Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery: It’s Not About Body Parts

You shall not commit adultery. Exodus 20:14

“Don’t be a louse. Be faithful to your spouse.” From the children’s musical “Good Kings Come in Small Packages”

“Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a promise.” Doctor Who

The seventh commandment isn’t about sex; it’s about fidelity. To limit its application to a list of permissible and nonpermissible uses of body parts is to elevate the rule above the principle, making it possible to obey the rule but violate the principle. Bill Clinton famously proclaimed, “I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky“, and in his mind he was telling the truth because the sexual acts in which he engaged were not of the missionary position tab A into slot B variety. But he certainly was unfaithful to his wife. Roy Moore denies any sexual wrongdoing, because in his mind there was nothing wrong with a much older man aggressively pursuing teenage girls, and because he stopped short of traditional penetrative intercourse, and because he wasn’t married at the time. But the behavior described by his victims was abusive and harmful, making it morally wrong in my book, and I think also in God’s.

There are many kinds of prohibited sexual behaviors listed in Leviticus 18, as well as other places in both the Old and New Testaments, but the seventh commandment deals specifically with unfaithfulness to one’s life partner. Then, as now, that particular kind of sexual misbehavior had grave economic as well as emotional consequences. A man whose wife was unfaithful could not be certain that children born to his wife were his biological offspring, which was important when it came to generational inheritances.  This was probably a bigger deal then than now; think of the Abraham’s longing for a biological heir, or the story of Naboth’s vineyard. A woman whose husband was unfaithful could not be certain of anything, as in patriarchal cultures she was utterly dependent on her husband for everything. If her husband found a younger or more desirable woman and neglected or abandoned her, she had no means of supporting herself. The covenant of marriage was taken so seriously that adultery, like murder and working on the Sabbath, carried the death penalty.

The principle behind “thou shalt not commit adultery” is faithfulness. I think that whenever someone fixates on the details of how a particular rule is to be obeyed, they often are consciously or subconsciously figuring out ways to get around the principle that caused the rule to be created. As usual, Jesus had some interesting things to say about those kind of semantic games, equating both divorce and lustful thoughts with adultery. Concerning divorce, Luke records Jesus as teaching his followers that “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” while Matthew phrases it “It has also been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, brings adultery upon her. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew also records Jesus as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  

It is interesting to me that in both of these examples, Jesus is telling men what they ought not to do, not women. He isn’t telling an abused wife that she must stay with her abuser; he’s telling men not to put their wives into vulnerable positions. He isn’t telling women to dress modestly so as not to lead men into temptation; he’s telling the men not to ogle women. The “Me too” movement has recently unleashed an avalanche of disclosures of sexual abuse perpetrated by a number of prominent entertainers and political figures. Although most of the victims were women, there have also been several men who have reported unwanted sexual advances, usually by other men. But gender or sexual orientation isn’t the real issue here. In every case, a person in a position of power sought to gratify his own desires with little thought of how that behavior might affect others.  That’s something adultery and sexual abuse have in common, along with many other forms of sexual immorality including pornography. It’s not so much what people do with their body parts as why they are doing it. If it’s for self-gratification at the expense of others, especially where power and control are involved, I don’t think God is pleased.

Much has changed since the Bronze Age when the Ten Commandments were written, and since Jesus elaborated on their meaning centuries later. Although what are considered normative cultural practices may have evolved, unfortunately human hearts have not changed much at all. We still have a tendency to be more narcissistic than empathetic in our interactions with others. We still have difficulty discerning what is most important and usually find it easier to follow the letter of the law (and inflict our understanding of those letters on others) than to live out its spirit. As Jesus observed,  “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander. These are what defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile him.” Paul wrote, For you, brothers, were called to freedom; but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, serve one another in love. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Thou shalt not commit adultery” can’t be reduced to a command about proper vs improper use of body parts. It is a call to faithfulness, to consideration of the effect of one’s behavior on others, and above all, to love.

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Leviticus: It’s the Principle of the Thing

 

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.  You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. -Leviticus 9:13
 
What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it -Rabbi Hillel

Leviticus extends the concept of ethical monotheism begun in Exodus. If there is only one God, and that God is an ethical being, how does he expect humans to behave?

Many people who intend to “read the Bible through” get bogged down in Leviticus, but I think it’s important to read the whole book, especially when prominent religious figures quote verses from it, generally in order to condemn people not of their tribe. At first glance, it’s not as interesting to read as Genesis and Exodus because there aren’t many stories, or at least not stories in the way we generally think of stories. A great deal of attention is given to proper ceremonial worship involving animal and vegetable sacrifices that are seem quite alien to our world today. Although Leviticus describes some rules that lay a good ethical foundation for living in community with other human beings (don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat) there are others that seem quite strange.(don’t wear clothing made of mixed fibers, don’t sow two kinds of grain in the same field, don’t cut the corners of your beard)

The first ten chapters give detailed instructions for different kinds of sacrifices: burnt offerings, meat offerings, sin offerings, and trespass offerings for sins both intentional and accidental. Different  kinds of offerings have different rules regarding what is to be sacrificed and how it is to be done. There’s a disturbing little story in Chapter 10 about what happens when the instructions aren’t followed exactly. God sends down fire from heaven and incinerates two of Aaron’s sons for not observing the correct worship protocol. If that weren’t disturbing enough, Aaron and his surviving family members are forbidden from any outward expression of mourning, lest they befall a similar fate.

The next chapters detail various prohibitions and commandments, mostly regarding “eat this not that” dietary constraints, hygiene practices, and sexual taboos.  Pork and rabbit are merely forbidden foods, while shrimp and lobster are called abominations. It’s okay to eat grasshoppers and crickets, but not worms. Not only must “unclean” foods not be eaten, they must not even be touched, and if they are touched accidentally a complicated cleansing ritual is prescribed. Cleansing rituals are also prescribed for menstruating and childbearing women, and for men following any kind of emission of semen, including but not limited to intercourse. There are two whole chapters on dealing with leprosy, which seems to be a broad term applied not only to various skin diseases, but also to mold and mildew problems in clothing and buildings. Certain sexual practices are forbidden, including “lying with a man as with a woman” and having sex with a menstruating woman. Tattoos and certain kinds of hair and beard styles are forbidden. Blasphemers and children who curse their parents are subject to the death penalty. A fair amount of space is given to economic justice issues, including a prohibition against charging interest on loans and the establishment of the Year of Jubilee, when all loans are forgiven, slaves are freed, and property returned to its original owners.

The last chapters of Leviticus command the observance of various religious observances and festivals, including the Sabbath, Passover, and the Day of Atonement, and gives detailed instructions for how these are to be observed. Leviticus concludes with a list of consequences: good things will come to the people if they obey all God commands, and bad things will happen if they don’t.

So what are we to make of Leviticus? I know some people who would say toss the whole thing out, but I’m not one of them. Although I am not a Biblical inerrantist or literalist, I do have a fairly high view of the Bible in that I believe God inspired the people who wrote it, and God guided the choices of the people who selected which ancient writings should comprise our sacred scriptures. If it’s there, there is a reason, and I will generally emulate Jacob by wrestling with God until I have found an explanation that makes sense to me.  As far as Leviticus is concerned, I try to understand it in its historical context, and to look for the principles behind the rules. I think that’s what Jesus taught. He repeatedly made comments like “you have heard it said…but I say” with reference to commandments dealing with murder, adultery, false witness, and lex talionis. I think that’s what he meant when he said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.”

I see the overriding principle of Leviticus as holiness: “For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.” I understand “holy” to mean “set apart for a purpose”, and that purpose is to demonstrate love: love for God, and love for our fellow human beings.  The principle doesn’t change, but the application of the principle as expressed in rules might differ in different cultures and different times. The Israelite people weren’t to live like the cultures surrounding them, whose practices were often deplorably exploitative and cruel. They were to be different in a good way, so that other people would see that there was a better way to live, and perhaps be drawn to it and to God.

If we think of principles rather than rules, and the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, we will begin to appreciate Leviticus in a new way. Here’s what it says to me:

Sin is whatever separates human beings from God and their fellow human beings in a bad way, one that causes harm.  Sometimes we do hurtful things on purpose and sometimes we don’t mean to cause harm, but get it wrong and hurt people anyway. God takes sin seriously because he wants us to have shalom- peace and harmony and wholeness and connection. God is smart enough and loving enough to figure out ways around our tendency to break things, and fix them.  God wants us to be holy-not  to be different in weird, arbitrary ways, but to be different in positive, practical ways- from all that is wrong in the world around us. By so being, and doing, we show hurting people the way to shalom. And I think that’s good news.