Adultery. Not exactly the warmest of words. For some, it evokes the pain that can only be felt from experiencing a broken home. For others, it is a reminder of what could have been if certain circumstances had presented themselves. There are some who think of this word as an obstacle that was overcome and they are survivors indeed. While yet still, there are others who are ever vigilant of all the steps that lead to this dreaded sin.
And finally, there are some who stand humbled in the rubble around them (a life destroyed), that was brought to fruition through that terrible act of adultery. They enjoyed their brief night in paradise, only to be awoken by the torrents of horror in the morning.
The Word Adultery
It is amazing that some who would set forth the claim that their interests are in teaching the Word of God hold a variety of views as to the nature and meaning of adultery contrary to the biblical data. Without considerable interaction with these distinct points of view, let us press on to consider some of the Old Testament evidence as to the meaning and nature of adultery. How does God represent it in the Hebrew Bible?
But where does the word adultery come from. The actual derivation of the English word for adultery is quite enlightening. It actually derives from combining a number of Latin terms into one:
The word adultery originates not from “adult”, as is commonly thought, but from the Late Latin word for “to alter, corrupt”: adulterare. Adulterare in turn is formed by the combination of ad (“towards”), and alter (“other”), together with the infinitive form are (making it a verb). (Link)
So, in English the word adultery has the idea of one person moving towards another person in order to make a new personal arrangement. Moreover, in some cases the Latin term adulterare carried the meaning of “to pollute” – taking something that is pure, and contaminating it.
When we say that someone has committed adultery, we are simply stating that a person has corrupted his or her marriage by introducing a third party. The marriage has been altered, changed, and polluted. The English word is quite graphic, but since the Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew we would be wise to consult the meaning of this term there.
The Old Testament Term
In the Old Testament, the primary Hebrew word for adultery is na’aph. As with any word, it is part of a grouping of words with similar meanings. Many of these words emphasize a range of meanings; for example, they can take literal or figurative meanings, and even describe those who are married or betrothed who are unfaithful. However, na’aph is the found the majority of the time to state that a person has – as we say – “cheated” on their spouse.
William Wilson notes that na’aph “is confined to adultery in the exclusive sense of the term or fornication by a married person.” James Swanson amplifies the meaning, stating that it refers to a person who has “sexual intercourse with [someone] other than a spouse, as a married or betrothed person, generally, a person of low social status.”
One of the earliest appearances of na’aph in the Old Testament is in the reading of the “10 Commandments” (Exod 20:14). God says transparently, “You shall not commit adultery.” This command is cradled between the “shall not’s” of murder and stealing, which should give us an indication as to the severity of adultery in the eyes of God (Exod 20:13, 15 cf. Lev 20:10).
Clyde Woods makes the observation that in this command, the “sacredness of marriage” is emphasized, and it is this “principle of social purity” that “provides the basis for numerous [other] laws regarding sexual relationships and offences” (cf. Exod 22:19; Lev 18:1-18; Deut 22:13-30). And in this connection, R. Alan Cole finds in Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife the fact that: “For a man to have intercourse with another man’s wife was considered as the heinous sin against God as well as man, long before the law, in patriarchal times (Gen 39:9).”
The holiness of God demands that the matrimonial bed be undefiled by extra-marital affairs (Heb 13:4). Some people defile their marriage by actually sleeping with someone other than their spouse (John 8:4), others have so saturated their minds with “day dreams” of scenarios to have affairs, that if circumstances presented themselves they would do it (Matt 5:28); and yet still, there are those who have slipped on more rings on their one wedding finger than many super bowl champions have on their whole hand – and with little to no effort (John 4:16-19). From the beginning, however, this was not God’s ideal plan for marriage (Matt 19:9 cf. Gen 2:24).
Literal and Figurative Adultery
Na’aph may mean literal adultery, but it also carries figurative, or more precisely, spiritual application as well. Swanson explains: “in some contexts this refers to religious adultery, usually in which Israel is viewed as the unfaithful female spouse to the Lord in a covenantal marriage contract.” Wilhelm Gesenius likewise remarks, “it is applied to the turning aside of Israel from the true God to the worship of idols” (Jer 3:8-9, 5:7, 9:1, 23:14).
Even as Jeremiah writes of the faithless one – the Northern kingdom of Israel:
The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” (Jer 3:6-10).
Judah had not learned the lesson of her sister Israel. The Northern kingdom of Israel’s fixation with idolatry is amply substantiated in the Hebrew Bible, and, in fact, was a foundational aspect of its administration and spirituality (cf. 1 Kings 12:25-33). It was this faithless one that committed adultery with stone and tree.
We see then that the literal usages of na’aph enhance the figurative-spiritual uses. The literal and figurative uses share a reciprocal connection; that is to say, they enhance each other. And, this makes perfect sense, for there are very few – if any – words that do not lend themselves to figurative or metaphorical uses.
Examples of Adultery in the Old Testament
Several times in the book of Ezekiel, the spiritual appraisal of Israel is pictured in terms of adultery. Principally, the first 24 chapters of Ezekiel address themselves to this theme. Chapters 15 through 17 explain the doom of Jerusalem by means of allegories and parables. Within this framework, chapter 16 portrays the spiritual infidelity of the Hebrews in the unmistakably graphic picture of marital sexual-infidelity.
Observe some snippets from the chapter that the English Standard Version translators call “The Lord’s Faithless Bride” (Ezek 16:1-58):
- “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine.” (vs. 8)
- “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore [were unfaithful; ESV footnote #2] because of the renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his.” (vs. 15)
- “At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself [“Hebrew spreading your legs”; ESV footnote #1; cf. ASV “opened thy feet […]”] to any passerby and multiplying your whoring.” (vs. 25)
- “Adulterous [Hebrew root na’aph] wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!” (vs. 32)
With great precision, the prophet presents God’s anger and sense of betrayal with the imagery of adultery. As Samuel Schultz and Gary Smith summarize: “in an allegory, Ezekiel compared Judah to a young girl that God cared for and married. But the bride ignored her husband and loved others (foreign customs, idols, her own beauty).”
Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel during the Babylonian captivity, ministered in Jerusalem and abroad. Numerous false prophets declared that this captivity was merely temporary and that God would return them soon. In Jeremiah 29:1-28, the prophet sends a letter from Jerusalem to the captives in Babylon encouraging them in their situation, rebuking those who oppose the truth of God’s punishment upon Judah, and re-enforcing the fact that Judah will remain in Babylon for 70 years. One of the blistering comments rendered to the false prophets is that they were adulterers (Jeremiah 29:20-23).
Jeremiah says that Ahab and Zedekiah, the false prophets, “have done an outrageous thing in Israel, they have committed adultery [Heb. na’aph] with their neighbors’ wives, and they have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them” (vs. 23). This language is as transparent as Leviticus 20:10 where Moses writes, “if a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
Adultery, literal or figurative, describes the most intimate of interactions. Literally, it refers to actual sexual encounters with someone other than their spouse. Spiritually, it expands upon the literal meaning of adultery and give it a figurative flavor stressing the deep treachery felt by God from his people who give their beauty to another.
Literally, then, adultery is sexual activity between a married person and a person who is not their spouse. Spiritually, then, adultery is spiritual and moral activity contrary to God’s teaching. While Old Testament and the New Testament are uniform in their presentation of adultery, space has been given to a brief investigation of the concept in the Old Testament. The Old Testament and New Testament are two testimonies that share the same conception of adultery, a behavior that Russell describes as, a “special and aggravated case of fornication.”
This concept has not been altered or distorted through the passing of time; consequently, we have no right to redefine it in modern times, contemporary times, or in any subsequent generation to come, for God’s truth endures to all generations (Psa 100:5). He means what he says. Heaven help us to keep it secure and unaltered in our minds.
- James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament), 2d ed., electronic ed. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997). Abbreviated as Na’aph as DBLH 5537 (No. 1273).
- William Wilson, Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies (repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), 6.
- Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages, 5537 (No. 1273).
- Clyde M. Woods, Genesis-Exodus (Henderson, TN: Woods, 1972), 179.
- R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (1973; repr., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979), 160.
- Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages, 5537 (No. 1273).
- Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, electronic ed. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2003), 525.
- Emmet Russell observes this exact point when he writes, “the figurative use enhances the literal sense, emphasizing the divine institution and nature of marriage” (Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary, ed. Merrill C. Tenney [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1967], 17).
- Homer Hailey, Hailey’s Comments (Las Vegas, NV: Nevada Publications, 1985), 1:201-04.
- Samuel J. Schultz and Gary V. Smith, Exploring the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 191.
- Russell, ZPBD 17.