Leviticus 18:18
Neither shall you take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.
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(18) A wife to her sister.—That is, a man is here forbidden to take a second sister for a wife to or in addition to the one who is already his wife, and who is still alive. This clause therefore forbids the Jews, who were permitted to have several wives, a particular kind of polygamy, i.e., a plurality of sisters. According to the administrators of the law during the second Temple, the expression “sister” here not only denotes a full sister by the same father and the same mother, but a half-sister either by the same father or the same mother. The marginal rendering in the Authorised Version, “one wife to another,” which makes this a prohibition of polygamy, and which was first proposed by Junius and Tremelius in 1575, is (1) contrary to the expressions “wife” and “sister,” which, in every verse of these prohibitions (see Leviticus 18:8-9; Leviticus 18:11-17), invariably mean wife and sister. (2) Whenever the phrase, “a man to his brother,” or “a woman to her sister,” is used metaphorically in the sense of “one to” or “one with another” (Exodus 26:3; Exodus 26:5-6; Exodus 26:17; Ezekiel 1:9; Ezekiel 1:23; Ezekiel 3:13, &c.), the words have always a distributive force, and are invariably preceded by a plural verb, and the things themselves to which they refer are mentioned by name. Thus, for instance, in Ezekiel 1:23, it is, “their wings were straight one toward the other,” which is not the case in the passage before us. (3) This rendering is at variance with the Mosaic code, which bases its legislation upon the existence of polygamy, and thus authorises it, as will be seen from the following facts. It permits a father, who had given his son a bond-woman for a wife, to give him a second wife of “freer birth,” and prescribes how the first is to be treated under such circumstances (Exodus 21:9-10). It ordains that a king “shall not multiply wives unto himself” (Deuteronomy 17:17), which, as Bishop Patrick rightly remarks, “is not a prohibition to take more wives than one, but not to have an excessive number”; thus, in fact, legalising a moderate number. The law of primogeniture presupposes the case of a man having two wives (Deuteronomy 21:15-17), and the Levitical law expressly enjoins that a man, though having a wife already, is to marry his deceased brother’s widow (Deuteronomy 25:17). Hence we find that the judges and kings of Israel had many wives (Judges 10:4, Judges 12:9; 1Samuel 1:2; 2Samuel 3:7). David, the royal singer of Israel, “their best king,” as Bishop Patrick remarks, “who read God’s word day and night and could not but understand it, took many wives without reproof; nay, God gave him more than he had before by delivering his master’s wives to him” (2Samuel 12:8), and the case adduced in the previous verse plainly shows that polygamy continued among the Jews after the destruction of the second Temple (Leviticus 18:10). (4) The Jews to whom this law was given to be observed in their every day life, and to whom the right understanding of its import was of the utmost importance, inasmuch as it involved the happiness of their families, the transgression of it being visited with capital punishment, have, as far as we can trace it, always interpreted this precept as referring to marriage with two sisters together. Hence the ancient canonical interpretation of it is embodied in the Chaldee Version, “a woman in the lifetime of her sister thou shalt not take,” in the LXX., Vulg., the Syriac, and all the ancient versions.

To vex her.—That is, by marrying also the younger sister, the first, who is already the wife, would be roused to jealousy, and the natural love of sisters would thus be converted into enmity, thus precluding the occurrence of a case like that of Jacob with Leah and Rachel. (See Genesis 29:30.)

In her life-time.—This limits the prohibition to her lifetime, that is, as long as the sister who was first married is still living, he must not marry another of her sisters, but he may marry her when the first one is dead. According to the authorities during the second Temple, “in her lifetime” also includes a woman who had been divorced from her husband, and though she is no longer his wife, yet as long as she lives he is forbidden to marry her sister. When the wife died, he was not only free to marry her sister, but in case the deceased left issue, it was regarded as a specially meritorious thing for the widower to do so. Hence the Jews from time immemorial have afforded the bereaved husband special facilities to marry his deceased wife’s sister, by allowing the alliance to take place within a shorter period after the demise of his first wife than is usually the case.

Leviticus 18:18. A wife to her sister — The meaning seems to be, that no man should take to wife two sisters, which had sometimes been done, as we see in the example of Jacob. It may, however, signify that a man, who already had a wife, was not to take another out of mere incontinency, which would tend only to break his wife’s peace; but that if he took that liberty at all, it ought only to be when his wife consented to it, as Sarah did in the case of Abraham’s marrying Hagar, and Rachel in the case of Bilhah. To vex her — Grotius justly observes, that as the feuds and animosities of brothers are, of all others, the most keen; so are generally the jealousies and emulations between sisters, whereof we have an example in the history of Rachel and Leah.18:1-30 Unlawful marriages and fleshly lusts. - Here is a law against all conformity to the corrupt usages of the heathen. Also laws against incest, against brutal lusts, and barbarous idolatries; and the enforcement of these laws from the ruin of the Canaanites. God here gives moral precepts. Close and constant adherence to God's ordinances is the most effectual preservative from gross sin. The grace of God only will secure us; that grace is to be expected only in the use of the means of grace. Nor does He ever leave any to their hearts' lusts, till they have left him and his services.To vex her - literally, to "bind" or "pack together". The Jewish commentators illustrate this by the example of Leah and Rachel Genesis 29:30. 18. Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her—The original is rendered in the Margin, "neither shalt thou take one wife to another to vex her," and two different and opposite interpretations have been put upon this passage. The marginal construction involves an express prohibition of polygamy; and, indeed, there can be no doubt that the practice of having more wives than one is directly contrary to the divine will. It was prohibited by the original law of marriage, and no evidence of its lawfulness under the Levitical code can be discovered, although Moses—from "the hardness of their hearts" [Mt 19:8; Mr 10:5]—tolerated it in the people of a rude and early age. The second interpretation forms the ground upon which the "vexed question" has been raised in our times respecting the lawfulness of marriage with a deceased wife's sister. Whatever arguments may be used to prove the unlawfulness or inexpediency of such a matrimonial relation, the passage under consideration cannot, on a sound basis of criticism, be enlisted in the service; for the crimes with which it is here associated warrant the conclusion that it points not to marriage with a deceased wife's sister, but with a sister in the wife's lifetime, a practice common among the ancient Egyptians, Chaldeans, and others. The word

sister is here understood, either,

1. Properly, so some; whence others infer that it is lawful to marry one’s wife’s sister after the wife’s death. Or,

2. Improperly for any other woman, as not only persons, but things, of the same kind are oft called sisters and brethren, of which see plain examples, Exodus 26:3 32:27,29 Eze 1:9 3:13 16:45,48,49. So the sense is, thou shalt not take one woman to another. And this sense may seem more probable,

1. Because else here were a tautology, the marriage of a man with his wife’s sister being sufficiently forbidden, Leviticus 18:16, where marriage with his brother’s wife is forbidden; as also Leviticus 18:9,11, where he forbids the marriage of one’s own sister, and cousequently the marriage of one’s wife’s sister, it being manifest and confessed that affinity and consanguinity are of the same consideration and obligation in these matters. Nor can this be added for explication, for then the comment would be darker than the text, nay, it would destroy the text; for then what was simply, and absolutely, and universally forbidden before, is here forbidden doubtfully and restrainedly, and might at least seem to be allowed after the wife’s death; which is rejected by those who own the former interpretation.

2. Because the reason of this prohibition, which is lest he should vex her thereby, is much more proper and effectual against marrying any other woman, than against marrying the wife’s sister, so near and dear a relation being most commonly and probably a means to induce them rather to love and please and serve, than to vex one another in such a relation. And therefore to take her natural sister to vex her, would seem a course unsuitable to his end or design.

3. Some add another reason, that polygamy, which Christ condemns, Matthew 19:5 is either forbidden here or no where in the law. But this may admit of great dispute. And it is observable, that Christ confutes polygamy and divorces, not by any of Moses’s laws, (which probably he would not have omitted, if they had been to his purpose,) but by the first institution of marriage, Genesis 2:23; whence also Malachi seems to fetch his argument, Leviticus 2:14,15. And that law, Deu 21:15,16, may seem to intimate that God did then, in consideration of the hard-heartedness of the Jewish nation, dispense with that first and primitive law, especially if we consider the practice of divers holy men amongst the Jews, not only before the law, as Abraham and Jacob, but also after it, as Elkanah and David, who would never have lived in the violation of a known law, or, if they had, would have been blamed for it; whereas on the contrary God mentions it as one of his layouts vouchsafed to David, that he gave him his master’s wives into his bosom, 2 Samuel 12:8; and affirms, that David turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah, 1 Kings 15:5. Peradventure therefore it may deserve some consideration, which a learned man in part suggests, that this text doth not simply forbid the taking of one wife to another, but the doing of it in such a manner, or for such an end, that he may vex, or punish, or revenge himself of the former; which probably was a common motive amongst that hard-hearted people to do so, and therefore the forbidding hereof might give a great check to the practice of polygamy amongst them. In her lifetime: this clause is added to signify God’s allowance to marry one wife after another, when she is dead, and thereby to intimate how the word sister is to be understood. Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister,.... Both of them together, as Jarchi; two sisters at one and the same time; so the Targum of Jonathan,"a woman in the life of her sister thou shall not take;''that is, in marriage, that sister being his wife; for the sense of the Targumist can never be that a man might not take a woman for his wife, she having a sister living, but not to take one sister to another, or marry his first wife's sister, whether, as Maimonides (s) says, she was sister by father or mother's side, in marriage or in fornication:

to vex her, to uncover her nakedness; two reasons are given, why, though polygamy, or having more wives than one, was connived at, yet it was not allowed that a man should have two sisters; partly, because they would be more apt to quarrel, and be more jealous and impatient of one another, if more favour was shown or thought to be shown to one more than another; and partly, because it was a filthy and unbecoming action to uncover the nakedness of one, or lie with one so nearly related to his wife:

besides her in her life time; from whence some have concluded, and so many of the Jewish writers (t), that a man might marry his wife's sister after her death, but not while she was living; but the phrase, "in her lifetime", is not to be joined to the phrase "thou shall not take a wife"; but to the phrases more near, "to vex her in her lifetime", or as long as she lived, and "to uncover her nakedness by her" (u), on the side of her, as long as she lived; for that a wife's sister may be married to her husband, even after her death, cannot be lawful, as appears from the general prohibition, Leviticus 18:6; "none of you shall approach to him that is near of kin to him"; and yet it is certain that a wife's sister is near akin to a man; and from the prohibition of marriage with an uncle's wife, with the daughter of a son-in-law, or of a daughter-in-law, Leviticus 18:14; now a wife's sister is nearer of kin than either of these; and from the confusion that must follow in case of issue by both, not only of degrees but appellation of kindred; one and the same man, who as a father of children, and the husband of their mother's sister, stands in the relation both of a father and an uncle to his own children; the woman to the children of the deceased sister stands in the relation both of a stepmother, and of a mother's sister or aunt, and to the children that were born of her, she stands in the relation both of a mother and an uncle's wife; and the two sorts of children are both brethren and own cousins by the mother's side, but of this See Gill on Leviticus 18:16 for more; some understand this of a prohibition of polygamy, rendering the words, "thou shall not take one wife to another"; but the former sense is best; polygamy being not expressly forbidden by the law of Moses, but supposed in it, and winked at by it; and words of relation being always used in all these laws of marriage, in a proper and not in an improper sense: there is a pretty good deal of agreement between these laws of Moses and the Roman laws; by an edict of Dioclesian and Maximian (w), it was made unlawful to contract matrimony with a daughter, with a niece, with a niece's daughter, with a grandmother, with a great-grandmother, with an aunt by the father's side, with an aunt by the mother's side, with a sister's daughter, and a niece from her, with a daughter-in-law to a second husband, with a mother-in-law, with a wife or husband's mother, and with a son's wife; and several of these laws are recommended by Phocylydes, an Heathen poet, at least in a poem that hears his name; and the marriage of a wife's sister after her death has been condemned by several Christian councils (x).

(s) Hilchot Issure Biah, c. 2. sect. 9. (t) Misn. Yebamot, c. 4. sect. 13. Vajikra Rabba, sect. 22. fol. 164. 1. Peaicta, Ben Gersom in loc. (u) "apud vel prope eam"; so is sometimes used; see Nold. part. Concord. Ebr. p. 691. (w) Apud Mosaic. & Roman. Leg. Collat. ut supra. (Titus 6. a Pithaeo) (x) Concil. Illiber. can. 61. Aurat. can. 17. Auxer. can. 30.

Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to {i} vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.

(i) By seeing your affection more bent to her sister than to her.

18. a woman to her sister] This is clearly right, as against the A.V. mg. ‘one wife to another.’ It is the marriage of two sisters together that is prohibited. The words that follow (‘in her lifetime’) show that the law, as set down here, does not prohibit marriage with a deceased wife’s sister. However weighty the reasons which may be adduced against such a connexion, scholars are generally agreed that they derive no support from this v.

Verse 18. - Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time. Do these words refer to the marriage of two sisters or not? It has been passionately affirmed that they do, by those who are opposed to permission being granted for marriage with a deceased wife's sister, and by those who are in favour of that measure, each party striving to derive from the text an argument for the side which they are maintaining. But Holy Scripture ought not to be made a quarry whence partisans hew arguments for views which they have already adopted, nor is that the light in which a commentator can allow himself to regard it. A reverent and profound study of the passage before us, with its context, leads to the conclusion that the words have no bearing at all on the question of marriage with a deceased wife's sister, and thus it may be removed from the area and atmosphere of angry polemics. It is certain that the words translated a wife to her sister may be translated, in accordance with the marginal rendering, one wife to another. The objections made to such a version are arbitrary and unconvincing. It is in accordance with the genius of the Hebrew language to take "father," "son, brother," "sister," in a much wider acceptation than is the case in the Western tongues. Anything that produces or causes is metaphorically a "father;" anything produced or caused is a "son;" any things akin to each other in form, shape, character, or nature, are "brothers" and "sisters." This is the name given to the loops of the curtains of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:3, 5, 6), the tenons of the boards (Exodus 26:17), and the wings of the cherubim (Ezekiel 1:11, 23). Indeed, wherever the expression, "a man to his brother," or "a woman to her sister," is used (and it is used very frequently) in the Hebrew Scriptures, it means not two brothers or two sisters, but two things or persons similar in kind. This does more than raise a presumption - it creates a high probability - that the expression should be understood in the same way here. But a difficulty then arises. If the right reading is, Neither shalt thou take one wife to another, does not the verse forbid polygamy altogether, and is not polygamy permitted by Exodus 21:7-11; Deuteronomy 21:15-17; Deuteronomy 17:17? Certainly, if so important a restriction was to be made, we should expect it to be made directly, and in a manner which could not be disputed. Is there any way out of the difficulty? Let us examine each word of the Law. Neither shalt thou take one wife to another, to vex, to uncover her nakedness upon her in her life time. The two words, to vex, have not been sufficiently dwelt on. The Hebrew, tsarar, means to distress by packing closely together, and so, to vex, or to annoy in any way. Here is to be found the ground of the prohibition contained in the law before us. A man is not to take for a second wife a woman who is likely, from spiteful temper or for other reasons, to vex the first wife. Rachel vexed Leah; Peninnah vexed Hannah; the first pair were blood relations, the second were not; but under the present law the second marriage would in both cases have been equally forbidden, if the probability of the provocation had been foreseen. It follows that polygamy is not prohibited by the text before us, but that the liberty of the polygamist is somewhat circumscribed by the application of the law of charity. It follows, too, that the law has no bearing on the question of marriage with a deceased wife's sister, which is neither forbidden nor allowed by it. Are we then to conclude that the Law of Moses leaves the case of the wife's sister untouched? Not so, for the general principle has been laid down, None of you shall approach to any, that is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness, and, as we have seen, the expression, near of kin, includes relations by affinity equally with blood relations; as therefore the wife's sister is in the canonists' first degree of affinity (and in the second according to the civilians), it is reasonably inferred that marriage with her is forbidden under the above law, and this inference is confirmed by marriage with the other sister-in-law - the brother's wife - being, as the rule, prohibited. It can hardly be doubted that marriage with the grandmother and with the niece - both in the second degree of consanguinity according to the canonists, and the third degree according to the civilians - and incest with a daughter are forbidden under the same clause. The present verse completes the Levitical code of prohibited degrees. The Roman code of restrictions on marriage was almost identical with the Mosaic tables. It only differed from them by specifically naming the grandmother and the niece among the blood relations with whom a marriage might not be contracted, and omitting the brother's wife among relatives by affinity. In the time of Claudius, a change was introduced into it, for the purpose of gratifying the emperor's passion for Agrippina, which legalized marriage with a brother's daughter. This legalization con-tinned in force until the time of Constantius, who made marriage with a niece a capital crime. The imperial code and the canon law were framed upon the Mosaic and the Roman tables, and under them no question arose, except as to the marriage of the niece, the decreased wife's sister, and the first cousin. Marriage with the niece was forbidden by Constantius, as we have said, in the year 355, on penalty of capital punishment for committing the offense, and marriage with a deceased wife's sister was declared by the same emperor to be null. The canons of Councils and the declarations of the chief Church teachers are in full accordance with the imperial legislation, condemning these marriages without a dissentient voice. The only ease in which no consensus is found is that of the marriage of first cousins. By the earliest Roman law these marriages had been disallowed (Tacitus, 'Annal.,' 12:6), but in the second century B.C. they had become common (Livy, 42:34), and they continued to be lawful till the year A.D. or 385, when Theodosius condemned them, and made them punishable by the severest penalties possible. This enactment lasted only twenty years, when it was repealed by Arcadius, A.D. 404 or 405. No adverse judgment respecting the marriage of first cousins was pronounced by the Church until after the legislation of Theodosius, but it appears that that legislation was promoted at her instance, and from that time forward the tendency to condemn these marriages became more and more pronounced. See the canons of the Councils of Agde, Epaone, Auvergne, Orleans, Tours, Auxerre, in the sixth century, and of the Council in Trullo in the seventh century. The reformers of the sixteenth century in England, entrenching themselves, as usual, behind the letter of Scripture and the practice of the primitive Church, forbade marriages of consanguinity and affinity in the first, second, and third degrees according to the reckoning of the civil law, and in the first and second degrees according to the reckoning of the canon law, excepting those of first cousins, on which the early Christians pronounced no decisive judgment. Marriage or conjugal intercourse with the sister of either father or mother (i.e., with either the paternal or maternal aunt) was prohibited, because she was the blood-relation of the father or mother. שׁאר equals בּשׂר שׁאר (Leviticus 18:6, as in Leviticus 20:19; Leviticus 21:2; Numbers 27:11), hence שׁארה, blood-relationship (Leviticus 18:17).
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