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.