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 Is biblical adultery the same as adultery today?  

This week's question came from a conversation I had with a parishioner about morality. The question was: One of the ten commandments says, "Thou shall not commit adultery." But did that mean the same then as it does now?

It seemed like a simple question. Adultery should be easy to define. Why, everyone knows adultery is having intercourse outside of marriage. Right? Wrong. Apparently the Old Testament has a very different understanding of what adultery is.

To begin with, the Old Testament regards marriage differently than we do today. For one thing, it was perfectly alright to have a number of wives as well as concubines. Abraham had only one wife, Sarah, but it was perfectly moral and legal for him to have intercourse with Hagar so that he might have an heir (Genesis 16.2). On the other hand, Jacob had two wives and two concubines and he had children by all four. Now, before the notion that child bearing has anything to do with the definition of adultery, according to 1st Kings 11.3 Solomon had 300 concubines and he certainly didn't have children with all of them (indeed, there is some doubt whether he even had relations with all of them, since that same verse claims he had 700 wives as well!).

Another example is Judah, who had relations with a woman he thought was a prostitute but turned out to be his widowed daughter-in-law (Genesis 38). And are there words of condemnation for his act? None, because she was a widow. Why not? Because adultery, in the Old Testament, has to do with having sexual relations with a woman who is married or is otherwise "possessed."

To understand the Old Testament concept of marriage we must realize women were considered chattel within their culture. A daughter was considered a liability to a family and a dowery was expected to be paid to the groom when he "took responsibility" for her. A woman was first the property of her father and later of her husband. She was bound to sexual fidelity in her marriage, but he was not bound by these same rules. If the husband wanted to (and could afford it), he could take responsibility for a concubine, a woman kept for sexual relations but without rights of inheritance, he could marry another wife, or he could frequent a professional prostitute. He could engage within any of these relationships without fear of reprisals either legally or morally. However, his wife or concubine could be killed for engaging in similar activities.

Apparently, adultery was defined differently for differing circumstances. Adultery for a male was defined as having sexual relations with a woman who was the property of another. Adultery for a married woman (or for a concubine) was having sexual relations with anyone not her husband. And professional prostitutes were never guilty of adultery, nor were the men who visited them.

By New Testament times definitions of adultery had begun to change. Although prostitution was still practiced and was legal, adultery had commonly come to mean any sexual relationship outside of marriage­even for a man. However, polygamy was still practiced among those who could afford it.

The definition of adultery has clearly changed over the years. In the Old Testament women were considered property and men were allowed to practice a rather open sexual life. But as time passed the definitions changed and according to Jesus' even having lust in one's heart constituted adultery (Matthew 5.28). Today adultery is defined as sex outside of marriage by either spouse­and polygamy is strictly prohibited. So, no, the prohibition of adultery in the ten commandments didn't mean the same then as it does now. But I wouldn't advocate a return to the "old ways." I don't think the idea would catch on with my wife­or the rest of society either!

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