The Seventh Commandment reads:
- Thou shalt not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14)
This is one of the shorter commandments and probably has the form it originally did when written, unlike the much longer commandments that were probably added to over the centuries. It is also one of those regarded as among the most obvious, easiest to understand, and most reasonable to expect everyone to obey. This, however, is not entirely true.
The problem, naturally enough, lies with the meaning of the word “adultery.” People today tend define it as any act of sexual intercourse outside of marriage or, perhaps a bit more narrowly, any act of sexual intercourse between a married person and someone who is not their spouse. That is appropriate in contemporary society but it isn’t not how the word has always been defined.
The ancient Hebrews in particular had a very restricted understanding of the concept and limited it to just sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who was either already married or at least betrothed. The marital status of the man was irrelevant. Thus, a married man was not guilty of “adultery” for having sex with an unmarried woman.
This restriction makes sense if we remember that at the time women were often treated as little more than property — a slightly higher status than the slaves but not nearly as high as that of men. Because women were like property, having sex with a married or betrothed woman was regarded as misuse of someone else’s property (with the possible consequence of children whose actual lineage was uncertain — the main reason for treating women this way was to control their reproductive capacity and ensure the identity of the father of her children). A married man having sex with an unmarried woman was not guilty of such a crime and thus was not committing adultery. If she also wasn’t a virgin, then the man wasn’t guilty of any crimes at all.
This exclusive focus on married or betrothed women leads to an interesting conclusion. Because not all extramarital sex acts qualify as adultery, even sexual intercourse between members of the same sex would not be counted as violations of the Seventh Commandment. They might be regarded as violations of other laws, but they wouldn’t be a violation of the Ten Commandments — at least, not according to the understanding of the ancient Hebrews.
Contemporary Christians define adultery much more broadly, and as a consequence almost all extramarital sex acts are treated as violations of the Seventh Commandment. Whether this is justified or not is debatable. Less debatable are the attempts to expand the understanding of “adultery” beyond even sex acts themselves.
Many have argued that adultery should include lustful thoughts, lustful words, polygamy, etc. Warrant for this is justified by the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.“ (Matthew 5:27-28)
It is reasonable to argue that certain non-sexual acts may be wrong and even more reasonable to argue that sinful acts always start with impure thoughts, and therefore to stop sinful acts we must pay more attention to the impure thoughts. It is not reasonable, however, to equate thoughts or words with adultery itself. Doing so undermines both the concept of adultery and efforts to deal with it.