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Adultery of the Heart

I recently posted this on social media:

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.
Leviticus 20:10

By Biblical standards (not modern English nor American legal), adultery is a sexual relationship between a married woman and someone who is not her husband. A man cannot commit adultery with an unmarried, unbetrothed woman. It’s impossible by definition. A sexual relationship between them might be sinful, but it is not adultery because she’s not married or betrothed to another man.

Don’t get mad at me. I’m just letting the Bible define its own terms.

I added that last sentence because I know that this can be a very sensitive topic and will put many people into fight-or-flight mode. Sure enough, this post had many times more comments than normal, many of them quite irate and accusing me of having all kinds of nefarious motives for even discussing the topic. I’m not going to waste my time defending myself from other people’s imaginations, so I blocked most of them.

One person had the self-awareness to recognize that her emotional reaction against what I was saying might be only emotional.

Holly wrote…

I think this discussion raises hackles because it seems to insinuate a greater standard of fidelity upon married women than upon married men. Biblically, the latter will not incur the death penalty if they sleep with a woman who isn’t married; whereas the former will incur capital punishment in 100% of cases in which they stray from their marriage. A married man could potentially justify a range of unfaithful behavior with any unmarried woman, could he not? Also, I struggle to reconcile the Torah commands about adultery with Yeshua’s statement about a man looking upon a woman with lust in his heart. The Savior did not qualify His statement by saying “a man who looks upon a MARRIED woman…” He knew the Torah far better than we do, so what are we to conclude from this?

If you can help shed any light on this difficulty, it would be much appreciated. A husband, as the head of his household, ought to have at least an equal standard of fidelity as his wife, if not a higher one.

I thought Holly’s questions were good, and I appreciated that she wasn’t trying to attack me for merely exploring what the Scriptures might mean. She deserved a thorough and honest reply.

Thank you for the honest questions, Holly. Topics related to male-female relationships can be very difficult for most people to think objectively about, so it takes a lot of thought and study, and a willingness to confront ideas that might be very difficult. So, I sincerely appreciate the spirit of your question.

Remember that Yeshua was primarily addressing heart conditions and not delivering sermons on the technicalities of the Law. For example, if you hate your brother in your heart, you are guilty of murder in your heart, but you haven’t actually murdered your brother. Torah says it is a sin to hate your brother in your heart, but it’s not a crime that can be punished by anyone.

The same principle is true in marriage.

Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, and Luke 16:18 all give somewhat different versions of the same teaching. We’re not getting precise transcripts in the Gospels. We’re only getting summary versions. I think this causes some confusion in cases like this, but we’d probably find even more to argue about if we had full audio recordings of everything Yeshua said.

Keeping in mind that Yeshua almost never discussed technicalities of the Law, choosing to teach about the state of people’s hearts instead, here is how I believe these 4 statements, along with Matthew 5:27-31, harmonize:

It’s a sin to covet another man’s wife, even if you haven’t done anything about it. In Matthew 5:27-30, Yeshua discusses lust that is tantamount to adultery. The text doesn’t specify “married woman”, but it also doesn’t specify “married man”. I think we’re all in agreement that adultery requires at least one party to be married, so we already have to make some assumptions about what Yeshua’s intent. (I know that some people believe it’s adultery even to desire your own wife, but I hope we agree that’s nonsense.) In v28, I believe he meant for his audience to understand he was talking about a married woman, because it wouldn’t have made any sense to them otherwise. Just like we assume that he must have been talking about married *people* because it doesn’t make sense to say that two unmarried teenagers have committed adultery because they find each other sexually attractive.

(Please note that I am NOT saying it’s ok for anyone to lust after someone who isn’t their spouse. I’m neither saying it nor implying it.)

If a man despises the covenant of marriage, whether his own or someone else’s, he has adultery in his heart, even if he hasn’t committed actually adultery. It is a sin for a man to hate his wife and want to divorce her when she hasn’t done anything to deserve it. It’s a sin to despise another man and want to take his wife. However, these aren’t crimes of which he can be tried and convicted. These are sins in the heart that can lead to sins of the body.

There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.
Mark 7:15 ESV

If a man does divorce his wife without just cause, then the adultery in his heart is beginning to come out. If you willfully put someone else in a position where you know they are likely to sin, you are making yourself guilty too.

You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
Leviticus 19:14 ESV

In the ancient world, a divorced/put away woman who had no family to fall back on, was in a very bad economic situation, facing possible starvation and constant abuse from strangers. She must either find another man to support and protect her or possibly resort to prostitution. If she was put away unjustly, her former husband shares in the guilt of her ensuing adultery because he put her into an impossible situation. He is guilty, she is guilty, and any man who sleeps with her is guilty.

Adultery of the heart isn’t punishable by a civil court and isn’t grounds for divorce, but it is definitely a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Just like having murder in the heart, eventually it comes out into the real world.

Any time you are trying to fill in gaps in the Scriptures, you are going to be engaging in some speculation, and there is significant danger that you are going to get it wrong. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the attempt, though. Yeshua’s teaching style makes it necessary.

Believers need to stop being afraid or ashamed of the Bible. If it’s God’s word, being ashamed of what it says is tantamount to being ashamed of God. Since the Father, the Son, and the Apostles all tell us that God’s Law teaches us how to love one another, why in the world would you be afraid of it?

God doesn’t want childish marionettes who only follow orders with no understanding. Writing the Law on our hearts means that it must be internalized. To do that, we must spend a lot of time studying God’s Word, looking for connections between different passages, meditating on the meaning, and praying for understanding.

Sometimes you’re going to get it wrong. Don’t worry too much about it unless it leads you to doing something that seems to contradict some direct commandment or it bothers your conscience. Those are both warning signs that your understanding could be wrong. Keep studying. Keep meditating. Keep praying.

Everything that Yeshua (aka Jesus) & the Apostles taught
was based solidly in the Old Testament scriptures.

Come with me as I draw out the connections that are so often missed
in today's church teachings.

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topics for each parsha.

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