Then the LORD said to Moses,
It is not always easy or even possible to distinguish between religion and superstition. We may fall into the latter when we are seeking to practice the former; or we may, from undue fear of the latter, neglect the former. In this chapter the Jews were taught (and we are thereby encouraged) to avoid the one, and to perfect the other in the fear of God.
I. THE SUPERSTITION WHICH WAS TO BE SHUNNED.
1. Clearly and decisively everything that was in any way idolatrous was condemned; "turn ye not unto idols" (verse 4).
2. All that was distinctively or closely connected with heathen worship was also forbidden: the use of enchantments, the superstitious observance of lucky or unlucky times, also superstitious cutting of the hair or of the flesh (verses 26-28); resorting to wizards, etc. (see 1 Chronicles 10:13). There is amongst us much adoption of practices which are idle and vain, not warranted in Scripture nor founded on reason. Such things are to be deprecated and shunned, They are
(2) harmful, as taking the place in our thought which belongs to something really good and wise;
(3) displeasing to the God of truth.
II. THE RELIGION WHICH WAS TO BE CULTIVATED AND PRACTISED. The Jews were to cherish and cultivate, even as we are,
(1) sanctity like that of God himself (verse 2), entire separateness of spirit and so of conduct from every evil thing;
(2) reverence for his holy Name (verse 12), and consequent abstention from everything bordering on profanity;
(3) regard for divinely appointed ordinances - the sabbath and the sanctuary (verse 30);
(4) gratitude for his redeeming mercy (verse 36), "I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt;"
(5) spontaneous dedication to his service (verse 5). "At our own will" we must bring ourselves and our offerings to his altar;
(6) daily, hourly consultation of his holy will, "Therefore shall ye observe all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them" (verse 37). - C.
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.
None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him. 1.
God the institutor of marriage (ver. 6).
2. Faith in Christ not commanded in the law (ver. 5).
3. Of the several kinds of kindred by consanguinity or affinity.
4. Of the computation of the degrees of consanguinity.(1) Consanguinity is a communicating in blood, derived from one stock.(2) Affinity is a respective alliance and kindred which comes in by marriage.(3) A line is a collection of persons coming from the stock.(4) And it is threefold: the right line Ascending, as the father, grandfather; or descending, as the son, &c.; or collateral above, as the father's brother — or in the middle, as brother, sister, uncle's children — or below, as brother's son or daughter, and their sons and daughters.(5) A degree is the distance of persons from the stock.(6) In the right line ascending or descending, there are as many degrees as generations and persons.(7) In the collateral line there are as many degrees as persons.(8) In the collateral line the prohibition is extended to the fourth degree.(9) In the right line ascending and descending, the impediment is perpetual when they are alive or dead, as grounded upon the law of nature.(10) The same degrees are forbidden ascending and descending by the like analogy.(11) The same degrees are restrained by the like analogy in both sexes.(12) Where the degree further off is forbidden, the nearer are inclusively interdicted.
5. Of the computation of the degrees of affinity.(1) In what degree of consanguinity the husband is distant, in the same degree of affinity the wife is removed, because man and wife are one flesh.(2) One person added to another by carnal copulation changes the kind of affinity, not the degree: as the brother's wife is of affinity in the second degree, and first kind; if after she marry another husband, he is in the same degree of affinity, but in the second kind.(3) There are three kinds of affinity — the near, middle, and remote: as the brother's wife is in the first kind, the brother's wife's second husband in the second, the second husband's second wife in the third.(4) Affinity in the first kind is a perpetual impediment.(5) Between such as are of kindred in blood to the husband, and them that are of kin to the wife, there is no affinity to hinder marriage: as, two brothers may marry two sisters.(6) In the degrees of affinity ascending and descending in the right line, the prohibition is infinitely extended without any limitation: as, it is not lawful to marry the wife's daughter's daughter, and so downward, nor the wife's mother, or grandmother, and so upward.(7) In the collateral line, affinity is restrained to the third degree, as to uncle's wife, who is in the same degree of affinity that her husband is in consanguinity.(8) Of the agreements and differences between the degrees of consanguinity and affinity.(1) Agreement.
(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.(2) Differences.
(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 (ver. 18).
7. The Scripture most pure, even when it makes mention of impure and obscene things.
To walk constantly in the obedience of God's law (ver. 4).
2. Against the monstrous sin of adultery (ver. 20).
3. Against the unnatural and most abominable sin of bestiality (ver. 23).
4. To profit by other men's examples, and to be warned by their punishments (ver. 25).
5. God not partial in His judgments, and therefore no man should presume (ver. 28).
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 (ver. 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 , Honorius, Theodosius II., and , 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.
()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.
()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.
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