“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
The Seventh Commandment is not just about sex. Adultery is not just about the breaking of marriage vows. As with the other Ten Commandments, there is both a moral and a spiritual meaning to the Seventh Commandment. Both meanings are based upon a universal divine Principle that underlies the Law that was revealed to Moses.
Because of that universal divine Principle, which could be called “the Law of Love,” people’s efforts to dismiss this particular Commandment as outdated, useless, unenforceable, forgettable, or not applicable to modern man, will, at some point, prove as harmful as assuming that one can defy gravity by jumping off a cliff. It hurts!
Adultery, seen from a spiritual perspective, may be thought of as looking outside of our relationship with God for our completeness, our happiness, our satisfaction, our salvation. God commands us to be loyal to Him. We practice this solemn loyalty by taking our promises seriously, and disciplining ourselves to be faithful to those who are trusting in us to uphold our oaths. We learn in the Bible that the marriage covenant was considered to be of utmost importance. Purity, chastity, and virtue, both in and out of marriage, were highly valued. We shall see that in today’s world our thinking must also remain pure, by keeping it free from sinful beliefs which would muddy or spoil our spiritual vision. God’s Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” speaks to us on many levels, and offers guidance to keep us safe,
and on track, in our spiritual journey.
We will be exploring these concepts in the sections below [and in upcoming posts]. A separate article with ideas for teaching the Seventh Commandment to children and Sunday School pupils will follow.
There was already a moral code against adultery in ancient civilization before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. For example, in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (see Genesis 39), Joseph knew that it would be a “sin against God” to have sex with another man’s wife. This was hundreds of years before Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, and received the Ten Commandments. However, not everyone considered adultery a sin against God – it was more of a crime against property rights!
In those ancient times, a woman was considered to be the property of her father, and later of her husband. A loss of affection had little to do with the crime of adultery. Property rights were involved, especially when it came to the legitimacy of children. Husbands had to be very careful to make sure that the children his wife bore were his, since his possessions were to be passed along to them. This was serious business!
“Because women could bear a child with an ‘impure’ bloodline, introducing a ‘foreign interest’ into a family, their sexual behavior tended to be more strictly supervised, and females were subject to severe penalties for adultery or premarital sex. The laws and moral codes of ancient states exhorted men to watch carefully over their wives ‘lest the seed of others be sown on your soil.’” (Coontz, Stephanie: “Marriage, a History,” 2005; pg. 46)
“By the time we have written records of the civilizations that arose in the ancient world, marriage had become the way most wealth and land changed hands. Marriage was also the main vehicle by which leading families expanded their social network and political influence. It even sealed military alliances and peace treaties.” (ibid)
That is why the early Jewish definition of adultery is very specific. Jewish law states that adultery is the intercourse of a married woman with any man other than her husband. It was not considered adultery if a married man had sex with an unmarried woman, such as a concubine. An example is the relationship Abraham had with Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael, Abraham’s first child. (see Genesis 16).
Chastity before marriage was also important in early Hebrew history. In his book, The Ten Commandments, William Barclay writes:
“The supreme importance that the Jewish mind attached to chastity can be seen from the passage in Deuteronomy which provides for the trial of a bride whom her husband suspects of not being a virgin at the time of her marriage, and for her death by stoning if the charge is proved.” (Barclay, William: “The Ten Commandments,” pg. 88)
The early penalty for adultery was also stoning. We read in Leviticus 20:10:
“The man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
So, why, if the penalty was so severe, would any two people risk death to have sex? It’s a question still being asked today. As Barclay puts it:
“It is the paradox of human nature that there was no sin regarded in Judaism with greater horror than adultery, and there was no sin which, to judge by the rebukes of the sages and prophets, was more common.” (Barclay, William: “The Ten Commandments,” pg. 84)
Barclay explains the influences in the regions surrounding the Hebrews. Ancient people worshipped the power of reproduction, because it was so strong. Men visited cult or temple prostitutes. Sex with them was “regarded as an act of worship of the reproductive force.” Barclay goes on to write:
“To the modern mind the connection of prostitution with religion is shocking; but it was extremely widespread in those days; and it is perfectly understandable when it is understood as the worship of the life and reproductive force. Human nature being such as it is, it is easy to see the attraction of this form of so-called worship; and the basic purity of Jewish worship is in such an environment all the more wonderful, and we shall see later that the Christian ethic was faced with exactly the same problem. The wonder was not that sometimes the Jews drifted into sexual irregularity; the miracle is that in such an environment the ideal of disciplined chastity ever came into being at all, and that in the end the ideal of purity won the day.” (ibid, pg. 89)
Covenant with God
A covenant is a bond or agreement made between individuals. In the Bible, God made special covenants. For instance he made covenants with Noah (Genesis 9:13) and Abraham (Genesis 15:18-21; 17:4-14). In Exodus 24, we read of the first covenant God made with the Hebrews.
Throughout the Old Testament, we see the accusation of “adultery” leveled at the Hebrews when they were guilty of worshipping idols, or breaking trust with their promises to God to obey His laws. Adultery and fornication were useful symbols for getting the Israelites to understand the crime of idolatry. We read, for instance, in Ezekial 16:
“Wherefore, O harlot, hear the word of the Lord: Thus saith the Lord God; Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredoms with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them; Behold, therefore I will gather all thy lovers, with whom thou hast taken pleasure, and all them that thou hast loved, with all them that thou hast hated; I will even gather them round about against thee, and will discover thy nakedness unto them, that they may see all thy nakedness.”
The Old Testament records the tribulations of the Israelites as they wander for forty years in the wilderness, their takeover of the Promised Land, and then the continuing problems they had keeping their part of their covenant with God. When they were obedient to God’s laws, their society flourished; when they were disobedient, they brought punishment upon themselves. But God’s mercy was ever available:
“The New Covenant of the prophets grew up in the centuries after Israel had entered Canaan, and through experiences of personal and national suffering attained a spiritual awareness of the need for salvation. Israel had broken her covenant with God, but He was willing to write in their hearts a new compact (Jer. 31:30) which would be universally available.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary)
We read in the book of Jeremiah: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
In the first Covenant, God was a “husband” to the Hebrews. They believed that He promised protection in exchange for loyalty and obedience. Although adultery was a strong symbol to the Israelites, the principle behind the idea of a “covenant” does suggest that adultery is more than just illicit sexual relations between men and women.
In the New Covenant, man is expected to look within consciousness for God’s law. Just as Joseph was able to understand intuitively that adultery was wrong, even though he did not have a tablet of stone with such a commandment inscribed upon it, we can be sure that the Ten Commandments are within consciousness, and operate as spiritual law. If we live in harmony with God’s law, we prosper; if we try to set ourselves apart from the law, or above it, we bring discord into our lives. This is true of breaking the Seventh Commandment.
Betrothals and Adultery
Before moving to the teachings of Jesus, there is some interesting commentary on the subject of “betrothals” at that time, which sheds some light on the situation faced by Mary and Joseph. The Hebrew custom was to have three steps: first, an engagement; then a betrothal, lasting about a year; then the wedding ceremony. William Barclay’s book on the Ten Commandments provides details of what these three steps entailed, but here is a brief segment on the betrothal:
“Betrothal was as binding as marriage. A betrothed girl who was unfaithful was treated in the same way as an adulterous wife. Betrothal could only be ended by divorce. During the time the couple were known and regarded as man and wife. Should the man die, the girl was known as a widow, and in the law we find that curious phrase, ‘a virgin who is a widow.’ This explains the relationship of Joseph and Mary as we find in the first chapter of Matthew. In verse 18 they are betrothed; in verse 19 Joseph is called Mary’s husband, and he is said to wish to divorce her.” (Barclay, William: “The Ten Commandments,” 1973, pg. 100)
Thankfully, Joseph listened to the angel message, and took Mary as his wife rather than divorcing her; or worse, having her stoned. Joseph willingly obeyed God’s commands, proving that his allegiance to his covenant with God was more important than Jewish tradition. His purity of thought allowed the angel message to be heard.
JESUS AND THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT
As we have learned in our study of the other Ten Commandments, Jesus usually raised the bar with regard to the meaning or standards required of each Commandment. It is not enough to abide by (or ignore!) the literal interpretation only, we must be willing to see the moral and spiritual principle behind the Commandment.
We find our first message from Jesus on adultery in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”
Jesus has set the new standard: it is not enough just to avoid the legal definition of adultery; we must avoid indulging in lust. He tells us that this is so important we should go so far as to “pluck out an eye” that is being used for lustful gazing. Barclay explains:
“Of course, the words of Jesus are not to be taken with a crude literalism. What they mean is that anything which helps to seduce us to sin is to be ruthlessly rooted out of life.” (Barclay, William: “The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1,” pg. 148)
Barclay comments on the use of the term “lust” by Jesus:
“It is necessary that we should understand what Jesus is saying here. He is not speaking of the natural, normal desire, which is part of human instinct and human nature. According to the literal meaning of the Greek the man who is condemned is the man who looks at a woman with the deliberate intention of lusting after her. The man who is condemned is the man who deliberately uses his eyes to awaken his lust, the man who looks in such a way that passion is awakened and desire deliberately stimulated. . . . In a tempting world there are many things which are deliberately designed to excite desire: books, pictures, plays, even advertisements. The man whom Jesus here condemns is the man who deliberately uses his eyes to stimulate his desires; the man who finds a strange delight in things which waken the desire for the forbidden thing. To the pure all things are pure. But the man whose heart is defiled can look at any scene and find something in it to titillate and excite the wrong desire.” (ibid, pg. 147)
Clearly we can see how the use of pornography is lust. Jesus tells us this is adultery of the heart. If we are Christian, we will want to avoid pornography, explicit books, movies, and so we must “pluck out that eye,” so that we are not cast into “hell.” We learn in Christian Science that part of the definition of hell is “self-imposed agony.” Mistaking material pleasures as a source of happiness can bring self-imposed pain to the body.
Barclay’s comment above that Jesus was not speaking of the “natural, normal desire which is part of human instinct and human nature,” at first glance seems reasonable. In the time of Jesus, this was a huge step forward in man’s spiritual journey – to see that over-indulgence in lust is a form of adultery. But, there is a further step – a spiritual one – that challenges the notion that desire for sex is a natural or normal part of man’s spiritual identity. This will be explored under the section on Christian Science.
An important part of Jesus’ teachings was his explanation of motives. We learn that adultery and lust stem from sinful motives. Jesus told them:
“But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” (Matthew 15:18, 19)
Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, would later write:
“Jesus knew that adultery is a crime, and mind is the criminal. I wish the age was up to his understanding of these two facts, so important to progress and Christianity.” (Eddy, Mary Baker: “Christian Healing,” pg. 7:22)
The following episode from Matthew, chapter 19, contains a teaching that most Christians were not able to comprehend at the time, much less were prepared to follow. But it shows Jesus’ teaching on adultery and divorce in its original state, “unfettered by human hypothesis.” It has to be contemplated and prayed about by individuals, without being dictated to by others on how they should act upon it:
“The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
There is one well-known story, found only in the Gospel of John that shows Jesus dealing with a woman caught in the act of adultery (notice that the man was not brought before him!). Actually the main point of the episode, it has been said, is to show how Jesus handled the Pharisees’ attempt to catch him being disobedient to the Jewish law, but it also says a lot about how Christians are to show Christly compassion in such situations with possible adulterers. We read:
“And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. (John 8:3-11)
While Jesus showed mercy to the adulterous woman, notice an important point. She was told to “sin no more.” We must learn that we are not to abuse God’s mercy, by continuing to sin and hoping for forgiveness, but we are to set ourselves on a path of redemption as soon as we recognize the sin for what it is.
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
There are three separate Gospel accountings of an episode in Jesus’ life in which he is asked about marriage in the resurrection by a group of Sadducees, who are trying to trick him. His ending message shows a remarkable thought. The statement in Mark simply tells us there will be no marriage in the resurrection; but the statement in Luke appears to be saying that his followers should not marry at all!
“Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” (Matthew 22:29, 30)
“And Jesus answering said unto them, The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage.” (Luke 20:34, 35)
With that in mind, it is interesting to read that the first noteworthy act of Jesus in his ministry is the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, recorded in John. This would indicate at least some sort of approval for the institution of marriage. Perhaps he is urging those who are ready, to consider deeply what he is saying about the spiritual nature of man even now.
Mary Baker Eddy has a lovely comment germane to this. It is from the chapter “Marriage” in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and has the marginal sub-heading, “Blessing of Christ.”
“Experience should be the school of virtue, and human happiness should proceed from man’s highest nature. May Christ, Truth, be present at every bridal altar to turn the water into wine and to give to human life an inspiration by which man’s spiritual and eternal existence may be discerned.” (S&H 64)
[NOTE: For those unfamiliar with the religion of Christian Science (which is NOT the same as Scientology!) you might wish to check out the Questions and Answers on this site.]
End of Part One of Four
Go to Part Two – [Part Two includes: Early Christianity and the Seventh Commandment; Part Three includes: Christian Science and the Seventh Commandment; The Moral Demand of the Seventh Commandment; Meeting the Moral Demands; Christian Science and Marriage; Part Four includes: Dealing with the Temptation of Adultery]
For a list of other essays on this site go to the Essays page.