(Leviticus 20:20) “If a man has sexual relations with his uncle’s wife (presumably after death), the sexual past of his uncle he has reopened. They will bear their error. They will die childless.”
(Leviticus 20:21) “If a man marries the wife of his brother (also presumably after death and the decedent had children), it is immoral. The sexual past of his own brother he has reopened. They shall remain childless.”
Why, from amongst all the sexual prohibitions listed in Torah, do these two particular instances warrant the divinely inspired intimidation of remaining barren? If remaining childless was a divine punishment for committing an ‘immoral’ sexual coupling, then why doesn’t the Moshe add that little warning to every sexual prohibition as a deterrent? After all, in those times, everyone lived to make more babies and without babies, a couple’s status would be reduced to nothing in light of their being unable to fulfill the first and primary command to (Genesis 1:28) “Reproduce and keep reproducing!” So considering the severity of such consequences, it seems right that Moshe would apply this threat to all sexual prohibitions. Why not? Other than the threat of death at the hands of your friends and neighbors, what could be worse than living in a world where children are expected and not having any?
The question is further reinforced by the statement in Deuteronomy 23:3 “An illegitimate child shall not come into (marry from among) the congregation of YHVH. Even ten generations later, they are forbidden entry into the gathering of YHVH.” It appears that immoral sexual couplings can and do produce enough offspring to make Moshe worried enough to issue a warning about them, should people try to conceal the products their sexual misconduct and pass them off as legitimate. Just as the couples naturally yearn for children they must also, and equally so, yearn for children who can marry and have children of their own. If the threat of misbegotten offspring treated as social outcasts by virtue of bad birth was enough to dissuade the others from committing adultery, then why not the pairs in and ? What is worse, having no children at all, or having children who they, and their progeny, are forever branded as damaged goods? (There is some dispute as to what ‘mamzer’ actually means. I am using the widely accepted definition which implies a child born of an incestuous or adulterous union.)
Maybe Moshe added this additional warning to would be brother-widow and dead-uncle wife-lovers for a reason that wouldn’t apply in the other forbidden relationships. The distinguishing factor in 20:20-21 is that the new offspring, were there to be any, would upset the established social order of authority and inheritance, something that would not necessarily occur (or could not occur) in the other prohibited sexual liaisons. In each case the new children, assuming they were sons, would displace any of the deceased husband’s children and their position in the social hierarchy. In both cases the new husband would become father to his former nephews or cousins and the new children would supercede the former. Moshe perhaps thought this to be a very troublesome twist fraught with eventual disarray and domestic strife. (If I ever had to suddenly start taking orders from any of my cousins, there would be a murder soon after.)
It is also likely that Moshe witnessed this when in
The next question concerns the difference between the and . Why does one verse (20) state that “They shall bear their mistake and die childless”, yet for the next case (21) there is no mention of a punishment other than to “remain childless”? The case of a nephew suddenly becoming a step-father may have more serious repercussions than just creating a new sort of family wherein the children are both brothers and cousins at the same time. The man who marries the widow of his uncle marries ‘up’ sort of speak, rather than across, becoming a father to his cousins and assuming more status than he deserves from the established order. As we have seen in other places in Torah i.e. the Strange Incense, rebellion of Korach, etc., bucking the system, even with the best of intentions, holds dire consequences. Such a warning would serve to deter any would-be usurpers from within the family.
This explanation also fits the language of the Torah well. In and 21 the word for barren is “arririm”, which means childless but can also mean ‘lonely’; separated by the internal family conflict and mixed allegiances that arise from these types of marriages. In the case of the uncle’s widow, the word describing the act is “nidah”, which means both detestable and, in certain contexts also means to move or meander, implying a shift away from the established order.
Without being able to control the reproductive processes of the parties involved, Moshe is essentially uttering an empty threat in natural terms. He has no way to stop the sperm of a nephew from impregnating the ova of an uncle’s widow. Yet, Moshe did have the power of authority behind him, so powerful in such times when little was understood about genetics or conception, that the weight of his word became honored as divine.