First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible

Sex in the Family

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Johanna Stiebert
The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Incest is one of human society’s greatest taboos, and this taboo often extends to exploring incest within religious literature, such as in the Hebrew Bible. Johanna Stiebert boldly ignores society’s hesitation to discuss incest in her newest work First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family. Her treatment of incest seeks a broader goal—understanding ancient family relationships—through exploring sexual relationships within the immediate family (12). Stiebert explores both heterosexual relationships and homosexual familial relationships, using a social-scientific reading influenced by Ilona Rashkow and Amy Kalmanofsky, as well as a queer reading of scripture influenced by Ken Stone and Deryn Guest (15-16). Stiebert finds non-narrative literature (primarily legal) concerning incest addressing men’s anxiety about maintaining power over the household (76), and narrative texts about  incest failing to give an univocal view of incest. Instead, the Hebrew Bible generally accommodates incest as an unfortunate deviation from the norm.

Stiebert opens the book with an introduction on incest followed by a thorough discussion of psychological views on incest, and why it is taboo—rightly presuming that most readers will not be current on incest studies. These two chapters constitute almost a-quarter-of-the-book, exploring Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Genetic Sexual Attraction Syndrome, and the [Edvard] Westermarck effect of reverse sexual imprinting, all of which provide the necessary background to understanding incest within the Hebrew Bible. Chapters 3 and 4 form the heart of the book, explicating the non-narrative and narrative texts about incest contained in the Hebrew Bible. Within chapter 3, Stiebert includes lengthy discussions of the sexual prohibitions within Leviticus 18 and 20. Within chapter 4 Stiebert explores the incest texts by relationship—male-with-male incest, male-with-female incest, and female-with-female incest—often highlighting potential gay and lesbian relationships. The final part of the book summarizes Stiebert’s conclusions.

Stiebert provides a great service to biblical scholarship by collating the different views on sex within the legal literature. She examines the legal literature surrounding incest (Leviticus 18 and 20) and adumbrates the different reasons for obvious omissions in Leviticus’ sexual laws, such as the lack of a prohibition against father-daughter relationships (62-75). Stiebert agrees with feminist writers that the absence of such prohibitions in the legal literature reflect male leaders’ attempts to control the sexual relationships of those not directly under their charge; these laws protect men and the females under a male’s charge from sexual assault (87). Based on the sexual laws described in Leviticus, Stiebert carefully extrapolates the composition, size, and dynamics of an ancient household through her analysis of incest (66). Despite varying views on the sexual laws, Stiebert’s key finding is, as with other legal literature, men proscribed the sex laws—to include incest laws—in order to maintain their power and position.

Within her examination of narrative incest texts, Stiebert provides an even-handed guide, giving up-to-date commentary and bibliography on texts that may showcase homosexual relationships. She provides reasons why homosexual relationships are often omitted within the Hebrew Bible, and observes that the Hebrew Bible has an affinity for sexualizing the “sister.” The Hebrew Bible contains what Stiebert calls a “sister fantasy,” which includes a preference for a brother’s relationship with his sister over a foreigner’s relationship with the sister, as shown in text concerning Dinah (Genesis 34), and the three sisters/wife episodes in Genesis (193). Based on narrative texts, Stiebert classifies incest—along with rape, marriage, and prostitution—as something that the Hebrew Bible accommodates as “departing from the ideal” (198-99). Overall, Stiebert offers modest conclusions at the end of her analysis: the texts often disapprove of incest, but also fail to explicitly condemn what is known today as incestual relationships. However, the Hebrew Bible provides little evidence of widespread incest. 

Stiebert’s work demonstrates two major strengths. Not only is Stiebert evenhanded in her conclusions, she demonstrates a breadth in her research that extends to interacting with conservative Christian scholarship (13 n. 38, 117 n. 70). Scholars will want to mine her lengthy footnotes and up-to-date scholarship on families, sexual relationships, and incest. Second, she maintains a fair demeaner throughout her work, admitting the limits of her evidence, thus making, her conclusions modest but persuasive, clear, and insightful. 

Stiebert’s work fills a gap in scholarship concerning a comprehensive assessment of incest and sexual relationships within the ancient Israelite family. The judicious and fair nature of First Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible makes this book a valuable resource for the reader of any ideological background who is interested in a detailed and fair examination of household relationships and sex within the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, her treatment of homosexual relationships adds to the scholarly conversation, serving as a current introduction to these potential relationships. The reader should be warned that this book does venture into uncomfortable topics and discussions, but Stiebert provides a sensitive yet bold treatment of the subjects, never omitting a topic due to its unpleasantness. Ultimately, this book serves specialists in the Hebrew Bible, those interested in incest and sex within the Hebrew Bible, and the broader family dynamic within ancient Israel. Stiebert’s text is essential reading for those researching sex and the family within the Hebrew Bible.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Bayer is a doctoral candidate in the Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Johanna Stiebert is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Leeds, UK.




Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.