God speaks this Seventh Commandment to Israel to create living, life-giving, vibrant intimacy in human relationships. In the first four commandments (also known as the First Table) the LORD's creative Word is at work making and protecting the relationship we have with our God. In the Second Table the LORD is working on our relationship with our neighbor:
Is it about S-E-X?
Yes,...but this commandment is not just about sex. As we have said before, it is not likely that we can keep these commandments "in spirit" by breaking the "letter of the law." In other words, it is hardly likely that I can keep this commandment while having sex with my neighbor's wife. But sex is not all that the commandment prohibits, or enjoins.
One way to comprehend the breadth of what is at stake in God's use of this "Seventh Word" is to look carefully at those aspects of life that the commandment protects:
Notice that the First Commandment and the Seventh Commandment are very closely related. In fact, most examples of the word "adultery" (and some related to prostitution) in the Old Testament, especially those in the prophetic books, refer not to the literal breaking of human relationships but to the figurative and metaphorical "adultery" that takes place when we violate the First Commandment (and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th commandments; see Exodus 34:15-16; Deuteronomy 31:16; Isaiah 57:3; Jeremiah 3:8-9; 5:7; 9:1; 13:27; Ezekiel 16:32, 38; 23:37, 45; Hosea 3:1; 4:13-14; 7:4; Nahum 3:4; Revelation 2:22).
Adultery is an intimate violation of the most intimate relationship my neighbor has. While some adulterers will debate "what the meaning of 'is' is," and others will claim that their own actions and relationship with a neighbor's spouse stops short of sexual relations, the question about what is appropriate in relationships is easily resolved by an honest appeal to the reciprocity of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Matthew 7:12) Would I consider what I am doing a breach of the marital relationship if my neighbor were developing the same sort of relationship with my spouse that I am developing with his? If my neighbor discovers this relationship, will my neighbor consider it a violation of his marital relationship? This brings up another easy and effective diagnostic tool (as if we were very often really in doubt about the rightness or wrongness of a relationship): if I feel the need to hide the relationship (or the depth and intimacy of the relationship) by evasion, misdirection, or outright lying and deception--if I feel the need to meet my neighbor's spouse out of the public view, some place where neither of us will be recognized (Job 24:15)--then I am in violation of the Seventh Commandment.
In the narrow sense, of course, the commandment prohibits an adult male (the form of the verb is second person, masculine, singular) from having sexual intercourse with his neighbor's wife. More broadly speaking, however, adultery may be committed by either a man or a woman (indeed, it is committed by both; see Proverbs 30:20 and Leviticus 20:10, the latter of which prescribes the death penalty for both offenders).
What Does Jesus Say?
As we have come to expect, Jesus broadens and deepens the scope of the commandment in Matthew 5:27-32 (The Sermon on the Mount). Jesus consistently points to the root of the problem whenever he addresses sin. Sexual intercourse is not the root of the problem; the radical sin is--as it always is--a matter of the heart. (See Matthew 15:19-20, Mark 7:21-22.) We do not have to engage in sexual intercourse to harm or destroy our neighbor's marriage. And we certainly do not have to engage in sex to destroy our own souls, not to mention our own marriages. As water slowly undercuts a river bank, desire will erode and undermine our neighbor's marriage and our own. We have already committed adultery, Jesus says, when we allow desire for our neighbor's wife to take hold in our heart, to deepen and grow, as we cultivate the longing until it has become lust.
Nor does Jesus condone the use of divorce as a loophole to enable serial monogamy (=polygamy); according to Jesus (Matthew 5:31-32; see Malachi 2:10-16), divorce is sometimes just another name for legalized adultery. Here, the "neighbor" for whom Jesus seems most concerned is the divorced wife. As Patrick Miller says about the Malachi text, the divine resistance to divorce is "resistance to divorce as an overt act of treachery toward one's spouse by turning to another woman" (p. 314). According to Jesus, in such a case the husband "makes her commit adultery." However, in Matthew 19:9 (see Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18), Jesus' concern seems to be for the person who has divorced, because he or she too "has committed adultery" if he or she remarries. As Patrick Miller says, the root of the issue seems to be "the easy dismissal of a spouse in order to marry someone else," "divorce as a form of faithlessness," or "making divorce a legal way of faithlessness and treachery to one's spouse" (p. 314). In neither instance does it seem to matter to Jesus whether the second spouse of either the divorced husband or the divorced wife has ever been married before. The one (first or primary) purposefully broken relationship works a destructive effect on all subsequent relationships. Yet Jesus, the one who broadens and intensifies the commandments, also tells a woman who was caught committing adultery--an undisputed violation of the law, with clearly prescribed consequences--"neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more." (John 8:11) The creative Word that Jesus speaks into the brokenness of this adultery is Good News, the gracious restoration of a sinner to life and reconciliation.
How to Keep the Seventh Commandment
As someone who is married, the best way to keep the Seventh Commandment is to attend carefully to my own marriage. This marriage keeping begins with an honest assessment--and even if it begins separately, it must eventually be shared with my spouse. How are we doing? What is satisfying or unsatisfying about our relationship? When our relationship has been at its best, what was it like? What sorts of things were we doing together? Do those things seem to be worth doing again now? Is our relationship changing? If so, how? How, and how much (or how deeply), and how often are we communicating? What sorts of things do I wish we could do together more often? Where do we need more balance in our life together? What would that balance look like? What would being more open to my spouse look like in my life right now? What would greater faithfulness to my spouse look like? What could help me become more faithful? What would help (re)focus my life on what is most important to me in my relationship with my spouse?
These questions are, of course, the same questions we want to ask about our relationship with God. (The First and Seventh Commandments are clearly joined together.) The set of questions above is derived with a few changes from those suggested by Marjorie J. Thompson for "Discerning a Personal Rule of Life." A similar set of questions could help us think about Sabbath time with our spouse. Many of us have a "date night" tradition. Maybe it is time to expand on that tradition, if we are able, to include even more extended and frequent time away together with our spouses.
Read Exodus 20:14 (Deuteronomy 5:18) and John 8:1-11
1. We are bombarded daily with sexually charged images, words, songs, videos, television, and movies. Does this increase or decrease the likelihood that we will commit adultery? What might it mean to "honor God with your body" in such a context?
2. What would you say to a person who confessed to you that he or she had committed adultery? Would the words of Psalm 51 or John 8:1-11 be helpful in this context? What would you say to encourage someone whose spouse has committed adultery?
3. How might someone who is single keep the Seventh Commandment? Widow or widower? Someone whose spouse is not a Christian? (See question #9 below.)
4. According to Martin Luther, when we fail to help our neighbor to retain his honor (by avoiding adultery), or when we "wink at it as if it were no concern of [ours], [we] are just as guilty as the culprit himself." (Luther, Large Catechism, 36-37; Hauerwas and Willimon, pp. 94-95). Are we required to help our neighbor live chastely? If I know that someone is committing adultery, what is my responsibility as a neighbor?
5. Joy Davidman asks, "if we cannot agree on a definition of marriage, how are we to define adultery?" (p. 84) Since half of marriages today end in divorce, many people who are getting married seem to make their vows "with a mental reservation--'if it works'" (p. 91) and there seems to be an epidemic of adultery. What would you say to C.S. Lewis's notion that there should be two types of marriage, church defined and state defined? And what of Davidman's statement that "if we are to produce a generation that is not blithely adulterous," the church must start by educating our children and youth for marriage? Is it true, as Davidman says, that "the matter cannot safely be left to the State and its schools"? (p. 93)
6. Read Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-18, and 26:1-11. Is it still adultery if I do not know the woman is married to another man (20:9-10)? Is it still adultery if my neighbor and his wife consent (e.g., 20:5) to allow me to enter the relationship?
7. Read 2 Samuel 11-12. How does the story of David's sin portray the interrelationship between the 10th (desire) and the 7th (adultery) commandments? The 6th (killing)?
8. Read 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and 7:1-6. How might we guard against adultery by following Paul's instructions to the church at Corinth?
9. Read 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. Do you think Paul intends that the spouse who separates (verse 15) should be free to remarry? If so, are there other instances where divorced spouses should be free to remarry? What if the spouse was abused? Abandoned? Is remarriage in such cases "adultery"?
10. Use the discernment questions above under "How to Keep the Seventh Commandment" to assess your relationship with your spouse (or other most significant human relationship) this week. Ask your spouse or friend to do the same. After you have each answered separately, spend some time talking to each other about what you have discovered about your relationship. Pray for one another and for your marriage (or friendship) that your life together will become as good, full, and abundant as God wants it to be!
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Copyright © 2010 by Gregory L. Glover