Modern Commentary

Torah & Spirit
Family Life






Sexual Regulations

The account of creation (Gen 1:1-28) includes reproductive activity as an essential part of the developmental scheme. This important function is given special prominence in the narrative describing the creation of woman (Gen 2:21-24). In a process cloaked in mystery, God takes an aspect (Heb. sela, improperly translated "rib" in many versions) of Adam and fashions it into a genetic counterpart that is specifically female, and which matches Adam's maleness for purposes of reproducing the species. Adam and Eve are thus equal and complementary to one another, of the same physical and genetic composition apart from the slight difference that governs the characteristic nature of male and female. 

In the early narratives in the Torah dealing with family life there are no specific regulations for sexual behavior apart from the statement that Eve's husband will be the object of her sexual desires (Gen 3:16). As the world's population grows, so does sexual misconduct. At the same time there are certain situations of a sexual nature that are to be avoided by followers of YHWH. 

In the patriarchal age - the age of Avraham, Ya'aqov and Yishaq - homosexuality was a prominent part of Canaanite culture.  See, for example, the incident involving Lot in Sodom (Gen 19:1-9). So rampant was sexual perversion in that place that in later times the name of the city became synonymous with homosexual behavior. 

Holiness demands adherence to certain stringent rules regarding worship and general conduct, but also requires a complete commitment of will and motive to the YHWH's commandments.

Because of the gross promiscuity of the nations surrounding Israel (then and now), the Torah details strict regulations that are to govern Israelite sexuality and morality. God's keen interest in the sexuality of his chosen people has one objectives: to exhibit Israel to the world as a people fulfilling His standards of holiness.

The main pronouncements on sexuality in the Torah occur in two separate places in Leviticus (18:6-23; 20:10-21).  Regulations of this kind are unique in the ancient world, and only serve to demonstrate the seriousness of God's intent to foster a people that can indeed have spiritual fellowship with their God because they reflect his holy and pure nature as they walk in the way of His commandments.

Leviticus 18:6-23, deals with familial relationships falling into two groups:  carnal associations among people closely related by blood (consanguinity), sexual behavior of persons related through marriage (affinity). Accordingly, a man is prohibited from copulating with his mother or any other wife belonging to his father; a sister or half-sister, a daughter-in-law or a granddaughter, an aunt on either side of the family, a woman and her daughter or her son's daughter or daughter's daughter, a wife's sister as a rival wife, a neighbor's wife, and a woman during the menses. 

The marriage of a man with his sister from either side of the family is declared a highly immoral union, and the participants are to be put to death. The same is true of a man and a woman engaging in sexual activity during the woman's menstrual period. Such blood is considered highly defiling, and a gross violation of the purity that God desires as the norm for Israel's social behavior. The seriousness with which God assesses his holiness is reflected in the severe penalties prescribed for the infractions listed above. The phrase "their blood will be on their own heads" is a euphemism for capital punishment. Sexual relations between a man and his aunt, or between a man and his brother's wife, are regarded as dishonoring the legal spouses, and are accorded the lesser sentence of childlessness. In some cases, however, this is tantamount to causing the death of the family, a prospect that few Hebrews could contemplate with equanimity. In Deuteronomy 25:5-10, the law allows a man to marry his deceased brother's childless wife so as to rear a son for his brother's family, but this is very different from a man marrying his brother's wife while her legal husband is still alive.

The traditions banning adultery, made specific in the Decalog (The "Ten Commandments"), were enshrined deeply in ancient Israel's national life. The prophets warn that divine judgment will descend upon those who practice it (Jer 23:11-1; Ezek 22:11; Mal 3:5). The Book of Proverbs, however, takes more of a social than a specifically moral view of adultery, ridiculing it as a stupid pattern of behavior that leads a man to self-destruction (6:25-35). The prophets use the term figuratively to describe the covenant people's lack of fidelity to the Covenant. The prophets view the Covenant as equivalent to a marriage relationship between God and Israel (Isa 54:5-8). Any breach of the covenant, therefore, is an act of spiritual adultery (Jer 5:7-8; Ezek 23:37).

Homosexuality is described in the Torah in terms of a man lying with a man "as one lies with a woman" (Lev 18:22; 20:13), that is, for purposes of sexual intercourse. The practice appears to have formed part of Babylonian religious activities. The Canaanites regarded their male and female cultic prostitutes as "holy persons, " meaning that they were dedicated  - set aside - specifically to the service of a god or goddess. While general condemnations of homosexuality occur in Leviticus, none of the pagan Near Eastern religions thought it either necessary or desirable to enact comparable legislation, since for them such activities were all part of normal religious life in temples or other places of cultic worship.

In general, homosexuality in Mesopotamia is not documented to any extent in surviving tablets, but that it was a widespread problem in the Middle Assyrian period (1300-900 b.c.) is indicated by the fact that legislation from that time stipulates that an offender, when caught, should be castrated. This judicial sentence, when compared with the Hebrew prescription of death (Lev 20:13), shows that in Mesopotamian society the offense was regarded as a secondary civic infraction. While homosexuality seems to have been a recognized part of Hittite life, their laws nevertheless prescribe execution for a man who sodomizes his son.

Bestiality, defined in terms of a man or woman having sexual relations with an animal (Lev 18:23; 20:15-16), is considered by the Torah as a defilement for a man and a sexual perversion for a woman. It appears to have been fairly common in antiquity, being indulged in by the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Hittites.

The shorter list of prohibited relationships in Leviticus 20:10-21 deals with many of the same offenses, but also prescribes punishments for such violations. Thus a man who commits adultery with his neighbor's wife is to be executed, along with his sexual partner. This is also the penalty for a man who defiles his father's wife or his daughter-in-law. Homosexuality is once again condemned, and the sexual offenders sentenced to death. The marriage of a man, a woman, and her mother is deemed wicked, and the offenders sentenced to be burned with fire so as to expunge completely the wickedness of the act from the holy community. Bestiality, condemned already as a perversion, is regarded as a capital offense, which includes the animal also.

There are important reasons why these enactments are part of Torah law. Moral purity and spiritual dedication are fundamental requisites if we are to maintain our  distinctive projection of God's power and holiness in the world. The prohibitions reinforced the traditional emphasis on family honor, since the family was the building block of society. It must be maintained at all costs if society is to survive. Any marriage relationship that is too close may exert a devastating effect on community solidarity by provoking family feuds that can last for centuries.

Serious problems would also have arisen through intermarriage when the result of such unions was the concentration of lands and riches in the hands of a few Hebrew families. The greatest danger by far would have resulted from the pollution of the genetic pool because of inbreeding. The bulk of the relationships prohibited by the legislation involved first and second degrees of consanguinity, that is, parent-child and grandparent-grandchild incest. Coition within the forbidden degrees of family relationships generally results in genetic complications when offspring are produced. Recessive genes often become dominant and endow the foetus with various kinds of diseases or congenital malformations. This seems to have been the force of the Hebrew tevel [confusion / violation of nature or divine law], a word that occurs only in Leviticus 18:23 and 20:12. It comes from balal , meaning "to confuse," and conveys aptly the genetic upheaval that occurs in many cases of inbreeding, since God's rules for procreation have been upset.