The Greatest Taboo? What The Bible Says About Incest

Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) and Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield) have written a great piece for The Conversation, which we re-publish (with permission) below:

The greatest taboo? What The Bible says about incest

Katie Edwards, University of Sheffield and Johanna Stiebert, University of Leeds

Incest sparks strong emotions – and today, in many cultures at least, they are largely negative. But has it always been thus? Or is the taboo peculiar to certain times and places?

Incest taboos are often said to be universal – and sex with a close relative (one’s parent, child, or sibling) is widely considered particularly depraved, as well as detrimental and stigmatising for any offspring who might result from such a union.

Such figures as Josef Fritzl and Frederick West have scaled the heights of notoriety in part because of violent, exploitative incest committed against their own children.

And yet incest also seems to be everywhere: in high and low-brow literature – from Virginia Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – as well as in film and especially popular television – think Game of Thrones, Brookside, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. It is also a trope in gothic horror.

Curiously, too, in popular culture, incest is not infrequently depicted as consensual and – especially when it is between a good-looking brother and sister – even as romantic.

Nevertheless, judging from the press over the last few weeks, anyone would think that familial sexual relationships were a completely new phenomenon and that until recently, incest was kept at bay by strong social taboos. However, whether familial sexual relationships are indeed considered to be incestuous (that is, illegal, even criminal) or not depends on the social and cultural context. Moreover, attitudes to incest tend to be gendered and heteronormative.

With relatives who were once separated increasingly able to trace each other (through DNA testing, social media, and reunion services), stories of siblings, or of a parent and childreunited are more common. And not infrequently, such reunions transpire in mutual attraction and love – which has been hitting the headlines recently.

A taboo too far?

This phenomenon is known as GSA – Genetic Sexual Attraction Syndrome – and not infrequently affects relatives who did not spend the formative years together and who meet as adults. When people do spend early life together, a different psycho-social mechanism, called the Westermarck effect, functions to suppress erotic bonding. It is almost never the case that romantic, consensual erotic bonding happens between family members who do spend early life together.

Some of the public conversations now turn to whether incestuous unions – where they are consensual and between adults – should be tolerated and decriminalised. Indeed, in Sweden half-sibling marriage is already legal and the jurisdictions of some other countries, too, do not penalise such acts.

Love: but is it legal?
Shutterstock

Media stories only portray heterosexual familial partnerships, however, so there’s precious little coverage on brothers or male close family relations who’ve experienced GSA after a period of separation. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, of course, but the coverage says a great deal about such being a cultural “taboo too far” for us. By contrast, popular cultural representations of heterosexual sibling incest is often eroticised, with the woman frequently portrayed as a feminine ideal: beautiful and sexy. In such story lines, incestuous relationships function to add an extra thrill of the illicit. The most recent public examples of GSA, however, reveal the mundanity of many of the cases, despite the scandalous tenor of the journalists.

The media coverage provoked by biological mother and son Kim West and Ben Ford, the latest couple to go public with their experience of GSA, has been queasy, voyeuristic and sensationalist, with assertions that familial sexual relationships “are on the rise”. Suggestions that familial sexual relationships are increasingly common suggests that they’ve been very rare in the past; however, even a text as ancient as the Bible outlines prohibitions for incest, suggesting that familial sexual relationships occurred frequently enough to warrant the introduction of behavioural guidelines.

The Bible’s verdict

Despite the seemingly clear rules around incestuous relationships – just as popular culture toys with the titillation and taboo of the topic – biblical depiction is ambiguous. Yes, there are the Levitical laws that prohibit sex with a string of family members (one’s sibling, parent, certain in-laws … but not one’s son or daughter!), but then there is also the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19, seducing their father and bearing sons, which offers no (certainly no explicit) reproof. The daughters even draw attention to incest by calling their sons “Moab” (Hebrew for “from the father”) and “Ben-Ammi” (“son of my people”)!

The revered patriarch Abraham mentions rather casually that his wife, Sarah, is also his half-sister. David’s son Amnon becomes obsessed with and rapes his sister Tamar. This event is certainly depicted as villainous and cruel on Amnon’s part but Tamar’s words, as she tries to prevent the rape, suggest sibling marriage is an option.

Close-kin marriages – between fathers and daughters and between siblings – were certainly known in Egypt, right up to and including Cleopatra, who married two of her brothers consecutively.

The Bible, as usual, however, offers no clear advice going forward.

The Conversation

Katie Edwards, Director SIIBS , University of Sheffield and Johanna Stiebert, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Buddha and the Foxes: What Leicester City FC might tell us about Buddhism in Britain

By Dr Caroline Starkey

Whilst the world (or at least, some of it) waits with baited breath for the Chelsea v Tottenham score to see whether Leicester City FC top the Premiership, an interesting side-story has been doing the media rounds. Can the meteoric rise of ‘the Foxes’, as Leicester are known, be attributed to more than footballing prowess?  According to several media outlets (see some of the stories here and here) Buddhist monks have been flown in by the Thai owner and Chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and have been blessing the pitch and the players with some regularity with prayers, water and amulets said to bring good fortune and success.  Furthermore, during the games, these Buddhist monks meditate and chant in a specially allocated room at the ground, sending waves of ‘positive energy’ to the players.  It’s an intriguing little story, and has certainly helped increase the hype around Leicester’s rise to the top.  But does it expose something more about our attitudes to Buddhism in contemporary Britain and the role that Buddhism is coming to play in popular British culture?

IMG_1070Buddhism is on the rise in Britain.  According to the data gathered within the 2001 and 2011 census, the number of people who self-define as Buddhist has increased by about 100,000.  The number of Buddhist groups, centres and temples has correspondingly increased but also diversified, with many different Buddhist traditions, drawn from different corners of the globe, well represented. In a recent research project funded by Historic England, Professor Emma Tomalin and I have been analysing the development of Buddhism in England by looking at ‘Buddhist buildings’ and we’ve found, in England alone, approximately 200 Buddhist centres and temples (and that’s not including the many smaller groups meeting  in houses or rented properties which is common, particularly when a new tradition is becoming established). Broaden these stats out to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and you have a religion that seems pretty healthy and increasingly vibrant for those born into the faith and those who adopt it in adulthood.

Buddhism is increasingly present in the British cultural imagination too, at least in some quarters.  You can find Buddha images for sale from Homebase to Home Bargains; there’s a Buddha bar, Buddha beer, and if you spend any time on Pinterest, you will see a wide range of Buddhist-inspired tattoos that any self-respecting hipster would covet.  Mindfulness, often made ‘secular’ but rooted in Buddhist practice, is everywhere and the benefits have been lauded in multiple statutory settings; from hospitals to schools to prisons.  Indeed, for many of the undergraduates that I teach, the words they associate with ‘Buddhism’, are peace, happiness, calm, and kindness.  Few mentioned the shocking violence in Sri Lanka or Burma, or the gender inequality that affects some Buddhist groups, including those in the West. Some of these students have told me that saying you are a Buddhist, or at least interested in Buddhist philosophy and practice, seems to raise far fewer eyebrows in their halls of residence than saying you are a committed Christian.  In fact, one might argue that Buddhism is the acceptable face of religion in an increasingly critical Britain.

A quick look at twitter on the subject of the monks and Leicester reveals similarly positive feelings.  Although there are a few comments along the lines of ‘ban the wizardry and juju’, actually quite a few people seem to revel in the mingling of East and West on hallowed turf, some even calling for the monks to bless their own teams and crediting them with Leicester’s success, and others posting hand-clapping emojis in honour of the monks at each Leicester win.

Yet, would this positivity and general good humour still feature if the blessings for Leicester came from the professionals of other religious traditions? Not entirely, I’ll warrant. In fact, buried slightly more deeply in the news was that Leicester had actually had a Christian priest involved too (so deep, I can’t seem to find it now to hyperlink it), although this received hardly any attention, and certainly not the genial twitter-storm that arose over the Buddhist monks.   Looking beyond Leicester, in 2015, Leeds United boss, Massimo Cellino, had their Elland Road ground blessed by a Catholic Priest in order to staunch their repeated losses (and, as the story goes, it seemed to work).  Yet, twitter disagreed.  Many of the tweets included derogatory comments about Catholic priests and the general tone seemed more aggressively mocking than kindly supportive or intrigued. This might say more about general attitudes towards Leeds United of course, but it probably says quite a bit more about British attitudes to Buddhism. I’m beginning to think that it exposes a different type of critical examination that seems to generally be applied to Buddhism in comparison to other religions that are perhaps more familiar or deemed more publicly threatening and therefore more ‘fair game’ for public dissection.  I’m not in any way saying Buddhism deserves more criticism, but i’m interested in the different attitudes that are popularly held in contemporary Britain and what this says about the standing that different religious traditions are given.

I also wonder, would people be so positive about the monks if Leicester was on a losing, rather than a winning, streak? Would the blessings and the amulets and the chanting seem less intriguingly exotic and more culturally jarring if they were performed for a club that was facing relegation?  Is religion fair sport when it appears to be helping, but more easily derided and discarded when it doesn’t?  Maybe, although I think this buys far too much into the assumption that religion is no longer of any real or lasting significance in the lives of contemporary Britons, which misses much of the nuance and complex reality of religious adherence and practice in the UK.

So, whilst reading about the Leicester’s football monks seems like a story about ‘other’, perhaps it really tells us more about ourselves?

Dr Caroline Starkey is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds.  Her research interests include the establishment, development and adaptation of religions of Asian origin within the British Isles, particularly Buddhism and Jainism.