Father-daughter incest: is it prohibited in the Bible? This is not a stupid question.

Leviticus has several verses that forbid father-daughter incest. Despite this, the ESV Study Bible’s note on Leviticus 18:6-18 reads as follows (bold emphasis mine):

These laws prohibit sexual relations (approach….to uncover nakedness), and therefore marriage, between people who are too closely related by blood (mother, sister, granddaughter, aunt) or by marriage (stepmother, stepsister, stepdaughter, stepgranddaughter, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, aunt by marriage). The clause “to uncover nakedness” can at times merely refer to voyeurism (cf. Gen 9:22-23), but in the Old Testament it is most commonly used for sexual intercourse. No mention is made of the daughter, probably because that needs no comment (cf. Gen 19:30-38) and this prohibition is already well known in the laws of other cultures.

To demonstrate that Leviticus has verses forbidding father-daughter incest, I will mostly be citing the KJV. I am citing the KJV because it uses the term “uncover the nakedness” whereas many modern translations use the term “have sexual intercourse”. I think “uncover the nakedness” is a better term because in addition to connoting penetration of a person’s bodily orifice (e.g. mouth, vagina, anus), it also connotes voyeurism, indecent exposure, etc.

You might find it helpful to bear in mind that when the KJV uses the word woman or wife in the verses I will be citing, it is translating a Hebrew word that can mean woman or wife or female. When translating the Hebrew Bible, the translator has to decide whether to render that word as “woman” or “wife” or “female”.

I will also be citing the Apostolic Bible Polyglot (ABP) which is an English translation of the Septuagint. When I cite the ABP, I will give a link so you can check that I’m not pulling the wool over your eyes.

Leviticus 19:29  ABP  (link)

You shall not profane your daughter to fornicate her. And you shall not fornicate the land and the land be filled of lawlessness.

Leviticus 19:29  KJV

Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.

Leviticus 20:14  KJV

 And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you.

Leviticus 20:14  ABP (link)

Whoever should take a woman and her mother, it is a violation of the law; in fire shall they incinerate him and them, and there shall not be a violation of the law among you.

Leviticus 18:17  KJV

Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, neither shalt thou take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; for they are her near kinswomen: it is wickedness.

Leviticus 18:15  KJV

Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy daughter in law: she is thy son’s wife; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness.

Leviticus 19:20  KJV

And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.

Note: by extension the above verses could be applied to father-daughter relationships. In “Quiverfull Theology” the daughter is not free of her father’s authority until he hands her over in marriage to a husband. The daughters are akin to servants and bondmaids in such families.

I would argue that daughters who are subjected to father-daughter incest should NOT be ‘scourged’ or punished, because those daughters were not willing participants in the sexual relationship — rather, they were coerced, controlled, intimidated, and assaulted (see here). The punishment ought to be laid on the father, not the daughter. Paul did not say that the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife should be incinerated; rather he said that the man should be put out of the church, handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor 5).

The ESV is notorious for its bias in favour of male headship and for translating in ways that oppress women and which obfuscate the legitimate needs and dignity of women. In my opinion, the ESV Study Bible notes need to be read with caution. The notes can be valuable when giving historical background; but when it comes to abuse and gender issues, the notes can be dangerous.

[July 19, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to July 19, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to July 19, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to July 19, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (July 19, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


Further reading

Books by Topic: Sexual Misconduct by an Intimate Partner

Resources on Sexual Abuse

For my children’s sake, it is better to leave?

How can I help my children heal from abuse?

8 thoughts on “Father-daughter incest: is it prohibited in the Bible? This is not a stupid question.”

  1. Thank you for drawing attention to this issue, and for your thorough study.

    Citation from the ESV study note you mentioned: No mention is made of the daughter, probably because that needs no comment (cf. Gen 19:30-38) and this prohibition is already well known in the laws of other cultures.

    This sounds to me like some legalistic word-twist mindset, somehow like: The daughter is not mentioned, so….what? This is contrary to the way Mosaic case law works.

    The ESV note’s solution to the problem, suggesting that the prohibition is well known in other cultures, does not fit the countless Bible admonitions: Do not do like the….(other cultures), who fornicate their daughters, sacrifice their children to idols and the like.

    So, with a rather legalistic mindset, the ESV study note you mentioned, causes a problem that is not really in the text passage. It offers a solution that is contrary to what the Bible says about surrounding cultures. Thus it opens up the way to twisting the word, which some will use as an excuse for horrible crimes.

    However, when we imagine that these passages are given orally, and were read publicly as a whole passage every 7 years (Deuteronomy 31:10-11), this is the picture:

    Leviticus 18:
    [Leviticus 18:]1-5 — General introduction: I am the LORD….remember my words.

    [Leviticus 18:]6 — Introduction to the topic: Do not uncover the nakedness of — ….your relatives.

    [Leviticus 18:]7 — ….your father or mother. — So: sexual relations between parent and child are forbidden!

    [Leviticus 18:]8 — ….your fathers wife. — (step)mother.

    [Leviticus 18:]9 — ….your sister. — daughter of father or mother – including half-sister whether born at home or elsewhere (KJV), whether brought up in the family or in another home (ESV).

    [Leviticus 18:]10 — ….your granddaughter.

    [Leviticus 18:]11 — ….the daughter of your father’s wife. — stepsister / half-sister. Note: The father’s wife would be part of the household. I guess, when given orally, one would understand this includes all kinds of step- or half-siblings.

    [Leviticus 18:]12 — ….your father’s sister. — your aunt.

    [Leviticus 18:]13 — ….your mother’s sister. — your other aunt.

    [Leviticus 18:]14 — ..your father’s brother and his wife. — your uncle and aunt.

    [Leviticus 18:]15 — ….your daughter-in-law.

    [Leviticus 18:]16 — ….your brother’s wife. — it is thy (KJV) / your (ESV) brother’s nakedness. Note: Meaning: if you do this to his wife, you do wrong to him as well.

    [Leviticus 18:]17 — ….a woman and her daughter, or her grandchildren. — So: sexual relations between parents and children / stepchildren are forbidden, so are relations between grandparents and grandchildren / step-grandchildren.

    [Leviticus 18:]18 — ….a wife and her sister. — Note: I heard a Hebrew scholar explain that this might mean: a woman aside with another, as ‘to her sister’ can be understood as an idiomatic expression for ‘side-by-side’ or ‘next to each other’. Just a thought.

    [Leviticus 18:]19 — ….during the monthly uncleanness. — Note: during these and other discharges, like diseases or miscarriage, she is unclean to touch according to Leviticus 15 anyway.

    [Leviticus 18:]20 — ….your neighbor’s wife.

    [Leviticus 18:](21 — ….do not burn your children as a sacrifice to Moloch.)

    [Leviticus 18:]22 — ….do not lie with a man like with a woman. — this includes boys.

    [Leviticus 18:]23 — ….do not lie with an animal.

    24-30: Concluding part.
    Just see verse 24:

    Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: (KJV)

    Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, (ESV)

    Now imagine a public reading. Most people will have understood — do not uncover the nakedness of your relatives. — as in, all close(r) relatives (no homosexuality, no sex with animals). The other nations did these things and they defiled the land, don’t do them.

    Chapter 19 and 20 repeat a couple of commandments that have already been given earlier. It helps to memorate, emphasizes and gives some more details (e.g. punishment, because it is an abomination).

    You treated these in depth in you post.

    By the way, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 shows that it was understood that young women would marry as a virgin….(the passage is about proof of virginity under accusation of adultery during betrothal times; remember, this refers to a young bride going into marriage right from her father’s house – adultery would mean death penalty, stoning). So we can conclude again, that father-daughter-incest is an abomination.

    Dear Barbara Roberts,
    I like that you prefer the term ‘uncover their nakedness’. In fact, it includes all kinds of sexual molestation and inappropriate behaviour, including anything from exhibitionism and voyeurism (porn) to coercion, abuse of power, and rape.

    I also like that you argue that in father-daughter-incest the daughter is not to be punished. Indeed, considering the power imbalance which renders young daughters (innocent and) defenseless turns these cases into a situation of rape (or worse). The verses in Leviticus 18 are spoken to the active party, and to people old enough to be responsible for their moral behavior, more particularly to men (As in: women are included, I guess).

    That you felt compelled (and for good reason) to write this post, shows what a sad state Christianity is in. Thank you for your work.

    [September 23, 2022: The comment was formatted to enhance readability. Editors.]

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