Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Leviticus 18

Verses 1-5

Leviticus 18:1-5

Ye shall do My judgments

Safety in the observance of God’s laws

This preface of some is taken generally to concern all the laws of God; the observation whereof is ever the sure safety of a state public or private, for it is not the munition of walls, leagues, and alliance with foreign princes, largeness of confines, plenty of treasure, or such like, that preserve a commonwealth, but careful and diligent observation of public laws ordained of God for the good of man.
It is said that Lacedemon flourished whilst Lycurgus’s laws were observed: much more any commonwealth when God’s
be kept. For what comparison betwixt man’s laws and God’s? Demosthenes saith, It was the manner of the Loerenses, that if any man would publish and devise a new law he should put his neck into a halter ready to be put to death, if the law were not good, by which means they made men more careful to observe old and ancient, tried and known laws, than with busy heads to make new. Now what laws so old and so approved good as God’s laws? Ever, therefore, are they to be regarded and hearkened unto. Others take this preface particularly of these laws concerning marriage now following, that if they be carefully kept, a kingdom long flourisheth, and if not, soon ii cometh to a fearful fall. For so odious and abhorred of God is the unlawful mixture of man and woman that the Lord cannot long withhold great judgments. And thus much remember as you read them ever, that these laws do not concern the Jews only, as the ceremonial laws now spoken of and judicial did, but these laws belong to all men and women and to all succeeding times, being eternal, immutable, grafted by God in man’s nature and given by Him for holiness’ sake. Note all the words well that God would not have them like either the Egyptians or Canaanites, and wish with me that there was a like law against our being like foreign nations near us, with ruffs dipped in the devil’s liquor called starch, Turkish heads, Spanish backs, Italian waists, &c., giving daily occasion to the mockers that say French nets catch English fools. (Bp. Babington.)

Verses 6-30

Leviticus 18:6-30

None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him.

Consanguinity

1. God the institutor of marriage (Leviticus 18:6).

2. Faith in Christ not commanded in the law (Leviticus 18:5).

3. Of the several kinds of kindred by consanguinity or affinity.

4. Of the computation of the degrees of consanguinity.

5. Of the computation of the degrees of affinity.

(a) In what degree one is of consanguinity, the wife or husband is in the same degree of affinity.

(b) The impediment in both continues not only during life but afterward.

(c) The prohibition extends itself in both alike, in the right line ascending and descending without limitation; and in the collateral to the third degree expressly, and by a certain analogy to the fourth.

(a) The efficient cause of consanguinity is a natural obligation, without any relation to the will and consent of man, in the propagation and the line of consanguinity; but in affinity there is a voluntary bond or obligation by consent in marriage.

(b) Consanguinity is by generation from one, both father and mother; affinity is by the copulation of two. The first is real, the second by relation.

(c) In consanguinity, on both sides the bond holds, both by the father and mother, but the kinsmen of the husband are not of affinity to the kindred of the wife; on the contrary, affinity holds only in the first kind, which changes by a new copulation, though the degree alter not, as the brother’s wife’s second husband is not properly of affinity; but in consanguinity, the kind and degree hold out together.

6. Marriage of divers wives successively, lawful, though not together (Leviticus 18:18).

7. The Scripture most pure, even when it makes mention of impure and obscene things. (A. Willet, D. D.)

Moral observations

1. To walk constantly in the obedience of God’s law (Leviticus 18:4).

2. Against the monstrous sin of adultery (Leviticus 18:20).

3. Against the unnatural and most abominable sin of bestiality (Leviticus 18:23).

4. To profit by other men’s examples, and to be warned by their punishments (Leviticus 18:25).

5. God not partial in His judgments, and therefore no man should presume (Leviticus 18:28). (A. Willet, D. D.)

On marriage with a deceased wife’s sister

By the wording of the Hebrew text a man is permitted to marry his deceased wife’s sister, but not to have two sisters for wives at the same time, or one after the other while both are living--this is the logical inference to be drawn from the qualifying addition “in her lifetime”; and yet by the spirit of the Levitical laws, the former alliance also is like an alliance with a sister, and therefore no less objectionable. Such scruples were indeed unknown to the Hebrews of earlier times, since even in Genesis Jacob is represented as the husband of the sisters Rachel and Leah; but they followed with necessity from the severe theory of marriage gradually worked out and adopted. Philo, in the oldest explanation of our law that has come down to us, observes that it is impious for one sister to usurp the place of the other, and to make the misfortune of the latter a stepping-stone of her own happiness; thus bitter jealousies and implacable enmities must be engendered; and it would be as if the different members of the body, abandoning their natural harmony and fellowship, were to quarrel with one another, thus inevitably causing incurable diseases and endless mischief. In this sense the prohibition has commonly been understood, and if the words of our verse alone are weighed, it can hardly be understood otherwise: and yet the matrimonial laws, taken as a whole, were not prompted by considerations of mere expediency, such as the prevention of unsisterly rivalry, since their main object was to warn against alliances between near relations (verse 6). From whatever side we weigh the question, we cannot help being struck by the incongruity of a code which permits a woman to marry, at least under certain conditions, her sister’s husband, but expressly forbids a man to marry his brother’s wife. If the wife dies, her husband does not cease to be the brother of that wife’s sister; yet practical life seemed to demand some relief from the rigour of abstract logic, and the prohibition was limited to the lifetime of both sisters. It has bee contended that this was a concession analogous to the levirat and the permission of divorce; but the cases are not quite parallel: the Levitical legislators are entirely silent with regard to the levirat and divorce; for in their own time the former was unnecessary, and the latter was strongly opposed by contemporaries, such as Malachi; a direct repeal of the two statutes, known to the people as a part of Deuteronomy, or “the Book of the Law,” was unfeasible; and silence on these subjects was sufficiently significant. We need hardly add that these remarks are merely designed to elucidate the meaning and intention of the command, without attempting to decide upon its value or its binding force; the latter points must be left to individual judgment and feeling, which in no other sphere claim greater respect and freedom. The prevailing laws of matrimony may possibly, in the course of time, call for revision; and progress and liberty of action should not be checked by a misconception of Biblical authority. The very verse under consideration affords the strongest proof that the ordinances of the Levitical code are not final and unalterable; for this verse involves the sanction of polygamy, which, not even abrogated by Christ and the apostles, is now regarded by western Jews and Christians not merely as inexpedient, but as immoral. It is well known that from comparatively early times, many chiefs of the Christian Church indeed translated the words of our verse literally, yet weighing the spirit of the law, were strongly opposed to the marriage with the deceased wife’s sister. By the Apostolic Canons (about 300) persons contracting such an alliance were for ever incapacitated for clerical functions. The Council of Illiberis (about 305) excluded them from holy communion for five years; St. Basil (375) imposed upon them for seven years the ecclesiastical penalties fixed for adultery; his celebrated letter on the subject proves that, in the Church “a custom equivalent to a law, and handed down by holy men” had been established against such marriages; it was in his time probably that the Septuagint (in Deuteronomy 27:23) received the interpolation found in the Vatican copy of that version, “Cursed be he who lies with his wife’s sister”; and similar views were enforced by the emperors Constantius and Theodosius, Honorius, Theodosius II., and Justinian, and by all the leaders of the Greek and Latin Church: the only notable exception is Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus; but he was indignantly opposed by his contemporary St. Basil, who declared that such marriages are indeed permitted to the Jews because they are under the law and all its ceremonial enactments, but not to the free Christians, and asked how the offspring of the two sisters would be related to each other, whether they should be called cousins or brothers, since by a deplorable “confusion” they could claim both names. In England those marriages were forbidden in 1603 by the Convocation of the province of Canterbury in a Canon which has never been formally ratified by Parliament. Dispensations were, however, readily granted in the Roman Church; and since the last century many Protestant theologians and jurists, and among the first those of the pietistic schools, as Philip Jacob Spener, declared marriage with the deceased wife’s sister unobjectionable, since the prohibition is not unequivocally enjoined in the Bible. It was disapproved of by the Karaites; but among the bulk of the Jews it has at all times not only been tolerated but encouraged. (M. M. Kalisch, Ph. D.)

Of unlawful marriages

As the chosen and covenant tribes of Israel were soon to take up their journey to the land of Canaan, the inhabitants of which were to be exterminated for their multifarious iniquities in the sight of God, a recital is here made of some of those aggravated forms of wickedness which were rife among them, and which God had determined signally to punish. This is done not only to illustrate the justice of the Divine proceedings in their excision, but also with a view to put the peculiar people themselves on their guard against yielding to the contagion of their pernicious example, and thus becoming obnoxious to the same fearful retributions which were now about to be visited upon the Canaanites. The particular class of abominations more especially pointed out in this chapter, and to which the brand-mark of the Divine reprobation is so conspicuously affixed, is that of incestuous connections. Not only had that abandoned race been guilty of a total apostacy from the worship of the true God, substituting in His room the sun, and moon, and host of heaven, and bowing down to stocks and stones and creeping things, but they had mingled with their idolatry every vice that could degrade human nature and pollute society. In the black catalogue of these the abominations of lust Stand pre-eminent; and whether in the form of adultery, fornication, incest, sodomy, or bestiality, they had now risen to a pitch of enormity which the forbearance of heaven could tolerate no longer, and of which a shuddering dread was to be begotten in the minds of the people of the covenant. And in order that no possible plea of ignorance or uncertainty might be left in their minds as to those connections which were lawful and those which were forbidden, the Most High proceeds in the present and in the 20th chapter to lay down a number of specific prohibitions on this subject, so framed, as not only to include the extra-nuptial pollutions, which had prevailed among the heathen, but also all those incestuous unions which were inconsistent with the purit and sanctity of the marriage relation. Both classes of crimes we think are in fact included; so that it is doing no violence to the spirit of the text to regard it as containing a system of marriage-laws by which the peculiar people were ever after to be governed. As this is the only passage in the compass of the whole Bible where any formal enactments are given on this subject, this and the connected chapters treating of this theme have always been deemed of peculiar importance in their relations to the question of the lawful degrees within which the marriage connection may now be formed by those who make the law of God the great standard of moral duty. (G. Bush.)

The wilderness a suitable place for the giving of these laws

The wilderness in which they now were was a very fit place for enjoining these laws upon the Israelites, as they were now removed from the snares and temptations of Egypt, and were not yet mingled with the people of Canaan. (Bp. Kidder.)

Need for marriage laws

The necessity for laws on this point at once discriminating, wise, and stringent, will be sufficiently obvious when we consider the strength of the passion to be controlled--constitutionally common to all ages of the world; the sacredness of the marriage relation and the inestimable value of moral purity in all human society--also common to all ages of the world’s history; and (peculiar to the earlier ages) the necessity of defining the limits of consanguinity within which marriage should be prohibited. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the race having sprung from a single pair and the world having been repeopled a second time from one family, those primitive examples may have sent down for many generations a certain looseness which called for special restraint and a carefully defining law. The crimes of Sodom, their polluting influence in so good a family as that of Lot; the low morals of Egyptian life; some sad manifestations in the early history of Jacob’s family; the horrible contagion of Moab and Midian when the tribes of Israel came socially near them; these and kindred facts will be readily recalled as in point to show the necessity of vigorous legislation in the Mosaic code to counteract these untoward influences of their antecedent life and of surrounding society. (H. Cowles, D. D.)
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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Leviticus 18". The Biblical Illustrator. https://pro.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/leviticus-18.html. 1905-1909. New York.