Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery

Analysis of the Ten Commandments

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The Seventh Commandment reads:

Thou shalt not commit adultery. ( Exodus 20:14)

This is one of the shorter commandments allegedly given by to the Hebrews and it probably has the form it originally did when first written, unlike the much longer commandments that were probably added to over the centuries. It is also one of those regarded as among the most obvious, easiest to understand, and most reasonable to expect everyone to obey. This, however, is not entirely true.

The problem, naturally enough, lies with the meaning of the word “adultery.” People today tend to define it as any act of sexual intercourse outside of marriage or, perhaps a bit more narrowly, any act of sexual intercourse between a married person and someone who is not their spouse. That is probably an appropriate definition for a contemporary society, but it isn’t not how the word has always been defined.

What Is Adultery?

The ancient Hebrews, in particular, had a very restricted understanding of the concept, limiting it to just sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who was either already married or at least betrothed. The marital status of the man was irrelevant. Thus, a married man was not guilty of “adultery” for having sex with an unmarried, unbetrothed woman.

This narrow definition makes sense if we remember that at the time women were often treated as little more than property — a slightly higher status than the slaves, but not nearly as high as that of men. Because women were like property, having sex with a married or betrothed woman was regarded as misuse of someone else’s property (with the possible consequence of children whose actual lineage was uncertain — the main reason for treating women this way was to control their reproductive capacity and ensure the identity of the father of her children). A married man having sex with an unmarried woman was not guilty of such a crime and thus was not committing adultery. If she also wasn’t a virgin, then the man wasn’t guilty of any crimes at all.

This exclusive focus on married or betrothed women leads to an interesting conclusion. Because not all extramarital sex acts qualify as adultery, even sexual intercourse between members of the same sex would not be counted as violations of the Seventh Commandment. They might be regarded as violations of other laws, but they wouldn’t be a violation of the Ten Commandments — at least, not according to the understanding of the ancient Hebrews.

Adultery Today

Contemporary Christians define adultery much more broadly, and as a consequence, almost all extramarital sex acts are treated as violations of the Seventh Commandment. Whether this is justified or not is debatable - after all, Christians who adopt this position don't typically try to explain how or why it's justified to expand the definition of adultery beyond how it was originally used when the commandment was create. If they expect people to follow an ancient law, why not define and apply it like it originally was? If the key terms can be so greatly redefined, why is it important enough to bother with?

Even less debatable are the attempts to expand the understanding of “adultery” beyond sex acts themselves. Many have argued that adultery should include lustful thoughts, lustful words, polygamy, etc. Warrant for this is derived from words attributed to Jesus:

“You 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.“ ( Matthew 5:27-28)

It is reasonable to argue that certain non-sexual acts may be wrong and even more reasonable to argue that sinful acts always start with impure thoughts, and therefore to stop sinful acts we must pay more attention to the impure thoughts. It is not reasonable, however, to equate thoughts or words with adultery itself. Doing so undermines both the concept of adultery and efforts to deal with it. Thinking about having sex with a person you shouldn't have sex with may not be wise, but it's hardly the same thing as the actual act itself — just like thinking about murder isn't the same as murder.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery." Learn Religions, Oct. 29, 2020, Cline, Austin. (2020, October 29). Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery." Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).