Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Heinous Sin: Harbinger of Catastrophe or Redemption?

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Heinous Sin: Harbinger of Catastrophe or Redemption?

Article excerpt

Divine justice demands divine retribution. The more heinous the sin, the harsher the punishment. Though not the only explanation for evil and suffering offered in classical Jewish religious literature, divine retribution is certainly the most persistent and dominant one. (1) For example, as the familiar liturgical refrain reminds us, "because of our sins, we were exiled from our land."

One of the most heinous sins, according to the Pentateuch, is incest. Leviticus 18, traditionally read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, delineates laws against incest. Incest with a person of one's own flesh, i.e., a close family member, is forbidden (Lev. 18:6). (2) This includes, for example, a daughter-in-law (Lev. 18:15), for which the punishment is death (Lev. 20:12). (3) Leviticus 18 designates extirpation (karet) as the punishment for such acts of sexual impropriety. This text further states that such sins led to the defilement of the land by the Canaanites, and consequently to their being cast out of the land. The Israelites are warned that they will inevitably share the fate of the Canaanites should they perpetuate such practices. Here, as elsewhere, immoral acts have consequences that affect the natural as well as the social realm (see, e.g., Lev. 26:14-17, 20). The prophet Ezekiel identifies incest as one of the sins that brought about the destruction of the first Jewish Commonwealth and the First Temple, with the subsequent exile to Babylonia during his own lifetime (Ezek. 22:10-11, 15, 31).

According to the rabbis, incest and adultery are among the first sins prohibited to humankind, being instituted as a result of Eve's offense. (4) Prohibitions against committing these sins are also listed among the "Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah." (5) In addition, the rabbis count such sins among those for which a person must surrender his life rather than transgress. (6) According to the rabbis, incest is a pre-Sinaitic prohibition both for Israelites and non-Israelites. (7)

The two most prominent accounts of incest in the Pentateuch are those of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38) and of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar (Gen. 38). Since Tamar is technically married to Judah's youngest son according to the levirate laws (see Deut. 25:5-6), the union of Judah and Tamar might be considered an act of adultery as well as incest. (8) Whatever the case, throughout the text Tamar is consistently identified as Judah's daughter-in-law (Gen. 38:16, 24), and a sexual liaison between father-in-law and daughter-in-law is clearly an example of incest (Lev. 18:15).When Tamar is discovered to be pregnant, Judah orders her to be executed by fire, apparently for having committed the sin of adultery as well as harlotry. However, after Tamar proves that Judah himself is the father, he commutes her sentence and accepts responsibility for her desperate action, which only became necessary because he had withheld his remaining son Shelah from her, thereby violating the legal requirement that Shelah consummate sexual relations with Tamar as a levirate husband (Gen. 38:26).

Despite the strong biblical admonitions against incest, and despite the severe punishments one might expect to be inflicted on those who committed this sin, no punishment--human or divine--for incest is visited either upon Judah or Tamar, or upon Lot and his daughters. In fact, rather than punishment for Judah and Tamar or for Lot and his daughters, we find an altogether different outcome, one which is redemptive rather than punitive. Instead of foreshadowing eventual catastrophe, these actions surprisingly ensure redemption, i.e., messianic redemption.

One of the offspring of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter is Moab. One of Moab's descendants is Ruth who, despite casting her lot with the Israelites, is still called Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 1:22, 4:5, 10). One of Ruth's descendants is King David (Ruth 4:17-22), who is, in turn, the ancestor of the expected Messiah. …

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