IDOLATRY: "Playing the Harlot"




INCEST: "Come Lie with Me, My Sister"

"None of you," says Yahweh in Lev. 18:6, "shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness." Specifically forbidden, in the list that follows this verse, are sexual relations between a man and his mother or father's wife, sister or half-sister, granddaughter, aunt, daughter-in-law, or sister-in-law (18:7-16). (An exception is levirate marriage to one's sister-in-law; see MARRIAGE: "THEY SHALL BE ONE FLESH.") A man's daughter, not specifically mentioned, would be included with his mother and sister under "near of kin." A man is also forbidden to "vex" his wife by marrying her sister while the wife is still living (18:18).

Notable instances of incest in the Hebrew Bible are: Lot's daughters contriving to have children by him (see LOT AND HIS DAUGHTERS); Tamar contriving to have a child by her father-in-law Judah (see JUDAH AND TAMAR); Jacob marrying Leah and Rachel, who were sisters, and Reuben having sex with his father's wife Bilhah (see JACOB AND LABAN'S DAUGHTERS); Abraham's marriage to his half-sister Sarah (Gen. 20:12); and Amnon's rape of his half-sister Tamar (see AMNON AND TAMAR). In the New Testament, Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas (both her brother-in-law and uncle), manages to have John the Baptist beheaded for telling Herod, "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife" (Mark 6:18; see HEROD AND THE DANCE OF SALOME).

It should be noted that if Adam and Eve were the first human beings, incest, for population growth, was a practical necessity during the first few human generations (see CAIN: THE FIRST HELL EVER RAISED). It should also be noted that all of the above cited instances of incest in the Old Testament, except for Amnon's rape of Tamar, antedate the so-called Holiness Code in Leviticus (ch. 17-26) that prohibits them. Even the rape may antedate the code in its written form.

That does not mean, of course, that Amnon telling Tamar, "Come lie with me, my sister," then forcing her to do so, is therefore to be excused. And what about the Holiness Code's author? Though the espousals are allegorical, Yahweh himself violates Lev. 18:18 by marrying two women who are sisters--and rather lewd ones at that! (See EZEKIEL: TALKING LEWD WOMEN.)

Gerard Hoet et al., Judah Giveth His Signet / Figures de la Bible (1728)




In his old age the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, dwelling in prosperity among the Canaanites, wishes to find a Hebrew wife for his son Isaac, who, still single at forty, is mourning the death of his mother. Calling in his oldest servant (probably Eliezer), Abraham tells him, "Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh." The servant does so, in an ancient form of oath-taking (see GENITALS: "THEY KNEW THAT THEY WERE NAKED"), and Abraham makes him swear that he will not take a wife for Isaac from among the daughters of Canaan. The servant promises to go instead to Abraham's Mesopotamian homeland, to find a wife for Isaac among Abraham's kindred.

The servant dutifully journeys to the Mesopotamian town of Nahor, and at a well runs into just the right woman, a virgin "fair to look upon," and a cousin of Isaac's, named Rebekah. Her brother Laban, impressed by the gold ring and bracelets that the servant bestows on Rebekah, invites the man to the house. There the family, on hearing the servant describe the great wealth that Isaac is to inherit from his father Abraham, agrees to a marriage, and sends Rebekah off to Canaan with the servant, with these parting words: "Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them."

Isaac is meditating in the field when he sees the camels coming. When Rebekah sees Isaac, she alights from her camel, and Isaac takes her into his late mother's tent. Rebekah "became his wife," we are told, "and he loved her: and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death."

Rebekah is barren, but when Isaac makes entreaty of the Lord, she conceives. She has twins who struggle within her womb. First out is a boy with shaggy red hair, appropriately named Esau ("hairy"); he will be a hunter and the favorite of Isaac. The other twin is prophetically named Jacob ("supplanter"), who at birth grabs Esau by the heel. Rebekah will be partial to Jacob.

When a famine hits the land, Isaac and Rebekah head toward Egypt, but the Lord stops them at the Philistine town of Gerar. (Two problems with this interlude are: no mention of Esau and Jacob, and the fact that Philistine towns did not exist in the days of Isaac and Rebekah.) "Sojourn in this land," Yahweh tells Isaac, "and I will be with thee . . . I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, . . . and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."

Isaac and Rebekah stay in Gerar, but Isaac, fearing the men there might kill him to take his beautiful wife, tells them that Rebekah is his sister. But King Abimelech of Gerar (who earlier had the same trick pulled on him by Abraham and Sarah) looks out a window one day and sees Isaac playing around (Hebrew sahaq, KJV "sporting") with Rebekah. Called in, Isaac admits that Rebekah is his wife. Under Abimelech's protection thereafter, Isaac prospers in Gerar, till the locals grow so envious that Abimelech tells him to leave.

Settling in Beersheba, Isaac and Rebekah are crushed when their firstborn son Esau marries a Hittite woman. This prompts Rebekah to help Jacob, through deception, obtain the dying Isaac's blessing, and thus supplant the firstborn Esau. Jacob will father the twelve tribes of Israel, while Esau has to settle for founding Edom.

As for Isaac, he dies at the age of one hundred and eighty, the only Hebrew patriarch, as Jeremiah Unterman notes, who was monogamous and had no concubines. (Gen. 24-26, 27:1-38) (On to JACOB AND LABAN'S DAUGHTERS)

Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, Rebecca at the Well / National Gallery, London

ISAIAH: "Tremble, Ye Women"

When Israel and Syria invade Judah in 734 B.C.E., for Judah's refusal to join a defensive alliance against Assyria, the heart of Judah's king Ahaz is faint. Yahweh sends the prophet Isaiah and his son Shearjashub to King Ahaz to give him some signs.

The first sign (7:1-9) is Isaiah's offspring himself, whose name Shearjashub means "a remnant shall return." Ahaz should understand by this that his people will not be completely wiped out. Isaiah then tells Ahaz, "Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God," but Ahaz is too weak-kneed to ask. Isaiah then angrily gives him a second sign (7:10-17). "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son," says Isaiah, "and you shall call his name Immanuel." (This is later interpreted by the Gospel of Matthew--out of context, and through mistranslation of "young woman" [Hebrew almah] as "virgin" [Greek parthenos]--as a prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ [see VIRGIN BIRTH: "CHILD OF THE HOLY GHOST"].) Before the child Immanuel ("God is with us") is old enough to know good from evil, Isaiah prophesies, the land will no longer be under siege.

The Lord now commissions a third sign (8:1-4), for which Isaiah commissions help from his wife ("the prophetess"). She conceives and bears a son. Yahweh tells Isaiah, "Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz," a mouthful meaning "the spoil and prey hasten." For before Maher-shalal-hash-baz is old enough to say Da-da and Ma-ma ("my father, and my mother"), the wealth of Damascus (capital of Syria) and Samaria (capital of Israel) will be carried away by Assyria.

Isaiah later becomes a sign himself, to Egypt and Ethiopia, by walking naked and barefoot for three years. So shall the king of Assyria lead away Egyptian and Ethiopian captives, "with their buttocks uncovered" (20:3-4).

Isaiah, like Hosea before him, refers to the Israelite people collectively as Yahweh's wife (54:5), a metaphor to be used also by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He calls unfaithful Jerusalem "a harlot" (1:21), and warns that the people will pay dearly for cheating on Yahweh with their idolatry and foreign alliances. "Tremble, ye women," says Isaiah (32:11), for "ye shall conceive chaff, ye shall bring forth stubble" (33:11). The Lord will uncover "the secret parts" of the "daughters of Zion" (3:17), children will be slaughtered, and men will see "their wives ravished" (13:16; on the troubling nature of these images, see RAPE: "LEWDNESS AND FOLLY IN ISRAEL" and YAHWEH: "THY MAKER IS THINE HUSBAND").

Yet Isaiah also prophesies reconciliation: "For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee" (62:5). And with reconciliation comes progeny: "I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob," says Yahweh (65.9), "I will loose the loins of kings" (45:1), and "all the seed of Israel," the "offspring of thy bowels," shall be "seed which the Lord hath blessed" (45:25; 48:19; 61:9). (Isaiah) (On to TOBIAS AND SARAH)

ISRAEL: "Beget Sons and Daughters"

In his old age the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, whom Yahweh has long since renamed Israel ("he who strives with God"), moves from Canaan to Egypt with eleven sons and their families (Gen. 46:8-27; Ex. 1:1-5). They are welcome in Egypt, for there Jacob's long-lost favorite son Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, now governs as the Pharoah's prime minister (see JOSEPH AND POTIPHAR'S WIFE). But Jacob/Israel's descendants wear out this welcome with a population explosion. The Bible in effect describes the Hebrews in Egypt as breeding like rabbits: "And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, . . . and the land was filled with them" (Ex. 1:7). The Egyptians try enslavement as a birth control method, but this only adds fuel to the fire--"the more (the Egyptians) afflicted them, the more (the Hebrews) multiplied and grew" (Ex. 1:12).

This leads eventually to the Exodus: the Israelite people are led out of Egypt by Moses. Yahweh, as if now wondering himself how many Hebrews there are, orders Moses to do a census, counting all the Hebrew males age twenty and older. But the resulting number (hence "the book of Numbers") is over six hundred thousand (Num. 1:46; 2:32; 26:51), which is unrealistically high. (Five or six thousand adult Hebrew males would be more like it; see the notes on Numbers ch. 1 in Metzger and Murphy.) Whatever the actual number, all the men of the Exodus except Joshua and Caleb die during a forty-year wandering in the wilderness. Some of them die from plagues as punishment for orgiastic idolatry at Mount Sinai (see AARON AND THE GOLDEN CALF) and "whoredom" with the daughters of Moab (see COZBI AND ZIMRI). When the Israelites reach Canaan, their new leader Joshua conducts a mass circumcision--at a place appropriately called the "hill of the foreskins"--of the new generation of males born since the Exodus (Josh. 5:2-9; see CIRCUMCISION: "SIGN OF THE COVENANT").

The Hebrews invade Canaan, the land promised by Yahweh to their forefather Abraham (Gen. 12:7, 26:3), though the incursion is less a sweeping conquest (as idealized in the book of Joshua) than a tumultuous settling-in with the land's inhabitants (as reflected in Judges). The Israelites are commanded in Deuteronomy not to intermarry with the Canaanites, for "God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself," and intermarriage will lead to apostasy (7:2-8). And indeed, though Israel--becoming a monarchy (soon divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah)--gains ascendancy in the land, Canaanite religious practices remain such a temptation to the Hebrews that Israel, "as a backsliding heifer" (Hosea 4:16), habitually goes "a-whoring," a favorite biblical term for idolatry (see HARLOTRY).

For her idolatrous ways, compounded by questionable political alliances with foreigners, Israel is portrayed by the prophets--beginning with Hosea--not only as a harlot but as an unfaithful wife, whom husband Yahweh shall violently punish. (On this seeming endorsement of domestic violence, see YAHWEH: "THY MAKER IS THINE HUSBAND.")

Final punishment for the northern kingdom of Israel is destruction by Assyrian invaders, instruments of the cuckolded Yahweh, in 722 B.C.E. The southern kingdom, Israel's "treacherous sister Judah" (Jer. 3:8), is also guilty of playing the harlot (see JEREMIAH: "THY LOVERS WILL DESPISE THEE"), and falls to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E.

In the wake of these catastrophes, however, the Old Testament prophets offer words of hope, prophesying Israel's restoration. "Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters," declares Yahweh, for "I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of beast" (Jer. 29:6, 31:27), and all the seed of Israel shall "be justified, and shall glory" (Isa. 45:25). "Let them put away their whoredom," Yahweh says of his people, "and I will dwell in their midst forever" (Ezek. 43:9).

Rembrandt, Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph / Staatliche Museen, Kassel

School of Rembrandt
Judah and Tamar
c. 1650-1660
Residenzgalerie Salzburg

Top of Page | J | Contents | Bibliography | Index | Main Page