The Greatest Taboo? The Surprising Truth Of What The Bible Says About Incest

Incest sparks strong emotions and today, in many cultures at least, they are largely negative. But has it always been thus? Or is the taboo peculiar to certain times and places?

Incest taboos are often said to be universal and sexuality with a close relative( ones mother, child, or sibling) is widely considered particularly depraved, as well as detrimental and stigmatising for any offspring who might result from such a union.

Such figures as Josef Fritzl and Frederick West have scaled the heights of notoriety in part because of violent, exploitative incest committed against their own children.

And yet incest also seems to be everywhere: in high and low-brow literature from Virginia Andrews Flowers in the Attic to Arundhati Roys The God of Small Things as well as in cinema and especially popular television guess Game of Thrones, Brookside, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. It is also a trope in gothic horror.

Curiously, too, in popular culture, incest is not infrequently illustrated as consensual and especially when it is between a good-looking brother and sister even as romantic.

Nevertheless, judging from the press over the last few weeks, anyone would think that familial sexual relationships were a completely new phenomenon and that until recently, incest was kept at bay by strong social taboos. However, whether familial sexual relationships are indeed considered to be incestuous( that is, illegal, even criminal) or not depends on the social and cultural context. Furthermore, postures to incest tend to be gendered and heteronormative.

With relatives who were once separated increasingly be permitted to tracing one another( through DNA testing, social media, and reunion services ), stories of siblings, or of a parent and childreunited are more common. And not infrequently, such reunions transpire in mutual attraction and love which has been hitting the headlines recently.

A Taboo Too Far ?

This phenomenon is known as GSA Genetic Sexual Attraction Syndrome and not infrequently affects relatives who did not spend the formative years together and who meet as adults. When people do spend early life together, a different psycho-social mechanism, called the Westermarck impact, functions to squelch erotic bonding. It is almost never the example that romantic, consensual erotic bonding happens between family members who do expend early life together.

Some of the public dialogues now turn to whether incestuous unions where they are consensual and between adults should be tolerated and decriminalised. Indeed, in Sweden half-sibling marriage is already legal and the jurisdictions of some other countries, too, do not penalise such acts.

Love: but is it legal? Shutterstock

Media narratives merely portray heterosexual familial partnerships, however, so theres precious little coverage on friends or male close family relations whove experienced GSA after a period of separation. Thats not to say it hasnt happened, of course, but the coverage says a great deal about such being a culture taboo too far for us. By contrast, popular culture representations of heterosexual sibling incest is often eroticised, with the woman frequently portrayed as a feminine ideal: beautiful and sexy. In such story lines, incestuous relationships function to add an extra thrill of the illicit. The most recent public examples of GSA, however, uncover the mundanity of many of the cases, despite the scandalous tenor of the journalists.

The media coverage provoked by biological mother and son Kim West and Ben Ford, the most recent couple to go public with their experience of GSA, has been queasy, voyeuristic and sensationalist, with affirms that familial sexual relationships are on the rise. Suggestions that familial sexual relationships are increasingly common been shown that theyve been very rare in the past; however, even a text as ancient as the Bible outlines proscriptions for incest, suggesting that familial sexual relationships occurred often enough to warrant the introduction of behavioural guidelines.

The Bibles Verdict

Despite the apparently clear rules around incestuous relationships just as popular culture toys with the titillation and taboo of the topic biblical depiction is equivocal. Yes, there are the Levitical laws that proscribes sexuality with a string of family members( ones sibling, mother, certain in-laws but not ones son or daughter !), but then there is also the story of Lots daughters in Genesis 19, seducing their father and bearing sons, which offers no( surely no explicit) reproof. The daughters even draw attention to incest by calling their sons Moab( Hebrew for from the parent) and Ben-Ammi( son of my people )!

The worshipped patriarch Abraham mentions rather casually that his wife, Sarah, is also his half-sister. Davids son Amnon becomes obsessed with and rapes his sister Tamar. This event is surely illustrated as villainous and cruel on Amnons part but Tamars words, as she tries to prevent the rape, suggest sibling wedding is an option.

Close-kin weddings between fathers and daughters and between siblings were certainly known in Egypt, right up to and including Cleopatra, who married two of her friends consecutively.

The Bible, as usual, however, offers no clear advice going forward.

Katie Edwards, Director SIIBS, University of Sheffield and Johanna Stiebert, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Leeds

Read more: www.iflscience.com

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