Church shock: ‘Can you marry your relative?’
Published: 14 November 2008 (GMT+10)
The look on the faces of many in the congregation in front of me was priceless. They appeared shocked.
I had just posed to them the question ‘Can you marry your relative?’, and put up a powerpoint slide with these four possible answer options:
- Only after counselling
When I asked ‘Who says “Yes”?’, three people put their hands straight up, to the evident surprise (shock!) of the rest of the congregation.
‘Do you see that!?’ I said to the shocked majority, ‘Did you know that anyone could have such a view—and in your own congregation, too!’
There were a few audible chuckles, and smiles on the faces of the three who’d answered ‘Yes’, as I continued: ‘Who says “No”?’
A sea of hands went up.
‘Ah, there’s the “moral majority”!’ I quipped, to another ripple of chuckles. ‘Who says “Probably”?’, I asked, and a few tentative hands went up, and finally ‘What about “Only after counselling”?’, and by now there was widespread laughter. But there was evident puzzlement, too, on most people’s faces as they waited expectantly for explanation.
I’d asked that question after the congregation had earlier asked me ‘Who was Cain’s wife?’ (Genesis 4:17). The congregation agreed with me that Cain’s mother was named Eve (by Adam) ‘because she was the mother of all the living’ (Genesis 3:20),1 thus Cain can only have married a descendant of his own parents—probably his sister.2 But many were clearly not satisfied with that, hence my question about marrying a relative.
So I continued by asking: ‘How many of you are married?’ About two-thirds of the congregation raised their hand.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you didn’t marry a relative—a descendant of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman—then I’d like to know what it was you married, because you didn’t marry a human being! Maybe you married a pig? (Maybe some of the wives might think so … )’
After the laughter had subsided, I continued, ‘So anyone who’s ever married, going back all the way to the children of the first parents Adam and Eve, married a relative.3 So how could Adam and Eve’s sons and daughters have married one another when the Bible says (Leviticus 18:9, 20:17; Deuteronomy 27:22) that God forbids marriage between ‘near of kin’ (or ‘close relative’), i.e. siblings—even half-brother and half-sister?’
This ‘apparent contradiction’ is at the root of skeptics’ oft-employed strategy of challenging Christians to answer the ‘Where did Cain get his wife?’ question.4 Christians need to be able to answer this (1 Peter 3:15)—for there is no contradiction! To demonstrate that to the congregation on this occasion, I engaged them once more in a back-and-forth dialogue:
‘These instructions from God in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are very clear—if a man marries his sister or half-sister, then he is cursed. But tell me, who did Abraham marry?’
The congregation agreed that Abraham’s wife Sarah was indeed his half-sister (Genesis 20:12).
‘So was Abraham cursed?’ I asked. With people shaking their heads, I continued, ‘You’re right, the Bible says Abraham was blessed! Why wasn’t he cursed as per Leviticus/Deuteronomy?’, I asked.
As many continued to look puzzled, I asked them these final questions:
‘Here’s the key to understanding this “dilemma”. When God spoke these instructions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, prohibiting marriage between close relatives, to whom was he speaking?’
‘Moses’, came the reply.
‘So when did Abraham live—before Moses, or after?’, I asked.
The looks on the faces of most of the congregation told me that ‘the penny had dropped’. For the remainder, I spelled it out: ‘Of course Abraham lived before Moses, so the commandments in Leviticus and Deuteronomy did not apply to Abraham (nor to anyone else prior to Moses), so there was no problem morally with brother-sister marriage pre-Moses.’5
But what about the apparent biological problem of genetic defects and deformities in the offspring resulting from marriage between close relatives? Having earlier explained to the congregation about the progressive accumulation of genetic copying mistakes (mutations) since the Fall (consistent with a world ‘in bondage to decay’—Romans 8:19–22), the excited looks on their faces showed they understood that the children of a genetically perfect Adam and Eve could have married one another without any potential to produce deformed offspring.
Biologically today, however, the accumulation of genetic mistakes is such that brothers and sisters are likely to carry the same mutations, i.e. mistakes in the same genes since they have the same parents. (We all have two sets of genes—we inherit one gene of each pair from each parent.) Thus the offspring of brother-sister intermarriage could today inherit the same mutated gene from both parents—tragically resulting in defects.
In contrast, when two people who are not closely related marry one another, if their offspring inherit a mutated gene from one parent it is not a calamity, because a good copy of the gene from the other parent is there as a back-up.
So, as I remarked to the congregation, ‘We’re all mutants!’ in the sense that we’re all carrying mistakes on our genes. And when we marry, we marry a relative, a descendant of the first man and woman. But by making sure that the relative we marry is a distant relative, someone who is carrying copying mistakes different from the mutated genes we have, we minimize the risk to our offspring.
The importance of being related
It’s actually important in an eternal sense, too, that we all are related as descendants of Adam and Eve. A clear precondition for salvation through Jesus Christ—the ‘last Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45)—is that we be a physical descendant of the first man Adam.
The Lord Jesus is stated to be our ‘kinsman-redeemer’ (the definite sense of the word used in Isaiah 59:20, ‘the Redeemer shall come to Zion’—this uses the same Hebrew word גוNaomi in Ruth 2:20, 3:1–4:17). This is because Jesus, God the Son, took on human nature as well as being divine, becoming the perfect God-man. It was by His death on the cross when He became sin in our place, that we are redeemed.
So to be saved, we must be a physical descendant of Adam, or else the Redeemer could not be our ‘kinsman’.6 We can be saved because the last Adam entered our human line—descended from the first Adam, as we all are.7
- Note that Scripture says that Adam and Eve had both ‘sons and daughters’ (Genesis 5:4). Return to text.
- Or niece—but to have a niece of course means that one of Cain’s brothers had to marry a sister, so the question about brother/sister marriage in the first generation still needs to be addressed. Return to text.
- 1 Corinthians 15:45, Acts 17:26 Return to text.
- In the movie Contact (based on the book by the late atheist evolutionist Carl Sagan), the atheist heroine (played by Jodie Foster) ascribes the loss of her childhood faith in God to her pastor’s inability to answer the ‘Cain’s wife’ question. And at the famous Scopes trial, the lawyer for the evolution side, Clarence Darrow, successfully humiliated his anti-evolutionist opponent, William Jennings Bryan, when Bryan was unable to give an answer concerning Cain’s wife. Return to text.
- Occasionally, one encounters someone whose innate reaction is to maintain the line that any idea that brothers and sisters could once marry each other is ‘gross and disgusting’. See Jonathan Sarfati’s explanatory response to just such an objection, in which he emphasises how important it is to argue logically when discussing moral issues, and not be misled by emotions. Return to text.
- Being descendants of Adam is the reason we need salvation anyway, having inherited his fallen nature (Romans 5:12–19). See also The Fall, Curse and Satan. Return to text.
- That may be why it was important for Eve herself, in order to qualify for salvation, to also be a physical descendant of Adam (‘bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh’—Genesis 2:21–23—woman made from man’s rib). If she had been created in a totally separate fashion—from raw materials, as Adam was—Eve would not have been a ‘descendant’ of the ‘first Adam’. Return to text.
- CMI speaker presentations demonstrate that there are straightforward answers to the common objections and queries people have relating to the creation/evolution issue, which are some of the most frequent objections to faith in Christ. For further info, see under ‘Speaking and direct ministry’ on the What we do page. Return to text.