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Vayikra/Leviticus 18:6 No man shall approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness. I am the L-rd.
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Never afraid to address issues face on, the Torah now turns its attention to sexual ethics: in particular, the question of who is allowed as a sexual partner. Although this may seem strange since the Torah is otherwise very clear that sexual intercourse outside marriage is forbidden, it is here recognising that one's close physical or family relations are very accessible and potentially available for sexual activity and legislating accordingly. This verse, then, introduces a list (vv. 6-18) of forbidden sexual partners or relationships - people with whom sexual activity may not be conducted.
The first thing to note is that although the text appears only to be addressing men, on closer examination, it covers both genders. AsRashi's brief comment states: "to prohibit the female like the male; this is why it is stated in the plural." What is 'it'? Mizrachi1 explains that while the first two words of the verse, form a singular "any/each man" is singular, it is also the subject of the main verb in the text, , which is plural (the Qal 3mp2 prefix of the root , to approach or come near): "the plural verb is used to teach that the prohibitions apply to women as well as to men." Rabbi Hirsch adds, "Although the whole chapter is taken from the standpoint of the man, the prohibition is directed equally to both sexes, and both are punishable in exactly the same degree."
Baruch Levine suggests that this first verse not only sets the general condition, but introduces terms of reference that are needed to understand the whole list properly. He points out that , "to come near, approach" often has the connotation of sexual intercourse. It is used in the autobiographical narrative of Isaiah when, having given the well-known prophecy - "Therefore the L-rd Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14) - to King Ahaz, he then records: "I was intimate with the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son" (8:3, JPS). The two words and are both used for 'flesh' or 'meat'; the former appears in the list of "food, clothing and marital rights" (Shemot 21:10) that a master must provide for a slave-girl that he has married. Levine comments, " is used to characterise consanguinal relatives within the family". When put together, , "flesh of his flesh" serves to emphasise the closeness of the relationships: these rules are about incest, a taboo in almost every culture. Lastly, the noun , 'nakedness', from the root , "to uncover, make naked" (Davidson) is a euphemism for sexuality that has anAkkadian cognate adjective meaning "empty, bereft or naked." Levine again: "To uncover nakedness means 'to have sexual intercourse'". Drazin and Wagner point out that Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew verb to the Aramaic , extending the meaning from 'approach' to "approach or touch", thus emphasising that this is about more than physical proximity.
Maimonides, perhaps over-influenced by Aristotle, suggests that the purpose of these rules is "to minimise copulation and to denigrate it; a minimum amount of it should suffice" (Guide 3:49). The Sforno too is concerned about lewd thoughts leading to casual sexual activity solely for the sake of pleasure: "Thereby, they would fornicate and desist from reproducing and the earth would be filled with lewdness." The Bekhor Shor even goes as far as claiming that, "If this were not prohibited, then between grandfather, father and brother, no female would ever leave her family home a virgin." We can see here warnings about the possible dangers of a patriarchal society where the men in society have great power to abuse the women and treat them as sexual objects or slaves.
Ibn Ezra points out that the first two words of our text appear as the first words of Vayikra 17:3 in the phrase: , "Any man from the house of Israel" and so concludes that since the qualification "from the house of Israel" is absent in our text, this command is not restricted to Israelites. He writes, "We therefore must also not permit strangers to perform any of these acts in our land, so that the land does not become defiled." He sees this as a general sexual ethic that must be enforced throughout the Israelite domain, for Israelites or foreigners alike, lest sexual misconduct bring the whole land into disrepute and the disfavour of HaShem.
In our day, when the word 'patriarchy' has acquired a new, current and sometimes disturbing significance, we need to think carefully about the risk of abuse within families and the Body of Messiah. Few would be comfortable with the idea of allowing incestuous activities against daughters or other young women within a family under the authority of a patriarchal figure, although it has sadly been recently reported in some places. What may be more common is control, manipulation and abuse in areas other than sex and over family members of either gender. "Uncovering nakedness" has more meanings that just the obvious physical one; it can easily speak of emotional or psychological nakedness where a domineering patriarchal-type figure exercises inappropriate control over their children, relatives or disciples.
The Psalmist explains how the inter-generational relationship is supposed to work: "[G-d] established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in G-d and not forget the works of G-d, but keep His commandments" (Psalm 78:5-7, ESV). Parents are to make sure that their children are taught not only about G-d for themselves, but to teach their children in turn so that G-d's people do not forget or lose sight of Him. Rav Sha'ul echoes this to the communities in Ephesus - "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the L-rd" (Ephesians 6:4, ESV) - and Colossii: "Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the L-rd. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged" (Colossians 3:19-21, ESV). Notice on both cases that provocation and anger are explicitly forbidden. Abusive and unreasonable demands are clearly provocative and therefore unacceptable.
Notice also the use of the word 'children'; the instruction/obedience words are only used in a parent/child relationship. Depending on each culture, there is an age - be that 14, 18, 21 or whatever - when a child is no longer a child, they are legally an adult, responsible for their own actions. For some children it will come sooner, for some perhaps later, when parental control and instruction must stop and be replaced by advice or suggestions - if appropriate. If not before, the point of marriage is clearly such a moment: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (B'resheet 2:24, ESV). Parents - themselves equal, co-created and co-joined: "G-d created man in His own image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them" (1:27, ESV) - must not control their adult, married children, take advantage of their vulnerability, or wield financial or emotional levers over them. The command "Honour your father and your mother" (Shemot 20:12, ESV) means precisely what is says: 'honour', not 'obey'. Adult children must not be expected to obey or manipulated into obeying their parents against their wishes - that is abuse!
The same principle, but in a different area applies to Rav Sha'ul's comment that, "the L-rd commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:14, ESV). Pastors, evangelists and others who work full-time for the kingdom of G-d may have their living and ministry expenses met from kingdom funds; they have given up other means of earning a living to serve G-d and He has instructed that suitable provision be made for them. That does not give any minister of the gospel or worker in the Body of Messiah - at whatever level - permission to fund-raise and extract money beyond the legitimate needs of the work and the context in which they serve - that would be abuse, as would control or heavy shepherding of individuals in their flock.
1. - A super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, by Elijah Mizrachi of Constantinople, 1455-1526 CE, the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman empire.
2. - The male gender is used when the group is either exclusively male, or mixed male and female; the female gender is only used when the group is exclusively female.
Further Study: D'varim 6:5-7; 1 Thessalonians 2:10-12
Application: Are you in a position of control and influence over someone, perhaps a member of your family? Why not just run through a quick sanity check to make sure that you are keeping that relationship clean and operating only in their benefit, not your own.
Comment - 08:05 01May16 Anon: Today's commentary was so helpful and so timely - wow - the word of the Lord for me in a situation I am dealing with yesterday evening & today
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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