What is Adultery In The Bible?

The seventh of the Ten Commandments God gave Moses to give unto the people of Israel was — “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). 

What is adultery?

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ directed our attention to the fact that adultery involved far more than merely an illicit sexual encounter, but was more importantly a heart matter. He quotes a biblical reference and explains it further. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). It is obvious that the Lord does not regard with any degree of favor those who are guilty of adultery, whether that term involves only the inner man or the outer man (or woman), or both (more about this later). Indeed, Paul lists “adulterers” right along with drunkards, swindlers and fornicators as being those who “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Adultery is a very serious matter, and, unless repented of, a deadly matter.

But, what is adultery? And just how are we to understand this concept from a biblical point of view? “That would seem to be about as obvious a question as a person could ask. Whether he has done extensive studies or not, virtually everyone knows that adultery is sexual activity between a married person and someone other than his (or her) lawful spouse. … It unquestionably has to do with the illicit sexual conduct of a married person” (Wayne Jackson, “What Is Adultery?” — an article that appeared in The Christian Polemic, May, 2001). Our English dictionaries generally agree with this assessment by Bro. Jackson, defining the word adultery as “sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than their spouse.” Thus, by this definition, adultery is “cheating on one’s lawful mate; sexual misconduct with another.” There is no denying that such a view of the concept of adultery is found within the pages of the inspired Scriptures. Consider the following examples:

John 8:3-11 — This particular episode occurred early one morning in the temple courts after Jesus had returned from a long night on the Mount of Olives where He often went to be alone and to pray to the Father. A crowd had gathered to hear Him teach. Some of the religious leaders, apparently aware of where He would be at that time of day, appeared and presented Him with an adulterous woman who had been caught in the act. Interrupting His message to the crowd, they placed this woman before Him and declared for all to hear, “We caught her committing adultery … we caught her in the very act. The Law of Moses says she should die. What do you say?”

Jesus was faced with quite a dilemma! Before Him that morning was a woman unquestionably guilty of a serious offense. There was no way Jesus could question the validity of the accusation, and there is no evidence He did. She was caught in the act; there were witnesses; the woman herself was not denying the charge. Her guilt was indisputable! Under the Law of Moses the penalty for adultery was DEATH. Leviticus 20:10 declares that when an adulterous situation occurs, both “the adulterer and the adulteress (i.e., both the man and the woman) shall surely be put to death.” Deuteronomy 22:22-24 clearly states the same severe penalty! God views this as a serious matter, even though many of His people seemingly do not.

Hebrews 13:4 — The writer of Hebrews declares, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains that the biblical phrase “marriage bed” is simply “a euphemism for sexual intercourse” (volume 12, p. 146). “The marriage union is divinely ordained, and its sacred precincts must not be polluted by the intrusion of a third party, of either sex” (Dr. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 392).

Ezekiel 23 — In this chapter we find a Parable of Two Sisters, both of whom chose to become prostitutes. “They played the harlot in Egypt. They played the harlot in their youth; there their breasts were pressed, and there their virgin bosom was handled … and they bore sons and daughters” (vs. 3-4). The chapter goes on to speak of these two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, going after other lovers while being married. Thus, it was said with regard to each, her lovers “laid with her … and poured out their lust on her” (vs. 8), and she was “worn out by adulteries” (vs. 43). It should be pointed out that these two sisters, in this Old Testament parable, represent Samaria and Jerusalem. It should also be noted, for those who might be easily offended, that this chapter is very graphic; very sexually explicit.

I sincerely doubt whether many persons would try to argue that the above accounts, in which adultery is clearly said to have occurred, are not speaking of physical, sexual sins. They depict illicit, intimate acts committed by those who are married with partners who are not their lawful mates. Thus, the familiar definition of “adultery” is certainly a biblical one. However, and this is a very important question, is this the only accepted definition of the term “adultery” to be found in the Bible? Is it possible this term may have other meanings and applications when we ask, “what is adultery?”

I believe the answer to this question is YES, and our acceptance of this fact will have quite an impact on some areas of traditional theology, especially with respect to some of the matters concerning divorce and remarriage. Although I will not be examining all the many ramifications of this broader definition of adultery in this current issue of Reflections, nevertheless I do develop that body of theology in quite some depth in my new book “Down, But Not Out,” which is now published and available for purchase.

The Greek word in question here is “Moicheia.” It is a word that appears, in its various forms, just under 30 times in the NT documents. It is used roughly the same number of times, in its various forms, in the OT writings. What many biblical interpreters fail to appreciate about this word, and other Greek & Hebrew words as well, is its rather significant semantic range. Like a great many English words, it can have several meanings and applications, and these should not be lightly discounted in anyone’s interpretation of those passages in which the term moicheia appears. Notice some of the additional usages of this term:

Asexual Aspects of Adultery

In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus stated the following truth — “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). This raises some interesting questions! Is it possible for one to “commit adultery” alone? Obviously, the answer is yes! Adultery, therefore, is just as much an attitude as an act. Indeed, it may be the former without ever being the latter. In the Haggadic sections of the Jewish Talmud and Midrash, one will find numerous warnings against “adultery,” many of which are clearly strong warnings against one’s inappropriate thoughts, and which do not even involve another person in an act of literal, physical intimacy. One statement reads, “We find that even he who commits adultery with the eyes is called an adulterer,” and a reference to Job 24:15 then follows. “He who regards a woman with lustful intention is as one who cohabits with her.” “He who touches the little finger of a woman is as one who touches a certain spot.” Perhaps the following insightful quote from a classic Greek reference work makes the point best: “From the religious standpoint, adultery does not consist merely in physical intercourse with a strange woman; it is present already in the desire which negates fidelity” (Dr. Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4, p. 733-734). Yes, adultery can occur only, and entirely, within one’s heart, with no other person actually, physically involved.

Adultery may also, based on the same statement by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, be entirely asexual (or non-sexual) in nature. He said, “everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Thus, Jesus indicates the lustful look may result in the committing of adultery. What is this lustful look? Those who suggest “lust” and “adultery” can ONLY be understood as sexual in nature, would regard the lustful look to be a sexual desire on the part of the man for the woman. But, is that always true? Is it possible to “look upon a woman and earnestly desire her” in a way other than sexually? Is the only desire men have for women SEXUAL in nature? I suppose that will depend to a large extent upon which men one interviews. However, is it even remotely possible that perhaps one or two men out of the billions upon this planet just might have a non-sexual thought now and then when looking upon a woman? Is it just possible that some rare bird out there might look upon a woman and earnestly desire her for some reason other than what sexual gratification he might gain from her body? (Note: this applies to women lusting after men as well). The answer, of course, is YES. Therefore, we must acknowledge that one can indeed look desirously and longingly upon a woman, and “commit adultery in his heart,” and have that “adultery” be entirely NON-sexual in nature. Thus, those who declare that adultery is always and only an illicit sexual act are proclaiming far more than Jesus did, and far more than the usage of the word in the Bible allows.

It is a fact that one can “commit adultery” in his heart and never actually physically lay a hand upon the woman he has looked upon with earnest desire. Indeed, the woman in question may not even be aware she has generated adulterous feelings within this man. The Contemporary English Version has done an excellent job of capturing the meaning of Jesus’ words in the Matthew 5:27-28 passage — “You know the commandment which says, ‘Be faithful in marriage.’ But I tell you that if you look at another woman and want her, you are already unfaithful in your thoughts.” There are many ways to “want” a woman other than sexually, and there are many ways to be “unfaithful in marriage” besides committing some illicit sexual act with one other than one’s spouse. The notion of SEX literally has to be read into Matthew 5:27-28. Those who “earnestly desire” (the actual meaning of the Greek word we often translate “lust”) another woman (for whatever reason), who have “set their heart upon” one other than their covenantal spouse, are guilty of an inner breach of their covenantal vows. They have broken covenant in their hearts; they have committed moicheia (“adultery”). Thus, “adultery” may be committed alone in one’s heart, and it may be entirely asexual. “Adultery” is the breaking of covenant, and it may be brought about by any number of attitudes or actions, sexual and/or non-sexual. To limit moicheia to merely one of many possible manifestations is to completely fail to perceive the meaning of the biblical term.

Consider the following case history — Dan and Sally had been married for 43 years when they were in a terrible automobile accident. Sally only received minor injuries, but Dan was left paralyzed and impotent. Indeed, because of the extensive nature of his injuries, his sexual organs had to be removed. Sally did her best to care for Dan, but she was ill-equipped emotionally to handle the stresses of his daily care. Feeling the accident was due to his carelessness, she even came to resent him for the turn her life had taken. Still, she sought to be a good wife even though she found it increasingly difficult to show the love she had once felt for Dan. To assist her in his care she had hired the services of a retired nurse who came over daily to help her out. This woman, who was named Cathy, came to be devoted to the care of Dan, and demonstrated a depth of concern that Dan had found lacking in Sally. In time, Dan found himself earnestly longing for the companionship of Cathy over that of his wife Sally. Although he never expressed his feelings to either woman, yet in his heart he desired to spend the rest of his life with Cathy, and secretly hoped perhaps his wife would leave. He didn’t long for Cathy sexually; those feelings never entered the picture. Instead, he desperately desired the warmth of her companionship and the depth of her caring. What he “knew” is that he would be happier with her, and the more he was with Cathy the more he longed for her, and the more he resented the aloofness of Sally.

Jesus informs us that if we look upon another woman and earnestly desire her above our own spouse, then we have already, in our hearts, committed adultery (breached our covenant). Dan’s deep longing for Cathy had led him to the point where he had “broken covenant” with Sally in his heart. He had replaced her with another woman as the focus of his affections and desire. Although entirely non-sexual in nature, and although never actually acted upon physically (Cathy never suspected his feelings), yet “adultery” had been committed by Dan. Yes, both “lust” (earnest desire) and “adultery” (breaking covenant — more about this meaning below) can indeed be asexual, and they can indeed occur only in the heart without actually physically involving another person (the object of one’s longing). The reality is that these two Greek words have a very wide and varied “semantic range.” This fact must be considered when seeking to interpret any passage in which they appear.

Breach of Covenant

As we further look to answer the question, “What is adultery?” We must mention W. E. Vine. In his heralded classic work An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, informs us that the Greek word moicheia has a broader sense than the sexual. For example, he wrote, “In Israel the breach of their relationship with God, through their idolatry, was described as adultery.” I think it is interesting, and highly instructive, to note that Vine does not really characterize the idolatry as constituting “adultery,” rather it was the “breach of their relationship” with their God which was viewed as “adultery.” Vine has captured the true concept behind this biblical term — “adultery” is far more a “breach of relationship” (the breaking of a covenantal union) than any specific action or attitude which may have contributed to that breach. Vine goes on to say, “… so believers who cultivate friendship with the world, thus breaking their spiritual union with Christ, are spiritual adulteresses.” Again, this Greek scholar has characterized “adultery” as “breaking union” with one to whom one is joined in some special covenant relationship.

Matt. 12:39 and 16:4, as well as Mark 8:38, speak of a “wicked and adulterous generation.” What causes these people to be characterized as “adulterous” by our Lord? Were they all out cheating on their spouses? Was this a sexual orgy of cosmic proportions? No. That’s ridiculous. They were being condemned for their lack of faith, their disobedience, and their sense of shame for the Lord and His teachings. This had nothing to do with sex. Rather, it had everything to do with breaching their covenant with the Lord, a breach that could be brought about by any number of specific acts. “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?” (James 4:4). “Your iniquities have separated you from your God” (Is. 59:2). When we turn from God to the world, we break covenant with Him, and we are thus characterized as a “wicked and adulterous generation.” Time and time again in the Bible the concept of “adultery” is linked with faithlessness to a covenant relationship. Actually, the far more common biblical understanding of moicheia is a “breach of covenant.”

There are countless references, both biblical and extra-biblical, which portray moicheia as a breach of one’s covenant with one’s God or fellow man, a break in relationship which may be brought about by any number of things, chief of which seemed to be idolatry. This view was especially common among the Apostolic Fathers. Referring to idolatry, 2 Clement 4:3 reads, “Whoever acts as the heathen do, commits adultery.” In the Shepherd of Hermas we find the following: “Now they commit adultery, not only who pollute their flesh, but who also make an image. If therefore a woman perseveres in anything of this kind, and repents not, depart from her, otherwise thou also shalt be partaker of her sin” (Commands 4:9).

Dr. Gerhard Kittel, in his massive work, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, also clearly alludes to this concept of the term. For example, with respect to a passage in Revelation, Kittel notes, “The adultery with the prophetess mentioned in Rev. 2:2 is a figure for acceptance of her false teaching and the implied infidelity to God. The tekna of this adulterous relation are the followers of the prophetess” (vol. 4, p. 734-735). Kittel shows here that by embracing this false doctrine a person is in reality severing his relationship with God. It is a breaking of a covenantal union. Thus, the adultery is not so much the embracing of falsehood (although that is involved), as it is the severed union with the Father which results. Dr. Kittel even points out, in an aside, that the word has sometimes even been used figuratively to characterize “the intermingling of different races.” Thus, some peoples regarded marrying outside of their own race as a “break” with their own people; a “breaking of fellowship.” Again, it was not so much the fact that sex or marriage had occurred, as it was the RESULT of that sex and marriage with outsiders …. the real adultery was perceived as being a breaking with one’s people.

In his four volume set: Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Dr. James Hastings notes that “the essence of adultery” is when “any mode of conduct or actions” occurs which “sets at naught the mysterious relationship of marriage.” Dr. Hastings correctly identifies the essence of adultery as being the “setting at naught” of the marriage covenant. He has looked beyond the specific actions themselves (and he implies there may be many such actions), and he focuses on the biblical concept that “adultery” is truly the breaking, or “setting at naught,” or the breaching of, the covenant of marriage itself. R.C.H. Lenski points out in his commentary on Matthew that a disrupted marriage is a disrupted marriage, regardless of the specific cause (p. 735). He too understood the “essence of adultery” as being a broken relationship.

In the classic volume: A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, we discover that “any beclouding” of God’s relationship with His people, which is depicted as a marriage, “becomes adultery.” In other words, the focus is not so much on some specific act itself, but rather upon the fact than ANY action which “beclouds” this covenant relationship is adulterous by nature. Yes, sex is one such action. But, it is not the only action which can becloud or breach or destroy a covenant of marriage (or a covenantal relationship with one’s God). Thayer declares that figuratively the word conveys the concept of “faithless to God, unclean, apostate.” He further states that “Hebraistically and figuratively” it conveys the thought of “faithless toward God; ungodly.” Even in these word choices, Dr. Henry Thayer is striking at the very essence of the concept: it is faithlessness to one with whom one is in a covenant relationship. Again, the “adultery” is not so much the act itself, as it is the faithlessness of setting aside a covenant to engage in said act. It is far more the effect, or result, of the act, than the act itself (of which there may be many, and of great variety), that constitutes the biblical concept of adultery.

Early Bible translators were also not unfamiliar with this basic biblical concept of “adultery” (both the Hebrew and Greek words), and at times even translated the terms to reflect their meaning of “breakdown of covenantal relationships.” The King James Version, for example, translates the Hebrew word for “adultery” (which is na’aph) as “break wedlock” in Ezekiel 16:38. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible also translates this Hebrew term this way: “adulterer; woman that breaketh wedlock.” William Tyndale (1494-1536) translated the Greek as “breaketh wedlock” in Matt. 19:9. Thus, when it is stated that “adultery” has occurred, this may well be far more than the fact that two people have engaged in an illicit sex act. It is really stating that a covenant relationship has been broken, which may have been caused by any number of things (including an illicit sex act). This is brought out dramatically in the following statement found in Mal. 2:14 — “The Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” Those who deal treacherously with their spouse are guilty of breaking a covenant relationship. This is “adultery.”

Concluding Thought

There were additional meanings and applications of “moicheia” in that ancient day and age that should also not be overlooked in any attempt to interpret some passage. The Jews, for example, regarded the intermingling of Jews with those of other races to be “adultery,” and from our study of the OT Scriptures we know for a fact that part of the covenant God made with His people was that they were not to mingle with the nations about them. Thus, such intermingling was indeed a “breach of covenant” (i.e., “adultery”). Sex with animals was also considered “adulterous,” so the “partner” did not always have to be human! We could list other, even more remote, applications, but these should suffice to make the point and answer the question, “What is adultery?”

To allow ourselves to be side-tracked from the broad semantic range of this biblical concept, and to assume, as some have done, that “adultery” is strictly and only a sexual act, is to completely fail to perceive the true significance of God’s teaching in the Scriptures. The idea consistent throughout is that “adultery” is unfaithfulness to a covenant relationship; an unfaithfulness that may manifest itself in any number of ways, but which inevitably leads, if not corrected, to the breakdown of that relationship. May God help us to stay focused on our covenant relationships, both vertically and horizontally. The cost for doing otherwise is much too high!

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