We continue in our efforts to reclaim faithful living according to the Ten Commandments this week with the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”
As I named last week, there are certainly some texts that would be easier not discussed at all – much less in the public arena of worship. Like last week’s verse, which simply reads, “you shall not kill,” this verse falls into the category of, “I’d prefer to leave that topic alone.”
At some point in the history of Christianity, we found it best to neglect such hot-topic scriptures. We locked them behind the closed front doors of our homes as we left each morning, and decided these topics are best discussed only when in the privacy of our direct family, certainly not in the public arena, even one as sacred as that of the faith community. I am certainly not the first or only to make this statement, but our failure to discuss the validity of such scriptures in community – even in our faith communities – has led us to our modern day situation where we fail to have honest and open conversation outside our closest of relationships. To make the claim that such topics, such as the sanctity of life, human sexuality, and marital promiscuity don’t belong in the arena of public worship is to say that such topics don’t affect the community at large that is gathered for worship. To say the community outside the realm of one’s immediate family unit doesn’t need to be involved in your own thoughts and perspectives is to reject the God-created importance of community – an importance that is laid out quite clearly in the Ten Commandments.
To help us reclaim the seventh commandment as one of importance to be discussed in such a public realm, we have to acknowledge the vast differences between the society to which the command was first offered and our own culture today. Only by understanding the command as it was offered, and giving credence to the differences that exist – then from now – can we reclaim the importance of the command for faithful living today.
This text was first offered by God through Moses to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, having left captivity in Egypt, yearning and hoping for their safe arrival in the promised land. As we have noted in previous weeks, while the Ten Commandments are intended to be taught to all generations and adhered by all persons in the community, the primary audience to whom the commandments were first offered was the adult men of society. This is not some shocking revelation when one really thinks about our religious ancestors, as women in the society were seen more as property than as individuals with importance and rights within the community.
This scripture, teaching that adultery is wrong, as part of the Ten Commandments, should be first and foremost understood to be a teaching for the men of the Israelite community. Such an understanding makes sense when you consider the understanding of adultery at the time. Thankfully, there is ample instruction around the sin of adultery throughout the Old Testament. Acknowledging what is being prohibited in the act of adultery, discerning the definition of what counted as adultery, is of great importance for understanding why we have to look deeper than just the face value of adulterous acts in the Old Testament to claim the importance of the seventh commandment today.
At its core, at the basic instruction around adultery, there were two primary prohibitions for men that, if broken, would be classified as adultery. The first was any man (married or unmarried) who had intimate relations with a woman who was married. The second was any man (married or unmarried) who had intimate relations with a woman who was betrothed – engaged to be married. These two acts alone were defined as adultery for men. If any man (married or unmarried) had intimate relations with any other woman – any woman who was not married or engaged – the act was not considered adultery. So a slave, a servant, a sister, a cousin, a random pick up off the street – so long as they weren’t betrothed or married, it wasn’t considered adultery. The reason for such classifications was that adultery was considered a grievance against another man. If a man had intimate relations with a married or betrothed woman, the crime was not against the woman – it was against her husband or fiancé. Again, it’s important to name that men were considered important in society, women and children – not as much.
These two same situations also define the only possibilities for women to commit adultery. If any married or betrothed woman had intimate relations with any man (married or unmarried) who was not her husband or betrothed, it was considered an act of adultery. Unmarried women who had intimate relations with men were not considered adulterers – but the name used for them was certainly no kinder. Rules for women were significantly more strict than for the men. Again – the focus of the crime was against the man. Any women in these situations had committed adultery against her husband or fiancé by being intimate with another.
If we wanted, and it fit our cultural context, we could claim these rules verbatim for society today and be done with the sermon. We could say that adultery was only a problem if a man was wronged by his wife or fiancée – and we could say the woman and the man she was with are both guilty of adultery. But as with the other commandments, an interpretation that maintains ancient east models would be quite dangerous for our society today. I like to think we have progressed passed such an unthinkable application. Such an interpretation would allow for the promiscuity of married and unmarried men, claiming them blameless so long as when they seek intimacy apart their spouse, it’s only with unwed or unengaged individuals.
So, we must then ask, how can such a commandment be understood to be applicable if the application from its original understanding is not seen as faithful living today?
We primarily talk about adultery today in regards to intimacy within the marriage relationship, partly because that is the origin of the word. However, human sexuality in the modern world is understood quite differently than in the days of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Sexuality has been turned into a commodity in our modern society; it’s sold at every corner. We are also defined by our sexuality, as if our sexuality is somehow tied into our ontological existence.[i] We define people as gay or straight, homo- or hetero-, as if our sexuality is in and of itself an accurate way to define who we are as people. The reality is, “the bible knows nothing of our current notion of sexuality as some independently intelligible human characteristic.”[ii] The world today says that if you’re not being fulfilled sexually, then you’re less of a person – again, as if our sexuality is tied into our ontological existence – as if it is the base reason we were created.
Such a rationale in modern times has been used to shame persons who were not sexually active, and in the life of Christians, that has also been used then to shame those who were not in committed relationships, which biblically is offered as the place for such intimacy.
Seeing intimacy as some prize for the married, seeing it as some end-game goal when searching for a spouse, while normalized in our sacred and secular worlds today, is not only a mentality that stands apart from that of the ancient Israelites, it has no foundation in biblical literature. Just as each individual was created to be a partner with God in the creating and perfecting of the earthly realm, so too should the marriage – a covenanted relationship with another and God – be seen as a primary vessel for carrying out the work and will of God. As we say in the consecration of a newly married couple, the two individuals have formed a new identity. The new identity, the two joined as one, has as its core purpose the same as either did individually, to live for God and to make the love of God known in the world. Intimacy is a secondary benefit, no matter how great it may be, to making the love of God known in the world.
As it pertains to marriage or the breach of such a covenant, adultery is nothing more than the destruction of the new identity that has been formed with one another and with God. This is listed as a neighborly command, because adultery is seen a grievance on the community. It takes from the community an identity that was created, blessed, even supported by the community. And just like any life that is lost, a broken marriage brings great pain on the community as a lost identity. Thus, it should come as no surprise that this command directly follows the sixth commandment, saying, “do not kill.” To commit adultery is to take from the community an identity, created in marriage, that is, as blessed by God, an important aspect in the witness of God’s love in community.
And that brings us to the other important aspect of this commandment for faithful living today. The seventh commandment, as it follows the sixth commandment in the midst of the ten, gives us some indication of God’s deeper intent, and helps us claim faithful application as disciples today.
As we have named from the start, the Ten Commandments are first and foremost offered to us – God’s created humanity – to help set right our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. From the first, we find that God wants us to be in right relationship with our Creator. “Have no other gods,” “do not make an image of God,” “do not use God’s name wrongfully,” … we are given clear instruction to ensure our relationship with God is primary, and is maintained faithfully. As we shift toward the commandments that are primarily seen as neighbor-based commands, there is still a focus on our relationship with God. For example, “you shall not kill” is about maintaining healthy relationships with our neighbors, and not allowing our anger or enmity to lead us to take the life of another. But perhaps even more so, it’s about understanding God as the one who created life. Such a command requires we do not overstep the will of the Creator who gave life by taking life.
In the same way, while “do not commit adultery” is a command that necessitates a healthy relationship between ourselves and others in the community, and perhaps calls us to reclaim sexuality as a byproduct of relationships instead of the purpose to them, it also requires we maintain a right relationship with the one who says, “have no gods before me.” The more profound intent underlying this neighborly command to not commit adultery is one that requires us to see God as the one who provides complete satisfaction, something we pursue today in sexual intimacy.
“We live in an adulterous age. We live in an age when promises and faithfulness, the hard work of fidelity, to values, to the moral life, seem secondary to the drive to attain fleeting scraps of pleasure.”[iii] And that impulse – the one that lies within all of us – it promises excitement, perhaps even fulfillment – it holds out the possibility of satisfaction in unsatisfactory lives. “The allure of adultery is that it kindles passions that routine and familiarity can leave blunted … [and this] allure is the staple of the advertising and entertainment industries. It is fed to us in a steady stream through [ever imaginable outlet].”[iv]
Such an allure – even if only a mirage – is hard for us to manage if we’re not willing to give some credence to the desire. God, who created us in his own image, created us to love. “The desire for an all-consuming love is the most powerful longing in the human heart [and it was put there intentionally by God].”[v] When we find our love blunted, when we find ourselves feeling unloved, or even if we find ourselves without a reciprocated love, we seek a more powerful love in other places and in other people. As entertainment channels become too disconnected, as God begins to seem too distant, and perhaps even as our spouse or loved one seems to become less exciting, we find ourselves seeking that all-consuming love in other outlets.
In summary, when applying the seventh commandment today, we would be wise to name that part of our motivation for committing adultery is that we have become a society that over inflates active sexuality to be more important than love itself. And second, we have become a society that in both love and sexuality does not understand satisfaction. There is always something faster, bigger, more powerful, more beautiful, more alluring that, having caught our attention, eats away at the love we have for one another. Such replacements seek to replace not only the love that God provides, but even the love that a spouse or significant other can provide.
And so, in seeking to better understand this commandment for life today, we end by hearing Jesus’ words. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, if you even look at another and lust in your heart you have committed adultery.” Jesus says it’s not just the act of adultery that is forbidden, God’s command even speaks to the inner thoughts of your heart and mind. “[This commandment drives us to] continually return to the nature of God, realizing that God is not an earthly lawgiver who only forbids the external act while permitting us to indulge evil affections.”[vi]
God gives us perfect love, a love witnessed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Love that is experienced week in and week out at the Communion table. Love that calls us to be better connected to God and to one another. Love that calls us to maintain not only the identity God has given each of us as individuals, but also that which God is covenanted with for those in married relationships. And it calls on us to maintain fidelity in our own relationships, just as it calls us to protect the relationships of others.
So may you hear this command, and receive God’s good news of great love, and go forth to maintain God’s love in your life, in the life of your marriage, in the life of your community, and in the life of all God has created. Amen.