You must not murder.
And you must not steal.
And you must not testify against your fellow as a false witness. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13 and Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:17)
Velo tinaf = You must not commit adultery. (ve-, וְ = and + lo, לֺא = not + tinaf, תִנְאָף = you shall commit adultery.)
Tinaf is a form of the verb na-af, נָאַף = violated the rule of exclusivity regarding either sexual intercourse with a human, or the worship of God.1
English uses the word “adultery” for violating a rule of sexual exclusivity, and “idolatry” for violating a rule of religious exclusivity. Biblical Hebrew uses the same word for both types of violations. The prohibition velo tinaf appears in the second half of the list of “ten commandments”, the half that covers relationships with other people. Therefore in this seventh commandment, adultery means a sexual violation.
What sexual liaisons count as adultery in the bible? Why does the bible consider adultery unethical?
Stealing a woman
For the society portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, adultery is a form of stealing. Although women and girls are depicted as individuals, most of them are the property of men. Only prostitutes own themselves.
Thus using another man’s woman for sex is a theft of his property. (Sex between two women is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.)
The penalty for this kind of theft depends on the category the woman belongs to. If she is a wife or a fiancée, her rapist or seducer must die. If she is a virgin adolescent with no marriage arranged yet, no one gets the death penalty for adultery—but her rapist or seducer must marry her.2 And if she is a slave whose owner assigned her to one man, but she was caught with another, it is not a case of true marriage or of adultery, so her seducer must merely sacrifice a ram at the temple altar.3
According to the Torah portion Kedoshim in Leviticus, the “Holiness Code”,
A man who yinaf with a man’s wife, who yinaf with his fellow’s woman, will certainly be put to death: hano-eif and hano-afet. (Leviticus 20:10)
yinaf (יִנְאַף) = he commits adultery. (Also a form of the verb na-af.)
hano-eif (הַנֺּאֵף) = adulterer (male). (From the verb na-af.)
hano-afet (הנֺּאָפֶת) = adulteress (female). (Also from the verb na-af.)4
This week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy, Ki Teitzei, explains the adultery penalty in Kedoshim.
If a man is found lying with a woman [who is]a ba-alah of a ba-al, then they shall die, also both of them: the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. And you will burn out the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:23)
ba-alah (בַּעֲלָה) = female owner or possessor, wife.
ba-al (בַּעַל) = male owner or possessor, husband, master of a craft; a Canaanite god.
Often the Torah refers to a wife as a “woman” (ishah, אִשָּׁה) and a husband as a “man” (ish, אִישׁ). But in this verse the Torah uses the words for “wife” and “husband” that indicate they are owners; they possess one another. Having sexual intercourse with another man’s wife means stealing his possession.
In the ancient society described in the Torah, a man has exclusive ownership of his wives and concubines. A married woman partly owns her husband, but she does not have exclusive ownership, since her husband is free to take other wives and to have sex with prostitutes. If an unmarried female prostitute has intercourse with a married man, it does not count as adultery and there is no penalty.
Traditional commentary interprets the words “also both of them” in the verse above to mean that the man and the married woman both get the death penalty only if they were both consenting adults. The Talmud5 says if one of them is a minor, the underage partner shall live.
And Rashi6 wrote that in “a case of unnatural intercourse from which the woman derives no gratification” only the man should die, since the woman would not have consented to such an act.
A man also gets the death penalty when he rapes a woman who is betrothed to someone else, even if her marriage has not yet been consummated. (Betrothal in the Torah is the legal contract between a man and his future wife, including a bride-price paid to the woman’s father or guardian. Marriage occurs when the betrothed couple first has sexual intercourse.)
If a man seduces, rather than rapes, a woman betrothed to someone else, both of them are both put to death. Since the woman consented, she, too, is guilty of violating the contract between her father and her future husband which sets the terms for the transfer of property (the woman).
How does a judge determine whether the act was rape or mutual consent? The Torah portion Ki Teitzei explains that it depends on whether the deed happened in a town where other people could hear a cry for help, or out in a field where no one could hear.
If a virgin adolescent girl is betrothed to a man, and [another]a man encounters her in the town and he lies with her, then you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them with stones and they will die—the adolescent girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he overpowered the wife of his fellow. And you will burn out the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:23-24)
If the same event occurs “in the open field” only the man is executed, since the Torah gives the woman the benefit of the doubt and presumes that she cried for help, but nobody heard her.7
Stealing property, or breaking a vow?
If adultery in the bible were only about ownership, all those examples would be irrelevant in a modern world that prizes individuals and equal rights. In the west today, all adults own themselves, and no one else.8 I am grateful to live in a society in which no adult is another person’s property.
Then if adultery is not a form of theft, is it immoral for some other reason?
This week’s Torah portion gives us a clue by addressing the question of making vows. The vows discussed in Ki Teitzei are vows to make donations to God and/or the sanctuary, not marriage vows. Nevertheless, the Torah says:
If you refrain from vowing, you will not become guilty. The utterance of your lips you must keep, and you must do as you have vowed of your own free will to God, your God, speaking with your own mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:23-24)
If we apply this principle to marriage, then a sexual liaison with a person who is married to someone else is unethical—if and only if that marriage included a mutual vow of sexual exclusivity. Violating the vow of exclusivity would be a betrayal of the marriage promise, and grounds for divorce. That is adultery. However, if the marriage happened without any promises of exclusivity, there is no vow to violate.
Personally, I am grateful for my long exclusive marriage. An “open marriage” is something I could not handle. But I respect all those who are careful about making vows—and who fulfill the promises they do make.
- For examples of na-af in reference to committing idolatry, see Jeremiah 3:9, 5:7, and 13:27, as well as Ezekiel 23:37.
- Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
- Leviticus 19:20-21.
- For more discussion of this passage, see my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2.
- Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 66b.
- 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- Deuteronomy 22:25-27.
- The extent to which parents own their children is still a matter of debate.