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Vayikra/Leviticus 20:10 And a man who commits adultery with the wife of a man, who will commit adultery with his neighbour's wife, he shall certainly be put to death: the adulterer and the adulteress.
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In a day when 'adultery' is considered an ugly word and society employs any number of euphemisms to avoid such an old-fashioned and judgemental term, the Torah is refreshingly blunt. The Torah believes in calling a spade, "a spade". But, just exactly what is a spade in this case?
The principle verb used (four times) in this verse is , to commit adultery. is the Qal 3ms prefix form - he will commit adultery - while and are Qal participles, ms and fs respectively: the male and female person committing adultery. RabbiHirsch tells us that, "the meaning of is quite definite. It is the specific term for adultery and is used in no other sense. The etymology is obscure, but it is likely that is related to the root . means a horizontal movement of the hand away from the body, the idea of turning away something from where it is with you towards someone else. That is exactly the description of adultery. The wife belongs exclusively to her husband. In adultery she is turned away from her husband and turned towards another. That is why the term is applied to no other sexual sin. Adultery is a sin against marriage itself, against the sanctity of the institution of marriage, not only against the husband who possibly might condone it." Adultery is explicitly forbidden by both sets of Ten Commandments: "You shall not commit adultery"1 (Shemot 20:13, D'varim 5:17, JPS).
Brown, Driver and Briggs list just the one meaning for , but provide three possible contexts: usually of a man, always with the wife of another; of a woman; and of idolatrous worship. There are several rabbinic qualifications to make certain who this means.Ibn Ezra, for example, writes that "a married woman who has been raped is not an adulteress". Drazin and Wagner sum up the surrounding conditions: "A single woman raped by a married man is also not an adulteress (adultery is defined as consensual), nor for that matter is a single woman who willingly consented to relations with a married man, as in halakhah adultery is defined strictly as union with another man's wife. Therefore if a single man had relations with a married woman, both are adulterers." Modern society, on the other hand, is more egalitarian: adultery is committed when either a husband or a wife has consensual sexual relations with someone other than their spouse, whether that person is themselves married or single.
The penalty for adultery is very straightforward: the death penalty for both parties. The middle phrase in our text repeats the charge both to clarify the offence - with a married woman whose husband is part of the community of Israel - and to emphasise the severity of the offence. This is a major betrayal of trust on one part, and incitement to betray their partner on the other. Both parties have shown contempt for the oaths and undertakings that at least one of them has made and the marriage of at least one of them is irretrievabley over. As King Solomon warned: "He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself" (Proverbs 6:32, ESV).
Why are people so reluctant to use the word 'adultery' today? Society would rather talk about an affair, a liaison or the more informal 'cheating'. Even 'unfaithfulness' or 'infidelity' are preferred over 'adultery'. While adultery remains a crime in many parts of the world, prosecutions haven't been brought in western society for many years. One of the more frequently cited reasons for divorce in the past, in recent times and with the availability of quick and easy "no fault" divorce, adultery is hardly mentioned unless used or threatened in a fight over the financial settlement. Does that imply that it isn't happening any more? On the contrary, statistics apparently show that adultery is on the increase as society's standards of sexual morality decline. No longer confined to wife-swapping swingers, multiple concurrent relationships are becoming more common. Perhaps that is why the word is not used - because the idea of a faithful, exclusive and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman for life is no longer the norm.
Yeshua, on the other hand, seems very clear. Firstly, He removes the possibility of any grey areas, but tightening the idea of what adultery to include unfaithful thoughts or ideas: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28, ESV); then He makes it clear than divorce on any other grounds than adultery having already been committed is not a divorce in G-d's eyes: "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (vv. 31-32, ESV). Mark's reading of that saying - "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:11-12, ESV) - both include women in the process and shows that the original marriage remains in force before G-d despite the human procedure of divorce. Some texts even suggest an equivalence between murder and adultery: "For He who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' also said, 'Do not murder.' If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law" (James 2:11, ESV). The Jerusalem Council specifically listed sexual immorality as one the four prohibitions that endured for Gentile believers - "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality" (Acts 15:28-29, ESV) - while Rav Sha'ul lists adultery as one of the things that excludes a person from the kingdom: "Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of G-d" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, NASB).
James, picking the churches of his day up because they are bickering and competing over possessions and pleasures, warns the church, "You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with G-d?" (James 4:4, ESV). He calls them adulterers because they are being unfaithful in their relationship with G-d; they are putting material things and relationships before G-d. Rav Sha'ul senses the same issue in Corinth: "For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:2, ESV). Here the believers are being tempted to listen to other preachers with different gospels and turn away from their exclusive relationship with Yeshua. This is spiritual adultery - 'cheating' on our relationship with G-d - and the penalty is exactly the same: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world -- the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions -- is not from the Father but is from the world" (1 John 2:15-16, ESV). If we commit spiritual adultery, then we become spiritually dead: our relationship with G-d and the object of our adultery - the possessions, practices or people - become death to us.
Unlike the ancient Israelites, however, by G-d's grace, the penalty is not physical execution. This period of grace allows us time to notice what is going on and offers us an opportunity to repent and turn away from our adulterous thoughts and actions. We are given time to turn around, confess our sin and receive G-d's forgiveness in Yeshua. Not that this is easy; that little word 'confess' is more easily said than done - it requires agreeing with G-d that He is right and we are wrong, accepting that what we have said or done is sin, humbling ourselves to place ourselves at G-d's mercy and saying 'sorry'. Needless to say, it also means stopping that adulterous behaviour, whatever it is. But G-d has given us His promise that if we do, He will meet us more than halfway: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, ESV). That's a promise we all need to hear!
1. - Except in an early edition, printed in 1631, of the King James Bible that was known as the Wicked Bible, in which the compositor accidentally omitted the word 'not' so that the text read, "Thou shalt commit adultery". This earned the printer a hefty fine and the loss of his printing license!
Further Study: Jeremiah 2:2-7; Hosea 2:19-20; Ephesians 2:1-7
Application: You might not dream of committing physical adultery, but how are you on the spiritual adultery front? Have you compromised and put other things before your relationship with G-d? Get it sorted out today and be restored to fellowship with Him.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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