It’s obvious that in the Biblical world, adultery was a big no-no; it even made it into the top ten commandments, twice if you count both the prohibition itself and the admonishment not to covet thy neighbor’s wife. Logically, this is actually somewhat surprising, because marriage in the Bible seems to be a pretty simple affair. Consider, for example, the story of Jacob (Genesis 29, 30), who is given to wife both Leah and her sister Rachel, which may be the source of the later prohibition against marrying sisters, for it led to considerable drama. When Rachel stops conceiving, she gives Jacob her maid to wife so that she may “bear upon her knees,” and then when Leah stops conceiving, she gives Jacob her maid to wife, too. All with little more fanfare than:
“And she gave him…her handmaid to wife; and Jacob went in unto her.” (Genesis 30:4)
In other words, “take a wife” often seems to be merely a euphemistic way of saying “had sex with,” except that said intercourse tended to create a permanent bond between the parties involved. That is, sex was what joined two people in marriage. This concept, of course, has carried down to the present day, as failure to consummate is still considered acceptable grounds for annulment. However, the very lack of formality involved in entering into wedlock might be viewed as actually encouraging future adultery, because it’s much more difficult not to stray when you acquire your lifelong mate through a single dalliance.
Unless, of course, you were a man, in which case, subject to certain stipulations, you were encouraged to have multiple wives and/or concubines, the possession of which was not deemed unfaithfulness to either your original or any of your subsequent spouses. A man was therefore not generally considered adulterous unless he engaged in sexual relations with another man’s wife or betrothed, for which he could be punished as severely as the straying woman:
“Moreover thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbor’s wife, to defile thyself with her.” (Leviticus 18:20)
“If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die.” (Deuteronomy 22:22)
“If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;
Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of the city, and ye shall stone them with stones until they die: the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbor’s wife.” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
Notice, however, that the woman and man are punished for entirely different reasons: the woman for being unfaithful to her husband or fiancé, and the man for sleeping with a woman who belongs to another. In other words, you can take as many wives as you want, as long as you don’t take someone else’s.
Interestingly, though, the rape of an unwilling woman is still considered a capital offence:
“But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die:
But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter:
For her found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.” (Deuteronomy 22:25-27)
This latter scenario offers a presumption of innocence which contrasts sharply with the situation in which the pair are caught in the city. If they were in the city it is assumed that she must not have cried, or someone would have heard her; and if in the country that she would surely have cried although there was no one there to hear. The smart woman, therefore, would always be certain to conduct her affairs in the country.
If the faithfulness of a woman was suspect, various methods could be employed for proving her virtue or lack thereof. For example, if a husband had reason to believe that his wife was fooling around, he could have her subjected to the bitter-water test:
“And when [the priest] hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.” (Numbers 5:26)
Now I have no idea what kind of poison they were feeding these women suspected of adultery, or how many of them were deformed or even killed thereby, but it does remind me an awful lot of that test they used to perform on suspected witches, of throwing them into the water and then sanctifying those who sank and burning those who swam.
In the Gospels, Jesus also has some interesting things to say about adultery, most famous of which is probably:
“Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)
Remarks of this nature distinctly convey the Christian conception of sin existing in thought as well as in deed, which makes it much more difficult to avoid. However, Jesus is also quite adamant on the permanence and sanctity of marriage; indeed, his teachings may have been almost solely responsible for Christian prohibitions against divorce. In fact, one would be safe in arguing that “until death do us part” is an entirely New Testament concept, which certainly did not apply in the time of Moses, and which ultimately led Jesus’ disciples to a very modern-day conclusion:
“The Pharisees also came unto [Jesus], tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” (Matthew 19:3-10)
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