No website dealing with cousin relationships would be complete without exploring the Christian viewpoint. Christianity is a very large tent. From Appalachian snake handlers to the majestic liturgy of Eastern Orthodoxy, Christian beliefs run the full gamut. In this discussion, we will consider only the biblical history and acceptance of cousin relationships, as opposed to institutional creeds. (For a complete discussion on the Catholic Church, please see our Chat with an Expert page.)
For much of the world’s population, the Bible is the final authority on right and wrong. This is true both of devout Christians as well as those who may have some vague, indiscernible root in the Christian faith. Perhaps Christianity was the faith of one’s parent or grandparent, and although the individual does not particularly follow the faith, they were ingrained from childhood that God is the ultimate authority, and the Bible is God’s instruction book to mankind. Whether one truly believes in the Bible or not, it seems to have become a social standard to attribute one’s own assumptions of right from wrong on scripture. Unfortunately, many times the person who claims that something is “a sin against God,” or that an individual will “burn in Hell” for his actions or lifestyle have no clear understanding of what Scripture says on the subject. Perhaps even more unfortunate is that many preachers, priests, and theologians have also allowed society to cloud their judgment on the issue, rather than to study what the Bible has to say on the subject for themselves.
A look at Leviticus
The Bible has a great deal to say about cousin marriage, and not once does it say anything negative. To the contrary, all references to cousin marriage in scripture are 100% supportive. Let’s look first at how the Bible defines sexual impurity. In Leviticus chapter 18 (KJV), God tells us that we are not to have sexual relations with the following:
any close relative (which you will clearly see does not include cousins)
your father’s wife
your sister, (whole or half) “whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere” (v.9)
the daughter of your father’s wife (step-sister)
your father’s sister (aunt) “as she is your father’s close relative”
your mother’s sister (aunt) “as she is your mother’s close relative”
your father’s brother’s wife (aunt)
your son’s wife
your brother’s wife
with both a woman and her daughter
your wife’s sister as a rival wife (to spite your first wife)
during “uncleanness of her monthly period”
with your neighbor’s wife
with a member of the same sex; the Bible says “that is detestable”
with an animal; the Bible refers to this as “a perversion”
Those who oppose cousin marriage often use “any close relative” to base their opposition on. Others will say that just because cousins aren’t specifically referred to doesn’t mean God didn’t mean to include them. They insist this list is just a general rule of thumb, not an all-inclusive command. I disagree. Leviticus is a book of law. It is very specific and very definitive. The passage begins with “any close relative”, and proceeds to describe all that God defines as near kin, followed by other sexual acts which God forbids. To say that God meant to include cousins is to assume God made a mistake. To say that it is only a general list, you must wonder why God was so very specific that He included beastiality, homosexuality, and sex during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Furthermore, the Scripture clearly and unmistakably defines an aunt (a mother’s or father’s sister) as the parent’s close relative, not as one’s own.
Historically, the Jews have never considered a cousin to be a “close relative” or too close to marry. In fact, professor Guntry (Westmont College) states that Jews in the 1st century often married cousins. “Cousins on the father’s side were most preferred, though not always possible” (p. 35).
Now you may wonder why Leviticus forbids a man to marry his aunt, but not a woman to marry her uncle. Some may use that as proof that God gave only generalities. This is a common misunderstanding; however, God did not forbid uncles and nieces from marriage. Why the double standard?
First let me explain that society changes. Culture changes. God does not change. What was common during Biblical times is not acceptable by today’s standards. That being said, let’s examine why God would allow a man to marry his niece but would not allow a woman to marry her nephew.
When a woman was left widowed, the men in her husband’s family were required to take responsibility of the woman. The deceased husband’s nearest kin was commanded to take her as his wife. If she had borne no children to her husband, her firstborn to his relative was to be the legitimate heir to the deceased spouse. However, the nearest kin was also required to have the approval of his first wife before taking on a second. If the first wife was opposed to the marriage, or was related to the widow within the defined prohibitions, then she became the responsibility of the next nearest kin. The brother of the deceased was generally the obvious choice, although a widow’s marriage to her father in law was fairly common. Because cousin marriage was allowed by God’s law, and was in fact commanded of many individuals throughout scripture, the deceased husband’s nearest relative was often the widow’s uncle. If neither a brother nor father to the deceased was an option, the next nearest kin appears to have always followed a lateral or ascending direction. In no instance did a widow become the marital responsibility of her late husband’s son, or his brother’s son.
I will briefly list some of the individuals commanded or otherwise instructed in scripture to marry a cousin. For further information on these individuals and the circumstances, you may choose to read the scriptural passages associated with each. More detailed information will be included in the forthcoming book, which will be made available on this website upon completion.
Biblical Cousin Marriages
Each of the following individuals in scripture were in the lineage of Mary, Christ’s mother, or Joseph, his “earthly” father, who were chosen by God to raise His son. Most, if not all, occurred (chronologically) after the time in which Levitican law was written. Zelophehad’s daughters did as the LORD commanded Moses. Zelophehad’s daughters, Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah, married their cousins on their father’s side (Numbers 36:1-11).
Milcah was married to her cousin, Nahor. They had a grand daughter named Rebekkah. In Genesis 24:48-51, the story unfolds of how, against all odds, God’s direction for her to marry her cousin’s son Isaac (first cousin once removed) is made crystal clear.
Isaac and Rebekkah had two son’s. Jacob was the son whom was blessed to fulfill God’s prophecy that the descendant’s of Abraham (Jacob’s grandfather, Isaac’s father) would become a great nation. Isaac instructed Jacob to marry a daughter of Rebekkah’s brother. Although he immediately fell in love and became engaged to his cousin Rachel, his uncle tricked him into first marrying Rachel’s sister Leah. Although God blessed Jacob greatly, Jacob suffered much grief and heartache for having married both sisters. Jacob’s descendants became what is now known as the twelve tribes of Israel. (Genesis chapters 19 and 29)
In I Chronicles 23:22, Eleazar’s daughters married their first cousins. Very little detail is given of this event.
Biblical prohibitions of cousin marriage reside only in the minds of the unlearned. We can find many instances of where God had blessed cousin marriage. In fact, the New Advent encyclopedia finds that Christ’s parents — Joseph & Mary– were first cousins. Protestants come to the same conclusion. Do I believe that Joseph and Mary were first cousins? It’s likely, but I do not need this to validate my relationship. It will be fun to tease Joseph and Mary a bit when I get up there.
Gundry, R., (2003). A Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.