Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review
In First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family, Johanna Stiebert explores how the Hebrew Bible's (HB) narrative and non-narrative incest texts relate to and corroborate modern psychological and sociological evidence regarding incest. She also explores the reason for incest taboos. The main questions she seeks to answer are: Is incest taboo because humans are inclined to sex with family members, but most suppress the urge, or is sex with first-degree family members innately abhorrent to all except a small number of aberrant individuals? And, does the HB consistently present sexual relations between first-degree relatives as incestuous and forbidden in both narrative and non-narrative texts? Stiebert's book has both depth and breadth and displays her extensive knowledge of the field. This work is a combination of previous studies on incest and the HB and an incorporation of more recent sociological and psychological perspectives. In bringing together complementary studies from different disciplines, Stiebert's work offers a more comprehensive picture of first-degree incest, its prohibitions, and its presence in the HB.
Stiebert begins with an investigation of the reasons and rationale for incest taboos. Freud's psychoanalytical studies on incest continue to influence the field, but Stiebert ultimately rejects his hypothesisthat incest was the result of an inherited transmission of traumatic events of prehistoric external reality that manifest themselves as primal fantasies of psychic reality (p. 20). According to Freud, males today suppress incestuous urges because of a sense of solidarity with other men, instead choosing female partners to whom they are not related. Stiebert sides instead with sociologist Edvard Westermarck's research which shows that children reared together, living in close domestic proximity in their early years, tend to form non-erotic sentimental attachments [which] guards against sibling sexual attraction incest and inbreeding (p. 21). Stiebert notes that Genetic Sexual Attraction Syndrome (GSAS) further confirms the Westermarck effect. GSAS occurs when close biological relatives first meet as adults and are sexually attracted to one another, which reverses the Westermark effect and indicates that it is close proximity in the early yearsnot biological relationshipthat keeps humans from incestuous behaviors. In addition to the Westermarck effect and the other genetic advantages of avoiding incest Stiebert joins others in the social sciences by positing that incest will not occur where proper and healthy infant-parent bonds are established. This allows for appropriate differentiation between the parent-offspring bond and the parent/adult couple bond. While she never fully answers why incest occurs, Stiebert states that there has been a shift in thinking. No longer is incest considered an innate desire that must be suppressed. Instead, consensus suggests that first-degree incestuous desire, especially in light of the Westermark effect and attachment research, is unnatural. She also notes that, largely due to the work of Lynn Sacco and second wave feminism in the 1970s, the notion that father-daughter incest is uncommon and, when it does occur, is not unduly harmful, has been thoroughly rejected (p. 37).
Stiebert's chapter on non-narrative texts focuses primarily on Lev 18 and 20 and their proscriptions for incest. She notes that the proscriptions are from the perspective of the patriarch and how individuals mentioned are related to him. Stiebert believes the laws against incest exist to protect the authority of the patriarch whose position could be threatened if younger, more virile men begin sleeping with other members of the patriarch's household. She also notes that, not only the authority and position of the patriarch, but the overall harmony of the family dwelling would be threatened by incest. Incest threatens household harmony because more than just the patriarch and his wife (or wives) abide therethe patriarch's sons and their families would have lived there as well. Stiebert notes that the daughter is not mentioned in the Leviticus proscriptions and concludes this is because the Leviticus proscriptions are concerned with how others may infringe upon a father's rights. A father cannot infringe upon his own rights or authority by having sex with someone who is already under his authority (e.g., his unbetrothed daughter). Stiebert concludes that the purpose for the incest proscriptions affirm the Westermark effect. The proscriptions do not exist because there was a fear of intra-family erotic attraction but a fear of a possible threat presented by younger, stronger males in the household (p. 87).
In the penultimate chapter, Stiebert works her way through possible combinations of first-degree incest. The underlying idea throughout seems to be that incest in narrative texts exist as either a justification for Israel's xenophobia or as proof of the HB's androcentric/patriarchal bias. Ham, after uncovering the nakedness of his father Noah, is revealed to be the father of Canaan, the progenitor of the Canaanites, all of whom are to be destroyed if Israel is to enjoy the fullness of God's blessing in the land. In the section on father-daughter incest, Stiebert reminds the reader that both the Moabites and the Ammonites, enemies of Israel, are the result of Lot's incestuous pairings with his daughters. However, in Stiebert's view these accounts are not indicative of direct criticism of the incestuous pairings, but justification for xenophobia. Stiebert also reviews the metaphors and possible allusions to incest between God and Eve, Adam and Eve, and God and Israel and Judah. Noting the presence of incest themes in other ANE creation myths, she points to the possible redactions of earlier incest themes in the Genesis creation myth. Giving voice to queer criticism, Stiebert reviews brother-brother and sister-sister incest in the HB. While there are no references to brother-brother incest, rivalry between brothers, a common theme in the HB, is handled by other means. She posits that brother-brother rape does not occur because it would humiliate not just one but both brothers in the process. Though there are no instances of female-female sex between first-degree relatives, Stiebert uses this opportunity to note the lack of queer voices in the HB and the complete absence of a proscription regarding lesbian sex. She attributes this to the androcentrism of the HB as well as a need to control female sexuality (p. 123), but not an actual absence of lesbian sex in the ancient world. The Leviticus proscriptions regarding sexual relationships with sisters seem to exist to avoid the rivalry and trickery so evident in narratives where sisters sleep with or are married to the same man (e.g., Leah and Rachel, Lot's daughters; though her discussion on Ruth and Naomi seems to misunderstand both their relationship and the purpose of levirate marriage). Shifting from xenophobia and queer perspectives, Stiebert reviews places where the HB refrains from criticizing first-degree incest. Multiple examples of brother-sister incest are given (e.g., Abraham and Sarah, Amnon and Tamar, David and Abigail). Regardless of why the incest occurs, Stiebert's view is that, while contrary to usual standards of practice and decency, paternal sibling marriage was not always considered illegal” (p. 193). She does not, however, posit a reason for this view.
Stiebert's coverage of the HB and incest texts therein is extensive. Her treatment of the text rightly recognizes the social paradigm by which behavior was measured and proscribed, a perspective that differs from modern notions of legality or even intrinsic abhorrence. While one might fault her for finding incest where it is not explicit or where it is only implied, she includes such texts because other scholars already include them in this discussion or because other ANE cultures include incest themes in comparable texts. While her queer criticism is rather anachronistic as applied to the HB, she acknowledges the possibility of this fault before offering her critique. Additionally, because Stiebert approaches the text believing it is pro-patriarchy (rather than simply describing a culture that was patriarchal/patricentric), she fails to consider alternative interpretations of the texts she highlights in her book (e.g., her perspective that incest proscriptions are concerned with protecting the power of the patriarch, rather than the patriarch being instructed to use his authority to protect the most vulnerable in his household). That being said, the combination of current psychological and sociological research and Stiebert's extensive study of incest texts in the HB leads to astute observations and conclusions, and makes this work an excellent addition to the field of HB studies.