What Does The Bible Say About Incest?

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Incest is a sensitive and controversial topic that has been addressed in various cultures throughout history. The Bible is no exception, containing passages that discuss and condemn incestuous relationships. Understanding the concept of incest in biblical times requires examining the definition of incest in ancient cultures and the social context in which it occurred.

Understanding the Concept of Incest in Biblical Times

In ancient cultures, the definition of incest varied. While there were universal prohibitions against certain relationships, the boundaries were not always clearly defined. In some cultures, marriage between close relatives was acceptable, while in others, it was forbidden. Furthermore, the definition of “close relative” also varied, encompassing different degrees of kinship depending on the society.

The social context in which incest occurred in biblical times is also crucial to understanding the significance given to it. In those days, family lineage held great importance, and the preservation of bloodlines was a central concern. Marrying within the family was seen as a way to maintain purity and ensure the continuity of the family lineage.

The Definition of Incest in Ancient Cultures

In ancient times, the definition of incest often encompassed relationships between siblings, parents and children, and close relatives such as uncles, aunts, and cousins. However, the specifics of what constituted incest varied among different cultures. For example, while the Egyptians allowed marriage between half-siblings, the Israelites considered it incestuous.

Moreover, ancient Greek society had a complex system of kinship that influenced their definition of incest. They recognized a distinction between “parallel” and “cross” cousins, with parallel cousins being the children of two brothers or two sisters, and cross cousins being the children of a brother and a sister. While marriage between parallel cousins was often permitted, cross-cousin marriage was generally considered incestuous. This distinction reveals the intricate nature of incestuous relationships in ancient cultures.

Furthermore, the definition of incest extended beyond biological relationships. In some cultures, adoption or marriage into a family could establish the same prohibitions as blood ties. For instance, the Romans considered it incestuous for a man to marry his wife’s sister, even though they were not biologically related. Understanding these cultural nuances is crucial in interpreting biblical passages that address incest.

The Social Context of Incest in the Bible

In the biblical context, incestuous relationships were often intertwined with larger narratives and moral lessons. They serve as cautionary tales, highlighting the consequences of violating societal norms and divine commands. One such example is the story of Lot and his daughters in the book of Genesis. After fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters find themselves in a cave. Fearing that they are the only survivors and desperate to continue their family line, the daughters make their father drunk and engage in sexual relations with him. This act of incest is portrayed as a desperate and sinful act, illustrating the consequences of deviating from societal norms and the importance of upholding moral values.

Another biblical account that addresses incest is the story of Amnon and Tamar. Amnon, one of King David’s sons, becomes infatuated with his half-sister Tamar. He devises a plan to trick her into his quarters and then forces himself upon her. This act of incestuous rape leads to Tamar’s devastation and the eventual downfall of Amnon. The story serves as a warning against the abuse of power and the devastating consequences of incestuous relationships.

Understanding the social context enables us to grasp the underlying messages and moral teachings conveyed in these biblical accounts. It allows us to see how incest was not just a violation of societal norms but also a transgression against divine commands. By exploring these narratives, we gain insight into the cultural and moral values of biblical times and the enduring lessons they offer us today.

Biblical Passages Addressing Incest

The Bible contains several instances where incestuous relationships are mentioned, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. These passages shed light on the attitudes towards incest in biblical times and the consequences associated with such relationships.

Incest in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the story of Lot and his daughters serves as a striking example of incestuous behavior. After fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters find themselves in a cave. In order to continue their family line, Lot’s daughters make him drink wine, and they engage in sexual relations with him. This act is presented as a result of the breakdown of societal norms and morality, leading to dire consequences.

This story raises questions about the desperation that can arise in extreme circumstances. Lot’s daughters believed that their actions were necessary to ensure the survival of their family. However, it also highlights the moral ambiguity surrounding incestuous relationships, as it is clear that their actions were not condoned by society at large.

Another example in the Old Testament is the case of Amnon and Tamar. Amnon, a son of King David, lusts after Tamar, his half-sister. He deceives her and ultimately rapes her. This act of incestuous assault underscores the tragic consequences of violating not only societal norms but also the sanctity of familial relationships.

This story showcases the abuse of power and the devastating impact it can have on individuals and families. It serves as a cautionary tale, warning against the destructive consequences of incestuous desires and actions.

Incest in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul addresses the issue of incest within the Corinthian church. He condemns a case where a man is having relations with his father’s wife, describing it as a grievous sin. Paul emphasizes the importance of maintaining moral purity within the Christian community and calls for the expulsion of the offender. This passage underscores the early Christian stance against incestuous relationships.

Paul’s strong condemnation of incest reflects the teachings of Jesus and the emphasis on upholding moral values within the Christian community. It highlights the belief that incest is not only morally wrong but also a violation of the sacred bonds of family and marriage.

These biblical passages provide a glimpse into the ancient perceptions of incest and the severe consequences associated with such relationships. They serve as reminders of the importance of maintaining healthy boundaries within families and communities, upholding moral values, and respecting the sanctity of familial and marital bonds.

The Punishments for Incest in the Bible

In addition to moral and societal condemnation, the Bible also outlines the punishments associated with incestuous relationships. These punishments serve as a deterrent and reflect the seriousness with which such transgressions were viewed.

Legal Consequences in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the punishment for engaging in incestuous relationships varied depending on the specific circumstances. Leviticus 18 provides detailed lists of prohibited relationships, including those considered incestuous. Violators faced the possibility of being “cut off” from their people, suggesting exclusion from the community or even capital punishment in severe cases. These consequences highlight the significance placed on maintaining the societal and religious order.

Spiritual Consequences in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul addresses the spiritual consequences of incestuous relationships. He urges Christians to distance themselves from those engaged in such behavior, emphasizing the need for purity within the faith community. This spiritual exhortation reinforces the belief that incest is incompatible with the teachings of Christianity and undermines the integrity of the church.

Notable Biblical Figures Involved in Incestuous Relationships

Several well-known biblical figures were entangled in incestuous relationships, further highlighting the complexity and consequences associated with such behavior.

The Story of Lot and His Daughters

The story of Lot and his daughters, as mentioned earlier, showcases the consequences of incestuous actions. Their questionable decision to engage in sexual relations with their father reveals the drastic measures they are willing to take to ensure their lineage continues. This account serves as a cautionary tale against the breakdown of moral and societal norms.

The Case of Amnon and Tamar

The case of Amnon and Tamar demonstrates the destructive power of incestuous desires. Amnon’s forbidden attraction to his half-sister leads to the tragic event of rape, causing immense pain and devastation. This harrowing account highlights the devastating consequences that can arise from pursuing incestuous relationships.

Theological Interpretations of Incest in the Bible

The issue of incest in the Bible has been subject to various theological interpretations. These interpretations reflect differing perspectives and approaches within the Christian tradition.

Conservative Views on Incest

Conservative interpretations condemn incestuous relationships as direct violations of God’s design for human relationships and the sanctity of the family. They uphold the biblical prohibitions against incest as timeless moral guidelines, emphasizing the need for moral purity within society.

Progressive Views on Incest

Progressive interpretations approach the topic of incest with a more nuanced view, considering the cultural and historical context in which the biblical texts were written. They acknowledge that societal norms and understandings of relationships have evolved over time, and argue for a broader interpretation of biblical teachings on incest. They emphasize the overarching themes of love, consent, and commitment when considering intimate relationships.


Examining what the Bible says about incest reveals its complexities, moral teachings, and consequences associated with this taboo subject. Understanding the cultural context, biblical passages, punishments, and various interpretations helps us appreciate the significance this topic held in biblical times and its ongoing relevance in modern discussions. The Bible’s treatment of incest invites us to explore the intricacies of human relationships, the limits of societal norms, and the importance of upholding moral integrity.


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