Lot and his daughters, Guido Reni: one of the less explicit paintings of this story
Ancient people (not just the Hebrews) seem to have realized that sexual relations between closely related people could result in biologically flawed offspring. Modern science tells us that children of too-closely related people have, among other things, defective immune systems.
All ancient tribal groups have strict laws about who you can and cannot have sex with. These are built into tribal law, usually by a system of taboos.
The passage in Leviticus is a warning and a statement of taboo.
Leviticus 18:6 None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born abroad. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter……You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter; it is depravity. You shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.
Bible Bad Women has the story of Lot’s Daughters, who had sexual intercourse with their father.
Blasphemy. ‘Piss Christ’, by Andres Serrano: a small plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine
Blasphemy is not just using the name of God in a contemptuous way – though ‘Jesus Christ’ as an expletive seems to be acceptable now in films and TV. Which is odd, because blasphemy was one of the charges brought against Jesus at his trial. At the time, blasphemy was punishable by death: Stephen, one of the first Christians, was charged with this crime and executed by stoning.
But ‘blasphemy’ has quite another meaning: it is doing something in God’s name that God would never countenance or accept. People who use the mask of religion for their own corrupt ends fall into this category.
Jeremiah 28:16: Thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken perversion against the Lord.
Don’t look at that title and think ‘Oh, I never do that’. There are all kinds of false gods in the modern world – worship of money is one that springs to mind. But the Bible was talking about something quite different: worship of the agricultural gods of fertility. This was something that was far more common in ancient Israel than the Bible liked.
Why? Because agriculture was the source of people’s survival. In good years they prospered, in bad years (droughts, mice and insect plagues, etc.) people would simply die – first the old and the very young, then mature adults, then the young and strong. Think of the emaciated faces when there is a famine in Africa, and you will get some idea of why ancient people were anxious about climate cycles.
Ancient threshing floors like this were often the scene of fertility rituals at harvest time
Certainly they laid in stores of grain against bad years – the story of Joseph and his brothers illustrates this point. But stores do not last forever. So one of their major preoccupations was how to control the weather. The religious rituals they developed were meant to predict the weather (think of Stonehenge and its purpose) and cajole Nature into being kind to them.
The Jahwist priesthood constantly tried to overcome the common people’s idea of Divinity as something that was split into many different and competing forces. They proposed instead that God was One.
1 Kings 14:22: Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their ancestors had done. For they built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles (Asherim) on every high hill and under every green tree; there were also male temple prostitutes in the land.
In sacrifices to the gods, one gave the greatest gift one could. For most people children were the most precious thing they had, so giving a child, especially an eldest male child, was logical.
But did it happen? There is no real archaeological evidence to prove that child sacrifice was actually practised, but it was feared and talked about by ancient people.
The Sacrifice of Isaac, painting by Caravaggio
No society ever admitted that they did it. They only ever accused their mortal enemies of the practice. As evidence, therefore, it is suspect. Containers of the ashes of children, found at ancient Carthage, were probably only the cremated remains of children who had died a natural death.
The story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac is no proof that child sacrifice was a common practice among the Hebrews – rather the opposite, since God commands Abraham not to practice child sacrifice. On the other hand – the Bible only ever forbids something that is already happening…..
Leviticus 18:21: ‘You shall not give any of your children to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.’
Chronicles 19:7: Jehoshaphat resided at Jerusalem; then he went out again among the people and brought them back to the Lord. He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges “Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the Lord’s behalf. Take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes.”
A message to judges: model yourselves on the impartiality and wisdom of God.
Be careful who you trust, what you believe in. You can get taken in. The Bible strongly warns against belief in the power of magic, incantations and even lucky charms. It also condemns people who promote superstition in any of its forms.
Magic was very popular in the ancient world – then as now it gave people a sense of control over events that were in fact out of their control. It may seem harmless, something to entertain and amuse, but dabbling in magic means that we hand our decisions and free will over to someone or something else. The commandment against false prophecy tells us to trust in our own ability to make decisions about our lives.
Magic circle with eye at center
Deuteronomy 13:1-5: If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods and let us serve them”, you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you. Those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the Lord your God, who brought you of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery.
Ancient Egyptian wall painting showing two men embracing
The law forbidding homosexual relations between men or women was written at a time when the Hebrews were in a dangerous situation. They were trying to gain a foothold in the new land of Canaan, which they had entered when they fled from Egypt.
But all the arable land in Canaan was already taken, and the Hebrews could only perch precariously on the arid hillsides. They were constantly harried by the Canaanite soldiers and people, and their survival was very much at risk.
They fought back – heroes like Samson and Deborah are examples of their struggle for survival.
But they also had another strategy – producing as many children as they could. Every man and every woman was expected to put their shoulders to the wheel, so to speak. Every man had to be a father and a soldier; every woman a mother. Children, and lots of them, were essential. Homosexuality could not be tolerated.
Lot and his family flee from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
Leviticus 18:22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. Romans 1:26-7: God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
The passage forbidding sex with animals appears immediately after a law forbidding child sacrifice. This give you some idea of how disgusting the writer of Leviticus found this practice. Both acts were seen as perversions of the worst sort.
But there is no doubt that the ancient nomadic tribesmen performed this act on the unfortunate animals of their flocks.
Pity the poor animals….
Leviticus 18:23: You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.
The message in Psalm 5:9 pulls no punches: a person who tells lies is like an open grave, full of death and rottenness. Sins of speech are singled out for special condemnation in the Bible, and are seen as leading directly, and by the providence of God, to destruction. The sin of telling lies brings its own inevitable results.
Psalms 5:9: For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; Evil will not sojourn with you. The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful…. Make your way straight before me For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.
The plight of the poor and oppressed is a recurring theme in the Bible. The emphasis on social justice has shaped Western civilization more than most people today seem to realize. Social justice is one of the main preoccupations of Judaism and of Christianity. Jesus’ second Great Commandment ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ reiterates this theme.
Ecclesiastes 5:8: If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and violent perversion of justice and judgment, do not be amazed at the matter; for he that is higher than the highest is watching.
Impoverished man with all his belongings in a shopping trolley: the gap between rich and poor
Bible Study Resource: What sins are the worst? Lying, belief in magic, social injustice, sex with animals, homosexuality, legal corruption, child sacrifice, blasphemy, incest, worship of false gods
‘Worst sins’ links
Magic in the Bible
What archaeology shows about ancient religions
Bible Bad Women has the story of Lot’s Daughters, who had sex with their father
Bible People: Jephtah is about a man who offered his child as a human sacrifice