Does The Bible Teach Necessity As a Defense (or permitted exception) to Incest?

Blasphemy Channel: Bible History #1 (Sodom & Gomorrah)

In my last post I noted, if one wants to justify (the normally prohibited kinds of) incest (as noted, if you extend “incest” beyond the nuclear family, we are all distant cousins), perhaps one could use, NOT same sex marriage but the Bible itself in certain circumstances (though what that Columbia U Prof. did probably doesn’t qualify under the exception).

The Bible does in some sense prohibit incest like it prohibits lying and rebellion against government. I used those latter two as examples because there is debate as to just how “absolutely” the Bible prohibits those things. We’ve all heard “there are no absolutes” to which good, Bible believing non-relativist believers balk. “No, there is truth in black and white”.

But even regarding something so elementary as lying, there is an arguable biblical defense of “righteous deception” that accords with the reductio, “would you tell Nazis who knocked on your door whether you were hiding Jews in your attic?”

Likewise with Romans 13, the biblical-Christian case for “rebellion” (if there is one) relies on the idea that the Romans 13 prohibition against rebellion, properly understood, is a general rule that is qualified with exceptions. If an exception does not exist (which some/many biblical Christians claim) then the American Revolution was not a biblically justified act. (What do you value more, the American Founding or the Bible?)

As an attorney, I’m familiar with the common law rule that “necessity is a defense to all crimes against homicide” (likewise with duress). Does the Bible, arguably, teach the same thing on incest? Imagine in the present day a twenty something brother and sister, with drop dead gorgeous good looks/physical appearances stranded via a plane crash on the Island of Eden as a result of a huge calamity which, as far as they know, killed millions of people (perhaps much more, perhaps they are the last two survivors on Earth). Fortuitously (or Providentially), they have what they need on that island to survive.

Now, they may have such a strong incest aversion that the answer is already made for them. But maybe not. What do they do, using the Bible as a guide? There are the general, above linked incest prohibitions. But there is also the Garden of Eden, which, literally interpreted, means all humanity came from two human beings, necessitating either brother and sister or some other kind of incest. There is also, from the literalistic perspective, the story of the 8 humans left after the Noahic flood which likewise necessitates some kind of incestuous reproduction.

Finally, there is the story of Lot and his daughters. I had to reread this one after someone informed me via email that the context of the tale is clearly anti-incest. I’m not so sure.

As the Bible says in Genesis:

31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab[g]; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi[h]; he is the father of the Ammonites[i] of today.

There are two competing contextual themes here. One, the anti-incest idea that the daughters had to get the father drunk — therefore, they all knew something was wrong with what they were about to do. Versus, two the necessity in preserving the bloodline, the idea that they felt they had no other choice to fulfill the biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply.” And this necessity defense also resonates with the story of the Garden of Eden AND the propagation of the human species after the Noahic flood.

The Bible, seemingly, is precisely the opposite of a “book of absolutes.”

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13 thoughts on “Does The Bible Teach Necessity As a Defense (or permitted exception) to Incest?

  1. Jon, what do you make of the fact that the younger women in the story are conscious of what they are doing, acknowledging that it was on some level wrong, while the father is unaware of what was going on and therefore avoided having to work through the moral calculus? Does this dovetail with the idea of woman-as-temptress seen in the Garden of Eden story?

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  2. I don’t think it necessarily follows that the younger women KNEW it was, in that particular circumstance, wrong. Just that they KNEW their father would be resistant to the idea so they had to get him drunk.

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  3. “That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.”

    So the old mans drunk and sleeping, yet he still gets a boner and his daughter fucks him to ejaculation without waking him up? Who wrote this shit? Let me guess. An old drunk bloke?

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    • Of course, men can achieve erections while they sleep and can even ejaculate while asleep. Both age and intoxication are known to diminish a man’s capacity for these sorts of sexual feats, and Lot (or rather, his daughters) would have been up against both of those factors if the story is taken as true on its face.

      But really, is this any lesscredible than, say, a flood of the entire world, a virgin conceiving a child, dissolving himself into a man and then reanimating himself as a zombie, a man being eaten by a whale and then regurgitated still healthy (but presumably stinky) three days later, a talking shrub, or a man gaining strength because of his long Fabio-like locks of hair and then losing it after getting a shave?

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      • Well exactly. It is all absurd. We are debating nothing more than stories made up by goodness only knows who for what whatever reason they served at the time. We may find them an amusing distraction but can’t honestly take them seriously as having any bearing on life in the 21st century.

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  4. Let’s be clear about what the levitical laws are and are not. They are not general principles that all mankind are expected to live by. They are part of a reciprocal agreement between a putative deity and an ethnic group. The Garden of Eden and Lot’s daughters stories are consistent with these laws in that they supposedly occurred before the agreement existed. But in the end it’s just an ancient ethnic group’s rules and I don’t see any compelling reason why anybody outside that group should particularly care, outside of sociological and historical interest, what the Bible has to say on these issues.

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  5. I think the factual nature of the stories is besides the point. In fact, I think the unlikeliness of the story increases the likelihood that the Bible justifies incest in some form or another.

    If the Bible were simply an historical accounting of what happened, then it’d be hard to garner any value of what it said. Maybe the Lot story justifies incest. Maybe it was just something weird and interesting that happened.

    The fact that most of the stories are made up but still included demonstrated they were valued, for one reason or another. If it is made-up, someone made that story up for a specific reason and put it in “the Bible” for a specific reason.

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    • If I had to guess the reasoning behind the story, it wouldn’t be to justify incest; I think the message would be something along the lines of, “Look, you’re supposed to be fruitful and multiply. Maybe you don’t really want more crying brats to feed and your spouse is getting on your nerves right now, but if Lot’s daughters could do it, then certainly you can!”

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      • That is definitely a possibility. My primary point was that the historical accuracy of the stories (or lack thereof) doesn’t necessarily mitigate their messages… if anything, it might enhance it (not the legitimacy of those messages perse, but the conviction of the messenger in delivering them).

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  6. In my opinion, the Lot passage is not an explicit pronouncement against incest. The story was not passed down for generations to teach a moral lesson about God’s objection to incest. Clearly the story implies incest to be unconventional and most likely objectionable in that culture. Otherwise there would be no need to get the old man drunk. But the reason the story was promulgated was to express the wonderment of the tricky ladies and the resulting formation of the Moabite and Ammonite tribes.

    That there is no express condemnation of incest here (or elsewhere in connection with the tale) does lead one to conclude that necessity does provide an exception to the general societal prohibition regarding incest.

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  7. Isn’t it relevant that the descendants of the Lot incest are the Moabites and Ammonities, among the Israelites’ most loathed enemies? The origin story is clearly meant to degrade those peoples.

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