I embarked on a project to write about each of the ten commandments in the summer of 2016. When I got to this one, however, I found I could not continue. My thinking about it was so fraught with conflicting ideas about women’s rights, patriarchy, and the biblical teaching of my youth that I felt stuck. What follows may still be considered a work in progress. The north star for all my efforts at understanding the bible is the supreme goodness and unconditional love of God. Anything that does not align with God’s love must be understood differently if it is to be understood at all.
It is impossible to discuss adultery without discussing the status of women in society. The prohibition specified here is against adultery only. The commandment does not prohibit sex outside of marriage as some have claimed. It prohibits either partner in a marriage being unfaithful to the other partner. It also is not limited to a specific gender, yet throughout history, enforcement of this commandment has unquestionably fallen with much greater weight on women1For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s adultery was revealed through her subsequent pregnancy and punished, but her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, remained undiscovered until his own guilt outed him.. There are two likely reasons for this. The first is that women until recently have almost always been treated as less than men. The second is that there are consequences to sex that are difficult for women to hide, but about which men do not need to concern themselves.
Men have used this commandment to suppress and punish the sexual expression of women, but I do not think the law was intended to be primarily about sex. Marriage in almost all instances is a promise of fealty, a vow to be true to one person. It is foundational for forming a family. The bible recounts various attempts to circumvent the binding nature of marriage, almost all of which led to tragedy. From Sarah persuading Abraham to have a child with her servant Hagar to Jacob tricked into marrying a woman he does not love before he can marry the one he does to David essentially raping Bathsheba while her husband is away fighting on his behalf, the stories of tragic consequences for ignoring the marriage vow are numerous. Popular culture today with few exceptions reinforces the same message: adultery—often rendered somewhat more mildly as cheating on a romantic partner—is harmful and wrong. This, I think is the primary prohibition in the commandment: Don’t cheat the person you are married to.
The modern world makes a notable exception, however. If you no longer love someone, whether you’ve made a vow to them or not, you no longer have to remain faithful to them. If you’re married, you divorce; if you’re not, you break up. Then you are free to love someone else and make the same vows of fealty again. There are several problems with this modern exception. It nullifies what it means to make a vow. It prioritizes transient feelings over genuine commitment, and it undermines the responsibilities adults have toward their children.
Divorce and other forms of broken commitment have become so common that many couples now marry without making a vow of lifelong fealty. They believe it is more realistic to acknowledge the reality that love often does not last. Most certainly hope theirs will last, but they don’t want to make a promise they might not be able to keep. I can’t say I blame them. Marriage is hard, and when you embark on a life with someone else, you have no idea what life is going to throw at you. It helps a lot if your own parents and your partner’s parents remained together because you have seen how couples resolve their differences even when the rift runs deep. But if you’ve seen your parents split up, you may have no idea how to fight constructively.
Traditionally, couples vowed to remain true to one another before God and members of their community. God and the members of the community, as witnesses to their vow, take on some responsibility for seeing that it is kept up. Of course, no one can force another to be true to their partner, and, while coercion was once acceptable, it is no longer and never ought to have been. Still, witnesses can remind the couple of all the good they have enjoyed and can still look forward to if they will work together to stay together. Such reminders will not prevent all divorces; both partners must be willing to invest in the marriage to make it work. But making a vow despite the acknowledged difficulties of keeping it can help a couple remain resolute in pursuit of lifelong love.
Another criticism often leveled at the seventh commandment is that it reflects patriarchal concern with property rights rather than faithfulness to a partner. Women were regarded as having little autonomy and could be traded and disposed like property at the discretion of the men who had authority over them. So a father could give his daughter in marriage to a man she neither knew nor loved, and her only choice was to accept. Men wanted to be certain that any children born to their wives were their own and not some other man’s, because the (male) children would inherit his wealth. Therefore they wanted a law to punish women who had sex outside marriage. This is a compelling argument, and there can be little doubt that patriarchy influenced the interpretation and application of this law as it does even to this day in many conservative Christian circles.
When Jesus discussed divorce, he made it clear that marriage should be regarded as a permanent union. He told the religious leaders that their practice of divorcing their wives so they could marry another was tantamount to legally justified adultery. Of particular note is the way he explains that the Law Moses gave was a concession to their own hardness of heart. In other words, the law that allowed them to get rid of a wife they no longer found attractive and take a new wife they liked better had never been an expression of God’s will regarding marriage. His design was for husbands and wives to remain true to one another until death. Nearly everyone who marries freely hopes for just such an outcome even if they can’t quite believe in it.
The godly purpose, then, of this commandment is not to oppress women by keeping them in unloving, unfulfilling marriages where they are subject to husbands who may be cruel or uncaring. It is to encourage both partners in a marriage to commit themselves fully to the task of making their union as loving, supportive, and caring as it can be, for in so doing they represent the mutual commitment of Christ and his church.
- 1For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s adultery was revealed through her subsequent pregnancy and punished, but her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, remained undiscovered until his own guilt outed him.