This essay deals with the concept of adultery in the Old Testament or the Tanakh, as Jews call it.
Lev. 20: 10: ‘And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, [even he] that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.’
Should this be the consequence?
Hebrew is a much less flowery language than the modern translations imply. King James began the translation of the last five commandments with , ‘Thou shalt not …’. In Hebrew the language is much more direct. Ex. 20: 13, ‘Thou shalt not kill, Hebr.: Lo ratsach,’ verse 14, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, Hebr.: Lo na’aph’ and verse 15, ‘Thou shalt not steal, Hebr.: Lo ganab.’
So the above commandments here under discussion would much more appropriately be translated as, ‘No killing, no na’aph (adultery), no stealing.’
Would na’aph mean adultery in our modern sense, usually a man cheating a woman by having sex with someone else? Would a man in Ancient Hebrew society violate the right of his wife by doing so?
No! First of all, there is no word for wife in Hebrew. The word ishah has often been translated as such, but this word means just woman. A possessive pronoun may indicate a relationship, like his woman, meaning the woman of a certain man. However the use of wife as the translation of ishah is always interpretative and it never means an emancipated modern day partner with equal rights and responsibilities.
Apart from there not being a word for wife, there are also no words for husband, marriage or wedding in Hebrew. The word ish means man in general and it has been translated as husband when interpreted as such by the translators. Another word which has been translated as husband at times is baal. This means owner and in Ex. 21: 28, it is used for the owner of an ox! There was no process of marrying. Women were given (nathan) and taken (laqach). Tribal chieftains, called chathan, were responsible for exchanging daughters between tribes. The word chathan can also be a verb to describe this trading process and this has sometimes been translated as ‘making marriages,’ e.g.: Gen. 34: 9.
The noun chathan has been variously translated as father in law, son in law, bridegroom and husband, depending on whether two chieftains negotiated with each other and then allocated the girls to members of their tribe, or whether someone obtained a woman by chathan negotiations for himself, which was rather rare (Moses in Ex. 2; King Solomon in 1. Kings 3.)
Would such a woman have any rights against her man? Gen. 19 tells the story of Lot in Sodom. There were some angels in the town whom he had invited to his house. At night his house was surrounded by the men of Sodom and they demanded of Lot to hand over these men so that they may ‘know them’. Even though this does not seem an unreasonable request, it is generally interpreted, that the Sodomites wanted to gang rape Lot’s guests. Lot went outside and said (Gen. 19: 7 & 8), ‘I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as [is] good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.’
If you have some guests, Dear Reader, and your house is surrounded by a gang of bikies who call out to you to bring out your guests, because they want to f**k them, would you, Dear Reader, bring out your daughters instead? Now this was some time before Moses, but there is a very similar incident in Jdg. 19 in which a woman actually is delivered to the men and then was fucked dead (sorry, but that seems the appropriate expression here). This was some time after Moses.
Would such a woman have any right against her man? Women in those days were possessions and the man could do with his own as he pleased. Therefore the owned woman is dealt with in the last commandment Ex. 20: 17, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s woman, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.’
Some count this verse as two commandments. Those count the second commandment Ex. 20: 4 to 7 as an explanation to the first. However, why would one verse contain two commandments? Even the real short ones mentioned above have a verse to themselves!
Ex. 20: 17 is the commandment not to covet anything that is thy neighbour’s. Anything that is thy neighbour’s that is his house! The house here is not four walls and a roof, but it is the family and the possessions, e.g.: Ex. 6: 14, ‘These [be] the heads of their fathers’ houses: The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel; Hanoch, and Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi: these [be] the families of Reuben.’ When the Israelites received these commandments they were living in tents!
So the first part of Ex. 20: 17 is the complete commandment, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house.’ The remainder is an explanation what all is included in this house, ‘thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s woman (there is no word for wife), nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.
In other words, the woman is dealt with in the last commandment, the least important one. She is just mentioned amongst the neighbour’s possessions! This woman has no right to demand of her owner (baal, KJV: husband) not to have sex with another woman.
Are the commandments all of equal importance? When Jesus was asked which is the great commandment in the law, he replied (Matt. 22: 37 to 40), ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second [is] like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
So, if you don’t know anything about the scripture, these two commandments still allow you to be a good Christian!
This commandment, which Jesus mentioned first, is very reminiscent of the First Commandment (Ex. 20: 2 & 3), ‘I [am] the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’
So the First or Great Commandment is mentioned first. Following are commandments which concern God, not to make images and worship them, not to take the name of the LORD in vain, to remember the Sabbath day, since God rested on that day after he had completed the Creation. These commandments certainly concern God.
The later commandments certainly concern the neighbour. They are more and more repairable offences. Ex. 20: 15 says, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ verse 16 says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.’ Then verse 17 deals with covetting the neighbour’s house or possessions, including his woman. Now this last one does not even concern the neighbour. Stealing is forbidden in verse 15, so this commandment concerns the well – being of one’s own soul, i.e. not suffering from the desire for your neighbour’s house.
So the first commandments, (Ex. 20: 2 to 11) concern man’s relationship with God. The next one is (Ex. 20: 12), ‘Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.’ This appears to be about the parents, but maybe it is something else. There are examples in the Tanakh when someone was punished for ‘walking in the way of his father and made Israel to sin (1. Kings 15: 26; 1. Kings 22: 52). So just following the example of your father is not of value by itself! Could the father be Abraham or Isaac or Jacob?
Those were certainly venerable to Israelite society. The mother could be the nation or the city according to the Gesenius Lexicon. For example in 2. Sam. 20, Sheba, the son of Bichri, organised an uprising against King David. King David sent men after him and he fled to the city Abel Bethmaachah. During the siege a woman called down from the wall (2. Sam. 20: 19), ‘I [am one of them that are] peaceable [and] faithful in Israel: thou seekest to destroy a city and a mother in Israel: why wilt thou swallow up the inheritance of the LORD?’ There the mother is the city. Women usually did not have to fear for their lives, particularly not Israelite women. They were saved and taken (KJV married).
So it may well be that the commandment concerning the father and the mother (Ex. 20: 12) does not refer to the biological parents, but to the forefathers and the nation or city. This may still be seen as a commandment about God. These forefathers were God’s wholly men and the nation and city had been chosen by God. It does not refer to the neighbour or other people within.
Now the next three commandments are (Ex. 20: 13 to 15), ‘No killing,’ ‘No na’aph,’ (adultery) and ‘No stealing.’ This is the order in the so – called Masoretic Hebrew text (MT for short). This text has been compiled by a group of Jews, called the Masoretes, between 600 AD and 1000 AD. In other words, parts of this text has been finalised even after the Quran was finished.
There were two texts in use before that, the Vulgate written in Latin around 400 AD by St. Jerome and the Septuagint (LXX for short), written in Ancient Greek in the second century BC. This is the oldest complete Biblical Text in existence today, even though it is not written in Hebrew. Many Scholars think that this work is superior to the Masoretic text, since it has been translated from an older, and therefore more accurate, original. The Catholic Church has held the Septuagint for superior for a long time.
The order of commandments in the Septuagint is different. The commandment concerning the parents is Ex. 20: 12 in both versions. 20: 13 in the MT is ‘No killing,’ while in the LXX it is, ‘Lo na’aph’ (adultery) The commandment about killing follows after in the LXX. So it may well be that in the original sequence ‘Lo na’aph’ preceded the commandments about killing and stealing, meaning it was a more important commandment and also, and this is the point, it may be a commandment concerning God, not a commandment concerning the common neighbour and certainly not a commandment concerning a woman who easily could be given up to gang rape to protect some complete strangers.
So what does na’aph, the word King James translated as adultery, really mean? First of all it may be worthwhile to note what the word adultery means. It comes from the Latin word adulterare which means to forge, to falsify, to corrupt. So this word implies the insertion of the false or adulterated child into the wife of another man.
The word na’aph (adultery) occurs thirty one times in the Tanakh. Apart from that there is the word ni’uph which occurs twice and na’aphuph which occurs once. What is meant can be deduced from the context, keeping in mind that a woman was a possession without rights, particularly not the right to restrict her owner’s sex life, and that covetousness between men regarding the woman was prohibited in the last, the least important commandment.
In some instances nothing can be deducted from the context as for example in the commandment forbidding na’aph (adultery). To the ancients it must have been plain what was meant.
There are instances where it refers to sex with another man’s woman, there is one instance in Job 24: 15 where it seems to refer to a break and enter, a robber digging into a house at night time. Likewise in Psalm 50: 18 the word refers to theft.
But further to the theft there seems to be the cult of another god or maybe a goddess, possibly Asherah, involved. So it seems to have been the custom that before whatever might have happened sexually there was a sacrifice in honour of this other deity. Prov. 30: 20: ‘Such [is] the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness.’ So here the sin has to do with eating some sacrifice, not with sex!
There are references to people who engage in na’aph (adultery) having blood on their hands (Eze. 23: 37 & 45; Hos. 4: 2). Now in general, the use of the word by the prophets is very different than the use in the law giving books. The law giving books deal with a prohibition, while the prophets deal with warnings against idolatry, meaning in general the people of Israel are offending God by worshipping other gods, just as people engaging in na’aph do, as for example Hos. 3: 1, ‘Then said the LORD unto me, Go yet, love a woman beloved of [her] friend, yet an adulteress, according to the love of the LORD toward the children of Israel, who look to other gods, and love flagons of wine.’
Now the law giving books also give a hint what is not meant. Lev. 18, for example, is full of prohibitions of sexual partners. I suppose it mainly deals with incest. It is summarised in verse 6, ‘None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover [their] nakedness: I [am] the LORD.’
Verse 8, ‘The nakedness of thy father’s woman shalt thou not uncover: it [is] thy father’s nakedness.’ Consequently, thy father’s woman is not necessarily your mother. Sex with your parents was forbidden in verse 7.
Now sex with the own parents seems quite outrageous to us today, but in the old days it was probably quite common, since the son inherited the father’s possessions, including the women. For example 1. Kings 15: 2 tells us that the mother of King Abijam of Judah was Maachah, the daughter of Abishalom, in some places translated as Absalom, the Hebrew word in all cases is Abishalom, the son of David. Verse 10 of the same chapter tells us that the mother of King Asa, Abijam’s son, also was Maachah, the daughter of Abishalom. Taking into account that Abijam, according to verse 2, only reigned for three years, it can be concluded that he was given his own mother for sex either by his father or his grand – father, in the capacity of chathan of the Royal Family, while his father was still alive!
Lev. 18: 9, ‘The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or daughter of thy mother, [whether she be] born at home, or born abroad, [even] their nakedness thou shalt not uncover.’ It appears quite common then, that father and mother also had children with other partners.
But the point of this chapter is the prohibition of many specifically mentioned partners for sex. In other words, if ‘Lo na’aph’ (no adultery) would mean that sex is only allowed with the partner to whom the person is married, then this whole chapter would be superfluous. Therefore that was not the rule! Also the word na’aph (adultery) does not occur in this chapter. What is mentioned here is not na’aph!
The people freely had sex with strangers and that went sometimes wrong. For example in Numb. 25, the people camped next to Moabites and (verse 1) ‘began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.’ So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel in verse 3 and this must have taken the form of a plague from which many Israelites died, according to verse 8.
Today we might speculate, that the Moabites carried some germs against which they were resistant, but to the Israelites these germs were deadly, just as many Native Americans died of the common cold or flu brought in by white settlers. In the days of Moses and after him all the way through the Middle Ages and also later diseases were seen as the wrath of God. The role of germs was only discovered and accepted in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. This often lead to people trying to punish the supposedly guilty who must have had brought on God’s wrath. Also in Numb. 31 the Israelites went and killed all Midianites, because (verse 16) ‘these caused the sons (not children) of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.’ Baal Peor was another god, the worship of whom was forbidden as was the worship of all other gods in the first and most important commandments.
So what exactly caused the wrath of God in Numb. 25? It was not the fact that the Israelites had had sex with the Moabites. It was (verses 2 & 3) ‘And they (the daughters of Moab) called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.’ It was not sex which kindled God’s anger, it was eating of the sacrifices to Baal Peor and bowing down to him and other Moabite gods!
Therefore Moses said (Numb. 25: 5), ‘Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor.’ The plague was finally stayed when in verse 8 Pinehas, the grandson of Aaron, went into the tent after a man of Israel, who had (verse 6), ‘brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman’, and thrust both of them through with a javelin, ‘the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly’ probably while they were having sex.
Now let us think a little more about the phrase from (verse 6), the Israelite ‘brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman.’ Imagine a club of middle aged couples today, going ten pin bowling once a week and once a year they go all together on a camping trip. One year one of the men catches the eye of another woman in the caravan park and the next morning he pretends not to feel well. So he remains in the park while the others go out hiking. He talks to the woman and one thing comes to another and they end up having sex. Would we say, ‘he brought this woman unto his brethren’ or ‘the club members?’ This phrase shows you how easy and promiscuous sex was at Moses time. Sex was not an offence, it was the worship of another god, the eating of food that had been sacrificed to that other god, that was the offence!
Now Eze. 23 is the chapter which shows that na’aph has to do with bloodshed, probably ceremonial bloodshed in a sacrifice for another god, not murder, since what king David did to Uriah the Hittite was not called na’aph in the Tanakh, even though the modern English word adultery certainly springs to mind. The story is told in 2. Sam. 11 and it is judged in 2. Sam. 12: 1 to 12 and 1. Kings 15: 5.
Ezekiel tells the parable of two sisters, Ahola, meaning ‘her own tent’, standing for Israel, and Aholibah, meaning ‘my tent in her’, which stands for Judah. These two now played the harlots with lots of lovers, meaning Israel and Judah worshipped many other gods. The fact, that these women had their own tents means they were not owned or married. Whatever they did, they did not offend an owner or husband but they offended God in the following way:
Eze. 23: 37, ’… they have committed adultery (na’aph), and blood [is] in their hands, and with their idols have they committed adultery (na’aph), and have also caused their sons, whom they bare unto me, to pass for them through [the fire], to devour [them].’ No mention of a neighbour’s woman! They ate their own children as a sacrifice to another god! That’s na’aph!
The chapter goes on to complain that these women have profaned the sanctuary and the Sabbath! Verse 39 clearly says that they had slain their own children. They probably could do that since they had their own tents and therefore did not belong to an owner (baal, KJV husband). According to verse 45 righteous men ‘shall judge them after the manner of adulteresses (na’aph), and after the manner of women that shed blood; because they [are] adulteresses (na’aph), and blood [is] in their hands.’
In Hos. 4: 2 there is a list of offences which the sons of Israel have committed: ‘By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood.’ Blood is shed due to na’aph in this sentence, not due to the earlier listed killing!
So what we consider adultery most certainly has not been forbidden in the commandment, ‘Lo na’aph.’ This commandment does not deal with any right of a woman to restrict her owner’s or husband’s sex life at all! It’s position in the list of Commandments shows that it is in the transition of commandments concerning God to the commandments concerning the neighbour while the neighbour’s woman is dealt with in the last and least important commandment. Getting your neighbour’s woman pregnant is an easily repairable offence since the woman can, by a simple procedure, be turned into a bethulah again, a word which King James has translated a as virgin. So the punishment for na’aph (adultery) in Lev. 20: 10, ‘And the man that committeth adultery with [another] man’s woman, [even he] that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s woman, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death,’ is so harsh, because it is a sin against God, against his First Commandment, not to worship any other gods beside him. This worship of other gods was the offence, not the sex which also may have been involved in the ceremony.
And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.