Adultery According to the Law and as Spoken by the Prophets

Author: Pope John Paul II

Adultery According to the Law and as Spoken by the Prophets


To the thousands of the faithful present at the 20 August [1980] General Audience in St. Peter's Square, the Holy Father delivered the following address.

1. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said: "You have heard that it was said: 'You shall not commit adultery'" (Mt 5:27). He referred to what each person present knew perfectly well, and by which everyone felt himself bound by virtue of the commandment of God-Yahweh. However, the history of the Old Testament shows us that both the life of the people bound to God-Yahweh by a special covenant, and the life of each person, often wanders away from this commandment. A brief look at the legislation which the Old Testament comprehensively documents also shows this.

The precepts of the law of the Old Testament were very severe. They were also very detailed and entered into the smallest details of the daily life of the people.(1) One can presume that the more the legalizing of actual polygamy became evident in this law, the necessity to uphold its juridical dimension and protect its legal limits increased even more. Hence, we find the great number of precepts, and also the severity of the punishments the legislator provided for the violation of such norms. On the basis of the analysis which we have previously carried out regarding Christ's reference to the "beginning," in his discourse on the indissolubility of marriage and on the act of repudiation, the following is evident. He clearly saw the basic contradiction that the matrimonial law of the Old Testament had hidden within itself by accepting actual polygamy, namely the institution of the concubine, together with legal wives, or else the right of cohabitation with the slave.(2) Such a right, while it combated sin, at the same time contained within itself, or rather protected, the social dimension of sin, which it actually legalized. In these circumstances it became necessary for the fundamental ethical sense of the commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," to also undergo a basic reassessment. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ revealed that sense again, namely by going beyond its traditional and legal restrictions.

Old Testament's matrimonial law

2. It is worth adding that in the interpretation of the Old Testament, to the extent that the prohibition of adultery is balanced—you could say—by the compromise with bodily concupiscence, the more the position regarding sexual deviations is clearly determined. This is confirmed by the relevant precepts which provide the death penalty for homosexuality and bestiality. Onanism had already been condemned in the tradition of the patriarchs (cf. Gn 38:8-10). The behavior of Onan, son of Judah (from where we have the origin of the word "onanism") "...was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also" (Gn 38:10).

The matrimonial law of the Old Testament, in its widest and fullest meaning, puts in the foreground the procreative end of marriage. In certain cases it tries to be juridically equitable in the treatment of the woman and the man—for example, it says explicitly, regarding the punishment for adultery: "If a man commits adultery with his neighbor's wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death" (Lv 20:10). But on the whole, it judges the woman with greater severity.

Judgment marked by an objectivism

3. Perhaps the terminology of this legislation should be emphasized. As always in such cases, the terminology tends to make objective the sexuality of that time. This terminology is important for the completeness of reflections on the theology of the body. We find the specific confirmation of the characteristic of shame which surrounds what pertains to sex in man. More than that, what is sexual is in a certain way considered as impure, especially when it regards physiological manifestations of human sexuality. The discovery of nudity (cf. Lv 20:11; 17:21) is branded as being the equivalent of an illicit and completed sexual act. The expression itself seems eloquent enough here. There is no doubt that the legislator has tried to use the terminology relating to the conscience and customs of contemporary society. Therefore, the terminology of the legislation of the Old Testament confirms our conviction that, not only are the physiology of sex and the bodily manifestations of sexual life known to the legislator, but also that these things are evaluated in a specific way. It is difficult to avoid the impression that such an evaluation was of a negative character. Certainly this in no way nullifies the truths which we know from Genesis. Nor does it lay the blame on the Old Testament—and, among others, on the books of laws—as forerunners of a type of Manichaeism. The judgment expressed therein regarding the body and sex is not so much "negative" or severe, but rather marked by an objectivism, motivated by a desire to put this area of human life in order. This is not concerned directly with putting some order in the heart of man, but with putting order in the entire social life, at the base of which stands, as always, marriage and the family.

Practical precepts

4. If we consider the sexual problem as a whole, perhaps we should briefly turn our attention again to another aspect. That is the existing bond among morality, law and medicine, emphasized in their respective books of the Old Testament. These contain many practical precepts regarding hygiene, or medicine, drawn rather from experience than from science, according to the level reached at that time.(3) Besides, the link between experience and science is distinctly still valid today. In this vast sphere of problems, medicine is always closely accompanied by ethics. As theology does, ethics seeks ways of collaborating with it.

Prophets present analogy

5. When Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said: 'You shall not commit adultery," he immediately added: "But I say to you...." It is clear that he wanted to restore in the conscience of his audience the ethical significance of this commandment. He was disassociating himself from the interpretation of the "doctors of the law," official experts in it. But other than the interpretation derived from tradition, the Old Testament offers us still another tradition to understand the commandment, "Do not commit adultery." This is the tradition of the prophets. In reference to adultery, they wanted to remind Israel and Judah that their greatest sin was in abandoning the one true God in favor of the cult of various idols. In contact with other peoples, the chosen people had easily and thoughtlessly adopted such cults. Therefore, a precise characteristic of the language of the prophets is the analogy with adultery, rather than adultery itself. Such an analogy also helps to understand the commandment, "Do not commit adultery," and the relevant interpretation, the absence of which is noted in the legislative documents. In the pronouncements of the prophets, especially Isaiah, Hosea and Ezekiel, the God of the covenant—Yahweh—is often represented as a spouse. The love which united him to Israel can and must be identified with the nuptial love of a married couple. Because of its idolatry and abandonment of God-the-Spouse, in regard to him Israel commits a betrayal which can be compared to that of a woman in regard to her husband. Israel commits "adultery."

6. The prophets, using eloquent words, and often by means of images and extraordinarily flexible metaphors, show both the love of Yahweh-Spouse and the betrayal of Israel-spouse who gives itself over to adultery. This theme must be taken up again in our meditations when we will analyze the question of the "Sacrament." However, we must already touch on the subject, inasmuch as it is necessary to understand the words of Christ in Matthew 5:27-28, to appreciate that renewal of the ethos, implied in these words: "But I say unto you...." On the one hand, Isaiah(4) in his texts emphasizes, above all, the love of Yahweh-Spouse who always takes the first step toward his spouse, passing over all her infidelities. On the other hand, Hosea and Ezekiel abound in comparisons which clarify primarily the ugliness and moral evil of the adultery by Israel-spouse.

In the next meditation we will try to penetrate still more profoundly the texts of the prophets, to further clarify the content which, in the conscience of those present during the Sermon on the Mount, corresponded to the commandment: "You shall not commit adultery."


1) Cf., for example, Dt 21:10-13; Nm 30:7-16; Dt 24:1-4; Dt 22:13-21; Lv 20:10-21 and others.

2) Although Genesis may present the monogamous marriages of Adam, Seth and Noah as models to be imitated, and seems to condemn bigamy, which only appeared among Cain's descendants, (cf. Gn 4:19), the lives of the patriarchs provide other examples to the contrary. Abraham observed the precepts of the law of Hammurabi, which allowed the taking of a second wife in marriage if the first wife was sterile, and Jacob had two wives and two concubines (cf. Gn 30:1-19).
Deuteronomy admits the legal existence of bigamy (cf. Dt 21:15-17) and even of polygamy, warning the king not to have too many wives (cf. Dt 17:17); it also confirms the institution of concubines—prisoners of war (cf. Dt 21:10-14) or even slaves (cf. Est 21:7-11). Cf. R. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 1976), pp. 24-25, 83. In the Old Testament there is no explicit mention of the obligation of monogamy, although the picture given in the following books shows that it prevailed in the social practice (cf., for example, the Wisdom books, except Sirach 37:11; Tobit).

3) Cf., for example, Lev 12:1-6; 15:1-28; Dt 21:12-13.

4) Cf., for example, Is 54; 62:1-5.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 August 1980, page 1

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