In Leviticus 20:14, 20, and 21, the Lord gives varying punishments for sexual sins:

14 If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is wickedness. They shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you.

20 If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness. They shall bear their sin; they shall die childless. 21 If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an [a]unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.

How come there were different punishments? What explanations can be given for immolation in verse 14 and childlessness in verses 20-21.

  • No one is to be executed by fire, certain sin [e.g Lev 20:14, 21:9] defiles the land and their flesh needs to be burned [cleansed by fire] that is after they have been executed. This can clearly be seen in Joshua Ch 7 when the thief had stolen the devoted things, 15 And it shall be that the one who is selected with the things designated for destruction shall be burned with fire ... 25 ... And all Israel stoned them with stones; and they burned them with fire [n]after they had stoned them with stones. So it's not the punishment that is different but how to deal with the corps. Apr 15, 2022 at 10:53

2 Answers 2


This is a case where the English translation is technically correct but misleading. To make it more clear, it could have been translated instead as "put to death" rather than "die." Consider the Hebrew interlinear for verse 20.

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This could, perhaps, even be translated as "childless, they shall die." But look at the meanings for the Qal form of this Hebrew verb via the tooltip for this word.

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Notice the second meaning which has "to die (as penalty), be put to death."

In other words, it appears that they were to be executed promptly, and that the execution should take place before any children might have come from their illicit relationship.

But what about contraception/sterilization?

I understand that others may view this passage differently. For those who think the couple was permitted to live, yet not bear children, how would said children have been prevented? There is nothing in the scripture to indicate how such a sentence would have been enforced or enforceable. When a man was jealous over his wife, thinking she might have been unfaithful, she was to drink the bitter water of the curse that would prevent her from having children, but nothing of this nature is prescribed for these illicit relationships.

Here is a portion of the passage pertaining to the bitter water of the curse (see the entire chapter for the full story).

And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. (Numbers 5:26, KJV)

And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. (Numbers 5:27, KJV)

And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed. (Numbers 5:28, KJV)

This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled; (Numbers 5:29, KJV)

Or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. (Numbers 5:30, KJV)

Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity. (Numbers 5:31, KJV)

Yet in the treatment of relationships outside of a legitimate husband-wife situation, this bitter water is not prescribed. Instead of this bitter water which induces sterility in the unfaithful wife, the death penalty is prescribed.


The punishments are not actually different; only the manner of execution of the punishment is simply not repeated during the subsequent delineation of equivalent infractions. All of these illicit sexual relationships were to be punished with death.

  • Good answer. But it's incomplete as it does not address my query about verse 14's punishment via immolation. That's the dimension I also want to know: Why was the punishment of marrying someone's wife AND her mother immolation, which is different from the other infractions?
    – Philip
    Sep 30, 2021 at 4:19
  • Perhaps my conclusion was not sufficiently clear, but I am stating in it that the form of execution (burning, in this case) would have been the same across the board for this category of sin: illicit sexual relationships. Having prescribed the manner of execution in verse 14, one assumes we are still talking about this same type of execution in the verses which come immediately afterward saying that the ones in violation must be put to death. Were a different manner of execution to be used, it would have had to be specified separately.
    – Polyhat
    Sep 30, 2021 at 4:23
  • So just to clarify, you're saying the overall punishment is death and it may vary as to how it is executed, yes?
    – Philip
    Sep 30, 2021 at 6:01
  • @Polyhat No one is to be executed by fire, you do the same mistake as Catholic Church do, certain sin [e.g Lev 20:14, 21:9] defiles the land and their flesh needs to be burned after they have been executed. This can clearly be seen in Joshua Ch 7, 15 And it shall be that the one who is selected with the things designated for destruction shall be burned with fire ... 25 ... And all Israel stoned them with stones; and they burned them with fire [n]after they had stoned them with stones. Apr 15, 2022 at 10:40
  • I appreciate your answer, Daniel. Could you provide sources for your explanation? Joshua and Leviticus are two different books.
    – Philip
    Apr 17, 2022 at 2:47

Regarding Punishments in [Vayiqra וַיִּקְרָ֖א | Leviticus 20] for violating the Mitsvot of Leviticus 18.

Why in [Vayiqra וַיִּקְרָ֖א | Leviticus 20:21] should an Ish אִ֗ישׁ "Man" become Aririm עֲרִירִ֥ים "Childless" due to a forbidden union with his brother's wife (while his brother is still alive)?

[Vayiqra וַיִּקְרָ֖א | Leviticus 18:16] : "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife: it is your brother's nakedness." ( עֶרְוַ֥ת אֵֽשֶׁת־אָחִ֖יךָ לֹ֣א תְגַלֵּ֑ה עֶרְוַ֥ת אָחִ֖יךָ הִֽוא )
  • The Punishment for violating the Mitsvah of Leviticus 18:16 is documented in Leviticus 20:21.
[Vayiqra | Leviticus 20:21] "If a man marries the wife of his brother, it is indecency. It is the nakedness of his brother that he has uncovered; they shall remain childless." (וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִקַּ֛ח אֶת־אֵ֥שֶׁת אָחִ֖יו נִדָּ֣ה הִ֑וא עֶרְוַ֥ת אָחִ֛יו גִּלָּ֖ה עֲרִירִ֥ים יִהְיֽוּ)
  • Reason : The man was trying to erase the memory of his brother's life - stealing his brother's wife & children. | Punishment : Inability to have children with his brother's wife (during his brother's life) due to adultery.

How was this Childless (Birth Control) punishment achieved in ancient Israel? - [Numbers 5:14-27] documents details of the adulterous man & woman's Birth Control punishment (enforced by Ha-Kohen הַכֹּהֵן֒ The-Priest) : https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9933/jewish/Chapter-5.htm

For violating the Mitsvah of Leviticus 18:17, we learn about the curse of "Lust" known as זִמָּ֣ה Zimmah in [Leviticus 20:14] .

"If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is [Lust] ; both he and they shall be put to the fire, that there be no [Lust] among you."

Zimmah זִמָּ֣ה or "Lust" was forbidden in [Leviticus 18:17] : "You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter; you shall not take [in marriage] her son's daughter or her daughter's daughter, to uncover her nakedness they are close relatives, it is [Lust]." (עֶרְוַ֥ת אִשָּׁ֛ה וּבִתָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תְגַלֵּ֑ה אֶת־בַּת־בְּנָ֞הּ וְאֶת־בַּת־בִּתָּ֗הּ לֹ֤א תִקַּח֙ לְגַלּ֣וֹת עֶרְוָתָ֔הּ שַֽׁאֲרָ֥ה הֵ֖נָּה זִמָּ֥ה הִֽוא)

To escape potential punishments for Zimmah זִמָּ֣ה, we are reminded in [Matthew 5:27-30] How to perform the mitsvah of Leviticus 18:17 by denying Lustful behavior.

  • The punishment of Zimmah act in Leviticus 20:14 is discussed by Sages in [Sanhedrin 75-76].

[Sanhedrin 75a.7] MISHNA: And these are the transgressors who are burned in the implementation of the court-imposed death penalty: One who engaged in intercourse with a woman and her daughter, and one who is the daughter of a priest and who committed adultery. (מתני׳ ואלו הן הנשרפין הבא על אשה ובתה ובת כהן שזנתה)

[Sanhedrin 76a.1] What is notable about her relatives? They are notable in that one who engages in intercourse with the mother of his wife is liable to be executed by the more severe punishment of burning. Will you then say that there is a prohibition with regard to his relatives, where one who engages in intercourse with his mother is liable to be executed by the less severe punishment of stoning? (מה להיא שכן אמה בשרפה תאמר בהוא שאמו בסקילה)


How was the Leviticus 20:14 Burning executed by the Sanhedrin?

  • But what about Leviticus 20:14? Your answer didn't address my concern there regarding the punishment of immolation. :-(
    – Philip
    Sep 30, 2021 at 4:21
  • @Philip - See the updated records regarding Leviticus 20:14 Punishment by the Sanhedrin (based on Sanhedrin 75-76). Sep 30, 2021 at 10:55

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