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.
SEXUAL RELATIONS IN THE FAMILY
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
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
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.