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When is Incest a Kindness?

When the Torah says so!

If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a kindness; they shall be excommunicated in the sight of their kinsfolk. He has uncovered the nakedness of his sister, he shall bear his guilt. (Lev. 20:17)

Of course, nobody else translates the word as “kindness,” since such a translation is seemingly nonsensical. Instead, it is translated as a “disgrace” or as a “wicked thing” or merely “shameful.”

But the word in 20:17 describing incest is indeed the Hebrew word “chesed” which is never, ever used in the Torah (with this one exception!) as anything but something of an intervention, one that can save a life. Lot describes the angelic deliverance from Sodom as a chesed, and the Torah tells us that the search for Rivkah, Isaac’s wife-to-be, was full of acts of chesed, of divine intervention. So, too, G-d intervenes, acts with chesed, to promote Joseph when in prison – and Joseph asks the grateful butler to repay him with chesed by mentioning Joseph to Pharaoh. Jacob asks Joseph to interrupt the normal way of treating the dead, and to “do me the chesed” of not burying Jacob in Egypt. Moses praises G-d as acting with chesed, divine intervention, to all the descendants of our forefathers, as well as forgiving the people their iniquity. All of these verses use the same word, chesed, to mean a “life-saving intervention,” though the most common translation is, simply (perhaps too simply): “kindness.” The word is much more than “kindness,” as it is used to describe changing the course of the future, like diverting what would otherwise be inevitable, creating a new timeline, new prospects. These acts of “chesed” alter the flow of events in unexpected and sometimes unlikely directions. Chesed is one of the ways in which G-d intervenes in our lives and in which we can also intervene in the lives of others.

So why is incest described as a kindness? The answer shocked us when we discovered it, but it is in the text as plain as day. The first time the word “chesed” is used, Lot is appreciating the angels for delivering him from the destruction of Sodom. Divine intervention changes his life: this is divine kindness. So far so good.

But the second time the word is used, is speaking directly of incest:

“I thought,” said Abraham, “Surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.  And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s; and she became my wife.  So when God made me wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘Let this be the kindness that you shall do me: whatever place we come to, say there of me: He is my brother.’” (Gen. 20:11-13)

The kindness is what Avraham requests from Sarah: that she should intervene because he thought it would save his life. He thinks this is a kindness, because it is, sort of, true.

Note the wording in Leviticus:

If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a kindness.

Isn’t it interesting that the Torah comes back to tell us that a forbidden incestual relationship can be with a half-sister, through either parent? When Avraham had specifically claimed that he was not really lying because Sarah was only his half-sister through his father?!?!

The Torah does not tell us that Avraham’s marriage was forbidden. But I think it is very much connecting these two verses through the use of common language (the detail about a half-sister), and most importantly, the use of the word “chesed” in both.

I think that when Avraham uses that word in asking his wife to stress their familial relationship, then he is sullying their marriage. While he asks Sarah to lie because he thinks it is an intervention that can save his life, the Torah is telling us that such an intervention is indeed a disgrace, a shameful act. Had Avraham instead stood up and claimed Sarah as his wife (and not as his sister) then the Leviticus verse would not have read this way, would not have included the statement that such a relationship is a “chesed.”

Avraham and Sarah, of course, suffer greatly from this so-called “kindness.” She is taken into other men’s harems, and the relationship is marred with harsh words and mistrust. When Sarah dies, Avraham has to come to where she died, Hevron: she did not die in Avraham’s house, suggesting that Avraham and Sarah had in fact separated from each other sometime before her life ended.

When we ask others, either human or G-d, to intervene for us as an act of kindness, we are changing the course of history. It is a big ask. And we need to be careful when we ask for such interventions, to ensure that such requests become examples that are worth following, and not centerpiece examples of what we are forbidden to do.

P.S. In some ways the use of the word “kindness” here could be compared to the word for “holy” which appears once to describe a prostitute, someone who perverts the opportunity for holiness (marital intimacy). Similarly, “kindness” in the above might be translated as the inverse of kindness, as a human intervention that can change things for the worse as easily and as comprehensively as a divine intervention can change things for the better.

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!