#50. Is it lawful to marry your wife’s sister OR not? (Gen 29:28 vs Lev 18:18)

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And you shall not take a wife to her sister to rival, to expose her nudity along with her in her lifetime. (Lev 18:18)

“To take a wife to rival her sister” and “to expose her nudity” along side her sister’s is the language of wedlock… and of course, sexual intercourse. As we saw in #43, here also this particular contradiction is one that highlights differences between the biblical writers’ cultural viewpoints and what was socially acceptable, and not. The verse cited above comes from the 6th century BC Priestly writer of the book of Leviticus and it expresses, through the mouthpiece of his deity—“thus spoke Yahweh”—the stern prohibition that this priestly guild placed upon all sorts of aberrant sexual and marital practices (read all of Lev 18). It was an issue of ritual (rather than ethical) purity for this priestly guild, and we will talk more about this when we get to the book of Leviticus.

The archaic traditions recounting Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Leah’s sister Rachel (Gen 29) from the 8th century BC Yahwist source express a different social matrix, one wherein, at least in this case, marrying sisters was neither prohibited nor frowned upon within this culture and era. Although these stories were written down in the 8th century BC (see the Yahwist), they most likely reflect more archaic traditions, going back to the 2nd millennium BC.

We will see later when we get to the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy that many of the laws presented in these texts, presented as decreed from Yahweh himself, were actually law codes drafted by these texts’ scribal and priestly guilds. Some of the laws shared between these three law codes are starkly at odds with one another. Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “#50. Is it lawful to marry your wife’s sister OR not? (Gen 29:28 vs Lev 18:18)

  1. I recommend you submit this to peer review at your university. When it is torn to many shreds, burnt, and the ashes crushed for good measure, you might reconsider your easy position on what bears a contradiction and what not.

    There was no indication or statement that Israel would live a perfect life, much less that he would live perfectly by laws not yet in practice till long after his death. I am disappointed at your lacklustre contradiction.

  2. Please continue to add these articles – they are very well-written (if a bit wordy), scholarly, and provide invaluable insight into the Hebrew bible.

  3. Just want to say that getting these in my inbox is the highlight of my day – keep up the fabulous work! It’s such a phenomenal resource for Bible students who don’t have the expertise (or time!) to weed through the OT piece by piece and lift them all from the text. Looking forward to each post – will you continue after the year is over (surely there are more than 365 to be found) ?

    Thanks ever so much.

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