Leviticus 18

Notes (NET Translation)

1 The LORD spoke to Moses: 2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘I am the LORD your God!

The phrase “I am the LORD your God”, and its variations, occurs throughout this chapter. “It emphasizes that all of the commandments come directly from God and are to be obeyed with utmost strictness.”1 That Yahweh is your God emphasizes the covenantal relationship between Israel and God.

3 You must not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you have been living, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan into which I am about to bring you; you must not walk in their statutes.

Sexual morality was another means by which the Israelites were to separate themselves from the other nations. Egypt was known for marriages between blood relatives.2

4 You must observe my regulations and you must be sure to walk in my statutes. I am the LORD your God.

5 So you must keep my statutes and my regulations; anyone who does so will live by keeping them. I am the LORD.

The simple sense of the clause va-hai ba-hem, “he shall live by them,” is that one should live his life in accordance with God’s laws and commandments and that he should obey them all his life or while he is alive. This clause has, however, stimulated other interpretations reflecting its unusual syntax and its semantic nuances. Syntax allows us to understand this clause as one of result: “that man shall perform, so that [as a result] he may acquire life by them.” Performance of God’s laws and commandments holds forth the reward of life, whereas their violation threatens man with death. This interpretation is the basis for the traditional understanding of our verse by later commentaries, which state that observance of the commandments is rewarded by life in the world to come. We also find a nuanced rabbinic interpretation that stresses the sanctity of life itself: va-hai ba-hem ve-lo’ she-yamut ba-hem, “That one may live by them, not that one should die because of them.” In situations directly threatening human life, one should set aside the commandments in order to preserve human life. This principle was known as pikkuah nefesh, “the sparing or rescue of human life.”3

6 “‘No man is to approach any close relative to have sexual intercourse with her. I am the LORD.

In ancient Israel a family was formed when a man married one or more wives and had children by them. The family was organized along patrilineal lines so it is natural for this chapter to address the male head of the family.

In this context, the Hebrew term she’er (“close relative”, “flesh”) refers to blood relatives. In the context of saying a priest could only come in contact with the corpse of a close relative, Lev. 21:2-3 considers one’s mother, father, daughter, son, brother, and sister as close relatives. This implies sexual relations with these individuals is forbidden even if there is not an explicit law on the matter. “The group of relatives the Israelite was forbidden to marry would largely coincide with the relatives who would have lived in a single household in ancient Israel.”4

The Hebrew phrase translated “to have sexual intercourse” literally means “to uncover the nakedness”. Nakedness was associated with shame so, because the man and his wife were “one flesh,” to uncover the nakedness of one’s spouse in essence exposed his partner.5

Observing these decrees would result in strong, stable families and the protection of women and children from the sexual aggression of males.

7 You must not expose your father’s nakedness by having sexual intercourse with your mother. She is your mother; you must not have intercourse with her.

One’s mother is called the “father’s nakedness” because only he has sexual access to her (and vice versa). Her nakedness belongs to and is reserved for him alone. The two become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).

8 You must not have sexual intercourse with your father’s wife; she is your father’s nakedness.

This verse refers to a wife of one’s father who is not one’s mother.

Keil and Delitzsch (414) take “father’s wife” to include both another wife in a polygamous marriage and a concubine. A primary motivation for a son to take over his father’s concubines was the desire to usurp his father’s position, for the taking of another’s concubines symbolized that a usurper had indeed taken over his opponent’s authority (e.g., 2 Sam 16:21–22; 1 Kgs 2:22).6

Reuben was guilty of violating this commandment (Gen. 35:22; 49:4).

9 You must not have sexual intercourse with your sister, whether she is your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she is born in the same household or born outside it; you must not have sexual intercourse with either of them.

The phrase “your father’s daughter” may refer to a full sister while the phrase “your mother’s daughter” may refer to a half-sister. A half-sister may have been born and raised in the same household or in a different household from an earlier marriage.

Abraham married his half-sister Sarah (Gen. 20:12). In 2 Sam. 13:13 Tamar pleads with her half brother, Amnon, not to rape her while she insists that David, their father, would give her to him as his wife. The latter passage suggests this law was not known, or at least not followed, at certain periods in Israel’s history.

10 You must not expose the nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter by having sexual intercourse with them, because they are your own nakedness.

A prohibition of union with one’s own daughter is not stated explicitly but, in light of this verse, it must have been forbidden. Granddaughters are seen as one’s own nakedness because they bear one’s identity. “To abuse them is to dishonor himself. It may seem strange that a granddaughter’s nakedness is her grandfather’s nakedness, not her father’s. The reason is that in a father’s house the grandfather is head of the family.”7

11 You must not have sexual intercourse with the daughter of your father’s wife born of your father; she is your sister. You must not have intercourse with her.

It is debated how, or if, this law differs from the law in verse 9.

Wenham believes verse 11 forbids marriage to a step-sister if she is counted as part of the father’s house (what the NET translates “born of your father”):

One may envisage the following situation. Man A marries woman B and has daughter C, while man D marries woman E and produces son F. Normally C could marry F without objection. But what happens if man A and woman E die, and then man D marries woman B? Can the children of the first unions marry, or have their parents’ second marriage made them brother and sister? Can C still marry F?

This law says a man (F) may not marry his step-sister (C) if she belongs to your father’s kindred. It is this last clause that leads most commentators and translators to suppose that a man’s half-sister as opposed to his step-sister is meant, for they take kindred (moledet) to mean “offspring, family, or birth.” But in Genesis moledet clearly defines a wider grouping than the nuclear family, including cousins. Perhaps “patrilineage” or “extended family” might be a suitable translation. At any rate a man could certainly seek a wife from within his father’s moledet as long as she was not too closely related to him (Gen. 24:4). This rule states that a man may not marry his step-sister if she was also counted as one of his “father’s kindred.”8

12 You must not have sexual intercourse with your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh.

Ex. 6:20 states that Amram married his aunt Jochebed, who bore Moses and Aaron.

13 You must not have sexual intercourse with your mother’s sister, because she is your mother’s flesh.

However, unions between uncles and nieces were permitted — for example, Nahor and Milcah, daughter of his brother, Haran (Gen 11:29); and Othniel and Achsah, daughter of Caleb, brother of Kenaz (Josh 15:17; Judg 1:13). Indeed, such marriages were considered meritorious by the rabbis (b. Yeb. 62b), perhaps because the affection a man has for his sister will be extended to her daughter (Rashi). Marriages between uncles and nieces were repeatedly and emphatically forbidden at Qumran (CD 5:8; 11QT 66:16-17; 4Q274, fr. 7:2-3, 4-5) and by early Christians (Matt 14:4; Mark 6:18).9

14 You must not expose the nakedness of your father’s brother; you must not approach his wife to have sexual intercourse with her. She is your aunt.

Verses 12-13 concern blood relatives while verse 14 concerns an affinal relative.

15 You must not have sexual intercourse with your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife. You must not have intercourse with her.

16 You must not have sexual intercourse with your brother’s wife; she is your brother’s nakedness.

This law is not condemning adultery. Rather, it is condemning marrying your brother’s wife after death or divorce has taken place. Deut. 25:5-10 provides an exception to this law known as levirate marriage.

17 You must not have sexual intercourse with both a woman and her daughter; you must not take as wife either her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to have intercourse with them. They are closely related to her — it is lewdness.

18 You must not take a woman in marriage and then marry her sister as a rival wife while she is still alive, to have sexual intercourse with her.

This verse does not permit marrying two sisters if the second is somehow not a rival wife. The rivalry or hostility is the possible result of such a marriage. Jacob married the sisters Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:21-35; 30:1-2, 14-24).

19 “‘You must not approach a woman in her menstrual impurity to have sexual intercourse with her.

Menstrual impurity refers to ritual conditions, not sanitary conditions.

20 You must not have sexual intercourse with the wife of your fellow citizen to become unclean with her.

The OT definition of adultery, in common with that of other ancient societies, was rather narrower than that in the NT. It was defined as sexual intercourse with a married or betrothed woman by someone who was not her husband. Intercourse by a married man with an unattached woman, though disapproved of, was not adulterous and did not warrant the death penalty.10

21 You must not give any of your children as an offering to Molech, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD!

Molech is the name of a false god. Giving a child to Molech involved passing the child through fire. It is not clear why this verse appears here among laws concerning sexual morality. Milgrom believes Molech was associated with the worship of the dead and so it makes some sense to place this prohibition among other laws regarding intimate family matters. “Since God placed his name among his people, their practice of false worship tarnishes God’s reputation among the nations (Ezek 36:20–21).”11 Jeremiah needs to make it clear that Yahweh did not endorse the worship of Molech (Jer. 7:31; 19:5; 32:35), which implies that some Israelites of his day thought the worship of the two deities was compatible. This verse explicitly denies that compatibility.

22 You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is a detestable act.

All anal intercourse between two men is prohibited. The phrase “as one has sexual intercourse with a woman” refers to anal intercourse.12 “Something detestable is an activity that God abhors.”13 Lesbianism is not explicitly prohibited in the Torah but was forbidden by the rabbis (cf. Rom. 1:26-27).14

23 You must not have sexual intercourse with any animal to become defiled with it, and a woman must not stand before an animal to have sexual intercourse with it; it is a perversion.

This is the only commandment in the chapter addressed to a woman because it involves a case where no man need be involved. The Hebrew term tebel (“perversion”) is from the root bll, meaning “to mix” and indicates that this sin involves the improper mixing of two species.15

Krebs (FF 39 [1963] 19) argues that this law is designed to counter rites between humans and animals practiced in certain pagan cults of the Ancient Middle East, such as the Egyptian cult at Mendes (Egyptian Dedet). He gathers some evidence to prove that such rites took place more often than has been supposed. These ritualistic uses of bestiality show that this law was designed to fulfill the exhortation against following the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (vv 3, 24). Bestiality would not be that uncommon in an agrarian society. In fact, Hittite law assigns the death penalty to lying with some animals, cattle, sheep, and pigs, but lying with a horse or a mule carries no penalty (#187, #188, #199, #200[A]; ANET 196–97). The myths from Ugarit report sexual relations between gods and animals; e.g., the mighty storm god Baal had sexual relations with a cow in an attempt to magically escape the tentacles of Mot, the god of death and the underworld (cf. U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, tr. I. Abrahams [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967] 290).16

24 “‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things, for the nations which I am about to drive out before you have been defiled with all these things.

25 Therefore the land has become unclean and I have brought the punishment for its iniquity upon it, so that the land has vomited out its inhabitants.

The expulsion of the Canaanites is spoken of as if it has already happened. For the inhabitants to be vomited out of the land is for them to go into exile. “The use of the word ‘vomit’ to describe the people’s expulsion from the land particularly stressed the Lord’s repulsion at the people’s activity since vomiting is probably the most violent of all bodily reactions.”17

26 You yourselves must obey my statutes and my regulations and must not do any of these abominations, both the native citizen and the resident foreigner in your midst, 27 for the people who were in the land before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become unclean.

28 So do not make the land vomit you out because you defile it just as it has vomited out the nations that were before you.

29 For if anyone does any of these abominations, the persons who do them will be cut off from the midst of their people.

30 You must obey my charge to not practice any of the abominable statutes that have been done before you, so that you do not defile yourselves by them. I am the LORD your God.'”


Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992.

Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 17-22. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000.

Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.

  1. Levine 1989, p. 118 
  2. Milgrom 2008, p. 1518-1519 
  3. Levine 1989, p. 119 
  4. Rooker and Cole 2000, loc. 6959-6960 
  5. Rooker and Cole 2000, loc. 6943-6944 
  6. Hartley 1998, p. 294 
  7. Hartley 1998, p. 295 
  8. Wenham 1979, loc. 3413-3420 
  9. Milgrom 2008, p. 1543 
  10. Wenham 1979, loc. 3432-3434 
  11. Hartley 1998, p. 297 
  12. Milgrom 2008, p. 1569 
  13. Hartley 1998, p. 297 
  14. Levine 1989, p. 123 
  15. Rooker and Cole 2000, loc. 7031 
  16. Hartley 1998, p. 297–298 
  17. Rooker and Cole 2000, loc. 7056-7058 

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