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Reflections on Ethics 73
The Seventh Commandment
What Is Adultery?

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: This is the second section of Chapter Seven of Joseph Lewis' book, The 10 Commandments.

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"Thou shalt not commit adultery."

What Is Adultery?

Before the meaning and purpose of this Commandment can be understood, we must know what it is that must not be committed. Is the sex act adulterous only when committed in violation of the marriage vow, or does any promiscuous sexual relation come within the scope of its meaning? Is Jesus' definition of adultery to be followed, or must there be actual physical contact? Does prostitution violate this Commandment? What about polygamy and polyandry? Are these social customs prohibited by this Commandment? Are those guilty of incest, sodomy and other sexual perversions violators of this precept of the Decalogue? How are we to judge homosexuality, consanguinity and other unusual phases of sexual conduct? Does the failure to be specific as to what adultery is invalidate this Commandment, just as we found the failure to be definite a fault of the previous ones?

Why is there no provision for punishment if this Commandment is violated, or reward offered for its observance? Was it for the same reason that no punishment or reward was provided for the observance of the sixth? Was this Commandment imposed on the early Hebrews because of certain taboos associated with sexual conduct, just as we found the previous Commandment not to kill was a taboo because of the fear of blood pollution? Is this Commandment, when strictly interpreted, like the previous one, impossible of observance? Just as the Sixth Commandment was contrary to the fundamental law of life, is this one equally in conflict with the basic law governing the instinct of self-preservation in the perpetuation of the race?

Unless we are acquainted with all phases of sexual conduct, how are we to understand what to do and what to abstain from doing? Without sex there can be no life, and as there are a multitude of regulations concerning sexual expression, some approved and some disapproved, depending on the time and place, how are we to determine which rules of sexual conduct to follow? Variations in sexual conduct are the result of the great disparity between the sex mechanism of man and woman. As a result of this great difference, woman has from time immemorial been forced to play, in the drama of life, the wife, the mother, the virgin and the prostitute.

Is a man, because of his inability to procreate, exempt from the sexual restrictions imposed on his female partner? Can any rules governing sexual conduct be universally applied? Is it possible for one rule to apply dogmatically to all irrespective of the variegated social customs existing in different parts of the world? If not, then of what value is this Commandment? And why was only adultery prohibited? Why not all sexual manifestations that have proved detrimental?

Is adultery committed only when the marriage vow is violated? If so, does it apply to both members of the union or only to one? And if only one, which one -- the husband or wife? And if the wife, why is the husband exempt? And if there are exceptions to this Commandment, why were they not stated? If this Commandment, as generally accepted, means a sex act "in violation of the marriage bed," why were not other sex acts, often far more pernicious than mere unfaithfulness, included?

Then again, how can this Commandment be construed as a prohibition against adultery in the modern sense of the word, when the Children of Israel practiced polygamy at the time this Commandment was formulated?

A law or precept specifically designed to govern conditions in a particular type of society often cannot be utilized in an altogether different type of society. While conditions may provoke certain acts which the law was designed to prevent in one society, those conditions may be completely absent in another, thereby making the law unnecessary. No better illustration could be given to emphasize the inapplicability of certain edicts than the fact that in a polygamous state there is much less occasion for committing adultery than in the more restrictive state of monogamy. Polygamy, which was an accepted custom in Biblical times, is now actually prohibited by law in modern society.

The authoritative New Standard Bible Dictionary states that "the prohibition of the Seventh Commandment is indeed general; but it leaves open the question of what constitutes adultery for a man and what for a woman." It was the doctrine of the Roman jurists that adultery is a crime when committed by the wife, and the wife only, because of the danger of introducing strange children to the husband.[17]

One of the greatest of the Christian fathers of the latter half of the fourth century distinguished between adultery and fornication committed by a married man. He decided that the sexual act with a married woman was adultery, with an unmarried woman merely fornication.[18]

People in different countries have different ideas regarding sexual behavior, and so we find among the Creek Indians that it was considered adultery if a man took a pitcher of water off a woman's head and drank from it.[19]

The Roman Catholic Church condemns as adulterous the marriage of a Catholic with a Protestant. There still remains in force, as established by the Eastern Church of the Council at Trullo in the seventh century, the nullity of marriages between Catholics and heretics. The Greek Church also forbids the marriage of one of its followers with a Roman Catholic.[20] The Jewish law does not recognize the marriage of a Jew with a person of another belief. Tertullian branded as fornication the marriage of a Christian with a pagan.

Cotton Mather rendered this infallible judgment:

"God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart.... This law, so written in the heart, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall of man, and was delivered by God on Mount Sinai."

As a result, the Massachusetts courts in 1631 ordered that "if any man shall have carnal copulation with another man's wife, they both shall be punished by death." This is supported by the Biblical text in Leviticus, Chapter 20, verse 10:

10. And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

The criminal code of New York State defines adultery as "intercourse between two persons one of which is married." As this law is interpreted by the highest legal authority of the State, it excludes from its provision the intercourse of two adults who are not married. In other words, this law means that sexual relations between two unmarried people is not regarded as adultery or even as a crime. It recognizes by its omission the irrepressible sexual instincts, and makes provision for the punishment for adultery, as so defined, merely as a protection of the parties in the married union. This law, however, does not exempt the man who is liable to the same prosecution as the woman. As a result, this law is rarely ever enforced, and in the few cases which have come before the courts, the guilty parties have been penalized only by a very small fine. Pope Boniface VIII made a unique comment when he said: "There is no more harm in adultery than in rubbing one's hands together."[21]

In some places there is no definite provision in law for the punishment of adulterers. In others, it ranges from a fine of five dollars to a year's imprisonment. An illustration is the law that prevails in the town of Cardiff, which lies partly in Maryland and partly in Pennsylvania. If a person commits adultery on one side of the street, he may suffer the extreme punishment of a fine of ten dollars. On the other side of the street, within the boundary of the other State, he is subject to a fine of five hundred dollars or incarceration in jail for one year.[22] Violators have been extremely sagacious in avoiding the severer penalty.

Was Solomon guilty of adultery when he indulged in the sexual embrace with more than seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines? Or was Solomon like the Duke of Ferrara (Niccolo D'Este), who had ninety-two illegitimate children, yet made a law that marital infidelity should be punishable by death? [23]

These men were not the only ones who indulged carnally with other men's wives. There have been other instances which make Solomon's affair puny by comparison. The king of Benin had over four thousand wives -- although he generously gave some away to those of his male servants who had rendered him faithful service. In Ashanti, the law limited the king to three thousand, three hundred and thirty-three wives. Both the kings of Mtessa and Uganda and the king of Loango are said to have had over seven thousand wives.[24] Mushidi, the king of Budkey in the Belgian Congo, was the father of nine hundred and ten children. King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, the old king of Siam, had three thousand wives and three hundred and seventy children -- one hundred and thirty-four sons and two hundred and thirty-six daughters. John Dunn, the white king of Sululand, married forty wives and was the father of one hundred and twenty children, seventy of whom are said to be alive today. Abas Mirza, Prince Royal of Persia, became the father of sixteen children in a single night, and the following day six more of his wives gave birth to his offspring.[25] Our own Brigham Young had nineteen wives and fifty-six children.

Were these men guilty of adultery, and if so, why were they permitted to continue these violations with complete impunity?

Was Shakespeare right when he said:

Thou shalt not die; die for adultery: No:
The worm goes to't, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloster's bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got 'tween the lawful sheets."[26]


17. New Standard Bible Dictionary, p. 555.
18. Ellis, Psychology of Sex, Vol. 6, p. 400.
19. Ellis, Psychology of Sex, Vol. 6, p. 305.
20. Westermarck, Marriage, Vol. 2, p. 63.
21. Draper, Intellectual Development of Europe, Vol. 2, p. 88.
22. Geoffrey May, Social Control of Sex Expression, p. 258.
23. New York American, Jan. 6, 1933.
24. Westermarck, Marriage, Vol. 3, p. 51.
25. New York American, Dec. 4, 1933; Mar. 21, Dec. 9, 1934; Nov. 27, 1935.
26. King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6.