Thou shalt not commit adultery

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"Thou shalt not commit adultery", one of the Ten Commandments, is found in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 20:14) of the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament. What constitutes adultery is not plainly defined in this passage of the Bible, and has been the subject of debate within Judaism and Christianity.


Hebrew Bible

Pre-law examples

In Genesis 12, Abram's wife Sarai is taken into the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace after Abram does not disclose her marital status. God inflicts “serious diseases on Pharaoh and his whole household.” [1] The Pharaoh realizes it is because Sarai is actually Abram's wife and tells him, "What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go." [2]

In Genesis 20, Abraham (renamed after his encounter with El Shaddai (God Almighty) has moved to the Negev and again conceals his marriage to Sarah. A local king, Abimelech, intends to marry her. However, God appears to Abimelech in a dream and says: "Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife." [3]

Years later, Isaac tells the same lie regarding his wife, Rebecca, but Abimelech quickly discovers the truth. Appalled, he confronts Isaac, saying, "Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death." [4]

In Genesis 39, a positive example is presented in Joseph, one of Jacob's twelve sons. He is sold into slavery in Egypt and quickly rises to a prominent and successful position managing the household of Potiphar, a military captain. He resists sexual advances from Potiphar's wife “day after day,” [5] protesting that he does not wish to betray Potiphar's trust. One day her advances become physical, and in his effort to escape, Joseph leaves his cloak behind. Potiphar's wife uses this ‘evidence’ for a false accusation of rape against Joseph. Joseph is imprisoned, losing all but his life. [6] More than two years later [7] Joseph is restored to an even higher position, serving the Pharaoh himself.

After Mount Sinai

According to the Book of Exodus, the law forbidding adultery was codified for the Israelites at biblical Mount Sinai. It was one of the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God on stone tablets. [8] Details regarding the administration of the law and additional boundaries on sexual behavior followed. [9] For example, the ordeal of the bitter water was established to prove the guilt or innocence of a wife whose husband suspected her of adultery. [10] Adultery was a capital crime, [11] and if adulterers were caught, at least two witnesses were required before the death penalty would be carried out. [12]

Since men were permitted to have multiple wives, adultery was interpreted to consist of sexual relations between a man and a married or betrothed woman who was not his wife. [13] A man who had sexual relations with a woman who was not married or betrothed was not guilty of adultery, per se, but the man was then obligated to marry the woman and not divorce her until the end of his life. [14]

If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

Other boundaries on sexual behavior included the prohibition of sexual relations between close relatives, between persons of the same sex, and between people and animals; prostitution was also forbidden. [15] The prohibition of prostitution has been interpreted by rabbinical scholars to preclude sexual relations outside of marriage in general, [9] [16] and a woman who, after getting married, was found to have been promiscuous before marriage faced the death penalty. [17] A woman who was raped was not guilty of breaking the law, provided she cried out for help (which was taken as proof that she did not consent). [18] According to Deuteronomy, the commandment against adultery was reaffirmed as the leadership of Israel passed from Moses to Joshua. [19]

Thou shalt not commit adultery by Baron Henri de Triqueti (1803-74). 1837. Bronze bas-relief panel on the door of the Madeleine Place de La Madeleine, Paris Nathan and David.jpg
Thou shalt not commit adultery by Baron Henri de Triqueti (1803–74). 1837. Bronze bas-relief panel on the door of the Madeleine Place de La Madeleine, Paris

King David's seduction of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba and the murderous cover-up of their adultery is an infamous transgression of this commandment. Occurring approximately four centuries after the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, the event and its aftermath are recounted in the books of Second Samuel and First Kings. Despite David’s sincere and lasting repentance, [20] his breaking the commandment against adultery brought temporal punishment [21] and initiated a cascade of tragic events in the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah.

The Book of Proverbs contains entire chapters warning against adultery and describing its temptations and consequences. [22] Direct warnings are given to stay far away from the adulteress. [23] Wisdom is described as a protection against "the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God; for her house sinks down to death, and her paths to the departed; none who go to her come back, nor do they regain the paths of life." [24]

A modern Ketubah (traditional Jewish wedding document) Kesubah.JPG
A modern Ketubah (traditional Jewish wedding document)

Spiritual parallels

The prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea indicate that God viewed Israel's worship of idols as spiritual adultery. [25] This led to a broken covenant between them and “divorce,” [26] manifested as defeat by an enemy nation followed by exile, from which the northern kingdom never recovered. [26] This spiritual adultery was apparently accompanied by the prevalence of physical adultery as well. [27]

In Judaism

… the transgression of commandments is also called uncleanliness or defilement. This term is especially used of the chief and principal crimes, which are idolatry, adultery, and murder. … In reference to adultery we read, "Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things." (Leviticus 18:24)

Maimonides, in The Guide for the Perplexed [28]
A Jewish wedding in Vienna, Austria, 2007 Jewish wedding Vienna Jan 2007 004.jpg
A Jewish wedding in Vienna, Austria, 2007

The Mitzvoh against adultery is interpreted to refer to sexual relations between a man and a married woman. Sexual relations outside of marriage are also prohibited based on Deuteronomy 23:18. [29] The mitzvah are as follows:

In the Torah, if a husband suspected his wife of adultery, there was a prescribed ordeal she underwent to determine her guilt or innocence. [35] A separate procedure was to be followed if a newlywed husband became suspicious that his wife had been promiscuous before marriage. [17] Alternatively, to enforce capital punishment for adultery, at least two witnesses were required, and both the man and woman involved were subject to punishment. [36] While cases of adultery could thus be difficult to prove, divorce laws added over the years enabled a husband to divorce his wife on circumstantial evidence of adultery without witnesses or additional evidence. [37] If a woman committed unlawful intercourse against her will, she was not guilty of adultery, because she did not act as a free agent. [18] The usual punishments were not inflicted in such cases, and the legal consequences of adultery did not follow.

In the first century, enforcement of the ordeal became less common as additional restrictions were put on prosecution of capital cases of adultery. In the year 40, before the destruction of the Second Temple, [38] the Jewish courts relinquished their right to inflict capital punishment (perhaps under Roman pressure). Changes in punishment for adultery were enacted: the adulterer was scourged, and the husband of the adulteress was not allowed to forgive her crime, [39] but was compelled to divorce her, and she lost all her property rights under her marriage contract. [40] The adulteress was not allowed to marry the one with whom she had committed adultery, [41] and if she did marry him, they were forced to separate. [42]

Though legal enforcement was inconsistently applied, the mitzvah remained. Adultery is one of three sins (along with idolatry and murder) that are to be resisted to the point of death. [43] This was the consensus of the rabbis at the meeting at Lydda, during the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132. [44]

The mitzvoh to practice sexual relations only within marriage is affirmed by many Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis into modern times. [45] While they point out that sexual relations outside of marriage undermine marriage and even love itself, they also emphasize the positive role of sexual relations in strengthening and promoting love within the marriage relationship.

In the New Testament

In the gospels, Jesus affirmed the commandment against adultery [46] and seemed to extend it, saying, “But I say to you, anyone who looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” [47] He taught his audience that the outward act of adultery does not happen apart from sins of the heart: "From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” [48] However, some commentators, including Thomas Aquinas, say that Jesus was making the connection with the commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” [49]

According to the gospels, Jesus quoted the book of Genesis regarding the divine origin of the marriage relationship, concluding, "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no man must separate.” [50] Jesus dismissed expedient provisions allowing for divorce for nearly any reason, and cited sexual immorality (a breaking of the marriage covenant) as the only reason why a person may divorce and marry another without committing adultery. [51] The Apostle Paul similarly taught (commonly called the Pauline privilege):

To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband ... and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say, not the Lord, ... But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace. [52]

In the gospel of John is an account of a woman caught in adultery. Leaders responsible for executing justice brought her to Jesus and asked for his judgment. Jesus clearly identified adultery with sin, however, his statement “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” did not refer to the precepts of law but to conscience. [53] Some commentators point out that if the woman was caught in adultery, there should also have been a man standing trial. [54] The law clearly stated that both parties were to receive the death penalty. [11] By not bringing the guilty man to justice, these leaders shared in the guilt and were not fit to carry out the punishment. Not condoning her adultery, Jesus warns the woman in parting, “Go and sin no more” [55]

The Apostle Paul wrote frankly about the gravity of adultery:

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (ESV) [56]

Within marriage, regular sexual relations are expected and encouraged. "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." [57] As “one flesh,” the husband and wife share this right and privilege; the New Testament does not portray intimacy as something held in reserve by each spouse to be shared on condition. "Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control." [58] A stated reason for maintaining marital relations is to reduce the temptation to adultery.

The Apostle Paul himself never married and realized the practical advantages of remaining single. [59] However, he referred to contentment in celibacy as “a gift,” [60] and sexual desire as the more common condition of people. For this reason, he recommends that most people are better off married, in order to preclude being tempted beyond what they can bear or going through life “burning with passion.” [61]

In Christianity

In Egypt, Joseph resisted temptation to adultery at great personal cost. Image from the Vienna Bible, 1743 ViennaGenesisPict31TemptationOfJoseph.jpg
In Egypt, Joseph resisted temptation to adultery at great personal cost. Image from the Vienna Bible, 1743

Catholic Church

Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations—even transient ones—they commit adultery.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2380

The modern Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its teaching on this commandment with a positive summary of God's creation of men and women and his purposes for sex within marriage. These purposes include unifying husband and wife, [62] demonstrating unselfish, even generous love between them, and producing children. [63]

"God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them. He blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and multiply …” (Genesis 1:27-28)

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2331

According to the Catechism, those who are engaged must refrain from sexual relations until after the marriage ceremony. This exercise of restraint in order to keep the commandment against adultery is also seen as important practice for fidelity within marriage:

Those who are engaged to marry are called to live chastity in continence. They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God. They should reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love. They will help each other grow in chastity.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2350

Chastity for the married Catholic is not abstention from sexual relations, but the enjoyment of God-given sexuality within marriage only. [64]

The tradition of the Catholic Church has understood the commandment against adultery as encompassing the whole of human sexuality [65] and so pornography [66] is declared a violation of this commandment. Several other sexual activities that may or may not involve married persons are also directly addressed and prohibited in the Catechism.

Adultery is viewed not only as a sin between an individual and God but as an injustice that reverberates through society by harming its fundamental unit, the family: [67]

Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents' stable union.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2335

Reformation and post-Reformation commentary

John Calvin understood the commandment against adultery to extend to sexual relations outside of marriage: “Although one kind of impurity is alone referred to, it is sufficiently plain, from the principle laid down, that believers are generally exhorted to chastity; for, if the Law be a perfect rule of holy living, it would be more than absurd to give a license for fornication (sexual relations between persons not married to each other), adultery alone being excepted.”

Matthew Henry understood the commandment against adultery to prohibit sexual immorality in general, and he acknowledged the difficulty people experience: “This commandment forbids all acts of uncleanness, with all those fleshly lusts which produce those acts and war against the soul.” [68] Henry supports his interpretation with Matthew 5:28, where Jesus warns that whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

Hebrews 13:4 (NIV)

Regarding the above passage, Matthew Henry comments: “Here you have, 1. A recommendation of God's ordinance of marriage, that it is honourable in all, … 2. A dreadful but just censure of impurity and lewdness.” [69] John Wesley believed this scripture and the sure judgment of God, even though adulterers “frequently escape the sentence of men.” [70] Martin Luther observed that there were many more people in his day who were unmarried for various reasons than in biblical times, which condition increased both temptation and sexual activities that are displeasing to God:

But because among us there is such a shameful mess and the very dregs of all vice and lewdness, this commandment is directed also against all manner of unchastity, whatever it may be called; …, For flesh and blood remain flesh and blood, and the natural inclination and excitement have their course without let or hindrance, as everybody sees and feels. In order, therefore, that it may be the more easy in some degree to avoid unchastity, God has commanded the estate of matrimony, that every one may have his proper portion and be satisfied therewith …

Martin Luther, The Large Catechism [71]

Luther neither condemns nor denies human sexuality, but, like the Apostle Paul, points out that God instituted the marriage relationship to provide for its proper enjoyment. Luther comments that each spouse should intentionally cherish the other, and that this will contribute to love and a desire for chastity, which will make fidelity easier.

Let me now say in conclusion that this commandment demands also that every one love and esteem the spouse given him by God. For where conjugal chastity is to be maintained, man and wife must by all means live together in love and harmony, that one may cherish the other from the heart and with entire fidelity. For that is one of the principal points which enkindle love and desire of chastity, so that, where this is found, chastity will follow as a matter of course without any command. Therefore also St. Paul so diligently exhorts husband and wife to love and honor one another.

Martin Luther, The Large Catechism [71]

The so-called "Wicked Bible", printed in 1631, omits the word "not", reading "Thou shalt commit adultery." Historians are divided as to whether this was a typographical error or the attempt of a competitor to sabotage the print-run. [72]


The commandment to avoid adultery has been mentioned in Surat Al-Isra':

And never approach adultery; it has been wrongful and bad pursuit. (وَلَا تَقْرَبُوا الزِّنَا ۖ إِنَّهُ كَانَ فَاحِشَةً وَسَاءَ سَبِيلًا)

Quran 17:32

The Messenger of Allah said that a person is a nonbeliever while he or she is perpetrating the sinful intercourse.

Never an adultering adulterer, whilst adultering, is a believer. (لاَ يَزْنِي الزَّانِي حِينَ يَزْنِي وَهُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ)

Sunan an-Nasa'i 5659

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  1. Genesis 12:17 (NIV)
  2. Genesis 12:18-19 (ESV)
  3. Genesis 20:3 (ESV)
  4. Genesis 26:10 (ESV)
  5. Genesis 39:10 (ESV)
  6. Genesis 39:20
  7. Genesis 40:1 and 41:1
  8. Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 4:13
  9. 1 2 3 Mitzvoh N355 in the order of Sefer Hamitzvos of Rambam
  10. Numbers 5:11-31
  11. 1 2 Leviticus 20:10
  12. Deuteronomy 17:6
  13. Deuteronomy 22:22-23
  14. Deuteronomy 22:28-29,
  15. Leviticus 18:6-25, 19:29, 19:29, 20:11-20, 21:9
  16. CCN133 in Chafetz Chaim's Concise Book of Mitzvot, 1990. New York: Feldheim Publishers ISBN   1-58330-381-2
  17. 1 2 Deuteronomy 22:13-21
  18. 1 2 Deuteronomy 22:25-27
  19. Deuteronomy 5:18
  20. See Psalm 51, NIV Study Bible commentary on 2 Samuel 12:13
  21. 2 Samuel 12:10, 11, 14
  22. Proverbs 5,7 and much of Proverbs 6
  23. Proverbs 5:8
  24. Proverbs 2:16-19 (ESV)
  25. Jeremiah 3:6-9, 5:7, Ezekiel 16:38, 23:37, Hosea 1:2
  26. 1 2 Jeremiah 3:8
  27. Jeremiah 5:7, 23:14, 29:23, Hosea 4:13, 15
  28. Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed 1904 (fourth edition) translated from the original Arabic by M. Friedlander. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company
  29. see also Deuteronomy 22:13-21
  30. Leviticus 18:20
  31. Mitzvoh N347 in the order of Sefer Hamitzvos of Rambam
  32. CCN124 in Chafetz Chaim's Concise Book of Mitzvot 1990 New York: Feldheim Publishers ISBN   1-58330-381-2
  33. Deuteronomy 23:18
  34. CCN133 in Chafetz Chaim's Concise Book of Mitzvot 1990 New York: Feldheim Publishers ISBN   1-58330-381-2
  35. Numbers 5:11-31, Isaacs RH, Every Person's Guide to Jewish Sexuality, Jason Aronson Publishers, 2000. ISBN   0-7657-6118-1, pp.74-75.
  36. Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 17:6; Every Person's Guide to Jewish Sexuality pp. 75-76.
  37. The Jewish Encyclopedia article on adultery
  38. Sanhedrin 41a
  39. Soṭah 6:1
  40. Maimonides, "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Ishut," 24:6
  41. Soṭah 5:1
  42. See also The Jewish Encyclopedia article on adultery
  43. Sanhedrin 74a
  44. Graetz, Heinrich. History of the Jews, 2002. Wipf & Stock Publishers, ISBN   1-57910-893-8
  45. Every Person's Guide to Jewish Sexuality, pp.44-46.
  46. Matthew 19:18, Mark 10:19
  47. Matthew 5:28 (NASB)
  48. Mark 7:21-23 (NAB), see also Matthew 15:19-20
  49. Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 5:21, St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea – Gospel of Matthew, London: J.G.F. and J. Rivington. read online
  50. Matthew 19:6 (ESV)
  51. Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11,12, Luke 16:18
  52. (1 Corinthians 7:10–15 RSV)
  53. Pope John Paul II, "The Content of the Commandment: You Shall Not Commit Adultery", General Audience, August 13, 1980
  54. Johnson BW. The New Testament Commentary, Vol. III- John, 1886. The Christian Board of Publication, St. Louis, MO. read online
  55. John 8:11 (ESV)
  56. See also 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7
  57. 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 (ESV)
  58. 1 Corinthians 7:5 (NASB)
  59. 1 Corinthians 7:1,8,28,32-34
  60. 1 Corinthians 7:7
  61. 1 Corinthians 7:2,5,9
  62. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2335
  63. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2335, 2360-2363, 2366
  64. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2348-2349
  65. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2336
  66. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2354
  67. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2207
  68. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the whole Bible, comments on Exodus 20:14 read online
  69. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, comments on Hebrews 13:4 read online
  70. John Wesley Commentary on the Whole Bible, comments on Hebrews 13:4 read online
  71. 1 2 read online
  72. Green, Emma. "Thou Shalt Commit Adultery", The Atlantic, October 23, 2015