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You shall not commit adultery
Exodus 20:14 (RSV)
1. The Seventh Commandment: Introduction
You shall not commit adultery
- Exodus 20:14 (NRSV)
Unlike the meaning of the verb "to murder / kill" in the 7th Commandment, there is no linguistic problems in the 8th Commandment. The Hebrew verb na’ap unambiguously means to commit adultery. It:
The command relates to specifically to adultery, which in the Old Testament is clearly in a different category than fornication (= sex between two unmarried / unbetrothed people).
There was a double standard in the definition of adultery in Patriarchal Israel
Jesus declared this extension to the commandment:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
- Matthew 5:27-28
Fornication is clearly frowned on in the New Testament:
“Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
- Matthew 15:19
“Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body, but the fornicator sins against the body itself.”
- 1 Corinthians 6:18
However whether these statements intend that fornication should falls under the Seventh Commandment is unclear.
At the heart of the Commandment live issues of:
2.1. What is a Marriage?
The scriptures contain many images about marriage, ranging from the erotic imagery in the Song of Songs to the laments about women such as those in the apocryphal book Son of Sirach 25:13 (there is no wickedness or wrath greater than a woman’s). There is however no "coherent theology" of marriage to be found in the Scriptures:
“There is not a biblical theology of marriage as a unified set of ideas and concepts. Instead, one has to view the richness and diversity of the various early Christian traditions.”
- Francis Fiorenza in Systematic Theology
The Christian sacrament of marriage grew out of the "natural" or secular institution of marriage primarily by adding elements to it, and has evolved with the natural institution over time.
“Natural” purpose of marriage:
The institution to protect and regulate the sexual and reproductive activities of people
The institution has thus varied, depending on what the culture deemed "good" for the individual (which might be different depending on whether the individual was male or female) and "good" for society.
Modern developments in the evolution of the natural or secular institution of marriage include:
Christian Churches in general (including the Roman Catholic Church) recognize the legitimacy of secular marriages. We discuss the theology behind this recognition in section 5.4, Marriage as a Sacrament
The changes in the Christian institution of marriage as the natural institution has evolved can be seen in the purposes of marriage numerated in the Book of Common Prayer:
1662 Book of Common Prayer:
Modern Prayer Book (p. 423) lists:
The three Bonds in a Christian Marriage (from Macquarrie):
3. The Moral Bond of Marriage - Fidelity
The marriage vows:
The solemnity of these vows is reflected in:
“The solemn obligations undertaken by the marriage partners cannot fail to affect them in the very depths of their being. . “ (Macquarrie)
[Marriage vows] "establish a relationship so profound that it can never cease to be of moral significance. For they bring into being a new unit, no longer you and I, but we -- and however much we fail to act out this unity, once each of us is committed together with the other to the intention of constituting such a unity, neither can ever be the same again, an entirely independent entity, free from all such ties.”
- John Lucas, Theology Vol. 78: 229, 1975
4. The Natural Bond of Marriage - Sex
[The Seventh Commandment] "points to the recognition that sexuality is enormously wondrous and enormously dangerous. The wonder of sexuality is available in a community only if it is practiced respectfully and under discipline. The danger of sexuality is that it is capable to evoking desires that are destructive of persons and of communal relations. . . around the subject of freedom and discipline in sexuality we deal with the most intense and elemental mystery of human existence.”
“At its best, sexual union is the most complete and intimate reciprocal self-giving of which two persons are capable, making them, in the biblical phrase, ‘one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24). It brings about a relation transcending in its closeness even blood-relationships.”
Sexual union in the context of daily companionship and sharing “profoundly and permanently affects the partners in their inward being.” (Macquarrie). This psycho-physical sexual union adds a new bond to marriage that perhaps cannot be totally destroyed. It creates:
The Seventh Commandment declares God’s creational intention which “links a positive role for sexuality with commitment and loyalty” (Fretheim)
Another part of the natural bond of marriage are the children that arise from the sexual union. They are the most visible example of the permanent effects of sexual union
5.1.1. The Duality of Our Experience of Life
“Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see”
- George Herbert, Anglican poet
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round and plunk blackberries.”
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“To me, the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
- William Wordsworth
“Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made."
- St. Paul, Romans 1:20 (NRSV)
Duality of Experience:
A “sacramental” view of the universe links the two pieces of this duality:
5.1.2. The Justification for the Sacramental View of the Universe
The justifications for the two parts of a sacramental view of the universe: that the material world is good, and that the material world can be a door to the sacred, are:
5.2. Natural Sacraments
There are many “natural sacraments:” physical events, actions or rituals, that are “doors” to feelings, inner realities, meaning beyond the mechanics of the act or rite:
The Church has defined seven “sacramental” rites or rituals call the “Sacraments:”
There are two Sacraments of the Gospel:
There are five other Sacramental Rites that have evolved under guidance of the Holy Spirit:
Each of these Sacraments of the Church has:
The sacrament of marriage is unique among all the other sacraments in that the ministers of the sacrament are the couple themselves, not the priest. This is the theological reason why most mainstream Christian denominations including the Roman Catholic Church accept the validity of a marriage performed before a justice of the peace or the clergy of another faith.
The res (the inward spiritual reality) and the matter (the outward or visible part) of the Sacrament of marriage are:
Sexuality in marriage can be a “natural sacrament” - the visible, “material” expression of the inner reality of love between the partners.
Judaism does not include a formal sacramental theology, but does recognize the religious significance of this natural sacrament (recall that in Judaism, wherever two or more are gathered together to study Torah, there will be the Divine Presence, the Shekhinah
“Marriage creates family, which is the locus for the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people. In this setting, sexual intercourse is a religious act equivalent to prayer or Torah study, and the home becomes a holy place.”
- Rabbi Peter Knobel in Broken Tablets
In a narrow sense: adultery is a violation of the bonds of marriage by having sexual intercourse outside of the marriage
In a broader sense: adultery is:
7. The Family
Marriage is the founding of a new family:
The Seventh Commandment seeks also to protect the integrity of the family
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
- Matthew 5:31-32 (NRSV)
It is important to keep in mind the context of Jesus’ statement:
Jesus’ interpretation can be seen as offering protection for women, putting men and women on the same footing.
8.2. The Exception Clause
Jesus' statement on divorce contains the exception clause:
“except on the ground of unchastity”
There are two suggested meanings of the Greek porneia in this passage:
The issue of divorce is complex, for "adultery" and "divorce" are both defined in the context of marriage. This leads us back to the question we considered in the beginning of this session: what is a “marriage”?
It is God's creational intention that marriage be a genuine, ongoing relationship that mutually enhances the lives of both the man and the woman. Jesus clearly intends that such a relationship -- marriage -- be a lifelong union.
The Roman Catholic interpretation of Jesus' statement on divorce is that once two people are legally married, divorce is not allowed. The two may separate, but remarriage is not possible. (The only "out" is to have the marriage "annulled," a declaration that there never a marriage in the first place). However when the marriage relationship is clearly broken and there is no longer any possibility that it can mutually enhance the lives of the man and woman, this interpretation hardly seems to answer God's creational intention that marriage be a mutually enhancing, on-going, lifelong relationship.
Broken Tablets. Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves. Rachel S. Mikva, editor. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999.
Commandments of Compassion. James F. Keenan, S.J. Sheed & Ward, Franklin, WI, 1999
Do We Still Need the Ten Commandments? A Fresh Look at God’s Laws of Love. John H. Timmerman. Augsburg. Minneapolis, 1997
Exodus. (Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.) Terence E. Fretheim, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1991
The Book of Exodus. Walter Brueggemann. In: The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994
The Book of Exodus. A Critical, Theological Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Brevard S. Childs. Westminster Press, Louisville, 1974