The Leviticus:8 Project
Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father. Leviticus 18:8
I know that I write frequently about my late father. Maybe it is because he was cheated out of the best years of harvest and fallowness by the cancer that consumed him. Plus, the Bible talks about fathers a lot, and he was mine.
It may very well be that the euphemisms used to describe sexual prohibitions are meant to imply a genteel approach to discussing such intimate matters. “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife” may or may not refer to an attempt at sexual assault, but it is undoubtedly prurient. “Your father’s wife” is not your mother; you are prohibited her nakedness in the preceding verse. The woman in question here is a different marriage for your father, and her most intimate physical self is an extension of your father’s intimacy.
(There is no set of similar prohibitions addressed to daughters. Let us simply acknowledge this presumed lack of agency for women in the Bible for the moment.)
I never uncovered any extension of my father’s intimacy during his life (and he was always married to my mother when I knew him). But I do have three distinct memories of uncovering his nakedness at three distinct points in time.
To be honest, this first one is not a clear memory, but I was told about it (by my mother) when I was driving, and I almost had to pull off the road. I still laugh whenever I think about it. My dad shaved each morning when he stepped out of the shower in the one bathroom of our family’s first apartment. As first-born, I was given pretty much the run of the place. My mom tried to persuade him to wrap a towel around his waist as he shaved, but he saw no cause to do so. That changed the day that I toddled in at age two, reached up, gave a yank and said, “ding ding.” (I am laughing now.)
I cannot remember seeing my father’s nakedness again until he invited me to play handball with him when I was in my twenties. He creamed me in match after match at the YMCA where he belonged, after which we retired to the locker room to clean up. It dawned on me as we showered that it was probably the first time I had seen him au natural since, well, “ding ding.” (Laughing again.)
The last time came close to the end of his life. He was bedridden, subjected to daily doses of chemicals combating the haywire cells in his brain, and physically comforted by painkillers that interfered with his ability to relieve himself. Weakened as he was, he could not exert the necessary effort to complete the process that most of us take for granted. I was alone with him on a visit when he asked me to put on a pair of latex gloves and assist him. It was a kindness many caregivers and close family had performed; this time was my first.
This verse in Leviticus does not imagine any of those scenarios. Abraham never shaved, Isaac never played handball and Jacob, though attended to his last breath, died of old age, not debilitating disease. It may resonate with those who remember Noah, sprawled in his tent after overindulging in wine and mocked by one his three sons, but only the innocent toddler saw anything to enjoy in my father’s nakedness.
Instead, the Bible considers what it means for a son to attempt to usurp his father’s rightful place in the family social order. I imagine that there is still such a concern among many people, but it has never been a worry of mine. He cleaned me up when I was little, I returned the favor when he needed it. He invited me to bond with him on the handball court and then, having trounced me, was completely at ease. That’s how things should be, I think.
These columns were interrupted for a number of weeks by my recovery from some minor surgery that nonetheless made thinking and typing difficult for a little while. My wife pointed out to me that it was the first time in more than forty years that I did mostly nothing for as long as I was convalescing. Nobody had to help me on the commode, but tending to my wound was her job because, for most of that time, I could not complete the effort myself. (I am okay now, thanks.)
I never doubt her love, but there was something especially sweet about being vulnerable as she took care of me. I am certain that’s not the nakedness the Bible is concerned about. It’s too bad that the inference of this verse and others like it scare us off from the tender comforts we might sometimes share.