What does the Bible say about marriage prohibitions?


God created marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This would exclude, for instance, marriage relationships between two men, or two women; nor would it allow polygamy.

In the booklet,  “‘In the Beginning…’ Answers to Questions from Genesis,” by the Worldwide Church of God, copyright 1980, the following is stated about polygamy:

“God never approved or sanctioned the practice of polygamy. He did permit it in the law of Moses–just as He allowed divorce because of the hardness of man’s heart (Matt. 19:8). Nevertheless, according to the Bible, the ideal marital state is one husband and one wife who become one flesh in marriage for life. God gave Adam one wife (Gen. 2:24). Jesus also said that from the beginning it was God’s will that a man leave his parents and cleave to his wife–not wives–and the two of them would become one flesh (Matt. 19:4-9). In the New Testament, a minister or a spiritual leader is to set the right example and have only one wife (I Tim. 3:2). In addition to the scriptural admonition, polygamy is against the laws of the United States and most other countries. Romans 13:1-7 states that Christians are to obey the laws of the land.”

You should also compare our Q&A on polygamy.  

The outdated concept of polygamy sometimes included concubines. As Gill’s Commentary explains in regard to Genesis 22:24, a concubine was “not an harlot, but a secondary wife, who was under the proper and lawful wife, and a sort of a head servant in the family, and chiefly kept for the procreation of children; which was not thought either unlawful or dishonourable in those times such as was Hagar in Abraham’s family.”

But the fact that God designed marriage as a union between one man and one woman does not mean that just any man-woman union is approved by God. For instance, God did not intend religiously-mixed marriages (when a “believer” marries an “unbeliever”), see our Q&A,  or interracial marriages (see our Q&A).

In addition, as we will explain, the Bible prohibits today marriages between brothers and sisters or between a man and his niece. This then poses the question, Where did Cain get his wife after he had murdered his brother Abel?

In the booklet “In the Beginning…” the following answer is given:

“Cain married one of his sisters. There simply wasn’t any other female for him to marry. In Genesis 5:4-5 we read: ‘And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters: and all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died…’ These brothers and sisters would have had to marry each other in order to obey God’s command to propagate the human race (Gen. 1:28).”

The commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman agrees, stating that Genesis 5:4 gives us “the presumed answer to the question of where Cain’s wife came from.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible elaborates:

“… he [Adam] begat sons and daughters; not only after the birth of Seth, but before, though we have no account of any, unless of Cain’s wife; but what their number was is not certain, either before or after; some say he had thirty children, besides Cain, Abel, and Seth; and others a hundred. Josephus says the number of children, according to the old tradition, was thirty three sons and twenty three daughters… the families listed in this chapter must have been large by today’s standards. Given their long life, this is not at all unusual.”

Regarding Genesis 4:17 (“And Cain knew his wife…”), Gill states:

“Who this woman was is not certain, nor whether it was his first wife or not; whether his sister, or one that descended from Adam by another of his sons, since this was about the one hundred and thirtieth year of [man’s] creation…”

We addressed this issue at length in our Q&A, “Where Did Cain’s Wife Come From?” We stated that “Cain married a female descendant of Adam–perhaps one of Adam’s daughters, or even one of Cain’s nieces.”

The booklet “In the Beginning…” continues:

“Today, there are biblical laws which forbid marriage between those who are closely related. But, it was not wrong for brothers and sisters to marry at that early time in human history. However, in Abraham’s day it was permissible to marry only one’s half-sister. Abram married his half-sister, Sarai (Gen. 20:12). Nahor married his brother Haran’s daughter (Gen. 11:29). There was then no genetic harm to the children. When men and women over the centuries continued in sin, it became genetically harmful for close blood relatives to marry (see Leviticus 18), and for the sake of future generations it is forbidden.”

In the book of Leviticus, at the time of Moses, we find clear instructions regarding prohibition of marriages between partners “near of kin” (Leviticus 18:6). In our above-mentioned Q&A on Cain’s wife, we wrote:

“Apparently, certain laws governing incest did not become established until the time of Moses. Any such requirement of God is not revealed until Leviticus 18:6-17, where God described–from that time forward–those type actions as ‘wickedness.’ Verses 9 and 11 specifically forbid marriage with one’s step-sister, or with one’s half-sister, and verse 6 forbids incest between father and daughter and between a brother and his full sister (compare The Nelson Study Bible, comments to verses 6, 9 and 11).”

The Pulpit Commentary explains regarding Leviticus 18:6-18:

“In the code before us, confirmed by that in Deuteronomy, marriage is forbidden with the following blood relations: mother (verse 7), daughter (verse 17), sister (verse 9…), granddaughter (verse 10), aunt (verses 12, 13…); and with the following relations by affinity: mother-in-law (verse 17…), daughter-in-law (verse 15…), brother’s wife (verse 16…), stepmother (verse 8…), stepdaughter and step-granddaughter (verse 17), uncle’s wife, or aunt by marriage (verse 14…)… incest is intercourse with a brother’s wife. Yet this is commanded under certain circumstances in the Book of Deuteronomy, and was practiced in patriarchal times.”

However, this law is no longer binding for us today (see our free booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound…”, pages 52-53).

Regarding Leviticus 18, verse 17, Gill explains:

“Thou shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter,…. That is, if a man marries a woman, and she has a daughter, which is the man’s daughter-in-law, after the death of his wife he may not marry this daughter…” Verse 17 continues to state that he is not to marry her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter either.

However, as will be explained below in regard to the prohibition against marrying two sisters, the prohibition against marrying a woman and her daughter from a prior marriage should be viewed in the light of polygamy. Even though God had allowed polygamy in Old Testament times, He made clear that a man could not marry a woman and her daughter at the same time. The Soncino commentary states that “a legal marriage with both is not possible.”

A similar prohibition is expressed in verse 18: “Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister… while the other is alive.”

The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary states, quoting verse 18 from the Authorized Version: “Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her”:

“The marginal construction involves an express prohibition of polygamy; and, indeed, there can be no doubt that the practice of having more wives than one is directly contrary to the divine will. It was prohibited by the original law of marriage, and no evidence of its lawfulness under the Levitical code can be discovered, although Moses—from ‘the hardness of their hearts’ [Mt 19:8; Mr 10:5]—tolerated it…”

“The second interpretation forms the ground upon which the ‘vexed question’ has been raised in our times respecting the lawfulness of marriage with a deceased wife’s sister. Whatever arguments may be used to prove the unlawfulness or inexpediency of such a matrimonial relation, the passage under consideration cannot, on a sound basis of criticism, be enlisted in the service; for the crimes with which it is here associated warrant the conclusion that it points not to marriage with a deceased wife’s sister, but with a sister in the wife’s lifetime, a practice common among the ancient Egyptians, Chaldeans, and others.”

Gill disagrees, stating:

“… some have concluded… that a man might marry his wife’s sister after her death, but not while she was living; but the phrase, ‘in her lifetime’, is not to be joined to the phrase ‘thou shall not take a wife’; but to the phrases more near, ‘to vex her in her lifetime’, or as long as she lived… for that a wife’s sister may be married to her husband, even after her death, cannot be lawful…”

This concept, as expressed by Gill, does not seem to be convincing, especially since verse 18 says: “Nor shall you take a woman AS A RIVAL to her sister… while the other is ALIVE.” A marriage is binding as long as the partners are alive, and it ends, when one of the two partner dies. At that time, the surviving sister could not be looked upon as a rival of her deceased sister; therefore, God expressly stated that polygamy, which was not God’s Will to begin with, should most certainly not be extended to two women who were sisters. It is true that Jacob, being deceived by his uncle, was married to two sisters, Leah and Rachel, but many serious problems were the consequence.

In considering the prohibitions of certain marriages, as listed in Scripture, we find that the Bible nowhere specifically prohibits marriages between cousins. In the past, marriages between cousins were not that unusual. Some have even concluded that Mary and Joseph were first cousins, compare http://www.abecedarian.org/Pages/Lineage.htm . Today, it is considered illegal in many countries. For instance, in the US, half the states declare it to be illegal, and as Christians, if we are living in a country or a state which declares marriages between cousins to be illegal, we are to obey the law of the land.

Some claim that a prohibition of marriages between cousins is included in the Bible, as the list in Leviticus 18 only contains some examples, without mentioning every single relationship by name. Others disagree, stating that God is very specific in His prohibitions, which are not only addressing blood relationships, and that the fact that marriages between cousins are not prohibited means that they are permitted.

The Associated Press concludes in an article, dated April 20, 2002, that marriages between cousins are not biblically prohibited, stating:

“Must first cousins be forbidden to marry? In the Bible, and in many parts of the world, the answer is no. But the answer is yes in much of church law and in half the 50 United States. This issue became news when the April issue of the Journal of Genetic Counseling said risks have been exaggerated for serious birth defects, retardation or genetic diseases among children of first-cousin marriages.

“Generally, an unrelated couple has a 3 percent to 4 percent risk of having a child with such problems, while marriages of close cousins add 1.7 percent to 2.8 percent to the risk. Genetic problems are considerably higher with the forms of close inbreeding that the Bible forbids and secular culture abhors as incest.

“First cousins cannot marry under the age-old laws of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, covering much of world Christendom. But in the Reformation, the Church of England followed Protestantism’s ‘sola scripture’ (Scripture alone) principle and returned to biblical law, which also binds traditional Jews. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Anglicanism decreed that ‘no prohibition, God’s law except, shall trouble or impeach any marriage outside Levitical law’… This ‘Levitical law’ is found in Leviticus 18:6-18, supplemented by Leviticus 20:17-21 and Deuteronomy 27:20-23. Among the forbidden couples are parent-child, sister-brother, grandparent-grandchild, uncle-niece, aunt-nephew, and between half-siblings and certain close in-laws…

“The idea of moving beyond the Bible to ban first-cousin marriages… was promulgated as Catholic canon law by a church council in 1215. The Orthodox Church’s prohibition dates from a council in 692.”

We are also informed that Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin married their first cousins, but that cousin marriage was banned by the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Gregory I in an attempt to prevent the accumulation of wealth and power within families.

To summarize, the Bible is very specific regarding prohibitions of certain marriages. When in doubt about entering a particular marriage relationship, which might be perceived as being against scriptural injunctions, counsel with one of God’s true minister would be highly recommended.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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