The Faithful Meaning of Adultery

In a previous post, I promised to elaborate some more on Adultery.  It is among the dirtiest of words in the English language.  It conjures up thoughts of the most serious kind of betrayal.  There is perhaps no more serious a crime than the treachery of betrayed trust.  Indeed, Dante places it at the very bottom of the pit – the 9th and very lowest circle of Hell.  In Genesis 20:9 adultery is referred to as, “[the] great sin“.  It is important then that we know what constitutes this great sin.

Inferno 3
Sandro Botticelli’s The Abyss of Hell (a chart based on Dante’s 14th-century epic poem Inferno)

Image result for mormon doctrine first editionThis is especially true perhaps in the case of polygamists, who are accused of committing this heinous sin by virtue of their marriages.  For example, the last paragraph  under the entry “Plural Marriage” in the book Mormon Doctrine, by Bruce McConkie, said, “Any who pretend or assume to engage in plural marriage in this day [when the President of the LDS Church has forbidden it], are guilty of gross wickedness.  They are living in adultery, have already sold their souls to Satan, and (whether their acts are based in ignorance or lust or both) they will be damned in eternity.”  These are strong accusations to make.

First of all, let us establish that God has very clearly commanded,

Exodus 20:14  “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

It is the 7th commandment, and violation of this prohibition brought the most serious of consequences.  As for punishment, there is no difference between the sexes, it was to be punished by DEATH for both parties (Leviticus 20:10).  Certainly then we would want to know what constitutes this grave sin, so that we may utterly eschew it.

What is adultery?  The answer to this question may seem simple, and indeed it is.  And yet, the answer may nevertheless still surprise many people.  Of course, as God is the author of this law, we ought to consult the scriptures for an answer.  But first, let us look at the present usage of the word.

Unfortunately, the modern notions of what constitutes adultery have strayed in a very significant way from the original meaning of the word.  Of this grammatical apostasy, some will say that the Biblical definitions of words, such as ‘adultery‘, are not as relevant in these modern times, with our modern understanding, and our modern morality.  To this I would reply, that the Bible is the very reason that ‘adultery‘ is even in our vocabulary.  It is the Biblical teachings on the matter that are the source of our conceptual understanding of this topic.  The Bible is foundational to our notions about the immorality of adultery in the first place.  Furthermore, no matter what the modern understanding of a word may be, we must understand the original, Biblical meanings of words in order to understand the Biblical stories, teachings, and commandments.  As in all things, context is crucial.  Let us be faithful to the word.

Here is the modern definition of adultery from some well-respected dictionaries:

Adultery:

Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than that person’s current spouse or partner.  – Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not their spouse. – Oxford Dictionary

Sex between a married man or woman and someone he or she is not married to.            – Cambridge Dictionary

Certainly language evolves, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is expected as our world changes.  There are constantly new things and new situations that need to be described.  Perhaps these definitions wouldn’t bother me so much if they stated that they were strictly modern definitions and that the original meaning of the word was something else.  Without this sort of disclaimer, people will interpret ancient occurrences of the word in the incorrect light of a modern definition.  Case in point: dictionary.com used to include the biblical definition of adultery on its “adultery” page, but that section was deleted just recently (sometime between March and May of 2017).

Here are some older definitions of the word:

Violation of the marriage bed; a crime, or a civil injury, which introduces, or may introduce, into a family, a spurious offspring.  By the laws of Connecticut, the sexual intercourse of any man, with a married woman, is the crime of adultery in both.        – Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

Black’s Law Dictionary (5th ed.) starts with the modern definition, but then adds:

In some [US] states, however, as was also true under the Roman and Jewish law, this crime is committed only when the woman is married to a third person.

I like the wording of these definitions very much. In the Webster’s 1828, it says that Adultery may introduce spurious offspring into a family; thus, adultery requires the woman to be married (i.e. she is part of a family).  To adulterate a thing is to corrupt it by adding something foreign to it – to add or mix something with it that would not normally be mixed with it.  To do so is to commit adultery.   The adulterer is adding his seed to another man’s wife, and potentially his offspring to another man’s family.

Whether or not adultery has been committed depends exclusively on the marital status of the woman.  The marital status of the man has nothing to do with it.  He may be married or single, divorced or widowed; it is all inconsequential.  Let me be very clear and precise: adultery happens when a married (or betrothed) woman voluntarily has sex with a man who is not her husband (or her betrothed).  That is the simple, scriptural meaning of the crime of adultery.  This does not mean that only women can commit adultery!  Both parties are equally guilty, and the punishment is the same for both.

Let’s compare these common definitions with the definitions from a selection of Bible Dictionaries.  As you read these you’ll get the impression that one of these things is not like the other…

Adultery:

Conjugal infidelity. An adulterer was a man who had illicit intercourse with a married or a betrothed woman, and such a woman was an adulteress.  – Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1897)

Adultery was understood as sexual intercourse between a man and another man’s wife or betrothed woman. Similarly, any act of coition between a married woman and a man who was not her husband was also regarded as adultery.  – Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (1996)

The parties to this crime, according to Jewish law, were a married woman and a man who was not her husband.  – Smith’s Bible Dictionary (1884)

The unlawful association of men and women. Although generally having reference to illicit activity of married persons, the scripture often does not distinguish between the married and the unmarried.  – LDS Bible Dictionary (1979)

A few things stand out to me as I read these definitions.  First, I am very pleased with the descriptions given in the first three dictionaries.  And yet, with this correct understanding of scripture, it makes me wonder in disbelief, how there can be such a generally vehement opposition to polygamy from the Christian community at large.

The other thing that stands out to me is the LDS definition.  It just makes me shake my head.  What are they talking about, “the scripture often does not distinguish between the married and the unmarried”??  Every single instance of adultery in the scripture where the marital status of either party is mentioned makes reference to the marriage or betrothal of the woman.  Every single one.  Here are several examples:

Leviticus 20:10And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wifeeven he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

Proverbs 2:16-19 “Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth [i.e. her husband] and ignored the covenant she made before God.”

Proverbs 5:3,20 “For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil…Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife? Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman?”

Proverbs 6:26-32 “For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulteress will hunt for the precious life.  Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?  Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned? So he that goeth in to his neighbour’s wife; whosoever toucheth her shall not be innocent.  Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry…But whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul.”

Jeremiah 29:23 “Because they have committed villany in Israel, and have committed adultery with their neighbours’ wives, and have spoken lying words in my name, which I have not commanded them; even I know, and am a witness, saith the Lord.”

Ezekiel 16:32 “But as a wife that committeth adultery, which taketh strangers instead of her husband!”

Hosea 3:1 “The LORD said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.'”

Hosea 4:13-14 “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills… your daughters shall commit whoredom, and your spouses [feminine noun] shall commit adultery.  I will not punish your daughters when they commit whoredom, nor your spouses [feminine noun] when they commit adultery: for themselves are separated with whores, and they sacrifice with harlots: therefore the people that doth not understand shall fall.”

Romans 7:2-3 “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth… So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.”

In light of this fact (that every instance where marital status is explicitly mentioned in connection with adultery the woman is married to another man), we can use this as a key to understand two other cases of scriptural references.  The first case is when adultery is not explicitly mentioned, and second case is where marital status is not explicitly mentioned.  Here is an example of the first case:

Genesis 20:2-6,9 “…Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.  But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife…and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?  Said he not unto me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself said, He is my brother: in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this.  And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.  Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin?”

No where in these verses is adultery explicitly mentioned, and yet we know this is the sin that both God and Abimelech are speaking of (and the sin which Abimelech was spared from committing) – because of Sarah’s marital status.  Abimelech took Sarah with the intention to make her his wife, thinking that she was unmarried.  In verse 17 we read that Abimelech was already married, and yet both God and Abimelech knew that what he was planning was with “integrity”.

Here is another example of the first case.  What is the difference between these verses in Deuteronomy and this verse in Exodus?

Deuteronomy 22:22 “If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman:”

Deuteronomy 22:23-24 “… If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die… so thou shalt put away evil from among you.”

Exodus 22:16  “And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife.”

The difference between the outcome of these verses is the marital status of the woman.  The situations in Deuteronomy are clearly adultery, for the woman is either married or betrothed, and the penalty is correspondingly harsh.  The situation in Exodus describes a woman who is neither married nor betrothed, and the consequence is correspondingly light.  I don’t know if I would even call this a punishment (altho I did in a previous post for humorous effect).  It is also of note that the marital status of the man, in all these verses, is entirely inconsequential.  He may be single or married; the consequence is the same either way.

As for the second case, here are some examples where there is no explicit mention of marital status.

Exodus 20:14  “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Deuteronomy 5:18  “Neither shalt thou commit adultery.”

However, we must interpret these verses in light of the rest of scripture.  By using the term adultery there is an implicit mention of the marital status of the woman.  The  very word adultery implies the woman involved is married (or betrothed) and having sex with a man other than her husband (or her betrothed).

One scripture commonly used to make accusations about polygamy being adulterous is:

Matthew 5:27-28  “Ye 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.”

Those making this accusation feebly reason that a man must have lusted after subsequent wives, and is therefore guilty of adultery.  However, they condemn themselves as well since the marital status of the man is not mentioned by Jesus.  They fail to grasp that by their own understanding of Jesus’ words, an unmarried man looking for a wife is just as guilty as a married man looking for an additional wife.

Indeed, I have known several monogamous people (both men and women) who have wondered whether they are guilty of committing adultery since they have “lusted” after their own spouse.  Of course, they are not guilty of anything (in this regard), but there are several problems with their interpretation that led them to this faulty conclusion:

  • First, even if they were “guilty” of “lusting”, it would not be of adultery; it would be of “adultery in their heart”, which (altho it is still a sin) is not the same thing as committing adultery with your body.  Hopefully this is self-evident to every reader and can be left without further discussion.
  • Second, the word lust is not merely sexual in meaning.  Certainly lusts can include sexual desires, but in this context, and in most other contexts in the scriptures, a better term might be covet.  Coveting is all about wanting something that is not yours.  It is about wanting your neighbor’s things.  This saying of Jesus is as much about the 10th commandment as it is about the 7th.  He is reaffirming the command, “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” (Exodus 20:17), and, “Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour’s wife” (Deuteronomy 17:21).  Coveting your neighbor’s wife is the adultery in the heart that Jesus is referring to.
  • But how do we know that the woman he is talking about is a married woman?  Because he uses the word adultery, and as we have seen, adultery always involves a married woman.  This is the third point of common misunderstanding with these verses.

Many common English Bible translations use the potentially ambiguous term, woman, in Jesus’ saying quoted above, but this word is only ambiguous to our modern understandings.  Ancient readers knew that the women Jesus was saying not to lust after were other men’s wives.

Reformation Day was last week, and this year my family studied the life and contributions of William Tyndale.  The man was a chosen servant in the hand of God, and his contributions to the world are undervalued by a large margin.  He is the man who gave God an English voice, and he did a beautiful job at it.  Here are those verses in Matthew from Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament:

Tyndale

If you had some difficulty reading that “English” text, have no fear, here it is with modernized spelling and punctuation:

     Ye have heard how it was said to them of old time, thou shalt not commit advoutry [adultery].  But I say unto you, that whosoever eyeth a wife, lusting after her, hath committed advoutry [adultery] with her already in his heart.

Tyndale hit the nail exactly on the head!

Those who make accusations of adultery had better beware of what they do lest they find themselves in violation of the 9th commandment.

Exodus 20:16  “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

Violating this commandment may be more serious than it seems.  The Law requires the false accuser to receive the punishment appropriate to the accused crime.

Deuteronomy 19:18-19  “And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.”

In other words, if a person falsely accuses another person of a capital offense, the punishment for the false accuser is also death.

May we all speak with understanding and not with ignorance, and may we be cautious in making accusations of wrongdoing.

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise.  – Proverbs 10:19

Are the Snowdens Married? [Or the Alldredges, or the Brineys?] (SSW s1e1, c2)

In the first episode of Seeking Sister Wife we are introduced to the Snowden family, Dimitri and Ashley.  A little after 7 minutes in Dimitri tells us that after dating for 2 years they, “Committed [themselves] to each other.” Additionally, on TLC’s, Meet The Families of Seeking Sister Wife, page we learn they have purposefully abstained from a legal marriage under the eyes of the law in order to ensure equality with their future wife.  They consider one another spouses, they have 3 children together, they share finances and many other things, and they also let us know that they have no marriage licence from the state of Georgia (or any other state).

We Committed

In light of the several comments and questions my posts have generated (see here and here) about the nature of marriage – especially in the Snowden family, but also in the Alldredge and Briney families as well (and all other plural families too), I have decided to write a post on my views about what constitutes a marriage.

A few years ago (November 2015) some friends of mine decided to rededicate their marriage.  They threw a big party and asked if I would “officiate” at their ceremony.  It was a relatively informal event; I said a few words, and they renewed their vows with each other.  It was a beautiful thing, but the reason they were doing it was a bit disappointing.  You see, they had just left the LDS Church (the reason why is unimportant to this post), and the validity of their Church marriage (specifically their sealing – more about this later) was being called into question by some of their acquaintances.  This is sadly not an uncommon occurrence.  When the Church kicked us out we had the same experience.  Concerns were expressed to us that we had broken our covenants and now we were adulterers, had lost all our blessings, no longer had the Holy Ghost with us, etc.

This post, and my future post about the Mormon concept of Sealing, are adaptations of the words I prepared for that marriage rededication ceremony.  Here it goes:

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson said these words, “A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” This was two years before the Declaration of Independence.  At the time these were radical words – treasonous words even.

The common model of government at the time was that no rights existed for the common people – except those granted to them by the King.  The King owned all the land, the people were subject to his mandates, and any privileges the people had were granted to them by their Sovereign Lord.  He in turn received all his power from God by virtue of the Divine Right of Kings.  Alas, there are many unfortunate parallels between government and religious authorities.

As powerful as they think they may be, governments are run by men – mortals all.  Governments do not possess any powers unless those powers have been delegated to it by the people who are governed.

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence correctly proclaims this fact.  It reads in part:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Eleven years later these ideas were crystallized in the Constitution of the United States of America.  It was the fulfillment of the promise made in the Declaration of Independence.  And yet, despite the Constitution being the founding document of our nation’s government, our Constitution is widely misunderstood; and here is the misunderstanding:

constitutional-convention

The Constitution does not grant you the right to free speech.  It does not give you the right to print what you please, or to choose your own religion.  The Constitution does not grant you the right to carry arms for your defense, to assemble or associate with whom you please, or any of the other things we have imagined it to grant to us.

If you will take the Bill of Rights, and actually read it, you will discover that in every case, the rights mentioned are not granted.  It does not say anything to the effect that, “the citizens of the United States are hereby granted the right to worship as they choose…”  No, No!  On the contrary, it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”  It does not say anything like, “you may carry arms for your defense.”  Rather it says, “the right shall not be infringed”, and on and on.

Indeed, the government cannot grant us anything we do not already have – we, in fact, are the ones that have granted powers to the government – the government does not have anything the people have not given to it.  Rather than being granted, all the rights mentioned are protected.  They are not extensions of our privileges, they are limits and restraints upon the government!

Well, what does all this talk about government and rights have to do with marriage?

The truth is: if the government has any authority at all, to marry anyone, then they have received that power from the people, and their receiving of that power from the people in no way diminishes the rights of the people (unless we let it).  The powers are delegated, yet still retained by the people – because they are inalienable.  They cannot be separated from us.  They are inherent both to our being and to our existence.

The sanctity of marriage is reduced by getting the government to protect it.  Orthodox Christian theologian Davd J. Dunn writes,

“Today’s Christian conservatives seem to be worshiping America, or at least a certain idea of it, when they ask the government to protect the ‘sanctity’ of marriage. In doing this, they have vested the state with the power to sanctify…Christians who demand the state take up the task of defending marital sanctity are effectively making the state their god. They seem to think that their local capitol can perform miracles when [in reality] only the Holy Spirit has the power to sanctify.”

Well, there are some, no doubt, who do not feel the same way about things.  They are upset with anyone who does something out of the ordinary.  And in particular with anyone who exercises their rights while ignoring the religious or civil authorities.  There are many who feel that marriages are illegitimate without the approval of the government, or the Church, or both.

But it has not always been that way.

Marriage in the scriptures, and for most of human history, has simply consisted of a man and woman (usually with the consent of the woman’s father), living together and attempting procreation.  No priest, no license, and no registration.  These are all recent innovations within the last 500 years.  The Catholic Church did not require marriages to be officiated by a priest until 1563.  The Anglican Church did not get around to making this requirement until 1753.  For most of human history, marriage has simply been an agreement (contract), recognized or arranged by the immediate families, for a man and woman to live together.

He calls her wife, she calls him husband.  They share a home, they share a bed.  They have and raise children together, and they have cast their lots together for good or ill.  They are married.  Are the Snowdens married?  Absolutely yes!

Does that mean that any two people can just live together and call it marriage?  The answer is no; that’s just called shacking up.  The other elements are required also, namely the commitment to live as husband and wife – with all the duties and privileges that are connected thereto.  Shacking up, without commitment – without the man taking the woman as wife, is sin.

You could classify marriages into three sorts: social marriage, religious marriage, and civil (or government) marriage.  Social marriage is rooted in the ideas of Common Law and Natural Rights, which I have discussed somewhat above.  It has probably been the most common type of marriage thruout the history of mankind, and perhaps the oldest as well (tho this is debatable I am sure).  Either way, it is certain that of the three, civil marriage is by far the late comer to the party.

What about all this business with government issued marriage licenses then?  When did that become a thing, and why?  First, let us take a look at the legal definition of the word “License”.  From Black’s Law Dictionary (2nd edition, published in 1910) we have:

“A permission, accorded by a competent authority, conferring the right to do some act which without such authorization would be illegal.”

In other words, a license is permission to do something which would otherwise be illegal.  The problem is that the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that marriage is a fundamental right for all.  And even without the Court’s decisions, marriage (both monogamous and polygamous) has existed for thousands of years as a fundamental aspect of human life and society which stems from our rights to associate and to contract.  Marriage predates all our modern laws, governments, and licensing requirements. How then can getting married be illegal?  Of course the answer to this question has everything to do with polygamy.  Licensing of marriage by governments had its origins in efforts to stamp out plural marriage among the early Mormon people (and also to prevent interracial marriage – which is beyond the scope of this post).

In closing, here are some questions you may want to ask yourself (or your friends and family – if you like those stimulating sort of conversations).

If my right to marry is fundamental, why do I need permission from the government before I can get married?

If I get a marriage license, what does that marriage license give me permission to do that I could not do before I got the marriage license?

Who is giving me that permission?

Where did they get the power to give me that permission?

And perhaps the most important question,

If I get married without a marriage license, is my marriage still lawful?

When there is no structure available to you, then make your own.  There is no approval needed from any man, or government, or religious institution.  And despite the disapproval that may be shown by some, it is our God-given, and natural right to do so.

 

Note: SSW s1e1, c2 means Seeking Sister Wife Season 1 Episode 5, Commentary 2.