There are many incestuous relationships in the Bible. It is best to concentrate on the stories where there is some moral judgement, positive or negative, of those relationships. Some instances are merely described and not commented on. But some of those occasions include some of the most highly revered figures of the Bible, who are said to be righteous and just, like the person of Lot, who fathered children with his own daughters. Others, such as Abraham and his half-sister, are actively rewarded by God for incest (in their case, rewarded with a child). God made incest necessary by creating just two humans to start off with (Adam and Eve), and later, by killing off all humans except Noah and his family (at which time, animal-kingdom incest was just as necessary). Although Noah's family was already a spiderweb of close family marriages: the five generations of parents that preceded both Noah and his wife Emzara all descend from just three individuals1. Inbreeding causes countless genetic problems in families, which get worse per occurrence and leave detectable dents in the genetic makeup of species. Yet, in our genetic record there are no signs of periods of intense incest in Humans resulting from Adam and Eve, nor are there such signs in animals nor humans resulting from inbreeding after Noah's Ark. After creation, and after the flood, incest was rife and necessary, as part of God's plan. So it can't be bad or immoral, and to condemn incest is the same as saying that God's plan is evil. Even if you take the story of Adam and Eve and Noah as myths, their moral teachings imply that incest is ok. Predictably from such a disparate collection of writings, incest is explicitly condemned in quite a few other places in the Bible.
Most societies2 and primitive religions have had stern rules against incest. This has always made sense: the results of inbreeding including many genetic problems including retardation and infertility3, two problems that no kingdom or empire wanted stifling its growth. Although medieval Christianity was notably stricter, most other societies have prohibited incest at least to marital unions within but not including first cousins4. But there are two main forces working against this healthy moral constraint:
Power Games. When power is concentrated in a single ruling family, there has arisen in history a strong impetus for that family to avoid sharing power with outsiders by dictating who must marry who. Sometimes, nations engage in kinds of extended-family marriage-swap schemes, but often, these continue for too long resulting in increasing inbreeding amongst a class of inter-national royals. The ruling families of Egypt from the time of Ahmes, who ruled from 1580 to 1558BCE, to the Cleopatras, saw incest as a royal tradition for power-game reasons, as did the Peruvian royalty5.
Holy Dogmas About Bloodlines and Cultural Purity. Strict rules against marrying non-believers has led many religious communities into necessary incest; the long-term effect of such rules is always a gradual decay in genetic diversity and increase in genetic disease as the result of slow effects of inbreeding. In small or new communities in history and in the present, such negative effects can manifest quickly. The early Mormon church saw much incest due to membership shortage, up to 1892, and, the gypsies are often inbred due to a reluctance to marry outsiders4.
Anthropologists suspect that in some situations, the argument that "the bloodline must be kept pure" is actually an excuse to justify practices that are really just power-games (i.e., the prevention of land becoming inherited by non-family-members).
When the above two factors combine - a family in power, and a religion that enforces rules against marrying impure outsiders; entire cultures can stand on the verge of mass degeneration and isolation. Such tribes leave distinct biological markers upon our genes and easily traceable through history by examining modern genes: hence we often discover periods of inbreeding amongst groups through the study of family genetics.
Luckily, such rules are very hard to enforce and there is always a sneaky undercurrent of occasional sexual union with outsiders. Although in itself immoral, occasions when a child is fathered in secret by an attractive foreigner but raised as a local with two local parents, are perhaps one of the saving graces of strict religious communities that are obsessed with obtained a just-out-of-reach state of impurity. Such doctrines cause much harm and suffering and make a simmering parental deceit necessary if any new blood is to be brought in.
There are other exceptions to common societal instincts against incest.
“The Kaniagmut tribe allowed marriage between brothers and sisters or parents and children. The Karens of Tenasserim, some ancient Peruvians, [...], the Hindu Sakta sect all at times allowed marriage between brother and sister. In Iran brother-sister marriage was practised to keep land in the family, while the Azande in Africa even allowed father-daughter marriage for high chiefs.”
In the era from BCE Greek permissiveness bloomed and spread to the entire Middle_East. Gender roles were blurred, the arts could produce effeminate men and even hermaphrodite public statues appeared. In Egypt also incest continued occasionally amongst the rulers, with Greek influence "in the royal house of the Ptolemies brother regularly married sister, and the poet Theocritus produced verse in favour of incest"7.
Wayward Families sometimes become prone to incestuous relations. You can view this is either a small-scale form occasional tribe or culture incest, or, as the extended influence of wayward individuals. Either way, "there is evidence that the structure of families in which incest occurs is unusually patriarchal and traditional, especially with respect to the subservient position of women relative to men"8.
Wayward Individuals who eschew social norms through mental instability or for other reasons that fall under the remit of abnormal psychology. Investigations by psychologists have found that statistically "perpetrators of incest are often rigidly religious and moralistic"9. A fine example is Warren Steed Jeffs, the President of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a spin-off from the Mormon church). Warren Steed Jeffs got himself on to the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted List" on account of the scale of his sex crimes within his congregation, including sex with minors and incest10. These isolated criminal cases are probably best discussed by the relevant experts, so I devote no time here.
Some periods that saw incest rice in occurrence are hard to categorize. The medieval period from 1400-1600CE saw the institution of the Pope succumb to a long period of indulgence; orgies, prostitutes, permissiveness and every kind of sexual service had its centre in the Papacy. "John Burchard, the slightly biased servant and biographer of the Borgias, described the orgies in which, for instance, at a papal feast fifty naked prostitutes crawled round the floor for chestnuts. Both Alexander Borgia (1431-1503) and Sigismondo Malatesta (1417-68) were openly accused of incest. In 1514, under Pope Leo X, Rome boasted 7,000 official prostitutes. [... and elsewhere] the murdered Bishop Henry III of Liege had sixty-five bastard children; the priests of France had been forbidden to stay with their mothers and sisters because of the rise in incest"11. These highly confusing incidents are documented across multiple pages by Thomson. This isn't power-games incest; it is probably a case of culturally-accepted incest during a period of particular immorality for the Catholic world.
Part of God's Plan & Abraham was Rewarded For It:
(1) Adam and Eve's children were Cain, Abel (Genesis 4), Seth and others (Genesis 5:4). They must have had sex with their parents or with each other, and thus had children of their own. Incest with the very closest relatives is a necessary part of God's plan, according to the story of Adam and Eve. Even if you accept that this story is mythical, then, the moral truth behind it still insists that incest must be ok, being such a fundamental part of God's good plan. (See: "Christian Mythology: Adam and Eve, and the Serpent, in the Garden of Eden" by Vexen Crabtree (2013).)
(2) After The Flood (Genesis 6:6-8,7:1,20-23,9:1,18-19), which was only survived by one single family (Noah's), incest was once again rife and necessary, a situation God itself had caused. (See: "Noah, the Ark and the Flood, from the Bible Book of Genesis" by Vexen Crabtree (2013).)
(3) Abraham married his sister. He was one of the most holy men of the Old Testament. God rewarded them for it. "And God said unto Abraham, as for Sara thy wife...I bless her, and give thee a son also of her..." (Genesis 17:15-16, Genesis 20:11-12). There was a lot of this going on in this holy family:
(4) Lot fathered children with his own daughters after they took turns to seduce him while he was drunk. Lot is considered favourable by god, was saved by God's angels (Genesis 19:11-13, 15-17,19) and is described as just and righteous in 2 Peter 2:6-8.
There are many other cases of incest - too many to list here!
Incest is Condemned by God:
"Cursed be he that lieth with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of this mother..." (Deuteronomy 27:22).
"None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness" (Leviticus 18:6).
Union your father's wife, or, a father with his daughter in law, both merit punishment by death (Leviticus 20:11-12).
"If a man shall take his sister, his father's daughter, or his mother's daughter...it is a wicked thing" (Leviticus 20:17).
Deuteronomy and Leviticus across various chapters describe many other (but not all) forms of incestuous unions as prohibited.
A Secular Incident:
Absalom was a non-religious figure, featuring in political schemes and power struggles. Yet he had the moral strength to bring justice against King David's son Amnon who raped Absalom's sister (Amnon's half-sister) (2 Samuel 13). His means of going about it were dishonest because he did not think that the holy court of King David would have brought justice, the event being family-on-family.
The main problem is not morals, it can be argued that just because it is immoral does not mean that it didn't happen. The main problem is biological. Interbreeding two families causes severe retardation, mutation and infertility. This happens to isolated Human populations even when there are more than two families. The problem increases with severity the longer the inbreeding occurs.
“Full-sibling or parent-child incest results in about 17% child mortality and 25% child disability, for a combined result of about 42% nonviable offspring.”
Donald Brown, 'Human Universals' pp123
The phenomenon of nonviable offspring from breeding between closely related family members is not limited to Humans, but to most life, especially amongst mammals and multicellular organisms:
“A study of 38 captive mammalian species found a cross-species average of around 33% offspring mortality resulting from closely incestuous matings.”
Donald Brown, 'Human Universals' pp124
Due to the non-viable offspring that result from incest, which gets worse with each generation, the Adam and Eve story cannot be the literal whole truth. When a Christian next time relies on the urban myth of "Christian Family Values" then wander how they would explain to someone the big question of "What happened after the Flood?" The only moral escape route is to admit that the Adam and Eve story is a metaphor. The only biologically correct explanation known is that we evolved slowly from lower animals so that incest was never a problem as there was an entire pool of families to draw from, which were all slowly evolving into humans en masse just as we are right now slowly evolving, like all other species, into future species.
A Christian once argued with me and explained that the inbreeding of Adam and Eve's children did not result in retardation and genetic disease, because our genes were much more pure and perfect, and that the genetic problems caused by inbreeding only appeared once our gene pool, alongside mankind, had fallen out of grace. Whether or not you accept this line of reasoning (and the genetic evidence is not that we are degenerating over time), it only applies to Adam and Eve and their offspring, and not Noah and his wife, who had exactly the same problem in a time period somewhat after Adam and Eve. By the time of Noah, humanity had fallen so far that God tried to wipe us all out. There is hardly scope to argue that at this time, genetic diseases did not occur as a result of inbreeding.
More likely than any convoluted apologist explanations of why the side-effects of incest did not appear is that (1) the authors of Genesis did not know anything about genetics, (2) they were knowingly writing myths and complicated real-life issues were not important to the myth and (3) the story was simply not thought out in that much depth.
The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament indulge in many stories designed to warn against the marrying of women from foreign peoples, especially those who worship foreign gods. Many verses go further than just to warn: they command believers not to marry such women, and such unions are often punished with death, in the Bible. As a result, there have been many Jewish and Christian sects who have isolated themselves from others in a most severe and strict way. Such dogmas cause much harm and suffering to communities. (1) It engenders prejudice and bias against foreigners, causing intolerance and then violence, (2) it diminishes the numbers of the group itself, (3) it gradually diminishes the gene pool and with each generation increases the numbers of genetic diseases associated with incest and finally (4) it makes a simmering parental deceit necessary if any new blood is to be brought in.
“In Orthodox Judaism, anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. Non-Jews can convert to Judaism on marriage, but one of the biggest problems facing Judaism today is the loess of numbers caused by marriage between Jewish men and non-Jewish women. [...] In Britain, the number of Jews has fallen from 500,00 thirty years ago to fewer than 300,000 today, mostly as a result of marrying out. Increasingly, Jewish communities outside Israel are seeking to find ways of amending the rules [...]. Many Jewish leaders see this as the most difficult challenge facing Judaism.”
"Religions of the World" by Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer (1997)13
Such rules leave distinct biological markers upon our genes hence we have often discovered periods of inbreeding amongst groups through the study of family genetics.
Anthropologists suspect that in some situations, the argument that "the bloodline must be kept pure" is actually an excuse to justify practices that are really just power-games (i.e., the prevention of land becoming inherited by non-family-members), which is why some of the authors of various Hebrew Scriptures were so concerned over who the men in their tribes married. It also seems to represent a religious-justified form of racism, plain prejudice, bias and xenophobia. Luckily, many Christians simply ignore these stories and warnings, and they are never heard being preached to the pews by the preachers at Sunday sermons! Here they are:
Deuteronomy 7:3-4: Believers are not to marry the non-believers of Canaan because these foreign women will "turn away" their sons from worshipping the God of the Bible. The punishment is God's anger.
Ezekiel 20:32-34 warns that families of believers cannot live out in the world with non-believers, and if they do, they will incur the anger of God.
Malachi 2:11-12 warns believers that people "desecrate the sanctuary" if they marry "women who worship a foreign god". Such people lose the favour of God, and any sacrifices they make for god are no longer accepted happily - and - crying about it won't help. This also applies to the descendants of those involved (so much for moral justice!). The solution is not to marry women of the wrong religion in the first place.
“I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God's name and said: "You are not to give your daughters in marriage to [foreign women's] sons, nor are you to take [foreign women's] daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves."”
Neh 13:23-27 contains a little story about a holy man, Nehemiah, who goes around chastising and punishing mixed-culture families. His main issue that many believers had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon and of Moab who all worshipped other gods. He makes believers promise that they will no longer marry or let their sons marry these foreign women. It also states that the legendary King Solomon fell from grace due to his repeated relations with foreign wives.
Numbers 25: 6-15: contains another story of a priestly holy man who murders the newly wed husband (Zimri) and his foreign wife (a Midianitish woman called Cozbi) for the offence of marrying an outsider. He runs into their tent and "thrusts them through" with a spear, killing them. The aside in this story is that God has been punishing the Hebrews with plague for such impurities as it was making God jealous (verse 11). The priest therefore "saved" them all by stopping this marriage at its very beginning and he is rewarded by God for his actions, and for good measure, his children are rewarded too (verse 13).
The contributors to "The Woman's Bible" by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1898) make this point on this story: "The Jewish law forbade a man going outside of his tribe for a wife. It was deemed idolatry. But why kill the woman? She had not violated the laws of her tribe and was no doubt ignorant of Jewish law"14. The horrible morals portrayed in this story (murderous xenophobia and intolerance, for the sake of doctrine) are some of the worst features of religion.
St Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:39 urges believers to marry "in the Lord", meaning, within the community of believers. 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 warns believers not to mix in with unbelievers as they have nothing in common and "what fellowship can light have with darkness?" and that believers should separate themselves from others. Many other minor verses go along the same lines: 1 Corinthians 5:9-12 says you can't even marry, or mingle with, those who are Christians but who behave wrongly and 15:33 says "bad company ruins good morals".
But despite all this, 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 more calmly says that if you do somehow become married to a non-believer, then, you don't have to divorce them because the believer makes the other one (and the children) holy. However this verse is somewhat the odd one out compared to the others.
The Assemblies of God are one example Christian Church that forbids their members to date or marry non-believers, specifically mentioning many of the above verses15. Sociologists have often commented on the reluctance, and often refusal, of Jewish rabbis to conduct marriages between Jews and non-Jews: "Mayer conducted a 1997 survey of American rabbis on interfaith marriages, in which 36 percent of the rabbis said that they would officiate at an interfaith wedding, but the numbers ranged widely, from zero among the Orthodox and Conservatives rabbis to 62 percent of the Reconstructionist rabbis (Mayer 1997)"16.
The Qur'an talks in a similar way, for example Sura 60:10 says "Do not maintain your marriages with unbelieving women: demand the dowries you gave them" or just "hold not the disbelieving women as wives" depending on the translation. This means you cannot marry a non-Muslim and if your wife converts away from Islam, then, you have to divorce her and get back the money you paid for her (the dowry). The IHEU reports that in many Islamic states, it is illegal for women to marry non-Muslims. This happens in Brunei, Djibouti and Sudan, plus a large range of Islamic states in the Middle East and surrounding area17.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three most well known monotheistic religions. All three were preceded by the first great monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, which also contains rules against marrying outsiders. There are still communities of Zoroastrians around today - in India they are called Parsis, and, for historical reasons, there is a small community of Parsis in Hong Kong. Caroline Plüss's study of this community revealed some side-effects of such rules being strictly adhered to:
“Parsis in Hong Kong, despite considerable economic integration and some political integration during Hong Kong's colonial rule, never seriously challenged Zoroastrian rules forbidding exogamy. Such deliberate differentiation was not lessened by the fact that the Parsi community in Hong Kong never counted more than 100 members, and needed to rely on the much larger community in Mumbai to find spouses (Plüss 2005:209), or by the fact that the Zoroastrians' strong inclination not to accept conversions has accounted for significantly declining numbers of Zoroastrians worldwide.”
She doesn't mention incest (perhaps such a close-knit community is loathe to admit it to outsiders), but it is easy to see that while such rules might suit an expanding religion, as soon the situation changes, they become a detriment to the moral standing, genetic health and long-term growth of a religion, let alone being based, from the very start, on a form of xenophobic prejudice.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer
(1997) Religions of the World. Subtitled "The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, & Festivals". By Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien & Martin Palmer. Hardback. Published for Transedition Limited and Fernleigh Books by Lionheart Books.
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.
Davison & Neale
(1997) Abnormal Psychology. Hardback 7th edition. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Amazon link points to a newer edition than the one I've used here.
Ford, C.S., & Beach, F.A.
(1951). Patterns of sexual behaviour. New York: Harper. In "Abnormal Psychology" by Davison and Neale (1997) p366.
Hoge, Dean R.. Was Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, Washington, USA.
(2011) The Sociology of the Clergy. This essay is chapter 32 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages p581-596).
IHEU. International Humanist and Ethical Union.
(2012) Freedom of Thought. A copy can be found on iheu.org/...Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf, accessed 2013 Oct 28.
'Constructing Globalized Ethnicity: Migrants from India in Hong Kong'. Published in the International Sociology periodical, 20/2: 201-24. In "Migration and the Globalization of Religion" by Caroline Plüss (2011)1.
(2007) Cults: Secret Sects and Radical Religions. Hardback. Published by Carlton Books.
Stanton, Elizabeth C.. (1815-1902)
(1898) The Woman's Bible. Amazon's Kindle digital edition. Produced by Carrie Lorenz and John B. Hare. Public Domain.
(1993) A History of Sin. Hardback. Canongate Press.