Perhaps we are ready, 2/3 of the way through our reading of Leviticus, to approach the hot button texts about sexuality. Probably not, even in context, but having chosen a linear reading, we obliged to proceed.
The rationale starts with prohibiting Israel from acting like the peoples around them. Egyptians have different practices, and Canaanites have practices (as in turn did Assyrians and Babylonians and Romans, and Christians!) Only if Israelite is who you are and whose you are, and if you want to stay Israelite, do you follow these rules. That began with your commitment to the commonwealth, and the prohibition of ‘tax evasion’ bloodshed.
Incest is prohibited. ‘Uncover the nakedness’ is a term associated with sexual intercourse, and as v.8 clarifies, extends to intercourse with the wife of the person whose ‘nakedness you uncover’. The sense is broader than genital penetration and consummation, with a sense of crossing or violating a line of personal integrity.
The first 18 verses of chapter 18 are about variations on the theme of incest taboos. In our law, they include rules of consanguinity, and of prohibited degrees or relation for potential marriages. They are not limited to eugenic breeding concerns, or to public health concerns. They go to dimensions of social stability: seducing in-laws, across generations. Go ahead and read the rules. Prudery?
Certainly, this social ordering of gender, sexual and family roles is a patriarchal ordering. It honours the integrity of an individual against those who might cross lines, abusing power including patriarchal power. It honours the integrity of family roles and relations, making taboo many familiar abuses most common among men against women and children. Patriarchy has restraints for patriarchs. Do we?
Which of these rules would you bend in open-minded tolerance and inclusiveness in our liberal religion, for those who truly feel romantic love for the other person? I can see the casuistry by which people sought exemptions, and the extra phrases closing loopholes.
Probably most important as we enter this minefield, notice that the references to ‘uncovering the nakedness’ make no reference to specific human anatomy or description of actions. The category of incestuous taboos is broad – capturing the range of when any vulnerable person feels exposed, as if the guy with more power has ‘uncovered their nakedness’. There will soon be a verse about same gender acts, but this catalogue does not include that one example.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God.
3 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes.
4 My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God.
5 You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD.
6 None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the LORD.
7 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.
8 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father.
9 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born abroad.
10 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness.
11 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister.
12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh.
13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s flesh.
14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt.
15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law: she is your son’s wife; you shall not uncover her nakedness.
16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.
17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are your flesh; it is depravity.
18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.