On the Marriage of Cousins
Q: I love my cousin and am having difficulties helping the family understand that what forbids cousins from marrying is our society and not God’s law. Would you please reply with your views on the subject? I am totally in love with him and need help showing my family that our souls are not in jeopardy for loving each other. Thank you for your help.
A: The legal term covering your dilemma is “consanguinity.” Literally referring to people of the same ancestry or bloodline, its extent spreads also to relationships by marriage, although this relationship is often called “affinity.” For example, Leviticus 18:6-18 specifically condemns both types, covering relationships with parents, step-parents, and children, brothers- and sisters-in-law, siblings, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews, and grandparents or grandchildren. Saint Paul severely chastised the church in Corinth for tolerating a situation where “a man has his father’s wife, (1 Corinthians 5:1)” urging that they “purge the evil person (v. 13)” from their midst.
Laws concerning consanguinity, affinity, and incest weren’t originally established either by God or by man. The beginning generations of mankind following both Creation and the Flood by necessity had to marry close kin. Perhaps the genetic problems often seen in marriages of close consanguinity were not such a problem until later in human history, as our genetic code had increasing opportunity to mutate or deteriorate.
You don’t say where you live. This is important because society’s laws concerning cousin marriage vary throughout this land. During the 1800s, American lawyer and anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan apparently blamed his children’s various birth defects and deaths his consanguineous marriage and actively worked to extend prohibitions on blood marriages. While little scientific evidence supported his claims, his zeal moved a number of states to go beyond their previous norm — a norm usually based upon the Bible. Currently, some states only allow marriages between people as close as second cousins. Others permit first cousin marriage, while North Carolina bans “double first cousin” marriages, where the parents of the bride are each either brother or sister of the parents of the groom.
Regarding the Christian Church, God’s Law certainly covers a wide range of people forbidden to marry. However, neither the Old nor the New Testament has any prohibition of cousin marriages, leaving specifics open for individual churches’ interpretation. It’s quite possible, for example, that Abraham married a close relative. His father Terah “fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran. (Genesis 11:26)” Later, “Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. (v. 29)” This rather convoluted sentence leads many Bible scholars to equate Sarai with Iscah, since Sarai can be a term of endearment meaning “my princess.”
We are certain that the subsequent patriarchs kept their marriages “all in the family.” Abraham told his servant, “[S]wear by the Lord ... that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites ... but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac. (Genesis 24:3-4)” The servant obliged, bringing back “Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother (v. 15)” to be Isaac’s bride.
Esau and Jacob tangled things even more. Abraham and Rebekah didn’t want their sons to marry Canaanite women. Esau, however, took two Hittites as wives (Genesis 26:34-35) before also taking “Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son [by Hagar], the sister of Nebaioth (28:9)” as his bride. Meanwhile, Jacob had already followed Isaac’s instructions: “[G]o to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. (v. 2)” Of course, thanks to Laban’s trickery, Jacob ended up marrying two of his cousins, his beloved Rachel and her older sister Leah (see Genesis 29:1-30).
In America, first-cousin marriages are banned by the Orthodox Church, subject to diocesan approval in Roman Catholicism, and variously permitted or forbidden among other Christian bodies or individual congregations. Therefore, if you marry, deciding where to marry is essential as is your church affiliation. And even if both Church and state permit your marriage, you may still be facing familial resistance because their idea of what is right versus what is incestuous differs from the thoughts of God, government, and the two of you. Think long and hard about possible alienation from your already shared family. Talk it over with both your pastor and a lawyer who understands these laws in detail. They can help you make a final decision based not only on love of each other but also that for family. Perhaps you can also recruit them in helping you to persuade your families that what you desire isn’t against God’s Law nor even the law of the state where you marry.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #534:2