Are the last six of the Ten Commandments universal ethical precepts, good for all places and times? Or are they morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture?
Last week’s post1 examined commandments five (honoring parents) and six (no killing). This week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven (no adultery) and eight (no stealing). Check in next week for the last two commandments, on false testimony and coveting.
The Seventh Commandment
Lo tinaf. (Exodus 20:13)
lo tinaf (לֺא תִנְאָף) = you must not commit adultery. (From the verb na-af, נַאַף = committed adultery between a man and a married or engaged woman.)
Adultery in the Hebrew bible is consensual sexual intercourse between a married or engaged woman and a man who is not her husband or fiancé. This type of liaison was such a serious transgression in Ancient Israel that the Torah prescribes the death penalty for both partners.
And a man who yinaf with a man’s wife, who yinaf with the wife of his fellow, he shall definitely be put to death, the no-eif and the no-afet. (Leviticus 20:10)
yinaf (יִנְאַף) = he commits adultery. (Another conjugation of the verb na-af.)
no-eif (נֺאֵף) = the male adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)
no-afet (נֺאָפֶת) = the female adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)
Yet it is not wrong in the Torah for a married man to have sex with a woman other than his wife, as long as she is single and not living with her father—i.e. if she is a prostitute, or perhaps an independent widow. It is also acceptable for a man to have a second wife, a concubine, or a female slave acquired for sexual purposes.
A woman, however, can belong to only one man.
Most women in the Torah who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or their husbands. Therefore when a man commits adultery he is, in effect, stealing another man’s property.
What if a man has sex with a virgin who still belongs to her father? The law for this specific case is given in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), and it applies whether the man is married or unmarried:
And if a man persuades a virgin who is not engaged, and lies down with her, he must give her a marriage contract to be his wife. [But] if her father definitely refuses to give her to him, he must weigh out the same amount of silver as in the marriage contract for virgins. (Exodus 22:15-16)
Either way, the seducer’s payment goes to the virgin’s father, since she is her father’s property.
When a society grants women equal rights and autonomy, so they are no longer property, the Hebrew Bible’s reason for condemning adultery vanishes. Does that mean it is not immoral in Western society today for a married person to have sex outside the marriage?
In that case, adultery is unethical for a different reason. When people of any gender commit themselves to fidelity in marriage, they make a vow in front of witnesses. This is a promise and a binding contract. It is unethical to violate the terms of a contract while it is still in force. Only after divorce proceedings have been filed to end that type of marriage can a person add a sexual partner without committing an immoral deed.
The seventh commandment would be universally relevant if it were phrased this way:
You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first.
This version would cover not only exclusive marriage vows but all formal vows, including employment agreements and other legal contracts. The Torah also considers vows sacred obligations whether they are made to God or to other humans.2
The Eighth Commandment
After the commandment prohibiting the theft of a man’s wife or fiancée comes a commandment prohibiting other kinds of theft.
Lo tignov. (Exodus 20:14)
lo tignov (לֺא תִגְנֺב) = you must not steal, you must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (From the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole.)
The eighth commandment covers kidnapping a man or boy,3 as well as stealing livestock, silver, or other goods. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, gives the penalties for several kinds of stealing.
Vegoneiv a man and sells him, and [the man] is found in his possession, he shall definitely be put to death. If a man yignov a bull or a lamb and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay compensation with five cattle to replace the bull, or four sheep to replace the lamb. (Exodus 21:16-17)
vegoneiv (וְגֹנֵב) = and one who steals. (From the same root as ganav.)
yignov (יִגְנֺב) = he steals. (Another form of the verb ganav.)
A thief must also pay compensation for stealing an animal and keeping it:
If hagenavah is found alive in his possession, from a bull to a donkey to a lamb, he must pay compensation for double [the value]. (Exodus 22:3)
hagenavah (הַגְּנֵבָה) = the stolen item. (From the root verb ganav.)
In other words, someone who “steals” or kidnaps a male human being gets the death penalty;4 but someone who steals livestock (or an inanimate object) must pay the owner compensation worth significantly more than the stolen item.
Anyone but a sociopath would consider kidnapping a human worse than stealing an animal or object. And all human cultures consider it unethical to steal what really belongs to another. But cultures differ on what can be rightfully owned by an individual, and what is owned in common by the social group or the state.
When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote “Property is theft!”,5 he expressed his opposition to private ownership of land. Karl Marx opposed the private ownership of both land and the means of production.6 Socialism approves of individual ownership of land and businesses up to a point, but reserves ownership of the largest and most indispensable industries and utilities for the state. Capitalism, which is becoming the dominant economic culture in the world, supports individual and corporate ownership of almost everything except human beings, accepting state ownership only in areas that serve the interests of corporations.
Theft certainly covers one individual stealing from another. But is it theft when a corporation or a government entity legally takes something from an individual? Who rightfully owns what?
Another issue is that stealing, goneiv (גֺּוֵב), implies taking what belongs to another by stealth, covertly. Appropriating something that belongs to another overtly, by force, is robbing, gozeil (גּוֹזֵל) in Biblical Hebrew.
I proposed rephrasing the eighth commandment slightly:
You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another.
We form our own opinions about what rightfully belongs to the state, to a corporation, or to an individual, and judge the morality of a particular covert appropriation of something accordingly. However, the legality of the particular appropriation is determined by the state.
- Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.
- g. Numbers 30:2-10.
- A woman “steals” (vatignov) an underage boy and hides him in 2 Kings 11:2.
- One girl is kidnapped in the Hebrew Bible in order to be seduced (Genesis 34:1-4). Women and girls are also seized as booty in war.
- Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété? ou, Recherches sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement, Paris, 1840.
- Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. III, Verlag von Otto Meisner, Publisher, 1867.
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