Ken Ham on Incest

Posted by T on July 20, 2009

Ken Ham and his associates regard the Mosaic commandment against incest as a contingency brought about as a response by God to genetic degeneration (pp. 24-29). The idea is that harmful genetic mutations brought about by the curse resulting from Adam’s Fall are more likely to propagate to the next generation when father and mother are closely related, because the bad genes are more likely to “line up” and produce a gene pair in which both genes are defective, thus inflicting that disadvantage in the feature controlled by that gene pair in the offspring, while parents that are more distantly related are likely to have genetic defects that don’t line up, so that each gene pair is likely to have at least one gene that is not mutated.

By the time of Moses (about 2,500 years later), degenerative mistakes would have accumulated to such an extent in the human race that it would have been necessary for God to bring in the laws forbidding brother-sister (and close relative) marriage (Lev. 18-20). Also, there were plenty of people on the earth by now, so close relations did not have to marry. (p. 29)

The view here presented is the opposite of the traditional theological viewpoint represented for example by Dabney, who taught that the incest prohibition is part of the Moral Law, and that the first-generation coupling of siblings was an exception (Lectures in Systematic Theology, pp. 412f.). He takes note of the same genetic degeneration as Ham, but places it in the opposite causal relation to the law:

Man’s animal nature now utters its protest, by the deterioration and congenital infirmities, which it visits usually on the unfortunate children of these marriages within lawful degrees. (p. 413)

Apart from the modern insight into genetics, it is hard to see how natural reason would lead to the prohibition. Yet we find the incest taboo universally acknowledged, even in the most depraved of societies. It seems to be etched on the conscience of man even though, of all the “Moral Law,” the least susceptible to rational explanation. The Moral Law has its force because it is graven on the mind of man by direct divine revelation or implantation, so that man in his rebellious state, though he cannot obey it, finds himself accusing and excusing in terms of it (Rom 2:15).

For this reason, the caution flags should go up for Ham’s new theory. If Ham’s theory is correct, then the incest prohibition is not part of the eternal Moral Law, but is contingent on the fact of genetic mutation. At most, we could say that it is a circumstantial application of the Moral Law thou shalt not slay in its positive application of the preservation of life as applied in love for the next generation. If that is the case, then we could say that this law would be fulfilled even in the apparent breach, if the circumstance that defines it – genetic mutation – could be vouchsafed not to apply in a particular case.

Suppose, for example, that the science of genetics reached such a level of sophistication, that a brother and sister could submit genetic samples, and laboratory analysis could determine that none of their “bad genes” in their case would ever line up. Could they then marry, on the ground that the whole purpose of the incest prohibition, being circumstantial, did not apply in their circumstance?

I am inclined to think that this line of thought cannot be sustained.

1. The biblical prohibitions of consanguity include in-law marriage, such that the genetic argument would fail. This principle is summarized in the (original) Westminster Confession this way:

24.4 Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the Word; nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and wife. The man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own; nor the woman of her husband’s kindred nearer in blood than of her own. (emphasis added)

The American revision (used, for example, by the OPC) deletes that last sentence. However, it is hard to see how the original version can be avoided, because of this text:

Leviticus 20:19-21 And thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy mother’s sister, nor of thy father’s sister: for he uncovereth his near kin: they shall bear their iniquity. And if a man shall lie with his uncle’s wife, he hath uncovered his uncle’s nakedness: they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless. And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.

This is a big topic, and I don’t want to pretend to be able to give more than an amateurish “first word” on it. James Thornwell discusses the topic in connection with the McQueen case in his discussion of the General Assembly of 1847 (Works, vol. 4, pp. 488-494). Barry Waugh wrote his PhD dissertation discussing the issue at length, with a journal article summarizing the results. The topic is important and interesting, and we should take it up more thoroughly again in the future.

But in any case, it is clear that Moses at any rate could not have conceived of his giving the laws pertaining to incest from the motivation described by Ham, since the Mosaic law includes affinity by marriage, where the genetic argument would not have any force. It is interesting that just at this point, Moses emphasizes that the couple must be separated and thus remain childless – the very topic in which the genetic argument has force; yet here, that is clearly not in view.

2. If the brother/sister argument from genetics has some plausibility, would Ham extend the principle even to mother/son, father/daughter relations? There would be no prohibition apart from the problem of genetic mutation? It staggers the imagination.

3. A serious objection to Ham’s way of thinking here is the implied naturalistic perspective. It is as if God unleashes a tornado that he must now figure out how to respond to. He causes the principle of genetic mutation as a consequence of his own curse, but now that this cat is out of the bag, he must find a way to leash it in. Thus, God’s orientation to physical law is the same as ours: he, just like us, must respond to it, find ways around it. It would be “necessary for God to bring in the laws”; fortunately, He did not have to dance around one potential constraint, for “there were plenty of people on the earth by now, so close relations did not have to marry.”

The same mistake was made in the last generation, when it was often claimed that the prohibition of pork as unclean was God’s “response” to the higher disease-carrying proclivity of swine. It was actually a Methodist friend of mine that pointed out at the time that the exact opposite is far more likely the case: God having declared the pig unclean, he then afflicted it with disease in consequence thereof.

Some speculation is inescapable; but my Methodist friend’s is by far the more theologically sound speculation. The other one places God in a wrapper of darkness, in which he must probe and discover and respond. He creates a monster that he must now figure out how to tame. Far better to say that the pig’s design plan included certain characteristics that would intentionally ratify its function as a symbol of the unclean during that stage of redemptive history. Far better to say that genetic mutation was introduced as a punishment for violation of the incest prohibition: though we cannot deduce this as a church dogma.

Though the incest discussion is a minor one in the scope of Ham’s dissertation, it is telling nonetheless. A poisonous naturalism pervades all of his arguments, seen particularly clearly here.  There is a covenantal way to account for genetic defects and swine parasites, and there is the naturalistic way. Overcoming the naturalistic perspective is the genius of a truly Christian exposition. Like a besetting sin, it must be re-overcome again and again.

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24 Comments to Ken Ham on Incest

  • Maybe Ken Ham is actually right.
    1. It was required in the beginning to marry a sibling.
    2. God wouldn’t have forced people into a position of sin. (e.g., he wouldn’t have required a relationship w/ a prostitute–that’s obviously sinful).
    3. Perhaps, then the ban on incestuous relationships is a positive, not a moral law.

    I believe it is the RC church that currently prohibits first cousins from marrying, not Reformed churches or other churches, to my knowledge.

    Clearly, genetic problems occur more now than at the beginning. (One has seen instances of first cousins marrying and having,e.g., a child w/o a complete brain). Then again, as someone has pointed out, in the case of Jonathan Edwards and his wife/first cousin, the genetic interaction was quite positive.

    I still tend to agree with Ken Ham. I haven’t read the dissertation you mention, but will get to it soon.

  • Eliza — I have a theory for the inner deeper sense of the incest prohibition that would account for the “first generation” as something other than an exception, which I will unveil later. It is sufficient that there be the logical possibility of such a view. So leave the “exception” issue aside for now. However, I’m curious how you would handle the question I posed — if genetic science gets to the point that it could “certify” which siblings were safe and which ones weren’t, would you then approve of those marriages, since the meaning of the positive law was then fulfilled? (Like the fence around the rooftop — no one suggests that steep, uninhabitable roofs need to be surrounded by fencing.) Or for that matter, seniors that are well past child-bearing years — would you say it is okay for brother and sister at that stage to marry?

  • Neither scenario you propose would be permitted. For the law given (against incest), perhaps given to accommodate human (genetic) frailty has become ingrained in our minds with an almost (but not quite!) moral significance. Our consciences speak out against it. It is not for us to speculate on the why’s and wherefore’s of the prohibition, or if we speculate, nevertheless,we can’t know for sure, so we should err on the side of doing right.

  • Ah… ha ha! “Almost”? That won’t do at all!

    At any rate, I’m sure you realize by now that the statements in #5 are not compatible with saying Ken Ham’s view is right.

  • I never said he is right. I said maybe. I’m not sure. You haven’t convinced me. It’s still an open question in my mind.

  • Your “God in the wrapper of darkness” claim against Ham sort of reminds me of what a supralapsarian would say to an infralapsarian.

  • Eliza — and if that line could be sustained, then infralapsarianism would be shown to be wrong.

    More can be said, however. The supralapsarian problem, it seems to me, is the two-fold one of assuming (1) protology is exhausted by eschatology, and (2) that the end of temporal sequence equals telos. Instead, we should realize that both beginning and end are structured; how you unpack the structure is the real infra- vs supra- debate. Bavinck showed that that question sets in motion a dialectic that should clue us in that the question was improperly divided.

    In the genetic question as it bears on this perspective, the Hamite is going to have to reflect on why God created the mechanism of genetic mutation, yet wanted to limit the damage of the mutation. He did it in such a way that the curse is most pronounced in near-kinship procreation, then passed a law to prohibit such procreation. But then, why not have simply created the degeneration-mechanism (at the time of the curse) to be less destructive, or not pronounced particularly by near-kinship? — unless there was already a reason to eschew near-kinship?

    Perhaps Ham will suggest that there was some mathematical reason reflecting a depth-structure of the mind of God such that he “had” to make the genetic propagation work the way it does; and given that, had to compensate it by passing the incest law?

  • Why did God allow the genetic mutation which causes the fatal disease sickle cell anemia, but which is also protective against malaria? [A person with the sickle cell trait, not the disease, will be highly protected from malaria. A person with sickle cell anemia will simply die]. These things are unfathomable.

    I do like followers of Ham being termed “Hamites”. I am not one yet. I’m still agnostic.

  • 2. God wouldn’t have forced people into a position of sin. (e.g., he wouldn’t have required a relationship w/ a prostitute–that’s obviously sinful).

    I’m not sure if she qualifies as a prostitute or not but Hosea’s wife Gomer is spoken of thusly:

    The word of the LORD that came unto Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel.

    The beginning of the word of the LORD by Hosea. And the LORD said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the LORD.

  • […] “T” is back with another outstanding installment in his foray against the Balderdash of Ham. Once again we will summarize, but please read the whole article and absorb the brilliance like you’re some kinda Bounty paper towel. The universal moral repugnance against incest has no rational explanation; it is simply engraven on the conscience of man. This is why we all view Josef Fritzl as a demon who should be executed post-haste. But Ken Ham writes that incest is not foremost a violation of the moral law; rather, it is a contingency against genetic degeneration. But if prohibiting incest were only a genetic concern then marriage to one’s in-laws would be legal. This is like calling the prohibition of pork a contingency against swine-related diseases. Ham presumes to endorse miscegenation, contrary to what all of our Christian forefathers believed, even though he can’t distinguish between positive law and medical benefits. […]

  • Only a priest could not marry a prostitute or a divorced woman (Lev. 21:7). Hosea was not a priest. Gomer may have later become a prostitute. In any event even in this case, God did not force Hosea into a position of sin.

  • In any case, the law re prostitutes is not apt in this discussion because it is probably ceremonial, and in any case, an accommodation to the situation brought about by the fall, not creation intent. For, we can understand the concepts of property, having a wife, one day in seven, and so forth, both before and after the Fall, but not “having a prostitute.”

    The notion of “exception” is subtle. Remember, the exception proves the rule! More importantly, the first-generation pairing of siblings is not an “exception” if it does not subvert the deepest divine intent in giving the incest prohibition — which I will argue later is indeed the case.

    I have offered several defeaters to the idea that avoiding genetic mutilation was the reason for the incest prohibition. To allow Ham’s theory even as a possibility requires that these defeaters be overcome. Eliza, you or Ham need to show (or at least give a plausible account for) why, if that theory were true, (a) the prohibition would still apply when there is no question of progeny, and (b) why the Mosaic prohibition extended to in-laws.

    It is fine to say, “it is ours to obey, not speculate” — which is why we should reject Ham’s speculation! But all the more so, and definitively, if the defeaters I listed cannot be overcome.

  • BTW, it sounds like rather than genetic mutation being the punishment for contraindicated marriages, that childlessness was. (Lev.20:21). The two, of course, are related.

    I don’t know what your thought is about “the deepest divine intent”. Augustine thought that outside marriages would “diffuse a feeling of brotherhood throughout neighborhoods and tribes.” Somehow that isn’t very convincing.

    My guess for why God made the prohibitions is to further discourage the temptation of fornication. These are the people you live with every day (farther degrees still lived with in clan settings). Lots of opportunity for sinful interaction. The prohibited degrees (both blood and in-law) would steel the mind against such interaction, maintaining purity. Just a guess.

    I await your answer to the Hamites.

  • Well Eliza you’re all over the map. I can’t shoot a moving target. Come back in a week and read your posts and see if you still agree with yourself — or even could!

  • You misunderstand.I am indeed throwing out numerous ideas for consideration. I’m not arguing for any of them. I’m still agnostic.

  • The statement: “If Ham’s theory is correct, then the incest prohibition is not part of the eternal Moral Law, but is contingent on the fact of genetic mutation.” makes me ask the question, How could the prohibition of incest be part of the “eternal Moral Law” if it was necessary to obey God’s command to “fill the earth”?

    If it is prohibited by God’s command, and it is, it is certainly morally wrong to ignore that command and disobey. However, until that command was given, I can’t see how it was morally wrong and therefore cannot consider it part of the eternal Moral Law.

  • T: Time for you to reveal the “inner deeper sense of the incest prohibition” alluded to in #4. I heard Ken Boa try to answer the incest in OT question at a C.S. Lewis Institute seminar the other night, and all he would say is, it only happened for the first generation (Cain and siblings….) then incest was not operational as there were cousins, etc. Didn’t really answer the question. This site:
    has more information than Ken Boa.

  • Lot and his daughters. We know from the story that Lot’s family was deeply compromised. Lot could hardly get any of his own family to listen to him. He actually offered his own daughters to the village men sexually to protect the visitors (if anyone in the Christian world can imagine that; I doubt if even Hollywood or sin city has sunk that low) being virgins they were probably still very young or else undesirable in the extreme and already must have had a history of disrespect and contempt for their father; he couldn’t save his wife or any of his other sons or daughters and the two who were saved were apparently dragged out by the angels; he couldn’t have avoided being caught up in the degraded sexual mores of the town as he clearly had no respect for the sexual integrity of his daughters. There is no reason to believe he himself wasn’t involved in promiscuous sexual sin despite being described as righteous by Peter. (Our own Christian world is caught up in the degraded sexual mores of our culture and there is much sexual sin among Christians.) Then, dragged out of his home and town by two mystery strangers, instructed to run for his life, with the breath of heat and choking smell of sulfur right behind him, his wife dying on the run, he ended up in a cave. Believing that everything was destroyed he had to have been in despair of any future at all. There may actually have been collusion with his daughters to “save” the human race by propagating with them, but when it came to the actual act, he couldn’t bring himself to it without a good shot of alcohol. And in addition to the high motive of saving the race, the daughters had a wonderful moment of revenge for their father’s offering them up to the village mob.

    I don’t think the very ancient world viewed the act of sex the way we Christians do today. Think of Abraham and Hagar. What Christian wife would ever entertain such an idea today? Abraham!! Now there is an example of changing law. Would we excommunicate Abraham for adultery today? And what a mess resulted.

    The West is indeed returning to the low mores of that ancient world where the sex act has no more regard than going out to eat. But somehow Christ’s Kingdom continues to grow and there are still virginal marriage partners to be found.

    But where did the wine come from?

  • Jim — while several ancient non-Hebrew cultures (though apparently not the Germans at least) were as debauched as the Marquis de Sade or modern Africa, I don’t think we should quickly extend this to Abraham. The over-riding interest there was surely having a seed. I think the ancients would have more to criticize our culture in the removal of the desire for progeny than we do them in many cases at least — and that includes modern Christians.

    All —

    The reason for hesitation in identifying incest as moral law seems to be tied up with the inescapability of marrying a sibling in the first generation. Any “exception” seems to show that a law cannot be the moral law. Instead of the exception “proving” the rule, the exception, so the argument goes, “destroys” the law. So let us examine that problem specifically.

    1. Is the first-generation situation an exception? That depends on how the law is framed, that is, what its absolute intent is. If it is framed as (to simplify) “thou shalt not marry a sibling,” then the first generation is an exception (but see below). But if it is framed as “marry so as to maximize the diversity in the next generation” then it would not be exception, for maximizing the diversity could still be carried out within the pool of first-generation candidates. Yet, the principle could still be promulgated as “thou shalt not marry thy sibling” at a later time, when the need for concreteness is needed and the concrete expression need not address the situation that has been mooted by the passage of time. (Note that I am not necessarily offering this as the solution, I am simply offering a hypothetical to illustrate the form of reasoning.)

    2. It may be strained to regard the first-generation case as an “exception” to begin with. It might be that logical conundrums are meant to be figured out without being told. For example, consider a hypothetical law, “Let each letter you write to someone build on what you wrote before.” Would it be a defeater to the possibility of such a law to say, “this can’t be a law, because it can’t apply to the first letter I would ever write.” To which the law-giver, prior to throwing you in prison for impertinence, could say, “the obvious and implied referent of ‘each letter’ is, by the context, ‘each letter that is a successor to a previous one’. It therefore does not refer to the first letter.” Note that the resolution is not so much identifying an exception, so much as understanding the referent from the semantics itself.

    3. It may be that denying an exceptional case for a law to be “moral” is too strained anyhow. That is, even apart from the logical problem of identifying the intended referent, is it the case that a law to count as “moral” may not have any exceptions?

    Even if all these consideration fail, Ken Ham’s view still has the difficulties I gave. First, how could he know that genetic mutation were the purpose for the incest prohibition? And if natural reason is sufficient to figure this out, then why cannot we reason that the law is mooted, say, for a marriage entered after child-bearing years? He would also need to explain why the same context in which the incest-prohibition is given at all, it is applied to in-laws. Moreover, our intuition that incest cannot be evaded just by ensuring no genetic mutation is itself evidence that this is moral law that we are dealing with.

  • Abraham: True. And is the same I suppose to a modern surrogate mother. Which tends to support my point about the sex act itself not meaning as much perhaps, or in this particular case an act of desperation. It certainly was that, of course.

    And modern Christians are so much caught up by materialism that to have two or three children seems like as much a burden as anyone should have to bear. To the extent they are influenced by the Zeitgeist the church should provide counterbalancing support. This seldom happens because the officers of the church themselves are guilty. And pastors are loathe to talk about anything that might be sensitive to any group in the congregation. So are the elders. So few Christian couples have more than 3 or at most 4 children.

  • Robert Gagnon (PCUSA) prof at Pittsburgh Seminary appears to be an expert on homosex stuff. Amidst his writings you will find that he believes the affinity and consanguinity restrictions on marriage are analogous to homosex prohibitions–too much of “sameness”. I am not saying I agree with him, but it’s interesting to hear from someone who has done a lot of study on it. His page is:

  • Yes I think that is moving in the right direction. Formulated that way, in view of the point above in #21, Point 1, the first-generation case would not be an exception. “Too much the same” would have an intrinsic relativity to it. Think Sieglinde and Siegmund. In that sense however we can see a difference from homo, since the latter is not just “too much sameness” but “the wrong kind of sameness” and that in a way that is intrinsically corrupt and corrupting. The familial/tribal centripedal force is good, provided it is held in outward-looking tension (reflected in the prohibition of incest), while the homo urge is evil from every perspective and has no counterpoise that would hold it in check and sanctify it.

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