Well, let’s recap. So far, I’ve described the marital formula given by God in Genesis 1-2, and I’ve identified homosexuality and polygamy as distortions of God’s plan for human marriage and sex. The marital formula was a necessary foundation– a man leaves his family and cleaves unto his wife. Identifying homosexuality as a distortion is important in our culture because there is an attempt by a very vocal segment of the populace to redefine marriage and family. Identifying polygamy as a distortion is necessary because that same group would like very much to prove that there is no biblical foundation for the nuclear family. We now move on to a very obvious distortion: adultery and premarital sex. Or, perhaps it is not so obvious to some.
I believe emphasizing this distortion is important for two reasons. First of all, those external to Christianity need to realize that Judeo-Christian beliefs are consistent and not biased. It is not homosexuality alone that is wrong; it is any sex outside of biblical marriage. Secondly, it would seem that we within Christianity need to remind ourselves of the danger of falling into sin. Not a week goes by that a religious leader doesn’t make the paper because of immorality. We need to guard our hearts from lust, protect our churches and families from temptations, and walk humbly with God. It does not do us well to attack homosexuality politically and not be clean ourselves from the sins that could lead us astray.
Brief Historical Background (It’s all basically the same.)
Adultery was a capital offense is most Ancient Near Eastern cultures. The Laws of Ur-Nammu condemn a man who sleeps with another man’s wife, a wife who initiates sex with another man, or any man that sleeps with a slave girl he is not married to. The Code of Hammurabi condemns both participants in an adulterous affair, but a husband is able to request that his wife be spared. Middle Assyrian laws absolve a man who unknowingly sleeps with another man’s wife, but otherwise both are put to death. Later Assyrian laws leave the wife’s punishment up to her husband. Ancient Hittite laws permit the husband of an adulterous woman to kill his wife and her co-adulterer if he catches them in the act, however, if he does not catch them in the act, he must either absolve both or neither from guilt.
The Pentateuch, Adultery, and Premarital Sex
As far as the Genesis narrative goes, Joseph is accused by Potiphar’s wife of adultery and is jailed for it. Reuben sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and loses his birthright because of it. Abraham tried to trick Pharaoh and Abimelech, king of Gerar into believing Sarah was his sister, and Isaac attempted the same deception. It’s obvious from reading each of these accounts that these pagan cultures all saw adultery as a great sin (Genesis 20:9). Strange as it may seem to us, murder is actually a lesser sin than adultery in these cultures. This is interesting, since some see the violence of the Old Testament as evidence that ancient peoples were somewhat barbaric, but they would look on our cultural with utter revulsion. These narratives also record God’s disapproval of adultery. He sends plagues on Egypt and threatens Abimelech with death. Why did God act so severely?
As I hinted at in my post on polygamy, there is a theological and a practical level to every sin. On the practical level- the earthly level- sins are offenses against those around us or against ourselves. We commit these sins due to our own fleshly desires, thoughts, wills, and wishes. On the second level- the upper, theological level- every sin flies in the face of God’s goodness, mercy, love, justice, and holiness. We worship God with our lips, perhaps, but serve another master with our thoughts and actions. “Against Thee- Thee only- have I sinned,” says David in the Psalms. Years before David’s confession, Joseph replied to Potiphar’s wife’s seductive attempts by simply saying: “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”
As for the Mosaic Law, the seventh commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) is very clear and absolute in its terms, but the tenth commandment prohibits even desiring another man’s wife as well. (Remember that the Ten Commandments are written in the masculine gender for linguistic reasons but are for all of Israel to follow.) Deuteronomy’s expansion on this 10th commandment is interesting in light of the temptation to desire what is not yours. In his “The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law”, Stephen Kaufman points out that the expansion on the 10th commandment in Deuteronomy 25 forbids Jews from owning unjust weights, not simply using them (that would fall under “theft” in the 10 Commandments.) The idea is that Israelites were not permitted to knowingly put themselves in a situation which would cause them to break the 10th Commandment, so incorrect weights could not even be owned or made, lest they tempt someone to steal. In Leviticus 18:20 and 20:10, Israelites and foreigners alike are forbidden to commit adultery, and- like homosexuality- extramarital sex will result in the removal of any nation that practices on a massive scale, according to these passages. Adultery and premarital sex are also abominations in the broad sense. In Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, and Deuteronomy 22, the punishment for adultery is death.
Why was adultery and premarital sex such a big deal to God? Christopher Wright addresses this question in his essay “The Israelite Household and the Decalogue.” Wright suggests that adultery goes beyond mere personal morality and extends to the social, economic, and theological stability of individuals, families, and nations. The idea here is that God takes any threat to the nuclear family seriously because a stable household was the social basis for continued worship of God. A breakdown in family relationships would result in the breakdown in national Israel’s relationship with God. This is especially true in Israel because it began as a theocracy, and the Jews continue to be God’s chosen people. As Wright observes, “Adultery strikes at the very heart of the household by shattering the sexual integrity of the marriage.” Every adulterous act in Israel was of national- not simply private- concern. In light of Wright’s observations, I would further suggest that- while the United States is not identical to or in any way linked with national Israel- the principle remains the same. Our stability, education, economics, military, government, and- yes- religious devotion is intimately associated with the family unit. If the family unit is destroyed or degraded, a nation cannot maintain its stability. In this way, I would suggest that divorce, adultery, and premarital sex are far more deadly to society than homosexuality privately practiced. Redefining marriage is a completely different issue that I will save for another day due to its implications in American law, but I believe that we should make our priority strengthening and stabilizing heterosexual marriages if we wish to see increased stability in our nation. This will only be done by a return to Judeo-Christian values and- most importantly- the power of the Gospel to transform lives and homes.
The Prophets and Poets on Adultery
The verb “na’ap” (to commit adultery) occurs 24 times in the prophets, primarily in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Israel’s turning from the Covenant in sin and idolatry was a case of spiritual adultery, breaking the bonds of a covenant relationship. God compares Israel to Hosea’s own adulterous wife, Jeremiah records God saying, “I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and your neighings after lovers!”, and Ezekiel describes Israel to an “adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!” What is Israel’s punishment?
“I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy.…They shall bring up a crowd against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords.” – Ezekiel 16:38, 40
Psalm 50 condemns those who “keep company with adulterers”, and Psalm 51 reveals David’s understanding of his actions as being ultimately against God. Job makes it a point to emphasize his sexual purity in chapter 31. Proverbs 6:25 warns against lusting after a woman, and it portrays the adultress in chapter 7 as impudent, pretending to be religious- she needs to earn money to pay religious vows. She uses flattery and beauty to seduce a man, who is compared to an ox being taken to a slaughterhouse.
Practical Application and Summary
The bottom line in all of this is that death is the end result of adultery in God’s eyes. Adultery and premarital sex destabilize the marital relationship, which in turn destabilize children, businesses, schools, and- in our case- churches. The nuclear family is the building block of society, and no society can stand for long if too many blocks are moved or tilted. We Christians would do well to heed the call of the 10th commandment as well as the 7th- it is not just adultery, but the lust for a relationship that is not yours to have, that must be avoided. Jesus would remind us that it is the inner man that gives rise to the outer man, and that we are all subject to sinful passions if we are not controlled by the Spirit. No man or woman, no matter how godly they may be, can be unphased or unaffected by such powerful desires. We must beware and be accountable. We must also be wary of people who use religion as justification for sexual impropriety, as the prostitute in Proverbs 7 did.
Yet extramarital sex and lust are indeed rampant in our society. How then shall we live? For starters, even the Mosaic Law implicitly grants that we must be pitiful and compassionate. For sins such as idolatry (Deuteronomy 7:16, 13:9), premeditated murder (Deut 19:11), and malicious false witness (Deuteronomy 19:21), the Israelites are told “your eye shall not pity” or “you shall not spare them.” There was no redemption price to be paid in lieu of capital punishment, unlike many other sins. In cases of immorality, there is no prohibition against having compassion and pity. The implication is that the death penalty for immorality is not absolute, depending on circumstances. This fact is made certain in Proverbs 6:35, when we are told that a husband would not accept the ransom price from a man who had an affair with his wife. The fact that a ransom price was rejected means that such a price could be offered in the first place. There was room for mercy within the Law. After all, Hosea pardoned his wife Gomer (poor woman), and, iIn the Gospels, Joseph determined to put Mary away privately rather than have her put on trial. David’s prayer for forgiveness in Psalm 51 is perhaps most telling of all. He admits his sin against the Almighty and asks that a clean heart and a right spirit be put within him. David recognizes that only God can cleanse what has been defiled.
Believers must stand firm on the importance of purity and chastity, and they must be wary of being led astray by temptations from without and within. They must guard their hearts diligently and proactively. For those who have fallen, we must restore those who repent in a spirit of meekness. That is not a New Testament concept alone, though justification and cleansing from sin ultimately occurred in the New Testament at the Cross. No, the Law itself allows pity and compassion on the fallen, and we are better for it if we can forgive with God’s help. We can introduce the lost to the One who paid the ransom price for sin Himself, and we can demonstrate true love in our daily lives. In this, we work to fulfill both Law and Grace in our own way.
This post is part of a continuing series on theology and human sexuality. I plan on writing a few more entries on the role of women in Scripture and- finally- the ideal picture of love and romance in Song of Solomon. Stay tuned!