed to conserve the order of inheritance rights among the Israelites. Actual proximity of blood relationships or of family closeness due to marriage does not alone seem to have determined the morality or immorality of the relationship. Thus, a nephew could not marry his aunt but there was no prohibition against an uncle marrying his niece. (Lev. 18:12-14) Obviously, the proximity of blood relationship (or, if aunts and uncles through marriage are involved, the proximity of family relationship) was no greater or less in either case. Yet one was allowable and the other was not.
A man could not marry his brother’s widow, something that today, in many lands, would not be viewed as incestuous. And yet, it may be noted that, under the Law covenant, where a man died without having fathered an heir, his brother was called upon by the Law to take the widow as his wife so as to produce an heir in his brother’s name. This shows that such relationship was not deemed intrinsically or inherently bad or immoral.—Lev. 18:16; Deut. 25:5, 6.
Marriage by first cousins, where blood ties are quite close, was not prohibited. Marriage to a half sister was prohibited, but no prohibition is stated against a son marrying a stepdaughter of his father, that is, an adoptive daughter, not the offspring of the son’s parents.—Lev. 18:11.*
IMPORTANT FACTORS FOR CHRISTIANS
The fact that Christians are not under the Law covenant certainly does not mean that any marriage between fleshly relatives, no matter how close, is acceptable to Christians. It is noteworthy that, in discussing incest, the Encyclopædia Britannica (Micropædia, Vol. V, p. 323) refers to marriage between parents and children and between brothers and sisters and states that “incest is universally condemned and usually greeted with horror.” In another article (Macropædia, Vol. 10, p. 479) it says: “The nearest approach to a universal rule found in all known human cultures is the incest taboo—the prohibition of sexual intercourse between a man and his mother, sister, daughter, or other specified kin.” It speaks (p. 480) of the “basic triad” of mother, sister, daughter found in such incest prohibitions.
Turning to the inspired Christian Greek Scriptures, it seems obvious that when the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that he should deal with “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters with all chasteness,” his injunction drew its force from the fact that sexual relations with one’s mother or fleshly sister were viewed as totally unacceptable, fundamentally immoral. (1 Tim. 5:2) And, since such sexual connections, as we have seen, are viewed with disgust in almost all areas, it is obvious that such a relationship could not fulfill the Bible’s injunction, “let marriage be honorable among all.”—Heb. 13:4.
While the likelihood of its happening is doubtless very remote, there can be no question that anyone entering into a parent-child or a brother-sister union would be viewed as definitely unacceptable in the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, hence, unacceptable for baptism unless the union would first be dissolved. Anyone who was a baptized member of the congregation and who entered into such union would rightly be disfellowshiped from the congregation and reinstatement therein could come only by a dissolution of the union.
RELATIONSHIPS OUTSIDE THE IMMEDIATE FAMILY
What of cases outside the immediate family? In view of the Law covenant not being in force toward Christians, there does not seem to be sufficient Scriptural basis for taking a rigid position here, although the closer to such intimate blood relationship the marriage comes the more the congregation should make clear its viewing the union as undesirable. Here the Scriptural principle of love enters strongly, since it is known that the closer the blood relationship the greater the likelihood of genetic defects in any offspring resulting. (Rom. 13:8-10) It is a fact, too, that in a community generally “the horror at incest declines with the distance of the blood relative.” (Encyclopædia Britannica, Micropædia, Vol. V, p. 323) So, even though some union between relatives outside the immediate family might not call for expulsion, the congregational elders could certainly take into account the degree of proximity in the relationship of those in such union, as also what effect this has on the congregation and the community, and then let this guide them as to using such ones in any exemplary way in the congregation.
Kinship may not be through blood relationship but through marriage (affinity). A Christian properly seeks to avoid that which would stir up public prejudice due to a violation of strongly held standards in this aspect of the matter. So, whereas, when relatives not related by blood marry, the danger of genetic hazards does not come into the picture, the closeness of their kinship can still affect the honorableness of their marriage in the eyes of the community. As has been shown, this should be of serious concern to the Christian. (Heb. 13:4) Like the apostle, we should want to “keep from becoming causes for stumbling” to those around us.—1 Cor. 10:32, 33.
In this connection, what of the case described at 1 Corinthians 5:1? Here the apostle describes an immoral relationship between a man and his father’s wife, evidently the man’s stepmother. The account does not say that any marriage was involved and, in fact, the apostle calls it “fornication” (porneia). The account does not say that the man’s father was still alive, although the words at 2 Corinthians 7:12, if applying to this same case, would indicate that he was. It therefore seems that it was not a case of marriage but of the man’s living immorally with his stepmother. But, even though the question of marriage may not be involved, Paul’s reference to this as a case of fornication such as “is not even among the nations” clearly shows that the family relationship existing made the fornication especially scandalous.—1 Cor. 5:1.
MAINTAINING DUE BALANCE IN OUR VIEWPOINT
It is not, of course, the duty of the Christian congregation to insist on total conformity to all the differing worldly standards regarding incest, nor to act as enforcers of Caesar’s laws prohibiting certain marriages (some of which laws go beyond even what the Law covenant prohibited). Human laws and their definitions of “incest” are not consistent but show wide variations. In some societies, a man who marries within his clan or village or, in some cases, even within his tribe may be viewed as incestuous. In other societies, nearly the reverse is true and a person is condemned if he does not marry within his tribe or clan. (Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. IV, p. 253) In some Oriental societies, it is viewed as improper for persons having the same family name to marry, no matter how distant their kinship may be. (Encyclopædia Britannica, Macropædia, Vol. 5, p. 32) In some countries or states, marriage of first cousins can gain legal recognition, in others it cannot.
Though not providing the standard for morality such as governs one’s acceptance into the Christian congregation or expulsion therefrom, these factors could affect one’s being used in an exemplary way in the congregation. Much would depend on the gravity with which the surrounding community would view a union of certain relatives, whether it is a cause of great scandal or is simply a matter of some occasional or scattered unfavorable comment.—1 Tim. 3:7, 10.
Where persons have entered such a union previous to baptism, and the union does not involve immediate family relationship and perhaps already has resulted in offspring, then it would seem that the principle stated at 1 Corinthians 7:24 might be extended to such situations. In some cases the union may not be such as is accorded legal recognition in the area. If the parties involved can go to some place where such is obtainable, this would be beneficial in that it may contribute a degree of honorableness to the union in the eyes of others. If not, and the parties desire to be baptized and otherwise qualify, the opportunity could be extended to them to sign a declaration pledging faithfulness to their existing union. This would be viewed as an expression of their own acceptance of their union as binding rather than implying that the congregation favors the union.
Surely those who are deeply concerned with having and retaining God’s favor and blessing will guard against doing anything that would reflect unfavorably on his Name and Word. Though freed from subjection to the Law covenant given to the Israelites, as true Christians they will give earnest heed to the inspired words of the apostle: “Do not use this freedom as an inducement for the flesh, but through love slave for one another.”—Gal. 5:13.
The Hebrew word so translated is the word zimmah. Strong defines it as meaning “a plan, espec. a bad one.” Keil-Delitzsch says: “lit. invention, design.” The Septuagint used the Greek asebyma for it and Liddell-Scott says this word means “impious or profane act, sacrilege.” In the New World Translation it is rendered “loose conduct.”
Note that the listing in the book Aid to Bible Understanding, page 1041, erroneously lists such marriage as prohibited. The text (Leviticus 18:11) actually specifies that the daughter is the “offspring of your father,” hence not adoptive. The chart in the February 1, 1975, Watchtower, page 73, correctly omits any prohibition of marriage with one’s stepsister.