In Leviticus 18:6-19, the phrase "uncover the nakedness" is used repeatedly. What is meant by this phrase?
There are three sets of words in the Hebrew that are translated as naked or nakedness.
- The Hebrew adjective 'arom refers to being without clothing. It can mean without any clothes or being inadequately clothed (Job 22:6). Related is the adjective 'erom.
- The Hebrew noun 'eryah refers to being exposed and unprotected after clothing is removed.
- The Hebrew noun 'erwah refers to the exposure of the genitals. There is a related word, 'arwah, that is used once in Ezra 4:14 and is commonly translated as dishonor or shame. This is because the exposure of the genitals is considered shameful or embarrassing.
We can illustrate the last word in the command: "Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it" (Exodus 20:26). People in those days wore tunics and robes. It might be possible if someone went high above the people that someone could see up under the robe and see the genitals. Thus, God also required that priests wear linen shorts under their clothing. "And you shall make for them linen trousers to cover their nakedness; they shall reach from the waist to the thighs" (Exodus 28:42).
This same word, 'erwah, is used in Leviticus 18, such as "None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness: I am the LORD" (Leviticus 18:6). Uncovering someone to expose their genitals is typically a sexual act. It would include intercourse because that cannot take place without the genitals being exposed, but it is a broader phrase that would include the acts leading up to intercourse and acts that people get involved in while trying to avoid actual intercourse, such as oral sex or "dry humping." The broader phrase is being used on purpose. It is not merely a euphemism for intercourse because in the same chapter God uses more specific terms. "You shall not have intercourse with your neighbor's wife, to be defiled with her" (Leviticus 18:20). The Hebrew here literally says "You shall not give semen by intercourse." God was not being indirect earlier in the chapter for politeness sake. He used a broader phrase to tell people that it wasn't just intercourse that was being forbidden.
That uncovering the nakedness is not the same as intercourse is shown by: “If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people” (Leviticus 20:18). Lying with a woman and uncovering her nakedness are two different steps in the course of sexual intercourse.
There are bound to be times when living in a small home that a person might accidentally see another family member unclothed. But this is different from uncovering another family member for the purpose of having sex. "If there is a man who takes his sister, his father's daughter or his mother's daughter, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the sons of their people. He has uncovered his sister's nakedness; he bears his guilt" (Leviticus 20:17). "Takes" can allude to marriage, but it is also used at times to state that intercourse takes place (Genesis 34:2; II Samuel 11:4).
Another phrase that can be confusing in Leviticus 18 is "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife; it is your father's nakedness" (Leviticus 18:7-8). The private areas of a person's body are not just his, they also belong to his spouse. Remember that exposing the genitals is supposed to be embarrassing and shameful; thus, to expose a person's genitals not only shames him but also his spouse. Recall also that one of the Ten Commandments is to honor your parents (Deuteronomy 5:16). This is a way that honor is not given to parents. Perhaps this is why cursing your parents (Leviticus 20:9) is followed by "If there is a man who commits adultery with another man's wife, one who commits adultery with his friend's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. If there is a man who lies with his father's wife, he has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death, their bloodguiltiness is upon them" (Leviticus 20:10-11). Having sex with your mother or stepmother is not only adultery, but it is also a dishonor to your father.
Shame is also a factor when a person indirectly gets another person to expose himself. "Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, who mix in your venom even to make them drunk so as to look on their nakedness! You will be filled with disgrace rather than honor. Now you yourself drink and expose your own nakedness. The cup in the LORD'S right hand will come around to you, and utter disgrace will come upon your glory" (Habakkuk 2:15-16).
Thus, "uncovering the nakedness" in Leviticus 18 is referring to removing someone's clothing while progressing toward sexual acts or for voyeurism. It might lead to sexual intercourse, but it is a broader word to include other sexual acts as well. These acts were forbidden between those near in kinship. Even if a person is not related by blood, the shame of the act brings shame to their spouse who is related by blood. Uncovering the nakedness of a person is not how you treat family.
A consequence of these laws is that near of kin could not marry since sex is a part of marriage.